The Evolving Urban Form: Portland

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Among urban planners, there is probably not a more revered urban area in the world than Portland (Oregon). The Portland metropolitan area and its core urban area , principally located in Oregon, stretches across the Columbia River into the state of Washington (Figure 1). Nearly four decades ago, the state of Oregon adopted strong urban planning requirements, including the requirement of an urban growth boundary. Two principal purposes of the resulting policies (referred to as “smart growth,” “urban containment, “compact cities,” etc.) were densification and transferring travel demand from cars to transit.

Portland’s progress toward these objectives has been modest, at best. Most growth has continued to be in the suburbs. There has been only modest densification, and employment has continued to disperse from the core. At the metropolitan area level, travel by car remains virtually as dominant as before and traffic congestion has intensified materially. Finally, house prices have been driven up relative to incomes (Note 1).

Portland: A Dispersing Metropolitan Area

Like virtually all major metropolitan areas in the world, Portland has experienced substantial dispersion. The core county of Multnomah peaked at more than two thirds of the metropolitan area population in 1930, as defined in 2000 (Note 2). By 2010, Multnomah County had dropped to one third of the metropolitan area population (Figure 2).

The dispersion has continued in recent years, though there has been core growth (as has been the case in many metropolitan areas). Between 2000 and 2010, the area within two miles (three kilometers) of Portland City Hall grew more than 20 percent. However, this was only five percent of the metropolitan area’s growth. In the inner ring extending to five miles (eight kilometers) from City Hall, the growth was only three percent, well below the metropolitan area’s overall 15 percent growth rate. More than 90 percent of the metropolitan area’s population growth was outside a five mile radius (Figure 3).

Portland: A Low Density Urban Area

Despite its international reputation as an exemplar of compactness , Portland is a low density urban area. Among the 875 urban areas in the world with more than 500,000 population, 797 are denser than Portland.

In the low density United States, Portland ranked 12th among major urban areas (over 1 million population), at approximately 3,500 residents per square mile (1,350 per square kilometer) in 2010. This is approximately 10% higher than the major urban area average density but barely half that of the densest, Los Angeles, with its undeserved reputation for low-density, “sprawling” development (Figures 4 and 5).

Portland is less dense than all major urban areas in the 13 western states, with the exception of Seattle. Notably, Riverside San Bernardino is denser, despite consisting almost exclusively of post-World War II automobile-oriented development. Even much smaller California urban areas, such as Stockton, Bakersfield, Lodi and Delano are denser than Portland.

Portland and Houston: Density Cousins

The Portland metropolitan area’s density profile nearly duplicates that of Houston, which is just as famous for its liberal land use and transportation policies nearly the opposite of Portland’s (Note 3). Both metropolitan areas have nearly the same percentage of their populations living at densities below 7,500 per square mile (2,865 per square kilometer). A 40 percent larger share lives at densities of from 7,500 to 10,000 per square mile (3,860 per square kilometer) in Portland, while Houston’s share of its population living at densities above 10,000 per square mile is three times that of Portland (Figure 6).

Among the nation's 51 major metropolitan areas, Portland ranks 25th in the share of population living in zip codes with more than 10,000 people per square mile in 2010 (Figure 7).

Portland’s Job Dispersion

As in other metropolitan areas, jobs have dispersed substantially around Portland. Today, fewer than 10% of the jobs are located in downtown Portland (the central business district). The city of Portland itself has approximately 1.41 jobs per resident worker. Suburban Hillsboro, with the third largest employment base in the metropolitan area, has slightly more jobs per resident workers (a higher “jobs-housing balance”) according to American Community Survey data.

Transit in Portland

Portland has developed an extensive rail system, intended to attract drivers from their cars. Today, six light rail lines (five light rail) radiate toward the urban periphery, focusing on downtown (the central business district, or CBD).

Yet the share of commuters using transit has fallen by a quarter since 1980, the last data available before the first light rail line opened. In short, rail has not changed the calculus of travel in Portland. Working at home, which is a less expensive and more environmentally friendly work access mode, has caught up with and now exceeds transit, as has occurred in most US major metropolitan areas. (Figure 8)

Worse, transit may have already experienced its “best of times.” The future could be grim. Opposition to rail expansion has grown, and longer term transit service cuts of up to 70 percent have been threatened. (See Portland’s Transit Halcyon Days?)

As elsewhere, transit in Portland is “about downtown.” The Portland Business Alliance estimates that 36% of downtown workers commute by transit. This is nearly one-half of all transit commuting in the Portland metropolitan area. Even in the job rich suburbs of Hillsboro and Beaverton, the share of people using transit for the work trip is less than the 5.0 percent national average.

Portland: Intensifying Traffic Congestion

Clinging to the fantasy transit can materially reduce automobile travel, Oregon officials have blocked substantial roadway expansions. Residents have been rewarded with much intensified traffic congestion.

The Texas A&M Texas Transportation Institute Annual Mobility Report (Note 4) reveals Portland to have the 6th worst traffic congestion in the nation among major metropolitan areas. This compares to a before-rail ranking of 39th in 1982. Now Houston, Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Phoenix all have lower levels of traffic congestion than Portland (Figure 9). Without decades of urban containment and anti-mobility policies, these metropolitan areas have improved traffic congestion relative to Portland. This is despite far larger increases in travel demand. Since the early 1980s, each of these metropolitan areas has added more residents than live in the entire Portland metropolitan area. Portland also ranks among the worst (5th) in commuter stress (a measure of peak direction traffic congestion), according to the Annual Mobility Report

Portland: Congestion and Higher Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Reflecting the reality that greater traffic congestion increases greenhouse gas emissions, Portland’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per automobile commuter have increased substantially and transit has made only the scantest difference. Between 1982 and 2011, Portland’s increase in CO2 emissions was greater than Houston, Atlanta and Phoenix, though less than Dallas- Fort Worth (Figure 10).

Deteriorating Housing Affordability in Portland

In Portland, consistent with both economic principle and considerable research, urban containment policy drives house prices up relative to incomes higher by rationing the supply of land and housing. In 2010, values of comparable land on either side of the urban growth boundary varied by more than 10 times in value per acre (a phenomenon also identified in Auckland, New Zealand by Chairman of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, Arthur Grimes).

The most recent Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey indicated that Portland's median multiple (median house price divided by median household income) was 4.3. In normally functioning housing markets, the median multiple is typically 3.0 or less, a ratio last achieved in Portland in 1995. This higher median house price means than approximately 125,000 fewer Portland households ---or 15% of households --- are able to afford the median priced house. (Note 5).

Higher housing costs retard the standard of living by reducing discretionary incomes (gross income minus taxes and necessities). This, in turn, leads to less demand for other goods and services (in the “discretionary economy”), less job creation and less economic growth.

Even so, Portland’s rising house prices have been moderated by the nearby availability of less expensive houses on larger lots in the Vancouver area (Clark County, Washington). There, more liberal land use regulation permits consumer-driven housing choice, rather forcing households to choose from the limited offerings planning authorities prefer.

In part due to rising prices, Portland is becoming less diverse . Indeed, Aaron Renn has called Portland the penultimate example in his searing critique, The White City. After the results of the 2010 census were announced. The Oregonian quoted then Mayor Sam Adams’ concern about the exodus of African-Americans from the city (municipality), saying that Portlanders should care about the fact that we offer ¬such limited access to equal opportunities. Local policymakers are largely oblivious to the role that urban containment policy may have played in diminishing those opportunities.

Misplaced Priorities

Despite all of this, Portland has its advantages.

As in Houston, Seattle, Atlanta and virtually all other major metropolitan areas regardless of land use regulations, a core renaissance is underway that is making a dense urban lifestyle more practical for the relatively few who both prefer it and can afford it. The suburban lifestyle, dominant virtually everywhere in the United States, remains alive and well in Portland (Note 6). Portland’s physical location remains the envy of most metropolitan areas. There is little better scenery than the nearby Columbia Gorge or majestic Mt. Hood, which crowns the area on clear days.

However, Portland has been sidetracked by a pre-occupation with urban design, at least partially driven by concerns about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The good news is that technological advances are poised to do far more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than could ever be achieved by urban containment policy.

But scenery aside, cities are primarily economic organisms. Cities have grown by serving the aspirations of people for a better standard of living. The very purpose of cities is to facilitate affluence and minimize poverty among residents (see Toward More Prosperous Cities). Yet policies, such as urban containment, that inherently reduce household discretionary incomes and impose greater congestion costs reduce discretionary incomes. Despite intentions to the contrary, the results show this to be the real Portland story.


Note 1: Some other metropolitan areas that have embraced urban containment policy have produced even worse results. For example, traffic congestion is worse in Vancouver, Sydney, Melbourne and far smaller Auckland, according to the “Tom Tom Congestion Index,” a real-time traffic reporting competitor to INRIX. Portland has seriously unaffordable housing, though has not retarded the standard of living nearly so much as in Vancouver, Sydney, Melbourne or Auckland, where housing is severely unaffordable. Attention is drawn to Portland’s negative outcomes because of the extent to which its policies are revered in the urban planning community around the world.

Note 2: Multnomah County is used in this analysis, instead of the historical core city of Portland, which has grown in large measure by annexation. Since 1950, the city added 108 percent to its land area and little more than half (56 percent) to its population.

Note 3: Houston is sometimes referred to as having deregulated land use. This is not strictly correct, though Houston is closer to a deregulated model than any other US metropolitan area. The city of Houston does not have zoning, though some municipalities in the suburbs are zoned. Many neighborhoods in the city of Houston have private land use covenants.

Note 4: The Annual Mobility Report has been the authoritative measure of traffic congestion in US urban areas for three decades. More recently, the report’s traffic congestion measures have been significantly strengthened by the use of actual global positioning data from INRIX, which also produces its own Traffic Scorecard both for US and international urban areas, using satellite based real-time traffic data.

Note 5: Estimated from income qualifying income requirements as reported by the National Association of Realtors for the third quarter of 2012 and the metropolitan income distribution modeled based on the 2011 American Community Survey.

Note 6: In 1999, new urbanist architect Andres Duany evaluated Portland in a commentary for The Oregonian: "To my surprise, as soon as I left the prewar urbanism (to which my previous visits had been confined), I found all the new areas on the way to the urban boundary were chock full of the usual sprawl one finds in any U.S. city, no better than in Miami. The outcome wasn't that different after all."


Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

Photo: Mount Hood (by author)

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It's the Shape of the Urban Form that's Important

Of course cities expand outwards. And they project their economic power outwards as they grow, unto the outer settlements in their peripheries. This has been true since ancient times of Rome, Greece, etc. Nothing new here. What's new is that typically the outer edges have been poorer. Because the US decided to subsidized suburban development (and at the same time stopped investing in inner cities), a reversal happened which is now correcting and balancing itself out.

Every city is and should be different. The problems of cities are not so much between cities (which one's more dense, bigger, etc.), as it is between each city proper and its outer edges. There is a difference in whether the city has been able to incorporate its outer edges of expansion into its core economy and lifestyle, or not. And it manifests itself in the shape that the urban pattern takes as it expands. Cities like NYC, Portland, San Francisco have expanded while maintaining a certain similarity in their urban form, level of density and transportation networks. In NYC the only exception is Long Island, which grew as a suburb. And that's why the economy of this borough is so much different (and behind) the others (they want to secede, and NYC will barely notice their absence). The Rhine-Rhur works (sort of) because Germany provides good transportation and manages its land use carefully. Besides, it was sort of the industrial belt, except that Germany didn't let it rust, but provided investments to reinvent the area with modern industries while maintaining a lot of its historic places and open areas, which now attracts many tourists.

Cox misses the point that it's not about who's more dense (who cares if Houston and Portland are similar in density?). It's about managing the relationship between the urban and its natural resources that keeps the city fed and thriving. And it's about maintaining an overall similar urban form throughout the expansion in a way that the citizens in the outer edges get the same benefits as the core (public transit, variety of housing, mixed commercial/residential), and therefore get a share in the economic benefits of the city center without having to travel long commutes to get it. The more similar the pattern of the outer edges is to the core, the more it will be able to share in its success.

Houston and the other post-WWII cities adopted the suburban pattern, highly subsidized by the US government, which makes them not really part of the city at all, except in legal terms only. Instead, there is a marked contrast between the economic center (marked by great buildings, intense diverse economic activity and intense diverse civic engagement) and the outside (marked by subsidized transportation in the form of highways and gas taxes, strip malls, homogeneous architecture, little variety in cultural lifestyle, and indifference to civic engagement, unless it affects them individually) in these post-WWII metropolitan areas. Hence, the traffic congestion, lack of lifestyle choices, and the conflict between those who see it as isolation and those who see it as privacy and freedom (albeit a faux freedom).

And btw, Portland is not "the revered ideal" for urbanists, not to me anyways. It's just one of the best that the US can come up with. If you want to choose a good metropolitan example, it's Paris. But there are also older US cities (Charleston, SC; Savannah, Georgia; Annapolis; Boston; parts of Old Colonial New England) who are excellent examples of good urban development that we have abandoned in favor of suburban growth.

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I think your choice of metrics could be improved. Straight population per area is a very weak metric, as it is extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of boundary-drawing. The 2010 Census moved away from emphasizing this weaker metric, and toward emphasizing Population-weighted density. You can find the data in Chapter 3 here. By that measure, the Portland MSA is less dense than Seattle (as fits with our intuitive understanding of density), a little more dense than both Riverside and Houston, and considerably denser than Bakersfield-Delano.

But even that isn't a great metric; there's a positive relationship between population and population density. What we really want to measure is: how does Portland compare to what we would expect for a city its size? Houston might only be somewhat less dense than Portland, but that's surprising because most cities as populous as Houston are considerably denser than smaller cities. I don't have a link to a graph of this metric.

The TTI metric for congestion is another very weak metric. See this article for a full explanation why. The short of it is: high-density places experience high congestion. That's the goal: there's no point in having a road network that goes unused at peak times. The hope is not to avoid "excess" time wasted in traffic; the hope is to make commutes shorter in the first place, so even if there's high traffic, it takes less time. Measuring only "excess" time begs the question, by assuming that commute length is fixed, when what we want to measure is the difference between places with different length commutes.

None of this is to say that Portland is a dense, urban paradise, just that the metrics used here don't sway me either way.

Further info

I graphed the relationship between population and weighted population density to demonstrate my second point. Not wonderful analysis and not breathtaking conclusions, but enough to say that you should really be more careful about throwing around density statistics without placing them in context.

@ MosshopsWho can help it?

@ Mosshops

Who can help it? There is an ideological war that lionizes the Portland Model. It has become a holy site for the Left to reaffirm that Social Justice and Leftist principles work. Which is fine, I don't take issue with that.

Austin & Portland. Those are the two models that Urbanists champion religiously. I have yet to hear a Lefty friend of mine ask excitedly, with enthusiasm: "Have you been to Gary Indiana?" or "Have you been to Detroit?" Yet every Leftist sort of ask each other in an evangelist tone: "Have you ever been to Austin?" and "Have you ever been to Portland?" Being from these two places, or having lived in these Leftist Mecca's, is a badge of honor, and acknowledging that you've been there or are from there, and that you have had a positive living experience there, is sort of a public affirmation of faith, that you've seen the future, and it works.

Many try to make the holy pilgrimage, to affirm the sermons of their priestly class of interpreters, such as Paul Krugman, lived out, and see the proof of their holy tenants, of equality, multicultural pluralism, tolerance, modernity, and a slice of heaven on earth, is workable.

The narrative that they are peddling is that Portland, an archetype of the Future, and the Possible, works, and therefore: let's remake the United States in its image and likeness. That is my issue with the Lionization by the Left, especially as you hang out with the urbanist crowd and the Left in general... there is an agenda behind the romance, even if those who are romanced aren't aware of it(which they aren't).

The proof is how the NYTimes and the Leftist Urbanists went crazy for the Orenco Station development as proof that a certain form of development, belied by a certain idealism, can produce an ecosystem that encourages community, business, and less car dependency. Which it certainly did, relative to the suburban sprawl around it, and I am a fan of Orenco Station. But then when the Atlantic Cities published a piece crapping on their faith, they excused the failure of Orenco Station on the car-culture of the suburb that surrounds it. Which is true, but that's not the point... there is a certain "faith" at work with regards to the development models underpinning Portland, and the projects within Portland. Which makes you curious about their "objectivity," and their agenda-serving "facts," that is purely in the of "faith" in a particular narrative. And as I've said before, you can't fight faith with facts.

Point being: They have a fantasy they want to see the entire country remade in. Portland is the closest it comes to living out that fantasy. They don't care whether Smart Growth works, or why it worked, and whether our UGB produced the type of environment we have or not... because how can something that affirms their values not work? If it doesn't work, or doesn't pan out quite as they had hoped, then it is not a failure of their ideas, but a failure of human error, and human implementation. Portland is the best archetype of the idealistic Urban environment we want America remade in, so it has to be touted as proof that our leftist principles work.

I love Portland, as a place, and as an idea. But it has, like all places, its flaws and hypocrisies. It is a model for some, but not a model for everyone, and certainly not a model for the rest of the country to emulate in its entirety, without understanding this area's history and experience, and governance in the individual suburban city halls, all of which has done far more to shape the current reality of this Metropolitan, then policy prescriptions from METRO as a whole, Multnomah County, or Portland City Hall.