05 September 2006

The Best City in the USA



I have spent the better part of an hour trying to come up with just the right kind of clever angle to put on this post. Being an urban plannner, I feel I should present all kinds of deep nuance to explain my fascination with Portland, Oregon. But the bottom line is that no clever angle could really convey my enthusiasm for this rain-soaked gem in the Pacific Northwest.

As a planner, I have heard for years how Portland is the holy grail of city and regional planning in the United States. Not a day went by in graduate school that someone didn't cheer for (or jeer at) Oregon's 1970s groundbreaking law mandating urban growth boundaries for all its 241 urban areas. Finally, one weekend last November I had the chance to see the place for myself. It lived up to all of my expectations. The impact of the urban growth boundary is a wonderful, vibrant, walkable city. Even the constant rain and gray didn't dampen my enthusiasm. I made a return trip a few weeks ago with my partner who is a big fan of the glamour and pace of much larger cities. I was a bit worried that he might find it all a little sleepy--that my urban planning lenses were making the place much more interesting than it really is. Much to my delight and surprise, he loved the place as much as I do. Perhaps the only real difference between us is that he would qualify "The Best City in America" by inserting the word small before city.

I don't mind this because I never include New York City in any comparison, the place is just too damn fabulous and unique to be compared to any other--and once you remove New York from the discussion Portland rises right to the top of my list. I don't think it is my urban planner's bias that makes me feel like the success of Portland can actually be attributed to its wise land use. So often I go to American cities and just wish I could squeeze all the great things about the metro area into the core of the city and generously sprinkle it with housing, green space, services, and shopping (even for groceries). Imagine how much more dynamic Cleveland would be if all of those empty lots downtown contained Severance Hall, or the Cleveland Institute of Arts, or condos, or streetfront retail, or anything. Imagine how lively Minneapolis (or even Chicago) would be if its downtown loop had better integration between its housing, retail, and office districts. What if the fabulous Asian markets and restaurants in northern Virginia were in Washington DC's Chinatown instead? What if Seattle didn't have that hideous freeway separating its downtown from its residential neighborhoods? What if pigs could fly...?

Still, Portland is about more than its land use patterns, and it is certainly more than the sum of its parts. Its public transport is second to none, it has the legendary Powell's books, it has a lively arts scene, great shopping, great restaurants, great neighborhoods, a great physical setting, great proximity to the mountains and some of the most amazing coastland in the world, and has beautiful agricultural lands within 10 miles of the city line. Its corporate architicture is mundane at best, but its smaller scale arhitecture is quite interesting and has a vernacular flair. In fact, the best thing about Portland is that it knows what it is and it does it really well. Even its provincialism is more like a contented self-awareness then the boosterism or narrow world view found in many other cities that seem to care more about being something they are not, rather then being happy with what they are.

In general I can find something to love in almost any city. It just so happens that Portland puts it all together in a way that makes it a very special place, and to me, the best city in the USA.

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