Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Portland is the city of civility and transportation

A visitor from South Africa recently came to Portland and, upon his return to his home country, penned this article to describe his impressions.

It's such an interesting viewpoint, to have Portland described from the viewpoint of an outsider, that I just had to re-print it here in its entirety. It reminds me of descriptions that I've read of Curitiba, Brazil, or even of some of the passages from the book Ecotopia that describe that fictional Pacific Northwest (Cascadia) country/society.

So, without further ado, here it is.


begin article:
Portland is the city of civility and transportation

The Oregon city is leading the way when it comes to civil society and an environmentally friendly way of life. It is clean, green and a pleasant place to live, writes Neil Fraser.

October 16, 2006

By Neil Fraser

I WAS in Portland, in the United States, last week attending the annual International Downtown Association (IDA) conference. Portland, with a population of 550 000, is known locally as both "The City of Roses" and "The City that Works". I would offer another – "The Green City of Civility and Transportation".

Stephen Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis, in his book, Putting Faith in Neighbourhoods, wrote: "The late University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils has written, 'In civility lies the difference between a well-ordered and disordered liberal democracy.' Civility is the virtue that makes civil society – that collection of voluntary associations, neighbourhood groups and other non-governmental institutions such as congregations and families – work. And a strong civil society sets the foundation for effective markets, economic opportunity and a genuine sense of empowerment and community …"

Portland resonates with a strong civil society. It is apparent in the high level of communication that takes place from the city council to its citizens; in the high level of resultant dialogue that takes place between its citizens and its council; in the pride that its citizens have in its achievements and in the mutual respect and courtesy that citizens have for one another. This latter attribute was demonstrated to me when a local resident, a family friend, took me for a drive through the suburbs. If a pedestrian steps off a pavement, the traffic stops, irrespective of whether it is a formal pedestrian crossing or not; and no-one hoots. Bicycle riders, some 2 000 enter the downtown daily, are provided with hundreds of kilometres of dedicated lanes throughout the city and are given right of way by vehicle drivers. Drivers are courteous to one another – I can't remember hearing any hooting at all. Maybe that is because there is a small taxi population; the public transport is so good that taxis are almost rendered redundant. There is a palpable lack of aggression on the roads.

The city and its citizens are the most environmentally aware of any city that I have visited. The city goes out of its way to encourage cycling and walking and provides the amenities to do so. Apart from encouraging "greening" through appropriate rates rebates, many people collect used cooking oil from restaurants which they clean and process to produce a replacement or top-up for diesel, because this is a cleaner, less polluting form of energy for their cars.

Rates rebates
There is quite a high rainfall, and Portland experienced a problem with polluted stormwater runoff into their rivers, and so offers a rates rebate to properties that have taken positive action to overcome the problem. One mixed-use building that I visited, an industrial warehouse in a previous life, had a "green roof" consisting of a soil-cover planted with a particular type of succulent. The plants absorb a great deal of water and the balance is fed into bio-sumps for other uses. Only environmentally friendly businesses may become tenants – ranging from small banks that provide financial support to environmental projects and a sports shop whose entire staff bicycle to work to a pizza-place whose extractor fans from its pizza ovens provide the hot air to warm water. The parking lot has place for electric cars to plug into. And this isn't just an isolated example; Portlanders think this way.

A former industrial area is being entirely redeveloped into a residential precinct with the old brick warehouses being converted into lofts and flats. In order to provide green lungs in the area, which will house 5 000 people, the city has done special deals with the previous developer-owners. When I visited one such new park on Sunday morning, city parks officials were working – voluntarily – side-by-side with local citizens cleaning, weeding and planting the park. In this precinct are four such new parks, each an acre in size and designed with a common theme, yet each vastly different from the others.

But it is the approach that the city has adopted towards public transport that is really refreshing. Right from its initial transport initiatives some three decades ago, the underlying philosophy has not, in fact, been one of transport for the sake of getting from A to B, but rather one of economic development. Recognising the mess most American cities have made by encouraging car access to cities and by isolating the city centres from their waterfronts with elevated freeways and so forth, Portland demolished a freeway edging its riverside and introduced a transit mall for buses through the centre of the downtown, then a light rail system and finally a tram system.

The light rail now connects the airport to the downtown. The 30-minute ride that starts almost in the airport terminal took me to within about a hundred metres of my hotel and cost $1,73, or about R14 at today's exchange rate. Had I read the instructions on the automatic ticketing machine more carefully, I would have paid less than half that as an "honorary passenger" – because of my advancing years. I like the "honorary" tag instead of the usual "senior citizen". A taxi ride from the airport to the city, by comparison, is $40, or more than R300. Stops are frequent and connect a whole series of specific precincts, introducing strong economic revival.

Other areas of the city centre are covered by "Portland streetcars" – electric single-decker trams that are smaller than the light rail tram (the light rail tram is designed to fit a city block, which is about 200 foot square). Within the greater part of the city centre, in fact over a 330-block area, light rail and streetcar transport is free. That means that if you work and live in the city centre you can get anywhere by public transport at no cost. With the city centre containing museums, markets, parks and auditoriums, getting to cultural and sporting events is encouraged and easy. While the city's convention centre is not in the city centre – it is across one of the rivers that edge the centre city – it too is connected through the light rail system and is in a no-fare zone, allowing easy access for any convention delegates who might be staying in the city's many downtown hotels.

Following a massive communication process with its citizens, Portland is about to embark on a complete facelift of its original bus transit mall, introducing other forms of transport, including allowing cars back into the mall. The objectives of this "Portland Mall Revitalisation Project" are "to make an extraordinary place through enhanced transit service, mall stewardship (which is the provision of private sector management), and vibrant streets and healthy businesses poised for new investment".

But what happens if you need to go from your office to somewhere outside the city centre that is not connected to the public transport system? Well, to encourage you not to bring your own vehicle into the city, all you need to do is to book a "Flexcar". Flexcars are dotted throughout certain precincts in special parking spots. You join the Flexcar organisation and are provided with a smart card; then you can book a vehicle online for anything from one hour upwards. Your smart card gives you access to the vehicle and the rate you pay covers the use of the vehicle, petrol, insurance, parking and so on. You simply walk up to the unattended car and your card does the rest. I understand that its use by companies for employees who may need to go to meetings and such has led to individual families going back to a one-car system.

Oh, and the parking meters are solar powered. The solar energy powers a telephone, so when you pay for your parking with your credit card, it automatically phones to get clearance for the payment. And the ticket that you buy can be used anywhere in the city, not just where it was purchased.

Internet connection
A free, city-wide wireless internet network is busy being installed. Some 2 000 antenna, about 46 centimetres high, are being erected on light poles throughout the city with service expected to begin by the end of the year. The contractor building the network will provide internet access to 95 percent of the entire city progressively by 2008, and is providing the service free to the city in exchange for advertising income generated from "1 inch (25mm) banner ads that appear across the top of web browsers". Download speeds will be one megabit per second – "slower than most cable and DSL connections, but much faster than dial up".

As I mentioned earlier, the enlightened approach that Portland has adopted by providing an incredible transport network while also encouraging walking and biking focuses on creating an environment built around and for people. As a result, it is known as one of the healthiest and most environmentally conscious cities in the world. We can learn a great deal from their approach.

Regards Neil

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1 comment:

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