Tag Archives: Sprawl

Three Elements of Portland’s Success

Portland's Pearl District is one of the truly unique neighborhoods on the West Coast

I recently returned from a few days up in Portland, a city well-known as being decades ahead of its peers when it comes to urban planning.  While I wont go into as much detail as my examination of innovative urban policies in Colorado, I took away three primary elements of Portland’s planning paradigm which have helped it to earn the title of most sustainable city year after year.

Element #1: The Urban Growth Boundary

Portland's UGB is the single most important policy in understanding the region's successes.

In Portland, land is a limited resource.  For the past 30 years, Portland has protected farmland and open space by limiting the development of sprawling suburbs and exurbs through strict controls over the location of growth.  When done right, an urban growth boundary can be the single most effective policy to create a livable and sustainable city and region.  By containing sprawl, Portland makes the most of its built environment, which mostly resembles a less-congested Berkeley density-wise.  What really blew me away was the sheer number of vibrant neighborhood commercial streets that were often within only blocks of one another–NW 21st and NW 23rd, Hawthorne and Belmont, not to mention the entire Pearl District–something which could not occur in a more heavily suburbanized region with a greater presence of strip malls.

There are a number of misconceptions that result from Portland’s UGB.  Contrary to the claims of libertarian critics, the UGB has not stopped all growth and led to an unaffordable region; Portland is actually one of the most pro-growth cities in the nation and has made it easy (through progressive zoning codes and parking requirements–see below) for developers to construct high-quality yet affordable housing to meet the demand of the market.  As a result, Portland experienced much less of a boom and bust than cities in California, and currently has a median housing price is 40% that of San Francisco, 60% that of LA, and 80% that of Seattle, making it one of the most affordable cities on the West Coast.

Element #2: Smart Parking Management

A village of food carts lining a surface parking lot in Downtown Portland.

In the Bay Area, parking can turn conservatives into progressives and liberals into Teabaggers.  Because land is a limited resource and Portland must make the most of existing space, Portland has pioneered a number of interesting and innovative parking management practices.  The two most noticeable of these practices are the adaptive reuse of surface parking lots with food carts and the parking management policies around transit.

Unbeknownst to me before my visit, Portland is famous for its food carts, second to only New York City (which has about 14 times the population).  The 400+ carts range from Indian to Cambodian to Mexican to Brazilian and boast some of the best food in the entire city for a price of $5-$7 dollars.  What do food carts have to do with parking management? Whereas surface parking lots are traditionally one of the single biggest causes of blight in cities, Portland’s food carts play a vital role in fostering a vibrant street life where there otherwise would be none.  Food carts make surface parking lots work.

Portland is also a leader in smart parking policies around transit.  While many local governments maintain high parking requirements even in transit-rich areas, new developments in Portland near frequent transit (buses, light rail, and streetcars) have no parking requirements whatsoever.  Keep in mind this does not mean developers have stopped building parking altogether; it simply gives the power of determining parking ratios to developers and the housing market rather than local governments.  Since an average parking space adds $40,000 to the cost of a housing unit, allowing for unbundled parking with lower ratios has a huge effect on housing affordability near transit.  Even in booming areas such as the Pearl District, condos and live-work units currently start under $200,000–try and find that in San Francisco.

Element #3: Cost-Effective Transportation Choices

The Portland Streetcar is the epitome of development-oriented transit.

Portland’s transit system is geared toward providing the greatest amount of economic growth and mobility for the lowest price.  Over the past 15 years, Portland has had an extraordinary streak of New Starts-funded projects, having built five major MAX light rail extensions totaling nearly 38 miles (not to mention the 15 mile regionally-funded WES commuter rail and the 4 mile locally funded Portland Streetcar).  Yet, Portland’s still not finished, with the 3.3 mile Small Starts-funded Eastside Loop for the streetcar, and the 7.3 mile Milwaukie light rail extension, set to be completed by 2012 and 2015, respectively, as well as a 5 mile rapid streetcar extension to Lake Oswego (essentially a cheaper alternative to light rail) currently in planning and aiming to open in 2014.  The total cost of the 68 miles of rail that Portland will add between 1995 and 2015 is about 25% less than the cost of the 32.5 miles of BART extensions that the Bay Area will have had in the same time period (keep in mind these are just rough estimates adjusted for inflation).  Portland has also achieved better returns on its investment, with around three times the ridership as BART’s extensions (once again, semi-rough estimates).  Even with the fuzzy math, twice the mileage and three times the ridership for 3/4 the price is outstanding for TriMet and embarrassing for BART. As I’ve written too many times before, this enviable cost effectiveness is nothing new for other metro regions, but back to transit in Portland…

The most interesting aspect of Portland transit is its use of streetcars.  Portland’s streetcar system has a very specific function not as an urban circulator or glorified bus, but as a tool of placemaking.  When coupled with a progressive form-based zoning code and market-based parking requirements, the results of the streetcar have been staggering.  Since opening in 2001, 10,000 housing units and $4 billion in economic development have occurred within three blocks of the four mile streetcar line, and new districts have emerged such as the Pearl District, which I found to be one of the best urban neighborhoods I’ve ever been to.  For anyone who believes that streetcars are just glorified buses, I urge you to travel to Portland and see the clear difference for yourself.


Portland is still by no means perfect–there are still numerous aspects of the city’s urban fabric that could be improved.  Portland still has it’s fair share of surface parking lots, at times comically surrounding a streetcar line or light rail stops, and transit mode share is still rather low (13% within the city) considering the city’s reputation (non-commute trips seems to be a big source of ridership as well).  I would have liked to see some nicer buses–Portland was one of the first cities to invest in low-floor buses in the 1990s, but now they look pretty outdated compared to AC Transit’s Van Hools.  Portland could also use a greater investment in Rapid Bus/BRT for some of its major corridors.

Above: Portland’s Lloyd District–Surface parking lot heaven, in spite of ample transit access (three light rail lines and a soon-to-be streetcar line)

Nevertheless, Portland has accomplished a feat which few other cities can attest to: creating a compact, affordable region with the right mix of densities and transit modes.  Unlike the Bay Area, Portland doesn’t have “www.trimetrage.com,” “www.trimetsucks.com,” or “www.rescuetrimet.com”–transit just works.  I was not able to spend too much time exploring Portland’s bicycle network, though it’s platinum rating, 8% mode share and ambitious plan for 25% of all trips by 2030 could fill up a number of posts themselves.  Overall, Portland is well on its way to becoming “the best European City in America,” leading other regions (such as the Bay Area) to seek to emulate its success.

More photos on the 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr.

The Relationship Between the Housing Bubble, the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, and Land Use Regulation: What Houston Can Tell Us

Downtown Houston

Houston is often looked down upon by urban planners for the reason that it essentially lacks land use and planning regulations altogether.  Many will (justifiably) argue that Houston is the epitome of unsustainable urban sprawl, with its endless suburbs and expansive freeway system that makes the region almost completely dependent on driving.  Yet, Houston has a lot that it can teach us as well; in fact, over the past few decades it has enjoyed one of the most dynamic and affordable housing markets even with massive demand and growth, earning the city the title of the “Capital of the Middle Class.”  I examined this dichotomy last December in a paper entitled Houston and Deregulation: Can a Truly Free Market City Suceed?

While the subprime mortgage crisis and the housing crash have wreaked havoc on the national economy, Houston’s housing market has remained stable and it’s economy relatively strong.  In spite of it’s GDP growing as much as 40% faster than the Bay Area, coupled with an influx of 150,000 Katrina refugees in 2005, Houston’s housing prices have remained stable and low over the past decade because housing supply had consistently met demand.  At the time of my research (going by October 2007-2008 housing prices), Houston’s median housing price had declined from $146,000 to $142,000, a mere 2.7%.  Prices have dropped since then as credit markets have frozen up, yet still, Houston’s median home price for March 2009 is $138,000, or about 2.25 times the median family income, making housing still very affordable even in hard times.

In contrast, the Bay Area housing market has completely plummeted in the past year and a half.  The Bay Area saw prices skyrocket over the past decade as demand for housing outpaced supply (in Arizona, Nevada, and Florida, the opposite occurred– housing supply outpaced economic growth).  In late 2007, the bubble finally burst, and median housing prices dropped from $631,000 in October 2007 to 375,000 in October 2008 to 299,000 in March 2009, a total of 53%.  Yet, compared to Houston’s housing market, Bay Area homes remain much less affordable, at around 3.25 times the median family income (not too bad considering in 2007 a family would have to spend 7 times their income to buy a house).  With these overinflated prices, it’s no coincidence that government-subsidized housing and subprime mortages (essentially affordable housing loans) were much more popular in the Bay Area than Houston.

Yet, Houston is by no means free of problems.  It leads the nation in highest daily vehicle passenger mileage (1st), highest individual transportation cost (1st), lowest public transportation ridership (1st), worst traffic (7th), worst ozone pollution (4th), worst smog (2nd), most traffic fatalities (1st), and most pedestrian fatalities (5th: keep in mind nobody walks!).  Thus, Houston is among the most unlivable, unsustainable, and unhealthy cities to live in.

Can you have a city that is both affordable and sustainable?  Believe it or not, the solution for Houston might not lie in more land use regulation, but less.  Houston’s biggest public works expenses come from massive investments in automobile infrastructure.  This sprawling transportation model manifests itself in the city’s parking, street and lot size regulations, which effectively prevent high density development and limit Houston from becoming a truly urban environment (even bars must provide 10 parking space from every 1000 square feet!).  By liberalizing these requirements and shifting investments to transit (which is slowly but steadily occurring), Houston’s adaptive housing market could very well be one of America’s most transit oriented cities in 2030.

Of course, this last point is just speculation, but if there’s one thing I took away from this project, it is that when regulations are minimized and developers can quickly respond to shifts in the housing market, anything is possible.  If there’s one thing the Bay Area can learn from Houston, it is that no-growth policies will wreak havoc on the economies and citizens of a region.  We must make it easier for smart growth to occur, and speed up projects like Treasure Island, Alameda Point, and Hunter’s Point as long as they provide transit options and do not displace current residents.  Otherwise, our housing market will end up just how it was before: unaffordable and unstable.

Want to learn more? Read my paper here