In 1992, residents of Portland, Oregon, were terrified that their growing city was fast becoming the Pacific Northwest's version of Los Angeles--as they saw it, a congested, polluted city with too many cars and too little sense of community. The threat was considered so serious that a traditional anti-growth response--a tough, comprehensive land-use plan limited to the actual city boundaries--wasn't enough. To prevent the paving of Portland, area voters signed off on the creation of Metro, a regional planning authority with dictatorial land-use planning powers over 24 cities and three counties.
To hear Metro boosters describe it, Portland-area residents can now rest easy. The concrete landscape of Southern California won't be copied any time soon in the Beaver State. Far from it. Though Metro's experts predict that the region's population will grow by 75 percent in the next few decades, the agency has a plan that will accommodate these newcomers while promoting "livable neighborhoods," "protecting open space," "reducing dependence on the automobile," and maintaining "affordable housing" and lower infrastructure costs. All in all, an idyllic package: better neighborhoods, pedestrian-friendly streets, cheaper housing, and lower taxes.
What will it take to reach such goals? Only the community's desire--as codified in Metro's planning and zoning laws--to squeeze more people and more businesses into smaller spaces under tighter regulatory control. Metro's regional plan restricts development outside of an urban growth boundary that allows only a 6 percent expansion of the urbanized area for at least two decades. The plan also doubles or triples the population density of many neighborhoods by rezoning them to require apartments, row houses, or other high-density housing whenever new construction is undertaken.
Additionally, Metro sets strict population targets for each of the 24 cities and three counties under its dominion, forcing them to convert 10,000 acres of prime farmlands, golf courses, city parks, and other open spaces to high-density residential or commercial uses. Finally, Metro plans to spend billions of dollars to build 100 miles of rail transit lines to free residents from their cars.
Reduced congestion, better air quality, lower taxes. No wonder Portland has gotten great national press and praise. There's only one little problem: Metro's own data say the plan is doomed to failure.
Consider, for instance, Metro's bold, confident prediction that its plan will double public transit usage. Since transit currently carries less than 2.5 percent of Portland-area trips, doubling that doesn't get you very far toward a car-free utopia. Similarly, Metro expects at best a modest decline in auto usage, from 92 percent of urban trips to 88 percent. In fact, given the 75 percent population increase that Metro predicts over 50 years, that translates into five cars driving around for every three cars today. Accordingly, planners estimate that traffic congestion will triple or quadruple and that air pollution will increase.
Then there's the tax question. Metro wants to pay for the rail lines it says will lure people out of autos by adding billions of dollars to local property taxes. And to promote high-density development in an area already glutted with apartments, Portland and other area cities are giving developers millions of dollars in tax breaks and other subsidies that will ultimately come out of residents' pockets. Meanwhile, housing prices are skyrocketing because of the artificial land shortage created by the urban growth boundary, giving Portland the least affordable housing in the nation after only San Francisco.
Oh, and there's one more thing. Remember how Metro was supposed to save Portland from becoming Oregon's answer to L.A.? In 1994, Metro planners studied the nation's 50 largest urban areas to see which one was closest to the future they envisioned for Portland--one with higher population densities and fewer roads. It turned out that the metropolitan area--defined as all of the land in and around a city whose population density exceeds 1,000 people per square mile--with the highest population density also had the fewest miles of freeway per capita. Its name: Los Angeles. While the city of Los Angeles proper has a lower density than New York City, the Los Angeles metro area is nearly one-third denser than the New York metro area, which includes--among other places--northeastern New Jersey and Long Island. Far from being the incarnation of evil, auto-dependent sprawl, L.A. was the model to emulate.
To their credit, Metro planners did fess up to this unexpected and uncomfortable finding, daring to write, "With respect to density and road per capita mileage, [Los Angeles] displays an investment pattern we desire to replicate" in Portland. Of course, saying this out loud would have meant instant death for their plans, if not their persons. So the document in which this conclusion is reached is available only to people willing to pay $10 for a 60-page booklet filled with eyeball-glazing graphs and statistics.
Here's another irony: Despite such glaring and self-evident contradictions, Portland has become a shining beacon for urban planners, who envy Metro's Singapore-like regulatory authority. Places ranging from Minneapolis-St. Paul (with a metro population of about 3 million) to Missoula, Montana, (43,000) have adopted plans based on the Portland model.
Welcome to the crazy world of the New Urbanism, the latest fad in urban planning. The New Urbanism is a broad-based movement of planners, architects, environmentalists, central city governments, downtown business interests, transit agencies, and engineering and construction firms that has coalesced over the past 10 years. Proponents seek to recreate the high-density cities of the 19th and early 20th centuries. To impose their will, New Urbanists take particular aim at suburbs and the automobiles that helped make them possible. Indeed, a more appropriate name for the movement might be Suburban Renewal, since the New Urbanists' chief goal is to convert the suburbs--invariably regarded as banal, ugly, sterile, and inefficient--into something like inner-city areas.
A recent Sierra Club study, "The Dark Side of the American Dream," is representative of New Urbanist thinking. "The automobile way of life is unhealthy, anti-social, and unsustainable," claims the report, which was partly funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The New Urbanism, in contrast, seeks to create neighborhoods "where jobs, shopping, services, and recreation are all nearby" so that people can get around without cars. Low-density suburban development--pejoratively termed "sprawl"--leads to "increased congestion, longer commutes, increased dependence on fossil fuels, crowded schools, worsening air and water pollution, lost open space and wetlands, increased flooding, destroyed habitat, higher taxes and dying city centers."
None of these claims is documented, which isn't surprising, because none of them is true. What is true is that the Sierra Club, the American Planning Association, and other New Urbanists have definite ideas about how the suburbs should be rebuilt. Their plans usually call for the following: