Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION
Lessons from Portland
Landing in the middle of downtown Portland, Ore., you notice the mural first: carefully painted 15-ft. letters blaring on a well-worn brick wall.
Then you see your first bumper sticker, and a pin tacked to a ratty backpack, and a cut-off t-shirt, all bearing the same famous missive: "Keep Portland weird."
Keep Portland weird. It's both a motto and a mission, a sort of rallying cry for a hippie-chic city that guards its oddities with a cultish fervour. But the thing is, they're not entirely wrong: Portland is weird. But not necessarily for the reason its residents think it is... and it's the ways that the Rose City is truly weird that Winnipeg could stand to learn from.
Ask most Portland residents what makes Portland weird, and the answer will generally involve one of the following: the city's glut of men in skirts; a donut joint-slash-wedding chapel that sells phallic pastries; roughly four brewpubs for every resident; well-attended nude bike rides; and Chuck Palahniuk.
I'll give them that Palahniuk is a really, really weird dude. But the other things -- well, they're weird, but they're not what make Portland itself weird.
No, what makes that Pacific Northwest jewel weird is this: it was built and tended by folks who actually want it to be a nice place to live.
This is shocking, I know. And Winnipeg policymakers should start taking notes from a city that regular tops the list of the U.S.'s most liveable.
First, to be fair: Portland has some amenities to which Winnipeg simply cannot aspire. One is a romantic city, draped over the emerald ankles of low-lying mountains and watched o'er by the precious peaks of Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens; the other is a slapped-together by-product of unchecked urban expansion, rising between a blue flatness and a grain one. One has a climate that supports its status as the most environmentally-friendly city in the U.S.; Portlanders can count their snow days on a single hand. As for us, well, let's not go there.
But scratch beneath that surface, and Winnipeg and Portland remind me a whole lot of each other.
Both have an embarrassment of handsome, turn-of-the-century architecture. Both are renowned as hotbeds for music and arts. Both sit at the confluence of two important rivers; both are close enough to real, live nature that camping, fishing and boating are a prominent escape.
And, though these things are impossible to quantify, the very pace of life in Portland reminds me of nowhere so much as my beloved hometown: keep your eyes off the scenery and replace perogy houses with Mexican taquerias, and you could almost forget you weren't at home.
But Portland has one benefit that Winnipeg, to my young memory, has never really had: leaders with a vision of what life in their city could and should be. Leaders who will fight to bring that vision to life and who would rather stand for that vision than pander to the masses.
In Portland, that battle hasn't always been smooth. But its benefits are obvious.
In 1979, the city established a revolutionary growth boundary that contained development within a relatively tiny 22-mile-square area, pushing development inwards, prioritizing infill and spearheading the rise of attractive, lively mixed-use buildings. To make life easier in this suddenly hemmed-in city, Portland put in a slick light rail system. The trains are free throughout the city's core; they clack past every 15 minutes.
The urban growth boundary isn't static; it has added acreage over the years to meet its mandate of maintaining a 20-year supply of development-ready space. But reading about it on the Oregon Metro website (Metro is the government which oversees the cities of the greater Portland area), which you can do here, is a lesson in civic vision.
And by this single, stubborn decision, Portland artfully counteracted the hollowed-out, empty downtowns that have struck countless similar cities. Instead of rushing to increasingly far-flung suburbs, Portland's residents stayed living and working relatively close the city centre... and in so doing, built what is perhaps the most people-friendly city in North America.
I'm oversimplifying somewhat, of course. Portland is not a utopia. Whole city blocks near the city's famous bridges are crowded with homeless. (Though I did see far fewer this month than on my last month-long visit, in 2007; perhaps some successful program?) Since the recession and the crash in the lumber market which sustains the state, Oregon has posted a whopping 13 per cent unemployment rate. And the very urban development boundary many credit with the city's livability has been tussled over for years.
But if it does have faults, one can't argue that Portland's vision for itself hasn't pushed it to be the city that it is today.
To walk in Portland is to experience urban life the way it should be: diverse, exciting, accessible and safe. The development boundaries mean that little space is wasted; one can walk virtually anywhere important in the city in 20 minutes. And it's an interesting walk: instead of big-box wastelands plopped on unused space, Portland has a wealth of adorable boutiques, artfully hidden malls, quaint low-budget shopping and grassroots cafes.
For a Winnipegger strolling through Portland's tony Pearl District, it's impossible to ignore the hints of what the Exchange District could be (and in fact, seems to be becoming): the two districts have the same magnificent architecture, the same crooked old streets. But in the Pearl, the infill pressure has produced a living and lived-in neighbourhood, rejuvenated since the controversial urban development laws passed. Every month, the Pearl's many art galleries throw open their doors for free open-houses: the neighbourhood's residents, surrounded by culture, flock to attend.
The cozy familiarity of a city mandated to hang together breeds real culture, and not just in the Pearl. And it's a great place for families.
Consider that among Portland's biggest tourist attractions isn't an artfully groomed tourist trap, but a bookstore. It's the world's biggest independent new-and-used bookstore in fact: Powell's Books, a lovingly-worn 68,000-sq. ft. megalith whose rambling, mazelike interior commands an entire city block in downtown Portland. (It's adding another 10,000-sq. ft. soon.)
Portlanders' favourite weekend attraction is the Saturday Market, the largest open-air market in the United States, a freewheeling tent city that pops up each weekend to hawk locally-made food, art, clothing and goods. Some is corny, some is classy, and some is just plain wacky (I was moments away from buying a life-sized dog sculpture made out of recycled bike chains, a very apropos material for a city with bike lanes on the freeways).
That Portland's elected officials regularly tip their hats to the city's good-natured bizarro-culture only adds to the allure. Remember that phallic-pastry donut shop? Yeah, in 2008 Portland city council named VooDoo Doughnut's creepy, sugar-eyeballed Portland Creme pastry the city's official city donut, and expressed "deepest (municipal) gratitude" to the VDD owners for their contribution to the city's culture.
Oh, if only.
If only, like Portland, Winnipeg had turned away from the path in front of it, pushed back against the rampant abuse of open space and crafted a vision for what kind of city it wanted itself to be.
Look, this is not Winnipeg bashing. I don't go in for that. And it's not supposed to be a cold, hard answer. I am no city planner. I'm just a woman, living in a city, noticing how other cities have handled the same problems and thinking, "well, we here could have handled things better."
I love Winnipeg. I love Winnipeg with the kind of love that a daughter has for an aging, cantankerous parent: it hurts me to see it so languid. It hurts me to see it rise and fall in fits and starts, sometimes remembering it has promise, other times retreating to its lonely armchair to sit in silence, alone. It hurts me to see it sprawl outwards, as good space in the urban heart sits rotting.
But Portland, a city where I have spent months now altogether, gives me hope. There, I walked the streets and thought: how beautiful could Winnipeg have been -- and might Winnipeg yet be -- if someone in power put their foot down and said, "our city can do better, if only we have the courage to make it so."
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