Portland Tackles 'Suburban Sprawl' with Urban Cram
Twenty Years Ago, Portland City Planners Drew A Circle Around The City, Forbidding Urban Development Outside The Circle. The Result Has Been A Drastic Drop In Quality Of Life
March 30, 2001
by Dennis T. Avery
Bridge News, March 16, 2001
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--The U.S. Census says the Virginia suburbs of Washington have added a million people since I moved out 10 years ago.
No wonder Northern Virginia is complaining about suburban sprawl. No wonder farmers have been driven out of the area by rising property taxes to build schools.
It's the money magnet. The average wage around Washington is double the average wage in my rural county. People move for big dollars.
Urban planners say suburban sprawl can be eliminated with good planning, but more often that means creating "urban cram."
Planners in Portland, Ore., deliberately tried to quadruple that city's own population density. They drew a circle around the city 20 years ago and said no urban development would be allowed outside the circle.
Portland's single-family zoning lets any homeowner create a rental apartment. City parks and in-town golf courses have been sold for apartment blocs.
My wife's modest family home on a one-acre lot is now four big houses with a pipe-stem road. Anne's childhood friends are petitioning their local city governments about the recent drastic drop in their quality of life.
Meanwhile, Portland has gone from being one of America's most affordable cities to one of its most expensive. The price of buildable land within the urban circle has soared more than sixfold in the last decade, with no end in sight.
What's the conservation value here? U.S. cities and their suburbs take about 2.5 percent of our land area. Globally, cities take up less than 2 percent of the land. America has converted about 40,000 square miles of cropland to urban uses in the past 60 years.
But in the meantime, we've created the equivalent of perhaps 800,000 square miles of cropland through higher-yield farming and confinement livestock feeding.
Oddly, the same people who protest that we must keep suburban farmland also want to banish high-yield farming and agricultural biotechnology. Are they just trying to preserve their own charming rural viewscapes?
Portland established a belt of green land outside the development circle for wildlife preserves. But where do Portland's kids play every day if they don't have backyards? Neighborhood streets carry four times the traffic they did before the planning went into effect.
Portland is at war with cars. The city has spent $400 million on two light-rail trolley lines, which carry about 2 percent of the area's passenger traffic.
Meanwhile, Portland is "calming" auto traffic by narrowing roads, eliminating left-turn lanes and installing speed bumps. They hope this will force more people to ride the light rail lines. (Portland citizens still have their cars, but vote for trolleys in hopes other people will ride them.)
Again, what's the conservation virtue? We now have affordable gas-electric hybrid cars that get 50 miles per gallon and produce less pollution than trolleys (unless the trolley is connected to a politically incorrect dam or nuclear power plant).
Portland's planning has protected farmers from high property taxes, but it has also protected them from high property values. Most farmers are ambivalent about that, but in the Portland area it's not the farmer's choice.
Inside the circle, farmers are forced to sell out. Outside the circle, they can only sell at a depressed "commodity" land price. A farmer has to sell $80,000 a year in commodities to get a permit to build his own house.
Instead of giving the Portland city council dictatorial powers, we could give everybody more choice by separating property taxes from school taxes.
The Portland planners point to Europe, where they say cities have kept their neighborhoods. But Europe's per capita driving has increased several times over since 1960, much faster than America's, despite the region's high gas and auto taxes.
Between 1960 and 1990, Frankfurt, Germany's inner city shrank by 35 percent while its suburbs grew 41 percent. Suburban Paris grew 88 percent in the same period, and now looks like suburban Washington.
I can understand how previously rural Oregonians feel. I can't help wincing when developers build houses or shopping malls on really fine farmland. But affluence creates additional demands for land.
I'm even bothered when other retirees build houses on the scrabbly clay hills overlooking my own Virginia farm. Now that I've got my perfect place, I'd like to keep everybody else out of my backyard.
But as technological abundance makes more people affluent, more of them will bid for the desirable places. The alternative is to put all of us in the hands of the Portland city council, and become part of the forced urban cram.
(My thanks to Randal O'Toole, author of "The Vanishing Automobile and other Urban Myths," Thoreau Institute, www.ti.org)
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.