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8 January 2001

A city ablaze in green and gold

Ben Plowden finds a surprising lesson in Portland, Oregon: that, to attract the smart business money

By Ben Plowden

Portland, Oregon, has just been voted “the best place to live in the US in 2000”. Despite the city’s reputation as the centre of American New Age living, this award was not given by a journal of the muesli-munching classes. The accolade came from the hard-headed folk at the country’s Money magazine. And Portland was not lauded for any commitment to laissez-faire development. On the contrary, Money‘s editors were looking for areas “that have avoided urban sprawl and overcrowding, where city fathers have put a premium on green space, culture and having an accessible city centre”. Portland came top. New Labour ministers would do well to understand why.

Development in Portland is closely regulated. New jobs and houses must be located within existing urban boundaries and be linked to new tram and rail networks. Design guidelines, first published in 1990, lay down standards that would make most British developers wince. New buildings must use high-quality materials and include design details reflecting Portland “themes”, such as running water, mountains and wildlife. They must complement the neighbourhood’s architectural and cultural identity and provide interesting views for people both inside and outside.

Fans of deregulation would expect such a regime to lead to economic stagnation and a property slump. But Portland’s economy is booming, as it successfully transforms itself from a timber town to a hi-tech hub. People and companies are queuing up to relocate downtown, with the vacancy rate for office space at a paltry 3 per cent.

“Three decades of keen planning have reined in urban sprawl,” Money‘s editors enthuse. The result is a “mini-metropolis with short, easy-to-stroll blocks renowned for their java joints, brewpubs and bookstores”. This points to the second principle guiding Portland. The city’s downtown plan, drafted in 1972 by its charismatic young mayor Neil Goldschmidt, established the idea that a pedestrian-friendly environment is integral to Portland’s prosperity. Streets are classified and designed according to whether pedestrians, public transport or cars take priority. The estimated cost of the improved crossings, better pavements and new street furniture in Portland’s current pedestrian master plan is a cool $120m. No comparable British city is planning investment on this scale.

Portland is a delight. Walking through the city’s bustling streets on a sunny day, it is easy to forget that one is in the most car-dominated country on the planet. The streets are lined with trees ablaze in green and gold. Sculpture and fountains distract the eye and please the soul. Safe and direct pedestrian crossings at every junction make walking quick and easy for people in a hurry. For those with time to spare, benches, street cafes and pocket parks provide places for reflection and relaxation. The traffic is slow and light. The pavements are wide and clean. There is not a guard railing to be seen. No wonder the smart money is pouring into Portland.

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So what are the lessons here for British ministers? The first is that good local governance is essential for breathing new life into towns and cities. Ken Livingstone, Britain’s first directly elected mayor, wants to make London one of the world’s most walkable cities by 2015. He is following the lead of cities such as Birmingham where, over the past decade, traffic has been all but excluded from the city centre and money spent on high-quality paving and public art; flyovers are being replaced with new boulevards, and even the notorious Bullring is being demolished.

The second lesson is that regulation works. Successful urban redevelopment is planned and managed with particular regard to design quality. Cheap and ugly buildings are bad for the spirit and for the local economy. British cities should be able to make compliance with local design standards a precondition for permission to build new homes, shops and schools.

Finally, we need to put pedestrians first in urban transport planning. Over the past 40 years, our towns and cities have been brutalised. Urban streets have become routes designed for one function only – to carry as much traffic as possible. The result is public spaces designed by engineers and dominated by the noise and danger of cars and lorries. A few British cities – York and Birmingham, for example – have started redesigning their streets as places for living, talking and playing, not just as traffic corridors. This should be the rule, not the exception.

The government claims that its ten-year plan for transport will help improve the urban street environment. But without a new vision of streets as living spaces, it will produce just a mish-mash of traffic- calming and 20mph zones around schools.

This government won’t even talk about walking, let alone champion it. Creating places for people, as Portland is doing, will require strong and enlightened local leadership. It also requires more dramatic changes in the design and management of urban streets than those envisaged by John Prescott and his colleagues.

Ben Plowden is the director of the Pedestrians Association

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