Michael Mehaffy

A rebuttal to a recent Atlantic Cities story on the shortcomings of the New Urbanist community in Oregon

By American standards, Portland has a great reputation as a sustainable city. But the region's dirty little secret is that its suburbs – home to over two-thirds of the area's population – suffer from the same kind of car-dependent sprawl that surrounds virtually every U.S. city.  In that light, the most important question for Portland is not what to do about the city, but rather how to fix the suburbs. 


The challenge of sprawl reversal has taken on a notable urgency lately, and for good reason. The sprawling suburbs were Ground Zero of the global economic meltdown: the place where unsustainable mortgages met unsustainable car-dependent lifestyles.


Getting the suburbs onto a more stable, sustainable path is essential. Even before the recession, the Portland area has been tackling this problem through its regional planning authority, Metro – the only directly-elected regional planning authority in the country. In the early 1990s, Metro developed a strategy to reverse sprawl in the Portland suburbs. The plan proposed a series of “centers and corridors” which would mix jobs and housing, creating cluster developments around walkable town centers served by transit.


The developer I worked for was tapped to design one of these centers, known as Orenco Station. It was to be served by a new light rail line and several bus routes. Moreover, it was next to the new high-tech plants by Intel and others, so that some of the 15,000 people who now worked there could live nearby instead of piling onto the freeway back to Portland.

By the time we finished, Orenco Station boasted a remarkably diverse mix of homes and prices (1,834, from $79,000 to $1 million, plus rentals) along with retail, offices, granny flats, parks, a farmers' market, and a grocery store, all at three to four times higher density than the market had seen previously. 

So far so good, right? But in a recent report, as reported by Atlantic Cities contributor Eric Jaffe, researcher Bruce Podobnik criticized the community for failing to live up to its mass-transit promise. He noted that 64 percent of the population commuted to work in a single-occupancy vehicle, and declared this a significant shortcoming in transit-oriented development. But that number is virtually the same – 62 percent – in transit-happy Portland. In two suburban comparison areas, the number is 69 percent and 75 percent.


Still, one would think this number should be better. Isn't the whole idea to get people to take transit?


No, it isn't. The idea is to let people live closer to all of their destinations, so that they can get to work, and to other destinations, more easily by any mode. If they work at Intel, just behind Orenco Station, they can't take light rail. But they will likely drive less than a mile to get to work, which is far better from an energy and carbon point of view than trekking across town to pile onto the light rail. 


And indeed, 36 percent use transit, bike, carpool or bus, or some other combination. That's still not great, but far better than the U.S. average of 23.6 percent. And the numbers in Orenco Station are getting better with time: in 2002, only 17 percent walked to shopping five or more times, but 50 percent did in 2007. What we need to look for, surely, is not instant results, but growing and sustained results.


Podobnik also fails to look beyond commuting, which accounts for less than 20 percent of all trips. What are the patterns for the other 80 percent? We don't know. We know that 50 percent walk frequently to shopping, but we don't know how many other trips they take, how far they go, and whether they walk, cycle or drive.


The real solution is much more research on this and other projects: more data on vehicle miles traveled, travel behavior over time, and on the wider catalyzing effects on choice and behavior. Do people actually downsize their automobile ownership and use, as anecdotal evidence suggests? Are these people self-selected urbanites, or – again, as anecdotal evidence suggests – otherwise fairly typical American suburbanites, often transferred from elsewhere? What happens to their overall patterns of consumption and emissions? Answering these questions will give us a clearer picture of the success of these “New Urbanist” developments.


There are clearly things that Orenco Station could do better. For example, we should encourage more transit ridership and more use of bicycles through rental kiosks and transit passes. And the connectivity to the surrounding urban fabric should be better, though this is a tough problem that will be corrected only slowly. Sprawl repair is an iterative process.


But even getting other developers to accomplish as much as Orenco Station seems a steep challenge. The fact is, few other developers have stepped up to build similar Town Center developments along Portland's light rail. This is because the development system still heavily rewards sprawl. Though market acceptance of Orenco Station was far better than we dared hope, expensive and cumbersome regulations put a very strong headwind on the project's performance. And designing a mixed-use facility can be complicated and costly. Another company could have built cookie-cutter sprawl suburbs on the site with far less delay, uncertainty and risk – things that no business likes.  If we want to see a reversal of sprawl development patterns, the first task is to make it pay off.


We also need to “monetize” the relative improvements of sustainable development through tax-increment financing, differential “system development charges” and similar tools, and use them to help make sustainable development financially rewarding.


Some promising new tools are being developed to take on the job of sprawl retrofit and repair – financial instruments, design strategies, policy and legal changes – and toolkits of these tools, designed to work together, and to be adaptable to their context.  There's a new incremental thinking, recognizing that we have to plan for changing things over time, sometimes modestly.  We're learning to use "tactical urbanism," learning to uncover opportunities where they exist, and make incremental changes to repair the frayed urban fabrics where we can. 

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