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November 11, 2005

Portland, Rethunk

Interesting stuff in today's "Rethinking Portland" issue of the Portland Tribune. The Trib explains the rationale for the special series thus:

For decades, Portland has been viewed across the nation as an icon of livability and progressiveness, a community that introduced the nation to regional planning and prevention of big city sprawl, a steward of the environment and a proponent of diverse transportation systems, including light rail.

But as we take stock of Portland today, and look forward, we are compelled to say there is much that we urgently need to improve upon.

Seems about right to me -- there's always room for improvement, no matter how good your national reputation.  Indeed (as we discussed in this book) despite Portland's reputation for preventing sprawl, it's trailing far, far behind its northern neighber, Vancouver, BC.

Two articles in the series stood out for me.  First, Jim Redden reminds us that, as assiduously as our government measures economic indicators like GDP, city officials still flying blind when it comes to understanding how middle-income Portland residents are faring.  The US Census bureau estimated that median income for a family of four in Portland was $40,783; the US Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that it was $67,900.  Part of the difference can be explained by differing geographies; the HUD figure seems to cover the Portland suburbs, while the Census seems to cover just Portland proper.  Still, it seems odd that, given all the resources devoted to measuring aggregate economic output, Portland city officials need to convene blue ribbon panels of economists just to figure out how much the middle class earns.

Second, Todd Murphy agonizes about the decision to raise his kids in Portland, or to head to the suburbs.  Obviously, it's not an easy choice; even for someone who's spent his life in the city, there are plenty of reasons to find the suburbs an attractive place for a family. But one of Murphy's biggest concerns is safety -- particularly, that there's violent crime in a city that you just don't find in the suburbs. 

But what Murphy doesn't consider in the article is the risk of car crashes:  the risk of a fatal traffic accident is roughly proportional to the number of miles you drive.  So people who live in compact neighborhoods are generally at lower risk of dying in a car crash, whether as driver, passenger, or pedestrian, than people who live in car-dependent suburbs. I don't know about Portland in particular, but this study suggests that, when you combine the risk of dying in a car crash with the risk of being killed by a stranger, central cities tend to be safer than far-flung exurbs.

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Tracked on Nov 11, 2005 2:02:58 PM


We have a nation of increasingly overweight kids whose families are so busy driving that there is little time for a home cooked meal and people are worried about the safety of their children in city centers? Please! Based on my experience growing up in city centers (Cambridge MA and San Francisco) and briefly the suburbs (Arlington Heights IL) I am much more afraid of what happens to kids in the suburbs than the cities. For one thing I found the suburban teenage violence that stemmed from sheer boredom much scarier than the shady characters in my neighborhoods. When I try to talk to parents about this, I find their fears irrational for the most part. All of the concerns seem to be hypothetical, none based on an actual experience and certainly not supported by any statistical information. My suspicion is that the parents’ reasons for wanting to move to the suburbs are more about them than the kids really.

Having said that, the condition of the schools may be a very legitimate issue, especially in middle and high school. But I shudder to think that moving to the suburbs is the solution. And I am afraid of the prejudices suburban bred young adults will have as they enter a complex and ambiguous world in need of holistic thinking, community building and innovation.

Posted by: Beth Meredith | Nov 11, 2005 6:22:51 PM

The differing income numbers from differing sources baffle many -- but yes, HUD and the Census Bureau have different methodologies. HUD, whose numbers are used to set the prices of most government assisted affordable housing, refers to "Area Median Income" (AMI) for the entire (primary) metropolitan statistical area and updates annually. The Census Bureau looks at individual jurisdictions.

Many cities have rather large disparities between the two, as the suburbs are usually quite a bit wealthier than the city. Thus, building housing affordable to people at 100-120% of AMI, price points targeted by much "inclusionary" or "moderately priced" housing, can actually help gentrify urban neighborhoods where typical incomes are closer to 60-80% of AMI. Yet, obviously, bringing those price points down will require greater subsidies, especially given the generally higher cost of building housing in the city.

Posted by: payton chung | Nov 12, 2005 9:55:26 PM