What is it about Portland? The city earns near-constant accolades and attention for its livability, charm, young feel, enlightened atmosphere, and natural beauty. If the news you read is skewed at all toward urban planning (as mine is), you undoubtedly know the wide variety of attributes for which Portland routinely gets attention: its climate, its public transportation, its neighborhoods, its food trucks, etc.
Proof of the city's current popularity, entire television shows are being constructed around the city's buzz. Portlandia debuts on IFC next week.
While the show approaches the city's dreamy appeal with tongue planted firmly in cheek, its existence proves the strength of the city's image.
Alex Marshall points out that Portland's appeal lies simply in the fact that it is unique among cities; deliberately so. And that's both a rarity, and the result of meticulous long-range planning:
Oregon and Portland have been pursuing the road less traveled for at least four decades, passing growth management laws as well as things unrelated to urban planning such as assisted-suicide laws, motor voter bills and medical marijuana laws. This has earned them the enmity of various established interests, including sometimes the federal government. But one more clearly positive thing it has earned the city, which really can’t be separated from the state, is distinctiveness. Beyond income per capita, unemployment rate or overall wealth, Portland is a city that is itself and nothing else. That’s rare these days.
The city's "social wealth" is another key factor. It just might stem from the careful planning moves that Marshall mentions.
"Young people intuitively understand that the old model is broken and they are in the forefront of inventing the new institutional model of the future," says Charles Heying, an associate professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. "But to make this omelet, many eggs are getting broken."
In his just-released book, "Brew to Bikes: Portland's Artisan Economy," Heying examines Portland's arts and craft ventures, focusing on its successes. For instance, the $90 million that bicycle-related businesses contribute to Portland's economy. Also, that the beer industry adds $2.3 billion to the state economy. "Alone, a few small-scale artisans do not constitute an economy," says Heying. "But collectively, they do."
To ask whether this collectivism yields independence, Heying suggests, is the wrong question. "Portland may be deficient in personal wealth, (but) we have an abundance of 'social wealth,'" he said. "The social wealth comes from the livability of the city, its low cost of housing relative to other West Coast cities, vibrant neighborhoods, abundant and inexpensive activities including access to good food and entertainment."