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The New Model
Portland and “elite cities”
Is Oregon’s metropolis a leader among American cities or just strange?
THE city most comparable to Portland might be Vancouver in Canada, reckons Sam Adams, Portland’s mayor, although “we look to Amsterdam, Helsinki and Stockholm” for ideas. Ethan Seltzer, a professor of urban planning in Portland, thinks little Freiburg, in Germany, is the best comparison, with its similar obsessions about recycling, sustainability, public transit and bicycling. Others pick Zurich, which, like Portland, has a view of snow-capped mountains, orderly (bordering on staid) streets with trams, even the same peculiar fondness for direct democracy and tolerance of assisted suicide.
This might seem odd for a city on the American West Coast that once was the terminus of the Oregon Trail and has a cowboys-and-rodeos heritage. The locals, in fact, enjoy feeling odd: “Keep Portland weird”, say bumper stickers on the city’s cars, which all seem to be hybrid-electric vehicles. “Keep Portland sanctimonious,” mumble a few contrarians, while others savour the irony that Portland had to steal the slogan from Austin, Texas. But on the whole, Portlanders not only love their city but believe that it is, and ought to be, a model for the rest of America.
Mr Adams has personally contributed by becoming the first (though no longer the only) openly gay mayor of a big American city, and even surviving a recall attempt after a sex scandal (he is now confronting another). Mr Adams has a vision of progressive urbanism: a city where most people cycle or ride the streetcar, recycle what they consume, exist in harmony with nature and live in communities rather than the suburban sprawl of cities like Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix or Atlanta.
Nature, in fact, is the main draw for the mostly young and single newcomers to this city, almost the fastest-growing on the West Coast, says Joe Cortright, a Portland economist: the ocean to the west; the Cascade mountains to the east; and the high desert beyond them. The vineyards of pinot noir and chardonnay along the Willamette Valley are all within a manageable drive. In Portland, “business casual” means wearing a fleece. The area’s main industrial cluster is “activewear”, led by Nike and Columbia Sportswear and including thousands of smaller companies.
The environment is also the main theme of public policy. The biggest force in local politics is not a party (Democrats in effect rule without opposition) but cyclists. The bike lanes are impressive and getting even better now as streets get “bioswales”, patches of turf and shrub that capture and filter storm water and simultaneously calm traffic and separate pedestrians and cyclists from the Priuses. Those who can’t bike are encouraged to use public transport, which is free downtown.
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