Portland: The Lure of the Unmeasurable

PC280005 A while back, Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile did an interesting post on Portland.  Anyone who loves the city will find it engaging and challenging, as I did, and I wanted to expand on a comment I made there at the time.  (I lived there from 1969 to 1980 and was later based there as a transit planning consultant, 1994-2003.)

Comparing Portland to his hometown, Indianapolis, he notices that the two cities score about the same on many metrics — job growth, domestic in-migration, GDP, etc. — even though Portland is a nationally renowned achievement in urban planning and lifestyle while Indianapolis is a pretty ordinary Midwestern city surrounded by lots of sprawl.  The core of his observation is in this quotation from Alissa Walker at Good:

Portland, Oregon—the misty evergreen Shangri-La for the young, the creative, and the progressive—has an interesting problem. Its miles of bike lanes, its rock-bottom rents, its deep vats of craft brews are all far too good. Yes, Portland has actually made itself too attractive. According to one study that compared May of 2009 with May of 2008, Oregon’s unemployment has grown faster than any other state in the country, 3 percent. For large metropolitan areas in the country, Portland has one of the highest unemployment rates, which topped out at about 11.8 percent—even higher than Detroit. To blame, some economists believe, are the large numbers of designers and artists who have been moving there without jobs, dubbed the dubious “young creatives.”

Aaron goes on to tell the story of one woman, Nikki Sutton, who moved to Portland without a job, because she loved the city, the landscape, the lifestyle.  She spent a year trying to find work — even Starbucks had a huge backlog of applicants — and finally moved back to Indianapolis.  Aaron asks:

“What’s the carbon impact of Nikki not being able to get a job in Portland? I wonder what the carbon footprint of the city would look like if it counted people who had to leave for economic reasons, or who wanted to move there but decided discretion was the better part of valor
when they couldn’t secure advance employment.”

Reflecting on this, I wrote a comment on Aaron’s piece that I thought I’d expand on here.

PC300022 People do go to Portland for the lifestyle at every point on the economic ladder. That includes the young unemployed such as Nikki Sutton, but there’s a rung of the ladder below them: the teen runaways who seem especially attracted to the city, and who often end up on its streets. Compared to all other cities that I’m used to, I’m always struck by how young the panhandlers in Portland are.

I connect that to the remarkably womblike quality of Portland’s physical environment. The gentle embrace of the forested hills, the wet and mild climate, the famously intimate built scale, the relative lack of crushing big-city monumentalism in its architecture. There’s a quality about Portland that has profound subconscious appeal to people who want to detach, who are cut off from home, maybe consciously thinking of themselves as rebels — but who still need to be consoled or embraced.

DSCN0341 I think that applies to people of all ages and classes, from teenage runaways to retirees to affluent professionals who can move their wired career anywhere, and choose Portland.

To bring this back to Aaron’s point: This cultural history explains, I think, why Portland is particularly resistant to metrics. In a recent post I pointed out the astounding fact that in the last 12 years, when four major rail transit lines have been built in the City of Portland, the percentage of workers commuting by transit did not increase at all.  In many cities, that metric would matter.

In Portland it really doesn’t. Nobody cared much that ridership on the first light rail line was less than predicted, either.  I was asked about that many times myself when I was a Portland-based consultant in the 90s, flying around the US trading on Portland’s mystique.  I gave the standard Portland answer, which is something like: “We’re not doing this to win a race or score points or achieve performance targets. We’re doing this to build a civilized city.” The streetcar advocates today, who argue that streetcars are a transit improvement even if they’re slower than buses, are making
basically the same kind of argument.

Portland’s success in “lifestyle” may be inseparable from the fact that metrics don’t explain it. That may be exactly why, to so many people, it feels like home.

So why can’t Portland grow its economy enough to retain environmentally conscious domestic migrants like Nikki Sutton?  And don’t tell me it’s because there’s not enough parking downtown.

33 Responses to Portland: The Lure of the Unmeasurable

  1. Michael D April 4, 2010 at 7:21 pm #

    Without having been to Portland, and hopefully not to start too large of a tangent, but….
    I think the metrics shouldn’t be set aside too readily. What strikes me from looking at a map of Portland is that it ought to be very hard indeed for any transit to make up for the urban highways that ring the city core. (Unless parking were more expensive, which it isn’t, as Jarrett has noted.)

  2. Ed April 4, 2010 at 8:13 pm #

    “So why can’t Portland grow its economy enough to retain environmentally conscious domestic migrants like Nikki Sutton?”
    Because many like Nikki came looking for a job instead of creating one… you need leaders, not followers

  3. ws April 4, 2010 at 9:16 pm #

    Portland’s not a very corporate city by any means, that might be the issue in trying to find paper pushing jobs to hold you over.
    But then again, if Portland embraces a heavy corporate culture (more like Seattle), how will it retain its allure?

  4. AL M April 4, 2010 at 10:53 pm #

    This is an excellent post!
    The whole article rings completely true to me, and I live here AND drive transit here!
    (And not everybody has the means to “create” a job, that’s a rather arrogant statement)

  5. Chris April 5, 2010 at 3:44 am #

    I’m not sure that “what’s the carbon impact of Nikki not being able to get a job in Portland?” actually makes any sense as a question. Surely there isn’t one as it’s Nikki (as an individual) who has the carbon impact; the city just provides her with a framework to minimise it (or not) while she lives there. Renn might as well ‘blame’ Indianapolis for not having the lifestyle to keep her there in the first place.
    As for growing enough to retain it’s creative migrants, I would guess it’s something to do with relatively low agglomeration economics in a small Metro area. But since I’m not an economist I’ll leave my contribution at that.

  6. Tom West April 5, 2010 at 6:13 am #

    Nikki’s carbon impact form being unemployed in Portland was almost certainly lower than being employed in Indianapolis! No commute means no pollution…

  7. Aaron M. Renn April 5, 2010 at 6:29 am #

    My analogy is to the upscale suburban enclave. These places often have fabulous public services and other wonderful amenities – but only for the fortunate few.
    Clearly Portland isn’t a suburb, but it is also generating insufficient economic opportunities for people.
    It’s certainly valid to ask why Nikki didn’t start a company in Portland the way she did in Indianapolis. I haven’t talked to her on this point.

  8. Kristin April 5, 2010 at 6:52 am #

    Aaron Renn encouraged me to comment here. Interesting piece, but I’d like to comment and extrapolate on the “womb-like” and “need to be consoled or embraced” qualities of PDX & the young people (either street youth or college-educated 20-somethings) who flock there.
    I moved to PDX after receiving my Master’s degree in 2000 and accepting a position to manage a Day Program for street youth ages 18-21 in Downtown Portland. I was absolutely stunned at the raging IV heroin and meth usage and resulting addictions of many of these kids. Once I got to know them, I learned just how ridiculously easy it is to access very inexpensive black tar heroin and meth in Portland. This lends to the very “womb-like” and “consoling”, yet obviously dangerous, environment for these youth in Portland.
    For the other youth who flock there, other, slightly more expensive, drugs are easily accessible and in abundance. The one that seemed (and seems) to be de rigeur for the young adults who might actually have employment there is cocaine, a particularly hyper-cut version that is obviously more meth than cocaine. Use of this drug is rampant and it became very frustrating to “just go have a beer” when half of my friends wanted to rush off to the bathroom to do lines every 20 minutes.
    I left Portland in 2007 and while I truly miss its Shangri-La qualities and my many friends, I have concerns with the nature of its residents to blissfully overlook “real” problems and issues. Sure, this is a trait of many cities, but a city like Portland, with so much RIGHT about it certainly has an ability to overlook its WRONGS. However, there are many there who don’t ignore the area’s ills. They work very hard and with incredibly progressive minds on battling the myriad of social issues there.
    It’s early so I hope this made a bit of sense! I think you hit the nail on the head with the womb analogy; there is just more than the beauty and comfort of its physical environment that lends itself to that in some insidious ways.

  9. Ericorozco April 5, 2010 at 6:54 am #

    I think Aaron’s insight linking Portland’s regional/global “under-performance” to a tendency to devalue commercial enterprise and the global advantage of Portland’s draw is key. He has in mind the true value of cities in creating global economies of scale. Yet, that emphasis on local sustainability and prickly non-commercial attitudes is what creates the civil values in Portland that powerfully lead to the lifestyle draw to begin with.
    Part of Portland’s lifestyle vitality is hinged on it’s purposeful “under-performance” in normative areas of commercial vitality, an interesting catch-22. Yes, the streetcar is slow (c’mon, it’s an urban circulator!) and the light rail network still young (Portland’s TOD’s are still too nascent for us to begin to see the full benefits of the system yet), but I would argue that establishing the precedent has made more impact by being an adoptable example to cities that will realistically never morph into Manhattan…which is where the vast majority of cities in the U.S. are. Maybe Portland is manifesting its global capital simply by being an exporter of “green lifestyles”. Aaron’s point is brilliant, Portland should try to make a return on that investment.
    I will note that Portland still has a lot of work to do remove the last mile problem (by creating better links to its light rail suburbs and employment centers). Has Portland done a good job integrating commercial enterprise to its light rail system? I think that is still an open question that only time will tell. I think we need to keep in mind that the transformation is still work in progress, and early under-performance in systems implementing significant transformations is more typical than rare.

  10. M1EK April 5, 2010 at 8:37 am #

    The rail performance thing is irritating given the feedback you’ve gotten and apparently ignored.
    If in most other cities Portland’s size, transit modeshare dropped N%, and Portland managed to keep it steady (given that in all such cities employment and residential sprawl continued largely unabated), then one could and should consider Portland’s rail investment a success.
    It’s not enough just to say “added rail, share stayed flat”. One must use a control group, and in this case, the control groups that didn’t build rail saw transit declines.

  11. NJD April 5, 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    I live in Portland because it has a slower paced, less-commercial, anti-big business, creative and small company focus, think-local-first, farmer’s market, 20-minute neighborhood, transit-oriented, reduce auto-dependence, rail-loving, focus on the environment, community and neighborhood activated, weird, foodie, artistic, West Coast, mild climate, laid-back, walkable, livable, and independent culture. People who want to live here know and understand (and like to a certain degree) the lack of opportunity. More than two-thirds of the people I know run their own business because they want to, not because they have to.
    The United States is a young country, and despite the formidable regime of nationalists each region, State and city has been developing their own unique culture. Portland is evolving in its own way, and every critic is watching.
    Oh, and drug culture is more accepted here as a personal right and freedom of choice, like the sex industry here as well, making it much more out in the open.

  12. anonymouse April 5, 2010 at 4:32 pm #

    I think residents of all cities tend to see their cities as having certain unique advantages, and often as being the “best”, for some measure of best, and tend to be somewhat blind to the drawbacks. Portland is of course no exception. I’ve already mentioned some of the drawbacks of the Portland model of streetcar, and the light rail is also terribly slow through Downtown. And Portland is still very much car-oriented: in NYC, for example, you can buy food from stands on the sidewalk. In Portland, the equivalent is food trucks in parking lots, which I think is telling. And while the transit system seemed fairly adequate for the urban areas, intercity transit could be better, and there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of service to the countryside: for that you need a car. One other problem in liberal, hippieish cities is that their attitude toward public safety is somewhat lacking. I did not feel particularly safe riding on the light rail at night.

  13. Alon Levy April 5, 2010 at 4:33 pm #

    This post makes Portland’s brand look like potemkin environmentalism. It built light rail, but botched the design and the TOD so much that its ridership is pitiful. It’s not too early to tell that the TOD was a total failure: in cities that got it right, for examples Calgary and Vancouver, transit use is much higher, and the stations have had far more TOD. Even US Sunbelt cities like Sacramento and San Diego managed to get more riders than Portland for a given level of investment.

  14. Chris April 5, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

    It is a fair point that urban development can only do so much for a city. The city I live in (Manchester, UK) recently published a large independent piece of research the regional partnership had commissioned [url=http://www.manchester-review.org.uk/%5D here[/url] that looked into economic problems in this city, some of which are similar. For example it has a large underemployed young and educated poplulation who are attracted to its lifestyle opportunities that aren’t matched by its economic ones. This leads to a less productive economy than by rights it should have.
    Although its overloaded transport system and outdated and unsuitable housing were highlighted as being particular problems, the primary reasons the city was found to be underperforming was lack of capital in the region for new ventures and the relatively poor skills base of the urban population. Perhaps Portland has similar barriers to achieving the level of success Aaron would like to see? Of course whether they are as ‘easy’ to tackly as improving the urban environment is not clear.
    Kristin – I’ve worked with drug projects before, and I’ve never met anyone in any of them who’d say the problem was the comfort of the physical environment.

  15. Steven April 5, 2010 at 5:13 pm #

    I moved to PDX from Seattle & north in ’88 to take a promotion with a very big corp.. I was reluctant but am glad I did.
    I think without exception every time family or friend comes to PDX for the first time they say ‘I thought it would be bigger.’
    Portland’s national rep and image is much greater than it’s size. I suspect some folks move here expecting the big city and assume there will be jobs galore.
    I’ve thought homeless of all ages land here (and Seattle & Vancouver, BC) because the climate is relatively mild (you can sleep outside 350-365 days/year) and the population is perceived to be more friendly and generous than other regions.
    I tell friends I like PDX because it’s relatively civilized and accessible. Civilized for such reasons as pedestrians have the ROW and most drivers honor that; civilized in that you can stand downtown and not hear one car horn for an impressive amount of time; civilized because the Cosa Nostra (Italian Mafia) never landed here. The northeast will suffer from that for decades. Accessible because it’s small enough to get out and in and it has the best airport.
    I lived near Boulder 80-83. The ‘we’re so hip and cool’ was nauseating. I’m concerned PDX is getting too much attention and will grow arrogant & proud.
    When I go back to NYC to visit, I can only handle three days of the aggressive behavior, noise and chaos. I can’t wait to get back home.

  16. CroMagnon April 5, 2010 at 7:07 pm #

    So the comments seem to echo what I was sorta getting the impression from the transit/eco hype, that is, Portland is milquetoast.
    Part of this problem is that the City has been oversold by the LRT “machine” (I’ve ranted on this on here before)and used as the poster child and model for just about every proposed LRT system in the US. My take is that Portland’s significance has been how far it’s come over the past 30 or so years versus what it actually is. The coordinated regional planning and well-integrated (not necessarily great) LRT system have been large accomplishments.
    My take: generating wealth requires impacting the environment to at least some extent. There’s no way around it. You’ve got be making money some how or you can’t have a city. The lack of corporate headquarters is a problem. My hometown has been moving toward Branch Office City for 75 years. It’s hard to get the investment if the economic powers-that-be don’t have a stake there. A city needs to be build around some natural resource (unless you’re a capital), or it’s otherwise dispensible. Will the timber industry pick up? I’ve noticed that West Virginia of all places looks better in the deep Allegeny Mountain interior than it has in years. Why? Second growth timber has reached maturity and it is ready for harvest. WV has weathered the terrible economy well because of its vast array of timber, coal, wind, and some natural gas, too (I think). What about Portland’s port?
    Additionally, and I’m winging this based on my superficial research, most of Portland outside the core was built too recently to generate higher and higher shares of transit usage. Sure, they should tunnel downtown, grade-separate some other parts, add a circumferential, but barring high gas prices and high car/gas taxes, the City won’t shift that much. It’s pretty impressive it does as well as it does. The detached house property owners in the stable neighborhoods aren’t going to sell their homes off for 6 story flats anytime soon. Well implemented transit can and does improve cities. But transit has taken Portland about as far as it can go. There needs to be a reason to do business in Portland.
    Portland can’t just be about lifestyle or attitude, it actually has to DO something.

  17. calwatch April 5, 2010 at 10:20 pm #

    Two problems that I see in Portland, having lived in the city and surrounding area exactly five months (two summers while working at the Mt. St. Helens NVM).
    One is the issue that you actually have two separate cities. Sure, there’s the coffee drinking and pot smoking, tram riding, wannabe European inner Portland, concentrated around NW and SW, with a little in the Albina and Hawthorne areas. And there’s the guns on pickup trucks, Tonya Harding-loving, white trashy part of Portland, which basically describes Clackamas County, outer NE and SE, and by inference parts of Vancouver and Clark County, Washington. When I think Portland, I automatically think of the dichotomy between the two cities. If you’re familiar with talk radio, you can boil it down between the contrast between two nationally syndicated talkers out of the town – Lars Larson and Thom Hartmann, both expressing the stereotypes of their side. Larson the plain spoken, no-hands barred defender of lower taxes and anti-government planning, while Thom Hartmann is the professorial gent who loves to hold a discussion and cordially debate other people, but can never seem to hit the commercial break on time.
    Yes, there’s the historically African-American ghetto too, which brings up another problem with Portland, and that it’s lack of diversity. As a member of a racial minority, and having grown up in inland Southern California and gone to school at Berkeley, it’s a culture shock when the entire city is so white. Yet Seattle is almost as white, but I have no problem with Seattle. I did with Portland, and it’s the lack of culturally-appropriate food (from all cultures, not just my own heritage) and faux-celebration of other cultures in the Stuff White People Like kind of format. For most of my life, I’ve lived in first tier cities. Portland seems to want to be a first tier city, yet it feels like an overgrown burg – which is where the inferiority complex sets in. At least places like Bakersfield or Spokane don’t pretend to be world class cities. Portland tries, and tries to hard in my opinion.

  18. Danny April 6, 2010 at 6:06 am #

    I’m surprised at how nobody has mentioned Portlands entirely too restrictive zoning as an impediment to business growth.

  19. Marcotico April 6, 2010 at 8:26 am #

    As I read this I couldn’t help but smile imagining Randall O’Toole and Wendell Cox types as the teacher’s voice from Pink Floyd’s The Wall “If you don’t achieve metrics you can’t have your pudding! HOW CAN YOU HAVE YOUR PUDDING IF YOU DON”T ACHIEVE METRICS?!?!”

  20. Chris Stefan April 6, 2010 at 10:19 am #

    One thing all of Oregon struggles with is replacing sunset industries like timber, aluminum smelting, shipbuilding, and fishing with new growth industries. To some extent high-tech has filled the gap, but not to the point of being able to sustain the economy of the entire state. It certainly hasn’t achieved the critical mass you see in places like Seattle or Austin.
    The flip side of course is Oregon and Portland may be better prepared for a future with expensive fossil fuel. Portland has a 20 year head start on rail transit, fewer industries dependent on cheap energy, and more people living lower impact lifestyles out of necessity or choice.

  21. ws April 6, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    Austin has a huge university and is the capital of Texas. It’s got plenty of money and solid jobs because it’s at the public trough. People seem to be forgetting that.

  22. M1EK April 6, 2010 at 12:37 pm #

    ws, that may have been the case a long time ago, but the state and university are more of a drag now than an engine – in terms of the amount of downtown real estate that’s off the tax rolls; the amount of influence they expect to exert over local affairs despite paying no taxes; etc.

  23. Ericorozco April 6, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

    …Ah… Those metrics always a special cause of concern. To me they are starting points to a discussion. Which is not to say that I feel an iota of angst to defend Portland’s case against critics. Maybe I’m afforded the insulation by the relative successful introduction of rail transit in cities following Portland’s lead (including my own). I think the example matters, and that’s where I’ll keep gazing at Portland. I’m in no hurry. I’m by nature patient.
    As a consultant, Portland’s lead matters, and worth even more than that is Portland’s failures. Frankly, they are gold to me.

  24. anonymouse April 6, 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    Why is it Portland’s lead that everyone is following? San Diego was doing the whole light rail thing 5 years earlier, and is in some ways a better precedent given that their line was actually profitable for a while.

  25. ws April 6, 2010 at 5:50 pm #

    Portland has higher ridership and *almost* a million fewer people.
    Last I checked, Portland had the 7th highest transit use per capita in the US.

  26. ws April 6, 2010 at 5:51 pm #

    Edit: My comments were in regards to anonymouse as to why Portland’s system is more lauded than San Diego’s.

  27. Alon Levy April 6, 2010 at 8:18 pm #

    WS, Portland also spent way more money. If you measure outputs like cost per rider, then Portland’s performance is disappointing. By US standards it’s merely average; by non-US standards it’s extremely low-performing.
    The metro area has a transit mode share of 6%, the same as LA.

  28. calwatch April 6, 2010 at 8:28 pm #

    The other thing that helps Seattle and Austin break away from being the overly-creative city attracting teen runaways like Portland is the presence of a major research university. U-Dub and UT are nationally ranked, AAU/Research I Universities that not just attract a substantial number of undergraduate students, but also graduate students and post-docs as well, which make the city feel more substantial. As well, you get people who are more science-focused as a counter to the low-paid literary types. Portland doesn’t even have the flagship university in the state, much less the region. I think if you compared city environment of, say, Madison, Austin, or Boulder to Portland, you can see the impact a major university makes on a community.

  29. ws April 6, 2010 at 9:07 pm #

    @Alon Levy
    I’m not a fan of using the MSA as a standard to measure transit share as “Portland-style” (TriMet) transit doesn’t even reach some of the citizens within the MSA (which spans alllll the way out to places like Yamhill, Skamania Co. Washingon, Zig Zag, etc.) Transit’s not even feasible in those places.
    For what it’s worth, the urbanized area of Portland has a transit share of 7.2%, a bit better but not much. Comparing Portland to LA is wrong too. LA is a metro area of “dense sprawl”. Portland is a metro area of reasonably dense core and sprawled metro area.
    At the city level, Portland is doing a relatively better than LA in regards to alternative transportation means — which is pathetic considering LA is one of the largest cities in the world.
    I’m not sure why you’d use a non-US standard for comparison of Portland’s transit system. It’s not fair because the entire US transportation system completely favors automotive movement, and on the other extreme side, some European countries are more onerous towards cars w/ higher taxation rates.
    Where are the numbers on what Portland has spent compared to other US cities? You say it like it’s a known fact that I should be aware of.
    It’s nothing to sniff at to think that little ol’ Portland is a top 10 performer for transit use per capita in the US.

  30. Tabitha.Bos April 6, 2010 at 11:44 pm #

    As a young person wanting to move to Oregon to be closer to my family, I really want everyone to publish more articles like this so that the people looking for culture and biking or whatever can take a hike so that I’ll stand a chance in hell of securing a minimum wage of my own with this big ol’ degree of mine.

  31. Test for John Todd April 7, 2010 at 4:15 am #


  32. Art Busman April 7, 2010 at 9:49 am #

    I think one major reason homeless youth like Portland is simply because in the homeless/unemployed youth culture, Portland has become cool just as San Francisco was for youth in the 60’s and 70’s and maybe Venice Beach too. As a former Portlandigani or whatever they call themselves now, I found the weather miserable, but I think that’s its allure to emo/goth type kids who don’t want a sunny canvas to frame their depressed, mellow mood. Downtown Portland is also very attractive on a pedestrian scale. How fun is it being homeless youth without a car in LA or Phoenix?
    Finally, I’m sick and tired of the term “grow” as in “grow the economy” grow my intellect, grow my sensitivity, grow my age, grow my library, can we stop saying that??? I’m not a f n farmer or gardener. We live in the Information Age, if anything a more apt verb would be ‘upgrade’ or ‘expand’.

  33. Alon Levy April 7, 2010 at 11:57 am #

    WS, first, you can’t compare Portland proper to LA proper. In LA, the prewar urbanized area doesn’t correspond to city boundaries at all; you’d have to exclude the Santa Monica Mountains and the Valley, but include inner-urban cities in the LA Basin like Santa Monica, East LA, and Compton.
    Second, you’re right that Europe has a different tax regime from the US. But it’s not just Europe that does better than Portland; it’s also Canada and Australia, where gas is cheap and sprawl is plenty.
    And third, no, I don’t have concrete data on how much Portland has spent – just indirect numbers on ridership and cost per rider. For 2000 data, see here.
    And Art, I think it’s not fun to be a homeless youth in any city, regardless of how pedestrian-friendly it is.