I’m lucky enough to be spending a some time in Oregon, in the USA’s Pacific Northwest. The Northwest is interesting to planners for a number of reasons. There are big debates about environmental protection versus an economy driven by the exploitation of abundant natural resources. There is, especially in Oregon, a strong system of land use planning. There are examples everywhere of the type of local, community led initiatives that champion ‘sustainability’ of every kind from food production and agriculture, to transport choices. There’s a vibrant arts and cultural industries scene. There’s even a sense that planning looks beyond national borders, as the connections to British Columbia are important. Generally, it’s seen as one of the best places to live in the US.
Portland is often regarded as a shining example of how strong land use planning can lead to a more liveable city. It’s true that there’s a pleasant greenness to it all, and cheap and effective public transport, including an extensive light rail system, rather bucks the stereotypical image we have of American cities. The Portlanders that I spoke to seemed proud of the way that their city was different to others (“Keep
Portland Weird” is a favourite motto…) and, bizarrely, many seemed to have an opinion – and not always negative – about the work of planners! This must be music to the ears of planners in Britain, most of whom seem to spend their lives thinking of ways that they can describe their profession in terms that are, well, socially acceptable to the people they meet.
Others that I spoke to had a more critical take, though. They see the whole ‘Portland thing’ as a bit overblown, an artifice, even, that masks the same deep-rooted problems that you might find in any other medium sized city in the capitalist world. There’s the weak economy, the low income neighbourhoods that are highly segregated and conveniently on the other side of the river, the not-so-good local school system, the funding pressures on local services including the feted light rail, the low birth rates, the poor housing conditions, traffic congestion, and so on. Even America’s greenest city is predictably ringed by noisy freeways. The long distance railway station, serving a metropolitan area of 3 million people, is about the size of Scarborough’s and probably has about a tenth of the services. (It’s a very quaint chunk of the American railroad’s glorious past, though.)
Last week, I gave a talk at Portland State University on some of my thoughts about the English Housing Market Renewal programme. The US has had, of course, HOPE VI, a programme that lasted twice as long as HMR and spent about $6 billion. But while HOPE VI focused more or less exclusive on public housing estates, HMR was multi tenure in its focus. HUD’s new Choice Neighborhoods programme appears to take on some of the public-private aspects of HMR, even if public housing remains the focus, and it will be interesting to see how it pans out.
This week I’m in Eugene, a small city to the south of the state and home to the University of Oregon. Eugene is an extraordinarily good place for cycling, putting it it up there with places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen on the bike-friendliness scale. The clean, green Oregon image really does seem to be in evidence in Eugene, a walkable city with impeccable participatory planning credentials and a laid-back, politically progressive population. Again, though, places like Eugene are not without their problems. The University dominates things here, including the local economy. ‘Tracktown USA’ — as it’s sometimes called in homage to its impressive athletics pedigree — seems to have problems with education planning (its school choice programmes can generate long commutes for children), a hollowed-out retail core as a result of two giant shopping centres on the periphery, and a local economy that’s dominated by public sector employers.
Although I’ll be spending most of my time here working on a research collaboration and discussing study-abroad possibilities for planning students, I’ve been lucky enough to have some discussions with local landlords and council staff about housing. Of particular interest to me is the way that Eugene is using something called ‘MUPTE‘ — the Multi Unit Property Tax Exemption — as a way of stimulating large-scale investment in denser housing types. It has had particular impact on the market for private rented housing. Tax incentives of this type, coupled with a strong zoning principle that designates land for multi unit housing, seem to be instrumental in a building boom focused at the provision of apartment complexes, especially for students. While the British system is of course very different, schemes of this type are surely of interest in any context where the growth of institutional investor interest in private rented housing is the goal.