I was recently asked for feedback by a self-described “conservative libertarian” colleague of mine on a guest op-ed for the right-leaning Cascade Policy Institute (CPI). Happily, I agreed, delving into the piece, and replyied on the article itself (which may still be pending moderation). The op-ed was penned by John Glennon, a research associate at CPI. Like me, John is a native of the Midwest. He is also a senior at Indiana University, Bloomington. It should be noted that while CPI has opposed certain ‘green’ energy and transit projects, they were allies in attacking the wasteful Columbia River Crossing boondoggle.
John Glennon: I am not a native Portlander; but the summer I have spent here has given me some interesting insights into the culture of the city, the Pacific Northwest, and the West Coast. Working at Cascade Policy Institute has provided me with a different view of the city from what is experienced by most visitors. Many come to the city to experience the virtues of intensive urban planning. Portland is known around the country as a liberal stronghold that promotes public transportation, cycling, and conservation of land through strict adherence to the line drawn around the metropolitan area known as the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). At Cascade, my work is to do research on these policies and make recommendations for alternative policies that promote economic freedom, which are usually in direct opposition to the methods used by Portland planners to create their vision for the future of the Portland area.
Hart Noecker: As far as the assertion that the UGB prevents “economic freedom”, I disagree. Portland – like all cities – functions as a capital growth machine. City governments are in the business of real estate. Charlie Hales especially is a developer’s best friend, and he’s lobbied for many large construction projects that totally outsize surrounding homes, pissing off existing members of the community in the process.
JG: Part of what drew me to the Portland area is how bicycle-friendly it is. On weekends and after work, I have cycled around the city and the surrounding area to familiarize myself with Portland and take in the culture using the Number-One, Portland-approved method of transport. I have discovered an amazing city filled with lively neighborhoods and eclectic, friendly residents. The patchwork of neighborhoods that make up the Portland area are filled with delicious restaurants, microbrews, coffee shops, bookstores, marijuana dispensaries, recycled clothing stores, and just about everything else the mind can imagine. This is all set to the backdrop of one of the most beautiful regions in the world. Mount Hood, which looms just east, serves as a reminder of the natural wonders that surround the city in every direction.
HN: This text on cycling and seeing the city close up is a fairly universal experience. To me, bicycles are a way to maintain the kind of personal autonomy/individual liberty that cars rob from us. There is not a more efficient, frugal mode of transport than the bike.
JG: Everyone I have encountered here has been polite and welcoming. One evening I got a flat tire on my bike and, since I was just a mile away from my house, I decided to walk back. Three minutes into my walk, a man in a Subaru pulled over and asked if I needed a ride. He explained he was a cyclist and understood how annoying it can be to have to walk your bike home. I have experienced similar troubles with my bike back in the Midwest but have been mostly ignored by motorists in those situations.
Portlanders are also very independent and accepting of other people’s independence. Given this independence, I am surprised that Portlanders often vote for policies that take away their freedoms to choose. My work at Cascade has been focused on residential land use. I have found that the implications of current planning in the Portland area is that finding single-family housing with private yards will become increasingly difficult. This violates a fundamental life choice that most people have in this country, about the nature of the area where they live.
HN: I’m not really sure how Portland’s planning process takes away “independence” any more or less than any other dense urban environment. We enjoy the ability to live with a multitude of transit options – that surely seems like consumer freedom to me. But we’re always going to have to be considerate in the ways we share space, that’s just a fact of city life. And who honestly wants a traditional yard anyway when you can grow so much of your own food on your own property, like our grandparents did?
JG: There are many possible reasons for the disconnect between Portlanders’ independence and the policy choices that they have made. I speculate that friendliness and love of the environment are two of the main reasons that many residents have made this choice. When they hear that strict land use policies will help conserve the pristine Oregon countryside, that is all they need to voice their support.
Since the 1960s, the people who flocked to the West Coast challenging the dominant culture have become part of the status quo and now serve as the region’s leaders. Since gaining power, most of the questioning has stopped, leaving leaders with a serious case of group-think and residents who are complacent with their alleged victories. Portlanders should again reexamine the power structure, which would lead to more policy innovation, and allow them to hold true to their values.
HN: As far as the assertion that Portland has become a city too complacent in regard to questioning authority, I totally agree. The city broadcasts an image of progressiveness while letting regressive capitalist business interests call the shots that should instead be up to the people of our communities.
JG: The Urban Growth Boundary, stringent land use regulation, and subsidies to multi-family dwellings, as well as to mixed-use and transit-oriented developments, will continue to exponentially increase the cost of living in Portland. Houses will be packed in tightly, leaving little room for an urban canopy of trees. People will be more removed from the clean environment they love living in when they are packed in tightly with their neighbors and traffic congestion worsens.
HN: The assertion that growing density prohibits an expanding tree canopy simply isn’t based in fact. Both have been increasing for years thanks to the hard work of groups like Friends of Trees. And to say increased density increases congestion is equally false. More mixed-use density means less automobile use. Portland, like the rest of the nation, has seen car use decline while urban populations have increased.
JG: I think Portlanders’ fundamental values and objectives are noble, but there needs to be a revision of public policy and a return to the healthy skepticism of power to make sure the region continues to enjoy a high standard of living in the future. Decentralization of power from regional and local planners back to residents would be a radical reassertion of the independent spirit Portlanders celebrate.
HN: I again agree with this last paragraph, that decentralization of power is a good thing as long as it’s then transferred to the hands of the people, not corporations. That said, we need regional planning for things like public transit and sanitation, as do all municipalities.
All images copyright Hart Noecker, and may be used for noncommercial use with credit.