Tag Archives: city planning


We’ve been in Portland, Oregon, for two and a half days now. If I were twenty years younger, I would seriously consider moving here.

We wanted to visit Portland because we are urban policy nerds, and knew that Portland was something of a city planner’s dream. It is. Here, in no particular order, are some of our observations:

Billboards are obviously strictly controlled; we counted exactly five between the airport and downtown, making that 45 minute taxi ride far more scenic.

Streets are a bit narrower than in most cities, and blocks are a good deal shorter–even shorter than the “short” blocks in NYC. Most are tree-lined, and in the downtown area there are flower baskets hanging from hooks on the street lights. Although there’s a grid, it isn’t rigid; there are also streets angling off in various directions. All of that makes walking around really pleasant. Plus, the urban core is amazingly compact.

Bikes are everywhere, and there are dedicated bike lanes.

Perhaps the walking and biking account for another observation: people on the streets in Portland are mostly thin.

There are tons of parks–big and small and interactive (kids splashing in park pools is encouraged). The streets are active–unlike in Indianapolis, parking garages all have first-floor retail, so there aren’t long “dead” areas. And most of the retail seems to be local–although there are some national chains, local shops, bars and restaurants (of which there are so many you wonder if anyone here cooks) outnumber them by a significant margin. (I’ve seen few Starbucks, for example, although there are regional and local coffee shops everywhere.) Hundreds of food trucks offer all sorts of creative cuisines (Mauritania has a cuisine? Who knew?)

I wasn’t able to find out how many people live in downtown Portland, but there are many, many apartment buildings, and a good deal of the retail downtown caters to residential needs. (There’s a huge kitchenware store and three supermarkets–including a Whole Foods. So I guess someone must cook….) And there are regular, rotating Farmer’s Markets; we saw one, and it, too, was huge.

Speaking of huge, Powell’s books. An entire city block. 300,000 titles in stock, new and used. We got there a few minutes before 9:00 a.m., when it opened, and there was already a line.

And everywhere you look, you see public transportation. There are buses and trolleys in traffic lanes dedicated to them–no cars allowed. Light rail. A tram to carry folks up the big hill (with bike parking at its base). Nirvana…

We spent yesterday morning riding the trolley system. The cars were immaculate, the system was easy to understand, and $5 bought a 24-hour pass, good for the bus, the trolley and the light rail. The system is obviously well-used, and by a broad cross-section of riders.

I’ve also been absolutely blown away by how NICE people here are. My husband and I stopped to look at a building, and a man asked if he could help us find something. In a shoe store, the clerk whipped out a map and suggested places we should see–and gave me her card in case I had questions. The motorman on the first trolley we rode not only offered complete directions, but let us know when we were approaching the stop at which we needed to transfer. Servers in restaurants have been equally helpful. Drivers yield to pedestrians–and each other– everywhere, and no one honks his horn!

Portland is pretty similar in size to Indianapolis, and every urban amenity I’ve described is something Indianapolis (and other cities) could do, if we had the political will. But fairness requires acknowledging assets we couldn’t duplicate, like the absence of mosquitos. A climate in which you can evidently grow ANYTHING. No humidity. Mild winters that don’t take as much of a toll on roads, buildings and infrastructure. Mountains, rivers and hills.

I’m sure if I actually lived here, I’d find things to complain about. But from our admittedly limited perspective, this is a city to envy.

Not According to Plan…

A colleague informs me that the military has a saying: Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance.

Well, batten down the hatches. If you think Indianapolis government hasn’t been performing very well lately, we’re about to see how bad it can get. Not that we’ll see piss-poor results immediately– we won’t. And that’s part of the problem.

The City of Indianapolis has just fired more than half of its planning staff–a staff that was already a bare-bones remnant of what it has been in the past. (And let’s be honest, even in its most robust past it was barely adequate.)

Most citizens don’t see the need for planning. They understand the need for public safety, they appreciate garbage collection and street paving. They know they need sewers.  Planning, on the other hand, seems vaguely bureaucratic and arcane.

Modern urban planning began in the early decades of the 20th Century; it was a response to appalling sanitary, social and economic conditions in the rapidly-growing industrial cities of the time. Today, it can be described as a technical and political process that uses extensive public input to guide land use, transportation, urban design and protect the environment.

Planning is what allows us to use our ever-more-limited public resources efficiently to achieve goals that the public has identified as important.

Knowing where growth is occurring tells us where to put new roads. Planning and zoning decisions protect the value of property (you aren’t likely to spend money improving your home if a gas station can be built next door). Planning projections allow us to avoid unnecessary congestion, provide urban amenities like parks where those are most needed, focus renewal efforts on deteriorating neighborhoods, and deploy public safety officers strategically. Planning allows us to ameliorate or avoid things like urban asthma and lead poisoning, ensure that water supplies will continue to be adequate….in short, it helps us  ensure that our physical and social infrastructure is serving us properly.

Planning allows city administrators to base the decisions they have to make every day on data rather than hunches.  And the public availability of that data allows citizens to hold their government accountable for those decisions–to ensure that they are based on relevant criteria rather than on cronyism or responsiveness to special interests. 

The thing is, planners aren’t “front and center.” They work behind the scenes, and their concerns tend to be long-term. So an administration that wants to save money can get rid of planners, knowing that the negative effects won’t be obvious until he or she is safely out of office.

Next time you drive around Castleton Square–if you are hardy enough, or just unlucky enough to have to do so–consider it the face of the future.