Portland, Metro and The Plan: Boon or Bane for Regional Development?

Portland's reality is far less persuasive than its press

Few urban policies have received the kinds of accolades and encouragement in recent years that regional planning has experienced. Prominent urban policy makers and analysts such as former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros and former Albuquerque mayor David Rusk have toured the country, making the argument for regionalizing urban policy decisions, particularly planning and land use. States such as Florida, Oregon, New Jersey, and Georgia have implemented statewide planning to reign in the “parochial” interests of local government.

Nowhere has this paradigm been implemented more comprehensively than in Portland, Oregon. Scores of mayors, councilmen, and planning directors have made the sojourn to Portland to see first hand how regional planning works. There, goes the emerging conventional wisdom, foresight and a strong planning ethic have forged an urban policy that has netted one of the country’s healthiest and most livable communities.

Before policymakers jump onto the regional planning bandwagon, however, they should take a more critical look at what has actually been accomplished in Portland. The reality is far less persuasive than its press.

First, contrary to popular belief, regional planning has not been fully implemented. The metropolitan area’s regional planning agency, Metro, was given regional planning authority in 1992 with a mandate to come up with a regional plan in 1996. It delivered: Metro’s comprehensive regional plan was released in December of 1996, less than one year ago. So, the results of the planning process are still a long way from being evaluated, let alone fully implemented.

Second, the much heralded Urban Growth Boundary – literally a “line in the sand” outside of which growth is heavily discouraged or even prohibited – has become a pawn in a largely political gambit to drastically change the physical and social character of the Portland area. The boundary was initially considered a tool for promoting in-fill. The boundary was established with enough vacant land to accommodate at least 20 years of projected growth. Then, policymakers expected it to move further outward to release additional land for development.

Now, under Metro’s plan, the UGB is becoming a largely unmovable barrier outside of which land development is prohibited. This will dramatically change the quality of life in Portland. The region’s population is projected to grow by 80% to 2.7 million people by 2040. Where will all these new people go? Metro is mandating dramatically higher population densities to accommodate this projected population growth.

This raises a third troubling aspect of regional planning: it goes against the wishes of most of the people living in the communities it plans. Portland’s regional plan – like statewide plans in Florida, New Jersey and elsewhere – represents a regional vision that does not square with the obvious preferences of its citizens. Portland’s population has flowed over into the suburbs that ring its central city. In fact, an analysis of Oregon’s sprawl patterns from 1982 to 1992 by the Oregon-based Thoreau Institute found that land development outpaced population growth by much larger proportions than states that did not have urban growth boundaries, including Florida, Arizona, California, Texas, and even Washington. Oregonians, like most everyone else, prefer to live in low density neighborhoods and cities.

This poses a serious challenge to the ethical foundations of regional planning. If its plan is fully implemented, residents will be forced to live in more crowded cities, smaller houses, and more congested neighborhoods in order to conform to Metro’s vision of what Portland “ought” to be.

Of course, this problem is not new or novel. This same paradox is evident in Florida where statewide planning is encouraging compact development near high density city centers even though the overwhelming choice of Floridians is for low density residential development.

Urban policymakers should take a hard, critical look at top-down, centralized approaches to urban development. Replacing spontaneous market forces that direct land developers to meet consumer preferences for homes and communities with top-down, centralized planning runs the risk of seriously eroding a community’s quality of life.

Portland’s experience will be important for assessing the role planning can play in both local and regional contexts. Rushing to declare victory based on Portland’s experience, however, misconstrues the realities of Portland’s experiment and is likely to undermine alternative, market-based approaches to solving America’s urban problems.

Samuel Staley is director of urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation and co-editor of the book “Smarter Growth: Market-Based Strategies for Land-Use Planning in the 21st Century.”