Limits That Help a City Grow


All across the American West, cities have followed the Los Angeles growth pattern even as they claimed to reject it: uncontrollable sprawl, crippling traffic and endless anonymous suburbs.

San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland are a tri-city circling the Bay Area. Seattle is edging toward the Cascades; Salt Lake City has crawled into the Wasatch, and Denver is slowly consuming the eastern slope of the Rockies. Phoenix and Las Vegas have little water, but there is no shortage of cheap desert real estate.

The notable exception in the West is Portland, Ore. In 1979, civic leaders there formed Metro, a regional government consisting of three counties and 24 cities. Metro then proceeded to do the unthinkable: It drew a circle around the Portland metropolitan area and said, more or less, no growth, no urban sprawl, no subdivisions outside this circle.


The circle, officially known as an urban growth boundary, has been credited with preserving Portland’s pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and downtown, as well as a green belt of wilderness less than an hour’s drive from the city. Portland’s air and water remain relatively clean and it is not uncommon for workers downtown to be able to see both Mt. St. Helens to the north and Mt. Hood to the east.

The obvious question is this: If the growth boundary worked so well in Portland, why don’t other cities try it? And, in particular, why not here?

In fact, the technique is being tried in Sonoma and Alameda counties. In Ventura County, Oxnard is looking at the feasibility of urban growth boundaries, and they are among several strategies for preserving farmland and open space that will be discussed when the Ventura County Agriculture Policy Working Group leads a series of seven town hall meetings later this month. We spoke about them with Susan McLain, a Portland Metro Council member since 1991 and chairwoman of Metro’s growth-management committee.

In this interview, McLain spoke with The Times’ STEVE HYMON.

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Question: Does it 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 do you 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. But you also can’t do it without partners in the community. That is 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 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. They have been there as definite partners, but I would say their support or lack of support has been very issue-specific.

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.


So, there have been successes and problems. One problem is 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 included 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 expand the boundary, but the prices are not going to come down.

Q: What are some of the things Portland has that you don’t see in Seattle or L.A.?

A: We have a document called a Future Vision, which sets out quite a few goals for this region. It includes trying to maintain and improve the quality of the water and air, which is important because of the amount of growth we have experienced so quickly.

We also look at an internodal community of transportation options that would include bus, pedestrian, bike and light rail. We feel that other cities have some of these things, but they don’t look at the way their transportation and land use are connected.

There are two more things unique to Portland: We want to preserve the tree line on the ridges and we want to preserve our vistas of Mt. Hood. These are simple things but they are what make the Portland area unique.

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: But this depends on taming car usage. How do you do that?

A: Our light-rail success has helped us there. It took us 20 years to get the east side light rail and we’re finally opening the west side light rail in 1998. We are also having a private company to look at putting in a privately operated line to the airport.

In addition, the area is looking at something called congestion pricing and traffic relief--where you charge people for driving at high traffic times. We have done focus groups and it has been very interesting. Most of the people were very negative to start, but once they look at the proposal they see congestion pricing as part of the mix. Not the whole solution, but part of the solution.

Q: What would downtown Portland be like today if there was 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 Southern California 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. They need to set out a goal and talk to the public about how to accomplish it.

If you don’t do these things, you will end up being reactive to growth instead of proactive.