A City Growth Boundary Has Its Limits


A fourth-generation Oregonian, Susan McLain has been a councilwoman for Metro--the Portland area’s regional government--since 1991. She is also the chairwoman of Metro’s growth management committee, which helps oversee growth boundary issues and policy.

Question: Does it ever surprise you that Portland is the only major city in the West that has an urban growth boundary?

Answer: No. An urban growth boundary is a very difficult decision for an area to make because you are balancing public and private rights. And any time you try to do that, you end up with people sometimes feeling as if they are losing some private rights. It’s a big, difficult commitment.


Q: What prompted the move in Portland?

A: In 1978 or 1979, Tom McCall was the governor of Oregon. He felt very strongly about the protection of forest and farmland. There were many Oregonians who had the same sentiments. They felt that if regulations were not put in place, then people would forget the value of the land. There are many, many people who want to use the land and, at the time, people felt the boundary would start the discussion about what to do when you have more than one concern interested in the same resource.

Q: Is strong political leadership a necessity to get a community thinking about growth boundaries?

A: Without the leadership, it can’t be done. And we had great leadership in the 1970s. But you also can’t do it without partners in the community. That’s the reason so many other cities haven’t been able to pull it together. They couldn’t get over that first hump and get to the table to talk with those partners about the hard decisions that need to be made.

Q: Developers and builders are often the most powerful people in their communities. How did you get them to get on board?

A: Their support is up and down. It’s an industry and industries tend to have short-term responses.

Q: How does the urban growth boundary deal with the fact that, ironically, it has caused a lot of growth--a lot of people want to live in Portland?


A: People want to live here for two reasons. We have a hot job market and it’s a nice place to live.

But one problem is that the cost of housing has gone up in this area. Many people, including the builders, have tried to blame that on the urban growth boundary, saying that if you just created more land within it, that would relax the cost of the land. But it has become apparent in conversations with the builders that the price of homes might plateau if we expanded the boundary, but the prices are not going to come down.

Q: One of the most striking things about Portland is its neighborhoods.

A: One of the future vision documents says that in our neighborhoods we want our children to be able to walk or bike to their school and walk to the grocery and get a gallon of milk. If this is the kind of future you want for your neighborhood, then it’s a matter of figuring out how to produce it.

Q: What would downtown Portland be like today if there were no urban growth boundary?

A: There wouldn’t be a downtown Portland--just a rotten core. I mean that sincerely. We have a lot of flat land out there to the east and west of the city. People would move out there and no one would come back. We see it when we look around the United States at other metropolitan areas. When you allow that sprawl to go out on the easy land, no one comes back and reinvents the core. The only way you will get people to reinvest in the core is to have some kind of constraint on the edge.

Q: What would you tell people in Los Angeles who are wrestling with land-use issues?

A: It’s never too late to start. It is extremely important for them to evaluate what it is they want and what they want to change. Then set out a goal and talk to the public about ways to accomplish it. If you don’t do these things, you will end up being reactive to growth instead of proactive.