Ok, I was wrong about Portland, Oregon

Last updated on April 13th, 2020

Portland has often been held up as an American planning utopia – the embodiment of all that good planning can bring about. It’s the place where every urban planner is supposed find inspiration and meaning.

Everyone but me.

Lane and I were in Portland in 1996, right when the city was beginning it’s planning ascendancy. It was the living workshop everyone was watching and I was eager to see it for myself, to see how good planning could create an urban ideal.

Instead I found a fragmented city with a depressing, dirty urban core where the streets were filled with vagrants. It was a city that seemed to me to have long since lost all vitality, where the focus of revitalization in the urban core was a festival shopping mall. It certainly wasn’t a city that invited walking and it seemed to take an inordinate amount of effort to get to a decent restaurant (although the one we did find was fabulous – a miniscule Spanish place with a tiny bar, six or seven tables, live music, dancing, and the most amazing paella we’ve ever tasted), intriguing gallery, or graceful garden.

Aside from that restaurant, my most vivid memory is the sight of cops knocking a vagrant to the sidewalk near the Saturday Market.

There were clearly good things to be found in Portland, but for me they were overwhelmed by the negatives. I couldn’t wait to leave.

(My husband stresses that this is my opinion and not his. He’s always liked Portland.)

Innovative planning pays off in Portland

But now I realize I was just there too early. It took awhile for the innovative planning with which they were experimenting when I visited to start making a visible difference. Aside from the number of people living on the streets (a situation that seems even worse than what I recall from that trip a dozen years ago), the Portland of today is in many ways an urban utopia. . . what a great city!

Getting around town

Portland is a fabulously easy city to explore because it is relatively contained, well connected, and easy to move about on foot.

Besides, if someplace is too far to walk, there is certain to be a TriMet train (MAX), trolley, or bus nearby.

photo by Andrea Grygo Diamond

When there isn’t a construction project blocking the way (there are a lot of those), streets here seem to serve passenger vehicles, buses, trains, bikes, and pedestrians reasonably well. They work for everyone, which makes walking so much more inviting.

photo by Andrea Grygo Diamond

The streets themselves don’t seem particularly wide or unusually narrow and, while most have some sort of sidewalk, the width and quality of that sidewalk varies wildly. So what makes it so much more walkable than streets back home? I’m betting the slower traffic speeds and really short signal timing are a key component as that was what seemed consistent throughout the city. A very simple, but dramatic difference.

What doesn’t work? Finding your way around. Street signs can be hard to spot or non-existent along major thoroughfares (I’m sure everyone in Portland recognizes Burnside, but I don’t) and there is an almost total absence of way-finding signs. Bring a map.

Density done right
Portland has created dense, lively, and livable neighborhoods in areas where they didn’t exist before. They’ve even made those neighborhoods interesting to look at, with an eclectic mix of historic structures, funky modern architecture, and lots of green spaces.

Of course, the Pearl District is the poster child for this sort of density, with a great mix of retail, restaurants, and residential uses housed in architecturally interesting buildings packed alongside inviting parks and greenways.

(I want one of those condos with the cantilevered decks.)

It’s something I don’t think we do well in Minnesota, where most new developments end up bland and inoffensive. Heck, maybe it’s something that can be done only in a place like the Pearl, where there really weren’t any existing neighbors to complain (the Pearl District was a derelict industrial area before being re-imagined as Portland’s hot new neighborhood), but I’m not convinced. In Portland this sort of architecturally interesting, mixed-use, high-density development seems to be slipping in almost everywhere.

It’s got to be tricky to do though. The Old Town/Chinatown area is clearly becoming a more lively and desirable location, but how do you build on what is already there without losing the authenticity and funky vibe that makes the area intriguing?

It will be interesting to see what this part of the city is like in another dozen years.

Let’s go shopping downtown!

The historic core of downtown Portland has a wealth of gorgeous older commercial buildings. It is an area that has been rebuilt over time, creating a delightfully weird mix of architectural styles.

However, the amazing thing about downtown Portland is that it actually has stores! REAL stores and lots of them, stores we don’t have anywhere in the Twin Cities and certainly not downtown.

Being downtown feels the way I remember feeling about downtown Minneapolis when I was 8. It just FEELS like a city. There are big department stores, high-end luxury stores (the Rolex shop is just down from my hotel), specialized boutique stores (there is a kitchen knife shop next to the Rolex shop and there are THREE gourmet chocolate shops within a block of my hotel), furniture and home stores (West Elm), dozens of small women’s clothing shops from local specialty shops to J Jill, electronics stores, camera shops, an office supply store, discount department stores. . . you name it, you can probably find it in downtown. (Ok, I didn’t see any building supply stores, but there were plenty of auto repair spots in China Town and the Pearl, so there may have been a Lowe’s or Home Depot lurking nearby.)

Of course, there are also plenty of restaurants, but we do have those in our downtown back home, so that isn’t as exciting J

Seriously, I feel like I’ve stepped back into another time, a time when there were no sterile malls and downtown was THE place to shop.

Now, if only I could afford to actually live in Portland. . .

Next post: Schoolhouse Swifts

Portland itinerary 2008 

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