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Portland slides down 'smart growth' list

Land-use calculations change, but other cities are catching up


Has Portland lost its planning mojo?

For years city leaders have bragged that Portland’s increasing density is a national model of Smart Growth — a compact form of urban development that reduces sprawl. They have used it to justify redevelopment in the Pearl District and South Waterfront, skinny homes and apartment buildings in existing neighborhoods, and the growing transit region.

And Portland’s efforts have been nationally recognized. A 2002 study by the advocacy group Smart Growth America ranked Portland the eighth most compact metropolitan area in America, just behind such dense urban centers as New York and San Francisco.

But an updated version of the study released earlier this month seemed to show a different result. In “Measuring Sprawl 2014,” New York and San Francisco still ranked in the top five. Portland plummeted to 80th place out of 221 metropolitan areas in the country, however — behind such unlikely contenders as Laredo and Waco in Texas, and even Medford in Southern Oregon.

How can that be, especially considering the boom in apartment construction that has been happening in Portland in the past few years?

There are two answers. According to Reid Ewing, a University of Utah professor who worked on the study, researchers changed the definition of metropolitan area. The updated definition used by the U.S. Census defines metropolitan areas as being economically and not just geographically connected. As a result, the Portland area included Vancouver, Wash., which is outside the urban growth area that restricts where new development can occur in and around Portland.

“In 2002, Portland had been ranked as one of the most compact cities. Now it is well down the list. It had a lot to do with the census boundaries,” Ewing said during the April 2 press conference in which the study was released.

Unsustainable model

Other cities are catching up to Portland. Many of the ideas that Portland leaders have promoted for so long aren’t new any more. More cities are adopting and

enacting them.

That became clear when a number of city officials from around the country made brief presentations at the press conference. All of them talked about completing comprehensive land-use plans to encourage compact development since the first study was released.

One was Elizabeth Tyler, the community development director of the twin cities of Champaign and Urbana, Ill., which ranked No. 5 in the new study. Among other things, Tyler says his city has committed to preserving its neighborhoods and has adopted a complete street policy, an award-winning bicycle plan and even a climate action plan, all things that Portland has done.

“We want to be the most compact small city in America,”

Tyler said.

A similar drive is underway in Madison, Wis., which ranked No. 13 in the new study. According to Principal Planner Bill Fruhling, city leaders there have adopted policies to concentrate employment and housing in the urban core. They have already resulted in the construction of 4,500 new housing units, Fruhling said.

Even the Franklin and Nashville metropolitan area in Tennessee has jumped on the bandwagon. Although it is part of the metropolitan area that ranked 217th in the new study, Franklin Mayor Ken Moore said people don’t want to live that way anymore.

“The current model is unsustainable. We have to change the way we do things,” said Moore.

Ralph Schulz, president of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, agreed. “The marketplace says we have to change our sprawl score. Eighteen- to 34-year-olds are not looking for acreage anymore. They’re looking for amenities, like transit, which we’re just starting,” said Schulz.

Ilana Preuss, vice president and chief of staff at Smart Growth America, said compact development results in numerous benefits for those who live in such areas. They range from more economic opportunities, to greater health and longer life spans. Much of the health benefits are related to more walking and less automobile use, Preuss said.

Land plan update

The study was compiled by Smart Growth America and the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah, where Ewing works.

The researchers compared four factors to determine whether an area was compact or sprawling. They included:

• The density of houses and jobs in the area.

• The mix of residential and commercial buildings, with the greater the mix being better.

• The concentration of residential and commercial developments in downtown or other “activity” areas, meaning residents were more likely to be able to walk or take transit to work and shopping.

• The walkability of streets, including the length of blocks and the number of four-way intersections. Short blocks and more intersections indicates more crosswalks, which encourages walking.

Although other cities may have made gains since 2002, Portland is not resting on its laurels. The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is busy working on an update of the city’s comprehensive land-use plan, which will heavily influence how the city develops in the future.

The bureau is scheduled to release the proposed update plan in July, with Planning and Sustainability Commission hearings starting in September. A recommended plan should go to the City Council in the spring 2015.

The Smart Growth America study can be sound at www.smartgrowthamerica.org