"City Vitals" Study: Not Quite "Portlandia," but Portland Region Is Impressive

Well, the numbers are in, and of 51 metropolitan areas in the United States, the Portland region ranks… #50! In greenhouse gas emissions per capita, that is.

That ranking comes from the new City Vitals 2.0 report, released this week by CEOs for Cities.

The study compares 51 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (counties grouped around major cities) on numerous measures of urban vitality. Oregon’s largest Metropolitan Statistical Area, the Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton region, goes toe-to-toe with much larger and older cities, global cities, and tech powerhouses.

(Note: the Portland MSA is defined by the US Census Bureau as Multnomah, Clackamas, Columbia, Washington and Yamhill counties in Oregon, and Clark and Skamania counties in Washington. The entire counties are included in the MSA. Most of the metrics in the study consider the full region, though some are constrained to the City of Portland.)

The results provide interesting context, and even some contradictions, for two common narratives about the Portland region—that Portland is economically fragile, and that it is a beacon of transit use and walkability. 

The Portland region comes out near the top of the heap on the economic indicators in the City Vitals report. Of the 51 city regions, Portland is #5 in the number of small businesses per capita, higher than Boston, Los Angeles, or Minneapolis-St. Paul. On the measure of entrepreneurship, Portland ranks #4, and had the 7th highest number of patents issued, beating out New York and Chicago. The Portland region also ranks very favorably on the level of poverty in the urban core (7th lowest) and in the region as a whole (18th lowest). The region scores exceptionally well, coming in at #2, on the measure of economic integration, with 81% of the population residing in middle income neighborhoods.

These numbers help to highlight economic strengths in the Portland region—small business creativity and entrepreneurship—and suggest that channeling growth and investment into existing communities and neighborhoods has helped to create better mixes of income and businesses throughout the region.

Our land use and transportation investments are paying off in better environmental outcomes, the study finds. The Portland region helps lead the nation in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions per capita (2nd lowest levels) and in the reduction of driving (4th lowest number of vehicle miles traveled), indicating that transportation investments paired with proactive land use planning are helping to create choices about how to get around, as well as bringing work and home closer together for more residents.

On the other hand, despite our reputation, “Portlandia” isn’t as strongly represented in the City Vitals numbers as some might expect. For one thing, the Portland region does not rank on top in terms of active transportation and transit use. The core city of Portland comes in at #12 on walkability, beaten out by, among others, Miami. The region is also #12 in transit use among non-poor workers, far below #8, Los Angeles.

In part, the transit figure may reflect the fact that the Portland MSA, which is defined by the Census Bureau along county lines, includes very suburban and even rural areas, such as Clark and Skamania counties in Washington, Yamhill County in Oregon, and outlying areas of the three primary Metro counties (Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington). But it suggests that more could be done to improve walkability and transit use across the region, and land use planning plays a major role in improving both.

And those hoping to “Keep Portland Weird” may need to strive a little harder; the region ranked #16 on the report’s weirdness index (which measured “distinctive” local consumer habits against national norms), less weird than Seattle, San Diego, or Atlanta. The region isn’t the first choice for “where young people go to retire,” either. On the report’s “Young and Restless” scale, the percentage of 25-34 year olds with a college degree, the Portland region ranks only 16th, behind Raleigh, Columbus, and Baltimore.

On all categories, the Portland region averages a ranking of 12 out of the 51 Metropolitan Statistical Areas studied, not too bad, considering that the region is 23rd in total population.*

Land use planning is key to a region’s success, producing the kinds of connections, innovation, talent, and distinction that are defining great cities today. 1000 Friends will continue advocating for better outcomes in all of these categories—even where the region scores well, we can always do better. For more information on the role of land use planning in your community and world, please see friends.org/landuseis.

The whole report costs $15, but you can access a preview on this page, and we’ve summarized the Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton region’s rankings below (highlighting top-ten scores):

“The Connected City”

Voting - #16

Community Involvement - #4

Economic Integration - #2

Transit Use - #12

Walkability - #12

International Students - #36

Foreign Travel - #17

Internet Connectivity - #3


“The Innovative City”

Patents - #7

Venture Capital - #14

Entrepreneurship - #4

Small Businesses - #5


“The Talented City”

College Attainment - #17

Creative Professionals - #10

Young and Restless - #16

Traded Sector Talent - #19

International Talent - #26


“Your Distinctive City”

Weirdness Index - #16

Culture/HDTV ratio - #8

Restaurant Variety - #10

Internet Search Variety – #22


“Core Vitality”

(Looks at the three miles around the Central Business District)

Per Capita Income - #6

College Attainment - #5

Poverty - #45 (7th lowest level)


“Metro Performance”

(Looks at the counties making up the Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton region)

Population - #23

Per Capita Income - #26

Poverty - #34 (18th lowest level)

Vehicle Miles Travelled - #48 (4th lowest level)

Greenhouse Gas Emissions - #50 (2nd lowest level)


*For the average, a high (i.e. 1, 2, 3) ranking is desirable. Some scores (VMT, GHG) were inverted to reflect the desirable end of the scale. The measure for Internet Search Variety was omitted, as its results for all MSAs were not understandably positive or negative at either end of the scale.

This summary by Ted Sweeney, the 2012 Paul Gerhardt, Jr. Intern.