Robert Liberty, Executive Director, 1000 Friends of Oregon
Based On A Presentation To The Coalition for a Livable Future’s, Metro Future Conference: Common Good, Common Ground, Conference of Church Members and Clergy, First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Oregon, May 4, 1996.

Most of us feel lucky to live in this metropolitan area and this state. We believe this region’s greatness lies not in its size, but in its quality; the quality of our environment and the quality of our communities. Our state tourism division has a slogan that reflects this pride: Oregon; things look different here.

But there are troubling signs that things are becoming just the same here, as a result of our growth. These are signs which we share with practically every other metropolitan community in the United States. And what is happening in our cities is of concern to the majority of citizens for we are now an urban nation: Over one half of Americans live in metropolitan regions with populations of one million or more.

Let us first consider the signs of the times in our nation’s metropolitan areas and our own region and then consider their moral significance.

The Signs of the Times In America’s Cities and Our Region

1. Urban Sprawl


The first sign of the times is sprawl, low-density urban development.Between 1970 and 1990, Chicago’s metropolitan population grew by 4% but its land area grew between 46 and 55%. Between 1970 and 1990, the Kansas City metropolitan area grew by 29% in population but 110% in land area. The Seattle metropolitan area’s population grew by 38% during the same period while its land area grew by 87%. Cleveland’s metropolitan population shrunk but its land area grew by 20%.

According to a recent report, between 1990 and 2020, Michigan’s population will increase 12%, but its urbanized area will increase by 63 to 87%. One fourth of Michigan’s remaining farmland could be consumed.

The preliminary figures I have heard for the Portland metropolitan area suggest that we are doing better than these other metropolitan areas. Nevertheless, it appears that our urbanized area is growing faster than our population. In the Willamette Valley as a whole, between 1970 and 1990 the population grew by 30% but the urbanized area grew by 91%.


2. Automobile Dominance and Dependence


The second sign of the times is the dominance of the automobile. The pattern of low density sprawl has serious consequences for how and how much, we travel.Low density population growth means that we cannot use our feet or bikes or mass transit to get places; we must drive. So it is not surprising that the population of cars has been rising faster than the population of people; between 1975 and 1990 U.S. population increased by 16% while the number of cars and trucks increased by 42%. In the Pacific Northwest, if every single driver got into a vehicle and drove at once, there would still be one million vehicles parked.

Not only are there more cars, but we are driving more. Between 1975 and 1990, the rate of increase in miles traveled in the U.S. far exceeded the rate of growth of population and of vehicles.

Between 1990 and 1994 the vehicles miles traveled per year in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington Counties, increased from 5.3 billion miles to 5.9 billion miles. That is a distance equal to a round trip from Portland to Pluto (at least right now, when Pluto is especially close) with enough miles left over for a round-trip to Mars. In these three counties we are driving 16.2 million miles every day; equal to 6,000 miles since the beginning of this speech.

We are spending more and more time in our cars; between one quarter and one third of workers in these three counties spend more than 30 minutes, one way commuting to work.

Yes, transit ridership is up, but it is not rising as fast as the use of cars. Despite the construction of light rail, the share of trips made by transit in our region decreased from 15.9% in 1980 to 10.9% in 1990.

Because we are now so dependent on cars, the primary use of land in this or any other metropolitan area in the United States is for the car: roads, parking lots, garage space, junk yards. More space is devoted to the car than to housing. Tri-Met’s General Manager, Tom Walsh, estimates there are eight parking spaces for every car in our region, far more parking spaces than people.

All this driving means that the improvements in the efficiency of automobile engines and emission controls are being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of driving. As a result, our air quality is going to deteriorate, and we will be breathing more and more of our cars’ waste.


3. Property Taxes


The third of the signs is public anxiety over property taxes.A study was commissioned by the 1989 New Jersey Legislature of the relative costs of continuing the current pattern of dispersed growth compared to a more compact pattern of growth.

The low-density pattern required 130,000 more acres, than the alternative compact growth pattern. That is a relatively modest area. It is slightly more than one-half the amount of land in our regional urban growth boundary. Yet, by not spreading development over an additional 130,000 acres, New Jersey would save $740 million on state and local roads that wouldn’t be necessary and $440 million in water supply and sewer infrastructure costs. At the end of the 20 year period there would be $400 million in annual savings to municipalities and school districts for operating costs under the compact growth alternative.

The American Farmland Trust analyzed two different potential development patterns for the projected tripling of the population in California’s Central Valley between 1990 and 2040. By distributing that growth over about one-half million acres, instead of one million acres, the cumulative savings in the cost of taxpayer financed services for compact growth would be $29 billion. The low density growth pattern would produce significant local government deficits while the compact growth pattern would produce budget surpluses.

By building sprawl we are forced to spend more and more of our taxpayers’ dollars on things like roads and emergency services and less on less on things like schools and community centers.


4. Destruction of Nature


The fourth sign of the times is the destruction of nature.Sprawl consumes more than gasoline and taxes. When we build sprawl, and the roads serve it, we are building on top of something. Often that something is the green lands: The productive farmlands, where our foods come from, the forests which produce wood for our houses, the water, and the wild areas which are the home for salmon and salamanders, elk and eagles.

We are losing our greenlands.

According to the United States Natural Resources Inventory, between 1982 and 1992, 70,500 acres of private farm and forest lands, in the Willamette Valley, were converted to rural residential and urban uses.

During that decade, the state of Oregon lost 4,000 acres of wetlands and deepwater wildlife habitats to development.

Inside our urban growth boundary, undeveloped lands are disappearing at the rate of 2,100 acres/year. They include many of the region’s important natural areas.

Now let us turn our focus from the edge of the metropolis to its heart.


5. Urban Decay


The fifth and perhaps most ominous sign of the times is urban decay.At the heart of most of the older and larger metropolitan regions in the East, Midwest and California, is a ghetto, the antitheses of the affluent suburb. The ghetto is the place where people in dire poverty are concentrated, regardless of race. It is where jobs have left, businesses are closed, property values are sinking and hope is disappearing.

In New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, it is possible to drive for several miles through a landscape which is as desolate as anything in the Middle East, provided you are willing to risk your life on the journey. In the Chicago region there are old suburbs, 40 miles from the Loop (downtown Chicago), which are ghettos.

Urban decay begins with the formation of pockets of concentrated poverty. Once a concentration of poverty is established, the process of decay spreads. Middle-class families move away to get away from crime, which is endemic in ghetto areas. They also move away (as my parents did from NE Portland), out of concern for the quality of education their children will have in public schools, where staff and resources must focus on the additional needs of poor children. Some people move away because of simple racism.

In ghettos, businesses close or move away as their middle class customers leave. Property values decline and the tax base begins to shrink even as the demands on public services provided by the inner-city begin to rise.

The middle class moves to the suburbs. The suburbs don’t have the crime and social problems of the inner-city, at least at first. The absence of housing affordable to lower income citizens means new suburbs avoid the responsibility of meeting the needs of poor citizens. It also prevents the poor from living in the suburbs, near their service jobs.

The wealthiest suburbs have a lot of valuable property to tax and low social needs on which to spend those taxes. Therefore they can have good services at modest property tax rates. Good services and modest property taxes attract businesses to the suburban edge. New, prosperous suburban communities often benefit from state and local investments in new roads, highways, schools, and sewers.

This is the cycle of economic polarization, the process by which inner cities and older suburbs become tax-poor, problem-ridden enclaves, struggling for state monies to replace the tax income lost when wealthier citizens flee to suburbs.

Has the Portland metro region escaped this pattern of regional economic polarization and urban decay? Information compiled by Rep. Myron Orfield and others suggests that the process of urban decay has a foothold in our region:

  • In a circle from the middle of downtown Portland extending three miles, 10,000 jobs were lost between 1980 and 1990 (net). But in the ring from 6 to 15 miles out from downtown Portland, 55,000 jobs were created during the same period. (ULI)
  • During the recent high growth period of 1990-94, job growth in the south and southwestern sections of the metropolitan region was five times faster than the rate of growth in Portland and the older southeastern suburbs.
  • In 1990, 21% of Portland’s preschool children were in households with income below the Federal poverty line, with incomes of less than $8,420 for a single mother and a child.
  • In 1993, 45.1% of the students in Portland Public Schools qualified for free or reduced lunch while only 3.7% of the students in Lake Oswego School District and 0% of the students in the Riverdale School District qualified.
  • The number of poverty tracts in the region increased from 21 to 38 between 1980 and 1990. For the first time, two of the poverty tracts were located outside Portland, one in Beaverton and one in Gresham. The number of extreme poverty tracts, where more than 40% of the households are below the Federal poverty line, more than tripled from three to ten.
  • There are serious disparities in the value of taxable property in different cities and school districts. The average assessed value of all property was $115,852 per household in the city of Portland and $118,251 in Gresham. In Wilsonville, the total taxable value per household is $314,034. The average property value per household in the West Linn School District was $229,036 compared to about $89,000 in David Douglas and Centennial School Districts. (However, Measure 5 has sharply reduced the significance of those school district disparities.)


6. Civic Apathy


The sixth sign of the times is civic apathy.One of the saddest aspects of this pattern of metropolitan polarization, central city decay and suburban sprawl, is the way in which it is regarded as inevitable. Many citizens believe such changes are rooted in the invisible hand of the market, or American culture, including its alleged love of the automobile.

Whatever the reason, these changes are perceived as beyond remedy. Obviously, if government is incompetent in solving national problems, it cannot solve regional ones. And even if citizens thought government could do something they doubt their own ability to influence government to take action.

What meaning does democracy have unless citizens can exercise some choice about the futures of their neighborhoods, their cities and their region? Democracy is undermined when citizens come to believe that sprawl and urban decay are inevitable, that there is nothing they can do to affect the places where they live.


7. Conclusion for the Story of the Region


So those are the signs of the times in our nation and our region.What do all those statistics mean?

They mean our region is in trouble. We may be different today from other places but we are headed in the same direction.

The Signs Of The Times Reveal About Our Civic Values
This description of our region’s direction should be a matter of concern to all citizens, not just policy experts. These numbers say something about our values, about our civic character.


1. Waste


The first and most obvious characteristic of our metropolitan regions is their wastefulness. First, however frugal we may be in our private habits, as a region and a nation, we are wastrels.We are wasting more and more land in America, instead of being more and more careful about how we are using it. We are abandoning neighborhoods at the center of the region, neighborhoods which were once vital, desirable places to live. Meanwhile, at the urban edge, we are destroying the rich, productive lands that provide us with food and shelter.

We are wasting more and more of taxpayers’ money to build capital and provide services at low densities. We are wasting more and more time traveling between destinations instead of being places; this is time lost from work and family. Our metropolitan development patterns are giant symbols of profligacy.


2. Disrespect for Nature


The second characteristic reflected in our urban patterns is a disrespect for nature. We are wasting our air and water and destroying the wild areas and wild things too.I find the destruction of nature disturbing because we still regard nature as having a civilizing, that is a moralizing, effect on people. For at least a century the experience of nature has been part of various programs to socialize or civilize perpetrators of violence and victims of urban poverty. That tradition continues today in Portland through a variety of program for urban youth.

(Psychologists have now quantified what we already know from practical experience, that humans can watch moving water, with an undivided attention for as long as we can watch television. They have also quantified the calming effects of natural sounds like the sea, moving water or wind in trees and the sight of greenery.)

A respect for nature is a fundamental part of earth’s religions and ethical systems, although not all religions or ethical systems treat nature in the same way. Christians may debate whether or not God’s command was to “subdue” nature or to “tend the garden” God created. But I know of no religion that celebrates the destruction of nature, even if it provides a justification for its consumption by man.

Our pattern of metropolitan development is disrespectful of nature.


3. The Triumph of Individualism and Property Over Community


The third characteristic reflected in our metropolitan development patterns, is our preoccupation with individualism and property rights. The way in which our communities are dispersing us across the landscape while separating ourselves on the basis of class and race shows that we are giving priority to individual interests over community interests. This pattern represents the antithesis of community.Our development patterns reflect the idea that we have no connections to anyone except those who live on our own street. The design of our communities suggest that we need not concern ourselves with the question of why our town welcomes people to wait on us in a restaurant or in a store but that these same people are not welcome to be our neighbors.

Instead of the principle of community, we have emphasized property rights and the individual. Based on these values, our postwar suburban communities have neglected things like sidewalks and parks and neighborhood stores, where people interact and form a community. Instead we have emphasized the private domain: big back yards, three-car garages, cul-de-sac subdivisions. In many suburbs, if our neighbor has an automatic garage door opener, we may never meet them. We regard cities as places to flee. Our ideal becomes an “acreage homesite,” safely separated from our neighbors.

This loss of community is reflected in huge polarizations by income and race. Today, there are ten times as many Americans living in private communities, usually gated, than there are Oregonians.

Our post-war development patterns celebrate property over community, private consumption over neighborhood engagement.


4. Indifference Toward Civic Responsibility and Cynicism about Democracy


The fourth characteristic is indifference toward our civic responsibilities.Given this effort to separate ourselves from other people it is not surprising that citizens no longer regard the participation in civic life as one of their responsibilities. In fact, the whole idea of participation is threatened and therefore democracy is threatened.

Conclusion: Metro’s Regional Planning Is Our Opportunity To Shape A New Metropolitan Community And Give It A Moral Foundation
The signs of the times in America’s metropolises are the signs of the times here in our own metropolitan region. And those signs are disturbing. They reflect poorly on our communities and our values.

But there is hope for us in this region. That is why it is appropriate that the design used for this conference shows a rising, not a setting, sun.

Unlike any other metropolitan region in the United States, the Portland area has a directly-elected regional government — Metro — with powers that transcend city and county boundaries. It is this unique concentration of responsibility at the regional level, in an elected governing body, that creates an opportunity to change the signs of the times, to reverse the seven malign trends I described at the beginning of my speech.

Metro is proposing that Portland’s regional urban growth boundary remain fixed for the next 20 years…while 485,000 people move into it. Metro is proposing that we stop sprawling and grow up, that we return to the densities of neighborhoods built in the early 20th century.

Metro is proposing that we build no more highways but instead focus transportation investments on light rail, boulevards for buses and people and bicycles. And the citizens agreed to tax themselves in the amount of $475 million to pay for new light rail lines.

Our fellow citizens also agreed to spend $135 million to buy some of the most important natural areas inside and near the urban growth boundary. Now Metro is gingerly examining how to go about protecting the vast majority of the green infrastructure we will not buy.

And Metro is now considering a regional affordable housing strategy, of identifying how affluent suburbs will go about assuring affordable housing for the people who work in their silicon chip plants, a clerk at their stores, or teach their children.

We have another advantage too. We have what I call the “grey infrastructure,” the grey stuff between our ears, the knowledge and understanding of how planning works and how it can shape our future. And we have the energy and creativity of our citizens, nonprofit organizations like the Coalition, churches, government, educational institutions, and businesses.

We have the opportunity to devise a better future for our region, one which reestablishes a sense of community in every neighborhood and across neighborhoods, which embraces the reality of our interdependent metropolitan community. We can shape our metropolitan region and give it the moral foundation it lacks.

This regional effort at planning our future and imbuing it with community values is not going to be easy. We will have to overcome old ideas, old prejudices, some entrenched powers that benefit from the current patterns of development.

But we will succeed…because we love our region… because we want succeeding generations to live in a better, broader community… because we must.