"Want to breathe new life into your city? Build a fence around it."

Nathanel Johnson
Tue, 05/06/2014 (All day), a national blog devoted to "getting people talking, thinking, and taking action", takes a look at how sharpening the edge of Portland's region helped revive the city's core in a fascinating piece.

Some excerpts below--read the whole thing here.

While this story is about Portland, similar stories could be told about so many of Oregon's great cities and towns, many of which are featured on our Land Use Trail, including Astoria, Ashland, Baker City, and Pendleton.

The roomful of environmental-science students at Fresno State didn’t exactly seem proud of their town. There were dismissive titters when political science professor Mark Somma suggested that Fresno, Calif., could be a place that drew people from around the world, seeking a higher quality of life.

The laughter didn’t slow Somma. Think of Fresno’s resources, he told them. It’s surrounded by some of the richest farmland in the world. It has a tremendous cultural diversity. It has views of the Sierra Nevada, and a river of Sierra snowmelt running along its northern border. And yet Fresno frequently pops up on lists of the worst cities. Every year it sprawls farther into the farmland, creating mile after repeating mile of identical strip malls and stoplights.

There used to be another city a lot like Fresno, Somma told the room. It too was an industrial, agricultural town — unlovely, uncool, unknown. But this town decided to embrace, celebrate, and protect agriculture. The city leaders drew a circle around their perimeter and promised not to develop farmland beyond that line. This focused development inward. Instead of growing out and hollowing out, the city grew up. Food culture, buoyed by the nearby farms, began booming. Locals started taking pride in their coffee, their beer, their meat, their dairy, their fruits and berries. Outsiders began to hear about this proud, gritty town that had pulled itself up by its bootstraps, and people started moving there.

The name of that town? Portland.

I’d always thought of the competition for land as a contest between rural and urban interests. Farmland and the rural culture inexorably makes way for suburbs and business parks. But what if it was possible to turn this competition into cooperation, to have cities that enriched farms and vice versa? Had Portland figured this out? If so, it was worth noting. I’d written about how, for all of its virtue and value, urban ag will not feed our cities — we’ll need farmers and farmland for that.

And then there was Somma’s suggestion that preserving farmland on the outskirts of a city could actually spark an urban renaissance. Could that really be true?


“It’s been an essential tool to pull things together,” said Ethan Seltzer, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. Because the metropolitan area hasn’t spread like spilt milk, it’s still fairly easy to travel around the city on foot or by bike. (Portland has also poured a ton of money into bike lanes, and public transportation, which also helps.) That compaction also makes city services — roads, sewer lines, water pipes — more efficient. Extending those services to sprawling developments is expensive.

“You don’t have to build services to all hell and gone,” Seltzer said. And that’s allowed the city to invest in other things.


But in terms of simply preserving farmland, it’s clear that the program is working. It’s strange to drive out of Portland: Instead of crawling in traffic through suburbia, the city just stops and you are suddenly in rolling fields. Johnson protests when I suggest that the rules are overly bureaucratic. “If you want to develop something and you aren’t allowed to, you are going to say the process is broken,” he said. In fact, Johnson said, perhaps the rules should be stricter.


Which brings us back to Somma’s idea. Could farmland preservation revive a city? Basically, Somma was right: The urban growth boundary has been a key part of making Portland the city it is today. But Oregon’s planning law only came about because a lot of energetic people wanted some communal guidance of the way the state’s cities and countryside developed. In other words, if Fresno wanted to replicate Portland’s trajectory, it would have to start with a critical mass of its own homegrown smart-growth advocates — and get them working before they all move to Portland.

If you agree with a vision of protecting farmland and creating more livable cities and towns, please support our work across Oregon.