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Growing Right: The Role of Downtowns in Saving America`s Countryside 

12-09-2015 17:35

Oregon, like many western and southern states, is facing the concomitant pressures of rapid population growth and rural economic transition.

Unfortunately, the challenge of protecting our environment while finding jobs for our people is often characterized as a battle between environmentalists and developers, between cosmopolitans and country-folk, between quality of life liberals and economic development practicals. But, shaping the future of our states need not be a contest between cities and countryside. People who love America`s communities are key to protecting our nation`s countryside and its livability.

Oregon is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, with some of America`s most livable communities. It boasts a special natural environment, as well as vital cities and towns. But, Oregonians fear for the future of our state, and sustaining its livability will require people working together to shape a place that our children and grandchildren will be proud to call home.


Oregon`s natural beauty and vital communities are both intrinsic to our quality of life and key to our future economic prosperity. In a random survey conducted by the Oregon Business Council, 1,300 Oregonians from throughout the state were asked: "What do you personally value about living in Oregon?" More than half of those surveyed cited Oregon`s beauty and its people. Similarly, when asked to describe Oregon in a single word, respondents used "beautiful," "green," and "livable" most frequently. Clearly, Oregonians value the quality of our place and the quality of our lives.

What has Oregon done to protect these values? We have planned for development, with attention to where we want that development to occur. We have worked to preserve the symbols of our history that are sacred to our image of Oregon, its ancestors and its pioneers. We have reinvested in our neighborhoods and revitalized our downtowns.

"There was a shameless threat to our environment," proclaimed Governor Tom McCall to the opening session of the 1973 Oregon legislature. "Oregon`s status as the environmental model for the nation was menaced," he warned, "by unfettered despoiling of the land, sagebrush subdivisions, coastal condomania, and the ravenous rampage of suburbia in the Willamette Valley." With those words, McCall led the charge to pass Senate Bill 100, establishing North America`s most comprehensive land use planning program, a program dedicated to both vital cities and pristine countryside.

As a result, Oregon`s 241 cities have established urban growth boundaries to contain wasteful urban sprawl, 16 million acres of farm land have been dedicated to continued farm use, and 9 million acres of private forest land have been protected from development.

As Oregonians commemorate the 150th anniversary of the great migration along the Oregon Trail, we realize once more the importance of preserving our history. Across the state--from Astoria to Baker City--we have placed more than 1,260 neighborhoods, downtown districts, and other historic sites on the National Register of Historic Places.

Community means neighborhood to many Oregonians--from the small town that is a neighborhood in itself, to the dozens of neighborhoods that constitute larger cities like Salem and Eugene. In Portland, the city administration recognizes 90 distinct neighborhoods, each with its own history, concerns, and local institutions. As much as anything, it is strong neighborhoods that make Oregon`s cities stand out.

In founding the Oregon Downtown Development Association (now known as Livable Oregon, Inc.), community leaders in Albany, Baker City, Bend, Corvallis, Grants Pass, and Portland set about rebuilding Oregon`s downtowns to protect the civic infrastructure of our communities. Their vision has fostered a statewide network of 46 communities, involving thousands of volunteers and dozens of local staff people who have worked to stimulate millions of dollars in reinvestment and brought vitality and livability back to Oregon`s city centers. Today, Oregon`s downtowns and neighborhood business districts are the embodiment of our heritage and a symbol of our future--city centers for culture, employment, government, education, shopping, services and housing.

Shortly after taking office, Governor Barbara Roberts noted that some have wondered why Oregonians would choose to preserve farmland and rivers when they could have shopping centers with amusement parks and river rides.

"Oregonians had other ideas," she said. "Oregon would accept growth, but on our own terms--on Oregon terms ... Oregonians have made it clear that they did not want to pave Oregon. They didn`t want to spend two hours getting to work. They didn`t want their downtowns to die and their farmlands to disappear."

Nevertheless, Oregonians are uneasy about the prospects for Oregon`s cities and countryside. When asked by the Business Council about their biggest fear for Oregon, those surveyed identified overpopulation, becoming like California, environmental destruction, loss of forests, and uncontrolled growth as five of their top six responses. Significantly, according to this extensive sample, growth issues are worrying Oregonians more than economic problems or crime.

At the same time, more than 95 percent of those surveyed believe that "Oregon`s population will grow considerably," while only 20% find that prospect desirable.

The fact is, Oregon is growing now, and the growth is likely to continue. The Oregon Department of Transportation`s middle-range forecast is for almost a million new Oregonians by 2010. Forecasts are only educated guesses, but in the two years since the 1990 census, Oregon did grow by 137,000 people, and the Department of Transportation`s estimate merely projects a continuation of a 20-year trend. More than two-thirds of Oregon`s newcomers are from the West coast, with about 40% from California.

These trends are well illustrated by a satellite photograph of the United States at night, taken in 1985. Since it only picks up light, it gives a good indication of where people are. That is, the people are where the lights are.

Where are most of the people? ... in the east. But, the large west coast urban areas of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle are clearly visible as well. The lights of Seattle are separated by darkness from the lights of Vancouver. The lights of Los Angeles and San Diego are also separated. Oregon? ...not too many people. But, you can make out most or all of the Interstate 5 corridor all the way from Vancouver to San Diego.

Comparing this to a similar photograph taken six years later in 1991 shows that Los Angeles and San Diego have become one. Seattle and Vancouver have become one. And we`ve turned on a lot of lights in Oregon as well. In just six years!

These photographs illustrate the statistics. People are moving west. People are moving to Oregon. The growth is real! The growth is now! The growth is fast!

Recent growth has been in Oregon`s populous areas, with almost half in the Portland metropolitan area. This pattern is likely to continue, but there is remarkable growth in other parts of the state as well. Central Oregon`s recreation mecca of Bend is booming of course, but eastern and southern Oregon are also experiencing significant growth. In La Grande, for example, housing prices are rising rapidly as people leave central Oregon seeking the lifestyle they found in Bend 20 years ago--a lifestyle that somehow has been lost along the way.

To the legislature, Governor McCall said, "An urban explosion of environmental pollution is threatening the livability of Oregon." In championing his land use planning agenda, McCall often said, "I refuse to preside over the deterioration of Oregon`s quality environment."

In 1973, it may have seemed that cities were the threat to the countryside--that urban explosion meant environmental destruction; but thriving cities are the solution--not the problem. It is not so much the city attacking the forest, but the spread out development surrounding our communities that is attacking both the cities and the countryside.

The problem is K-Mart and Wal-Mart and Bi-Mart and This-Mart and That-Mart, surrounded by twisting cul-de-sacs of cookie-cutter houses in sprawling subdivisions, named after the landscape they have destroyed, and punctuated by fake window mullions and three-car garages. The Marts are surrounded by houses, but they are protected from pedestrian invasion by moats of asphalt.

Cities and countryside are allies in the battle to save our states from being gobbled up by parking lots. If you want a pristine natural environment, you also want vital cities.

The Oregon Progress Board characterizes our quality of life as a special natural environment, vital communities, accessible services and involved citizens. Today rapid growth, with each activity spread out from the next, is threatening our environment, our communities, our services and our citizenship.


Despite the best efforts of Oregon`s land use planning program, much of the recent growth in our communities has been unfocused at best. When development sprawls beyond municipal boundaries, it often juxtaposes affluent and growing peripheral jurisdictions with impoverished and decaying central cities. Tax revenues become most scarce where they are needed most.

A study by the Urban Land Institute shows that the costs per housing unit to provide public services (such as sewer, water, schools, local streets, and storm drains) declines as density increases. In other words, it costs a community LESS to concentrate new development in areas of existing development (such as a downtown) than to let new development sprawl outside areas of existing development. If a 10,000 square-foot business wants to locate in a community, it makes more sense for it to locate in a vacant 10,000 square-foot space downtown than to build a new 10,000 square-foot building elsewhere.

The increased tax burden caused by sprawl development for providing municipal services falls on all residents. This doesn`t mean that everybody has to live in 30-units-to-the-acre townhouses, but it does illustrate that traditional 5,000 square-foot city lots are half as expensive to serve as the two-acre McMansions being that are being served up around many of America`s communities.

If we continue to litter our landscape with giant shopping centers and super stores surrounded by acres of parking while existing commercial buildings downtown stand vacant, we will all spend more time stuck behind the steering wheel staring into the tailpipe ahead.

In fact, between 1970 and 1990, while Oregon`s population grew by 38%, the number of miles we drove our cars increased 97%. Our average daily driving went from 16 miles to 25 miles.

One reason for the rapid growth in vehicle miles traveled is that three-quarters of working Oregonians drive to work alone in their cars. Ask yourself, how many cars does your household own? How far do you drive every day? How often do you share a ride, walk or take the bus to work?

Oregonians are not optimistic about the prospects for traffic in the future. When asked whether they believed that traffic congestion in their community would increase so much that it will become difficult to go to work or shop or visit a friend, more than half of the respondents to the Values Survey said it would, with a quarter agreeing strongly.


Our increases in driving aren`t just because Oregonians and other Americans are too bull-headed to do anything else, it is also because the way we are building gives us little choice. Architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk have adroitly illustrated the problem of traffic congestion in many American suburban areas. They note that "all the elements of towns already exist in the modern American suburb ... [but] they have been improperly assembled, artificially separated into `pods` strung along `collector roads` intended to speed the flow of traffic. The pods are specialized: There are housing `clusters,` office `parks,` and shopping `centers.` These elements are the makings for a great cuisine, but they have never been properly combined." It is, they say, like individually eating eggs, cheese and green peppers, instead of an omelet.

Duany and Plater-Zyberk contrast a typical "planned community" of the last four decades with a traditional town. In their words, "the streets in the two kinds of communities are conceived in completely different ways. In the planned community there are `collector streets,` which are only for cars, and cul-de-sacs, which are ... supposedly ... for people [but] rarely used. In the traditional town, streets are ... usually laid out in grids with lanes for cars to travel and lanes for cars to park; they are lined with sidewalks, trees, and buildings.

"Planned communities suffer from being too diagrammatically planned, and at the heart of their plans is the collector street. In the traditional town`s network of streets, there are many ways to get from one place to another. In the planned community, there is only one way: a driver must make his way from his pod onto the collector, and from the collector onto the highway. Then he can go places." But unfortunately, he is on the same road with everybody else.

Together, these development patterns are changing our daily activities, they are damaging our environment, and they are destroying our image of ourselves.

We`re also losing our personal and community identity. According to cultural critic Richard Sennet, "A community is more than a set of customs, behaviors, or attitudes about other people. A community is also a collective identity; it is a way of saying who `we` are." The monotonous sprawl attacks our sense of who "we" are.

The paradox of a community without a clear sense of itself was illustrated by a recent article in The Oregonian in which the banner headline of "Community Profile: Troutdale" is accompanied by a photograph of a factory outlet mall by the freeway. It seems unlikely that a Troutdale resident identified this new commercial development as the profile of his or her community.

So, what does all this have to do with you?

The point that people who love cities fail to make often enough is that making cities work is essential to protecting the environment and planning for growth. This misunderstood and underutilized common agenda between urban activists and environmental zealots was caught by journalist Joel Garreau when he was asked if Oregon`s land use planning program would prevent us from building a bunch of his so-called "Edge Cities." His apt response was, "If we want to protect the environment, we have to make towns places that people want to live, work, and play."

The problem is not that we are growing, but how we are growing. What we need to do is not so much to stop growth, but to shape growth. We need to build livable communities instead of gridlocked monotony. We need to grow better than we are now. We need to GROW RIGHT!

Long-term community vitality depends on people working together to develop both a sustainable place and activities that engage citizens in the community. America`s communities must nurture local leaders and independent entrepreneurs. Those people must shape sustainable places of focused development with a community sense of place. And, they must promote activities that involve residents in the community by mixing land uses and fostering a vital street life.

Local leadership means people with a vested interest in community vitality. In our increasingly global economy, many public and private institutions are controlled outside the community. The rapid distribution of information is making many people more global in their thinking and actions, with less commitment to a particular community. In the long run, vital communities will need leaders with a significant financial or personal stake in that community`s prosperity.

Individual enterprise means locally vested entrepreneurs whose livelihood is wrapped up in the vitality of the community.

In their book called Reclaiming Capital, Christopher and Hazel Dayton Gunn explore the conflict many communities face when they are forced to encourage investment by out-of-area firms in the name of economic development, and then those same firms take the surplus capital generated by the new business and reinvest it elsewhere. The Gunns track the reinvestment of a McDonald`s franchise, determining that 75% of the surplus leaves the area, with 25% reinvested locally. Simple manipulation of the Gunn`s analysis produces evidence that a local store in a locally owned building will cause 85% local reinvestment by a similar business, with only 15% leaving the community.

Local entrepreneurs also have a stake beyond short-term profits and reinvestment. They have a stake in the community`s schools, roads, libraries, and other services. The notions of local leadership and independent enterprise also support the economic concepts of the green movement slogan, "think globally; act locally."

Places means focused development in concentrated pedestrian-oriented districts. If spread out development creates problems for the environment, for communities, for public services and for citizenship, focused development offers a better vision for Oregon`s communities.

Oregon civic leader Gerry Frank recently noted that "Portland is hailed around the country for its intelligent urban planning." He sees Portland "as a city of urban villages, each neighborhood with its own unique characteristics." "To a large extent," Frank says, he "visualizes Oregon as a state of villages. Our cities and towns each have a unique character that ought to be embraced." Focused development means reinforcing that character by developing new neighborhoods and preserving our older ones in the traditional patterns of our communities.

Livable Oregon envisions a pattern of growth for Oregon`s communities in which new growth is focused into areas with existing development and coupled with investment in both physical and social infrastructure. This focused development will only be possible with cooperation among the multiple jurisdictions in each urban region--whether it is Portland and Gresham, Astoria and Warrenton, or La Grande and Island City.

Community sense of place means a unique identity for each city, both physically and socially.

A city that is lively, safe, and attractive has residents who cherish it. They feel a personal stake in the city`s future and are willing to protect it. They are aware of local issues, voice their concerns in community forums, and work to make their city a better place. This symbolic "ownership" is defined both by sense of community and sense of place.

Sense of community is the bond that can form among a group of people with similar interests. These people are connected by their professions, concerns or hobbies. Their relationships may or may not be bound by physical proximity.

In our increasingly mobile society, people are far less bound to an individual location for work, for recreation or for home. While people might once have identified most strongly with their neighborhood, their factory, or their pub, they now identify themselves more through their widely dispersed associates. We talk about the "arts community" or the "business community."

Sense of community is developed by participation in some group beyond work and family. Civic clubs, churches, sports leagues and service organizations are examples of community-building organizations that help residents interact and take care of each other in the small but significant ways that connect people. At a neighborhood level, sense of community may be reflected by residents joining their neighborhood association, volunteering at local schools, participating in crime watch and block home programs, and helping in neighborhood or park clean-ups.

Sense of place is a personal identification with a particular locale. This may be an attachment to special places from childhood. It may be a bond to places from a family`s history. It may be a particular love of natural areas, scenic vistas or architectural landmarks. A sense of special attachment to places helps define our own personal identity. The place is part of us. People often feel a symbolic "ownership" of places to which they have no legal ties. Symbolic ownership is demonstrated by protests to demolition of historic buildings, damming of rivers, o loss of open space.

These two strong motives--sense of community and sense of place--can be tied. Call this "Community Sense of Place." Community sense of place is an identification with a particular locale, shared among a diverse mix of individuals whose commitment to the place may help them to better understand each other.

Great cities and rural communities alike often cherish their shared symbols of community uniqueness, be they downtown skylines, scenic vistas, neighborhood open spaces or public streets. Urban historian Carl Abbott notes that "no great city has yet taken a Wal-Mart as its public symbol or put a factory outlet mall on its municipal letterhead."

Community sense of place is strongest in those places that have a strong physical presence and are open to everyone--rich and poor, black and white, sophisticate and derelict, old and young. Activities mean mixed uses so people can walk between activities, and build a sense of community through casual interaction on the street.

Mixed uses can be as simple as a store in the neighborhood or a more complex mixing of office, retail and government activities, like in the Two Rivers Market in downtown Albany. Or, it can mean the mix of stores with both subsidized and market rate apartments, like La Grande`s Foley Square, in which low cost housing for seniors occupies the second and third floors, while La Grande`s premier apartments command magnificent views of the entire Grande Rhonde Valley from the top two floors. Mixed uses can mean living over the store, and providing a 24 hour life to a downtown or neighborhood commercial district.

It is focused development and mixed uses that differentiate the daily travel of Americans from that of Europeans. Everyone knows that we drive more than our European counterparts, but that is not so much because they are taking the train or the bus (though they do use transit more than we do); it is because their commercial, residential and office uses are mixed together so that many more of their daily trips are made by walking or riding a bike.

Vital street life means that it feels good to be a pedestrian. Sidewalks, public areas, and storefronts are interesting, bustling and safe. Distances between attractions are short. Cars are present, but people are walking. A community`s image and identity are reflected in the vitality and diversity of its street life.

To change the shape of our cities, and the way they are growing, is a big job that will require a broader coalition of interests championing livable cities than now exists. This is not just a debate between planners, environmentalists, and developers. It is a cause to be shared by citizens--by cities, counties, environmentalists, developers, neighborhoods, downtowns, preservationists, renewal agencies, transit agencies, chambers of commerce, community development corporations, banks, utilities, big businesses, small businesses, and by state agencies like Economic Development, Transportation, Energy, Environmental Quality, Land Conservation and Development, and Housing.

We need to develop a broad-based partnership of people who are ready to be champions for our cities. Not only do we need to regulate the development of our rural landscapes, we need to stimulate the development of our urban streetscapes. New development should be encouraged in existing neighborhoods, downtowns and commercial areas. It is not enough to block bad development; we need to cause good development. Growth on our terms. Community terms. Growth where we want it.

If we want to protect our special natural environment and avoid getting stuck in traffic, we need people working together to ensure that our cities are places that support local businesses, focus development, mix uses, reinforce community identity, and engage residents in a vital street life. We need livable cities for a livable nation. Communities that our children and grandchildren will be proud to call home.


People who love cities, and are willing to work to make cities great, are uniquely positioned to bring the challenges of Growing Right to the forefront of their community`s agenda. Suggested actions include:

Elected officials should support programs and policies that encourage focused, pedestrian oriented development, while resisting policies that increase reliance on automobiles or diminish community sense of place.

Business owners, especially small business owners, should celebrate their individuality while working to support the community through outstanding customer service and active volunteer involvement.

Employees should acknowledge that their livelihood depends on the success of their employer, which in turn, depends on the happiness of their customers and the livability of their community--they too should provide outstanding customer service and get involved in community issues.

Property owners should recognize that the return on their investment depends on community livability; they should be champions for quality of life--for both economic development and growth management.

Environmental, social and neighborhood activists should realize that a pristine environment, a compassionate social service system, and livable neighborhoods all require a vital economy; they should embrace local businesses as useful and necessary partners in their visions.

Students should question whether the civics lessons they are being taught are training them to work for a livable and sustainable future.

Everyone should question whether their residential and employment decisions, as well as their daily routines, are part of the problem or part of the solution.


Abbott, Carl, "Everybody`s Neighborhood" in ODDA News, September 1992, Portland: Livable Oregon, Inc., pages 9-10.

Frank, James E., 1989, The Cost of Alternative Development Patterns, Washington, D.C.: Urban Land Institute.

Garreau, Joel, 1991, Edge City, New York: Doubleday, page 282.

Gunn, Christopher and Hazel Dayton, 1991, Reclaiming Capital Democratic Initiatives and Community Development, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Sennet, Richard, 1977, The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism, New York: Knopf, pages 222, 39 & passim.

Publication Date: Spring 1995


Author(s):Brian Douglas Scott

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