Comment of the Week: The urban growth boundary, what gives?

The relation of land use to transportation was in the air last week. On different threads, from different starting points, last week saw many conversations arrive at a discussion about density, what is needed to have a transit network that works well enough, for enough people, in enough areas, that it can replace car trips—and if that is even feasible.

There were a lot of strong comments. I wish I could just bundle them. My favorite ones noticed that there seems to be a disconnect between this site’s heartfelt debates about the density/transportation conundrum and what our elected leaders are actually doing.

And it’s more than just debate and talk, Portland eats volunteer time, and the time of city employees too, on its plethora of advisory committees whose advice frequently winds up on a shelf collecting dust. What gives?

This pithy comment from Watts captured the absurdity and frustration of the present moment. Plus, and this is a once-in-decade-phenomena, Fred, Damien and Prioritarian all seemed to agree with him. Think about that!

Watts’s head-in-hand comment came in response to our post about the 2024 legislative session. In particular, about a bill that is afloat to weaken the urban growth boundary established by Oregon’s signature land-use accomplishment, the 1973 Senate Bill 100.

Here’s what he had to say:

HB 4048: The last thing we need is to make it easier to expand the UGB. Between Portland and the state, there seems to be a real fever to roll back environmental regulations around where and what you can build. It seems to be one of the few things Democrats and Republicans can agree on.

Thank you Watts for this, and all your comments. You can read Watts in the context of other regular commenters actually agreeing with him here.

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)

Lisa Caballero is on the board of SWTrails PDX, and was the chair of her neighborhood association's transportation committee. A proud graduate of the PBOT/PSU transportation class, she got interested in local transportation issues because of service cuts to her bus, the 51. Lisa has lived in Portland for 23 years and can be reached at lisacaballero853@gmail.com.

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aquaticko
aquaticko
10 days ago

And yet in a discussion I was having with them on another post, Watts stood at the ready to defend both the NIMBYs who most benefit from a relaxed UGB (no need to redevelop if we can just push-out the UGB and build more car sprawl), and the expensive, dangerous, exclusionary, carbon-intensive low density of development that is basically everywhere in Metro Portland which (if not redeveloped) necessitates expanding the UGB to accommodate demand for living in Portland.

Watts sets up a situation wherein, somehow:

  1. We don’t expand the UGB
  2. More people don’t want to live in denser areas than Portland currently provides (this conveniently ignores the fact that greater density has been literally illegal for most of the Metro [and country] for most of its history), so it’s not necessary, anyway (so why are we having the discussion, then??)
  3. Redevelopment would be more carbon-intensive than the car sprawl we’re currently building and set to build more of, anyway
  4. Also, TriMet is inherently bad, but there’s no chance of reform, and it’s bad because it’s bad, not because currently so proportionately few people need it that there’s no pressure for it to be better

It’s a catch-22 wherein we need things to be different from what they are, and yet that’s impossible because there are what they are, and nothing ever changes, apparently, so there’s no use trying.

They’re also quite ready to drop anti-urbanist sentiments (from one of his replies to my comment: “How many Portlanders living in a single family house with a bit of yard really want to move to a high density apartment building? How many of those in a high density apartment building aspire to move to a single family house?”) without any real attempt at substantiating them other than a status-quo defense, which really isn’t one.

I promise I really do appreciate the anti-developer sentiment which is seemingly everywhere, but it’s important–crucial–to not have that turn into anti-development sentiment.

TechnoFabulist
TechnoFabulist
10 days ago

That was a good interview with Jarret Walker. I agreed with probably 90+% of what he said, and I don’t think he contradicted my views on fixed-route transport (though I was interested to learn I’m not the first person to have those ideas).

Walker said “In reality there’s an enormous amount of the work in our cities that only fixed-route buses can do.” Buses and trains work well where there are a lot of people going from one place to another at the same time, something I’ve said repeatedly.

But there are also a lot of times and places where that sort of service doesn’t make sense, and I see a lot of low-occupancy transit vehicles driving around Portland. Those trips are probably pretty inefficient by most measures. I’d be interested in what Walker has to say about routes that don’t serve that many people.

Ultimately, I’m for whatever works.

Watts
Watts
9 days ago

The issue of people “opting out” of transit is a big issue in Portland, and is a problem I think TriMet finally understands.

Whether they will be able to effectively change the negative image of transit remains to be seen; when I rode the subway in Boston a few months back, vehicles and stations were clean, and the passengers were respectful of one another. When I got back here, I rode Max from the airport, and the train was worn and dirty, and the stations were full of trash. The MBTA is pretty fundamentally broken, and they still manage to provide a better rider experience than TriMet.

It remains to be seen if TriMet’s “lost generation” will ever return to transit.

aquaticko
aquaticko
10 days ago

The thing is, a lot people who think like/say what Watts says have all the power to get it done already; the U.S. has needed no public support in building the urbanization patterns that they (Watts; I don’t know their gender) now defend. I don’t need to tell anyone here that a lot of it was done explicitly against public wishes. But we’re not talking about demolishing homes for highways; we’re talking about demolishing a smaller number of homes for a larger number, housing more people not less (including those temporarily displaced). Community defense is all well and good, but it’s ultimately being done on behalf of people who already have the privilege of living where they want to, at the cost of others who may want to live there, too.

Reactionary forces have a long history of co-opting people who defend any one particular cause, even if the people espousing those views aren’t otherwise reactionary and might, indeed, fight against what those co-opting them otherwise support. This is my admittedly fallible understanding of what people call left-NIMBYism: well-meaning people fighting on behalf of people who don’t need to be fought for.

The details are for sure very complicated; far be it from me to try to make it seem like the history of American urbanism can be explained in a day (or a week, or a month, or even years). The gist, though, is simple, and displayed by the fact that no one else in the developed world has urbanized like we have over the past century or so. We built our cities wrong; pretending that once built cities can never be rebuilt is just not a sound argument, and more than any other point, this seems to Watts’ home base.

It gets under my skin because pretending that the way we do things is more or less fine isn’t a neutral choice. It carries material costs: in money, in time, in pollution, in lives. None of it is necessary, and all of it can be changed to the benefit of anyone who doesn’t own stock in a car or oil (or increasingly, mining or battery) company.

That Portland seems just as happy to sit in its status quo–including regulations diminishing the importance/necessity of basics like sidewalks. That’s what has me so concerned; the city clearly quickly outgrew its ability to grow well, and that’s no laurel to rest on.

jakeco969
jakeco969
10 days ago

but my suspicion is that in Oregon the housing crisis is being used as cover to throw out some good policies and regulations.

A suspicion that I hope is shared by many. Too often it seems that people believe government is a magical organization that against all evidedence to the contrary has the masses best interests at heart.

prioritarian
prioritarian
10 days ago
Reply to  jakeco969

that against all evidence to the contrary has the masses best interests at heart.

At a local/state level it’s the voting majority that does not have the masses best interests at heart. Blaming “big gubermint” for this instead of your voting neighbors is a powerful form of cognitive dissonance.

jakeco969
jakeco969
10 days ago
Reply to  prioritarian

Is it? How is the voting majority different from the resulting government?
Is every single person voted in or working for those voted in “big gubermint” at the local level a bad, selfish person?
I don’t think so, yet the results that they (ie PBOT, ODOT, Portland City Council, Metro Government, etc) produce have been horrible and detrimental to the majority for many years. So what happens?
Do good people turn bad and then hire bad people, are the voting majority only voting in bad people who only hire more bad people or is the system of governance itself wrong. If it is wrong is it because it has too much power to take money/resources from me or does it not have enough and needs more to save me from myself?
It sounds like you think that the voting majority could solve all this if only they would vote in the right people. I disagree and believe the right people are indeed necessary, but the system they work in needs to be revamped and that the system itself is a large part of the current problem.

maxD
maxD
10 days ago

A small example from my neighborhood: The Palms motel is planned to be replaced with a 7-story apartment. Because it is across form the Max, no parking is required. There are concerned neighbors, but so far, so good. However, the developer was able to survey commercial buildings along Interstate to show that AT THIS MOMENT, there is a surplus of ground floor retail/not much demand. The result? The City has allowed them to not include any ground floor retail.

The City’s plan is for increased density for people + transit + little new parking + walkable neighborhoods = a more sustainable, livable city. If there is not even an option of retail, the transition to fewer car trips becomes continually harder- it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. It reminds me of the repeated exceptions for developers to build sidewalks in the SW: each individual project doesn’t make that big of a difference, but without each little project, you never reach the tipping point. I believe the opposite is true, also: all the closed crosswalks across town and the compromised bike projects with missing connections reach a tipping point where the system as a whole has such a high of a density of shitty little moments that it overwhelms the fact that large improvements are being made (details matter).

Watts
Watts
9 days ago

I lived in big buildings for a lot of years.

Why not now?

Watts
Watts
9 days ago
Reply to  aquaticko

U.S. needs no public support in building the urbanization patterns [sprawl] that Watts defends

I don’t defend urban sprawl. I oppose building highways. I support increasing density where the community wants it.

One place where we appear to differ is that I give much less weight to the asserted opinion of people who don’t live in a place, but might theoretically do so in some possible future. You don’t know what such people would want, and I don’t accept your legitimacy to speak for them.

pretending that once built cities can never be rebuilt is just not a sound argument

I agree, and I don’t make this argument (or course we can rebuild… look at the Pearl). I argue that rebuilding where people already live is a very expensive and politically difficult task, and we need to acknowledge that reality. I do oppose those who think the solution is to bulldoze (sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically) communities rather than win them over (which is one reason I have little tolerance for the sort of dismissive insults you use).

pretending that the way we do things is more or less fine isn’t a neutral choice

I don’t pretend this at all. We face a lot of problems, and we need solutions that we can actually implement. Sure, remaking the sprawly suburbs with a dense urban form is theoretically possible, but we also need to make living with those places more palatable today; people will be there for the foreseeable future. Those people will continue to need ways to get to work, to the store, to school, and do everything else people do. “Take the bus” and “ride your bike” probably isn’t going to work. Hell, experience suggests it doesn’t even work in inner streetcar era Portland where, despite short trips and access to the best transit and biking environment in Portland, most people still own cars and drive.

Is more frequent bus service and protected bike lanes on Powell going to change that?

We need new solutions, because the same old ideas aren’t working. Supporting the possible is not the same as defending inaction.

Watts
Watts
10 days ago
Reply to  aquaticko

Also, TriMet is inherently bad

You’ve created quite a nice salad of things I’ve said taken out of context, garnished with a generous helping of things I never said at all.

What you got right was that I am opposed to expanding the UGB, and I don’t think most Portlanders, even many of those urging higher density, want to live in condos or apartments (at least not judging by the housing types they choose for themselves), though some do.

And no, I’m not at all opposed to increasing density, so long as it’s done thoughtfully and has community support

aquaticko
aquaticko
10 days ago
Reply to  Watts

A direct, copy-paste quote of yours from my previously-linked post:

“I no longer see TriMet as a force for good — they are a force for self preservation, and, like many bureaucracies, where they do good it’s mostly because it aligns with their primary mission, which is to keep on keepin’ on.”

If your disbelief in the ability of a bureaucracy to accomplish good is substantial, which is sure sounds like in TriMet’s case is so, then the next logical step is to abolish it, because all it can do is done for its own benefit, not the public.

And again, with you status-quo defense: ” I don’t think most Portlanders, even many of those urging higher density, want to live in condos or apartments (at least not judging by the housing types they choose for themselves)”. By the 2021 State of Housing in Portland report, 52% even in Portland itself, the region’s central, densest city, is single-family homes. I don’t have data to back it up, but assuming even higher proportions throughout the Metro seems reasonable. How many more people might live in apartment buildings/condos if we built them.

More importantly: how many more people might move to Portland if we built housing which is affordable to them? A hypothetical, I know, but urbanization–and in the U.S., rapid growth of our younger cities–has been the trend for a century; there’s no reason to assume it will stop now.

Doing things thoughtfully and with community support is worthwhile–unless it means doing nothing at all. Excluding people from living in a place just because people don’t what would make them living there feasible just isn’t defensible. I don’t need to tell that “we were here first” doesn’t have a great track record in creating just outcomes in American history.

prioritarian
prioritarian
10 days ago
Reply to  aquaticko

By the 2021 State of Housing in Portland report, 52% even in Portland itself, the region’s central, densest city, is single-family homes.

The valiant supporters of density as a tool to dismantle the racism of single-family zoning in Portland have almost exclusively focused on enabling more single-household owned homes (RIP, RIP2).

It gets under my skin because pretending that the way we do things is more or less fine isn’t a neutral choice. It carries material costs:

Uncritical support of capitalist real restate development is also not a neutral choice, It carries brutal and dehumanizing costs that are a primary contributor to our low-income housing crisis.

aquaticko
aquaticko
9 days ago
Reply to  prioritarian

Hence why, every time we talk, I bring up public housing authorities. There exists, at this moment, no alternative to private development, and while saying that private development is therefore okay is the kind of status-quo defense I knock Watts for, I’m okay with it if it means more people get to live in a place where it seems like more people want to (again, housing prices).

My support is absolutely not uncritical, and e.g., the whole kerfuffle about building dense housing in places without sidewalks is so dumb that it’s hard to imagine it’s an issue. Like, of course a developer should at least help foot the bill for all the infra involved in solving that issue; it shouldn’t need to be a discussion. But the thing is, historically speaking, a place so near to the center of the Metro that is amenable to denser housing should never have been built without the infrastructure necessary to enable it.

The only way to fix the mistakes of the past is to fix them now. It’s not as though PBOT/ODOT don’t have the money to do it, and if the answer to that is “they can’t use their money that way”, well, maybe we should fix that, too.

My point is that none of the issues degrading the holistic quality of private development or preventing public development are insoluble. I can’t say I have the answers, but applying pressure where we can, however is most effective, is important.

jakeco969
jakeco969
10 days ago
Reply to  aquaticko

More importantly: how many more people might move to Portland if we built housing which is affordable to them?

How many people might move to Portland if there was an economy that actually supported people? Where are the decent/well paid jobs for people to own/rent in the area? I think that would be an easier fix than the magical thinking that cheap housing is going to be supplemented by more taxation on the few people still working. What are the people moving into these new affordable housing going to do to give back? Are you imagining endless artist lofts, college students or families that are competing for what little work there is? Who are all these people who might want to move to Portland if only they could afford it? Having a home is a small part of the resource battle that is part of living.

aquaticko
aquaticko
9 days ago
Reply to  jakeco969

Absolutely agreed, but that’s what makes density, especially in Portland proper, so important. For all of human history, cities have thrived on the economic efficiencies enabled by geographic agglomeration. The job sprawl you see all over the region is disastrous for this, but the residential sprawl we also is both a response to this and an enabler of more of it.

Attracting job density to a place is complicated; companies/employers locate in places for a panopoly of reasons. However, attracting residential density is less complicated; everyone needs to live somewhere, and much as residential sprawl can enable job sprawl, the opposite is true, as well. Having lots of workers in a location is a significant factor in attracting businesses.

BB
BB
10 days ago
Reply to  aquaticko

Why does anyone want or need MORE people to move here?
Growth for growth sake is the philosophy of cancer cells…
Why do citizens here need to lower the quality of life so more people can live here?
Are you in the Chamber of commerce because I can’t think of other reason to pursue Growth at all?
A stable population is healthy.

prioritarian
prioritarian
10 days ago
Reply to  BB

Growth for growth sake is the philosophy of cancer cells…

Not at all. Growth of a tumor outside the boundaries of a particular tissue type is the hallmark of cancer (and the source of its morbidity). Paving over paradise is an ecological analogy for metastasis and those who want to see healthier demographic outcomes should support growth of cities and, in particular, grow pf central urban areas.

BB
BB
10 days ago
Reply to  prioritarian

Why do we need growth at all? In cities or in rural areas?
Why is it necessary? A stable population is what the answer to climate change is, not the exponential growth we have now.

prioritarian
prioritarian
9 days ago
Reply to  BB

Your strawman is very silly. I made no claim that we needed population growth overall.

what the answer to climate change is

If you genuinely care about the climate crisis you would acknowledge that increased density (population growth in urban areas) is essential to mitigate our current disastrous ecological footprint.

PS
PS
10 days ago
Reply to  aquaticko

How many more people might live in apartment buildings/condos if we built them.

Look to the current market. Portland currently has negative absorption of apartment units, which means that they are building more than people want. This is more damning, because it means that people don’t want to move from their class B apartment into a new class A apartment. There are hundreds of condos available in Portland too, of course with condos you’re subject to the capital markets for finding a loan (expensive right now due to inflation), but you’re also subject to HOA dues (which reduce the amount you can borrow for a home relative to a single family home) and special assessments. Look into the frequency of special assessments in condos, how many people who want to live in a condo due to its affordability can handle a surprise $25k bill? Also, Redfin conducted a poll and 89% of buyers want a single family home, so regardless of using “status quo” as some pejorative, its just what people want.

More importantly: how many more people might move to Portland if we built housing which is affordable to them?

To play this exercise out, the price for the last person who wants to move to Portland based on the affordability of housing is obviously zero, as in free housing. So, how many people would move to Portland with free housing? Lots, but who cares, why would we do that? As noted above, people currently don’t want the market rate housing we have built and demographics certainly suggest that population growth is not likely to continue at the same rate of growth in perpetuity, so a little caution with production of additional housing given the current market just sounds prudent.

Doing things thoughtfully and with community support is worthwhile–unless it means doing nothing at all.

The central planning rhetoric of this is so laughable (i.e. let my great ideas for action save you from your stupid self). It is always difficult for those most wanting “progress” to understand that at times, sitting still and doing nothing is exactly the right choice to make, particularly with civilizations when the intended “progress” would disrupt the life for current residents.

Excluding people from living in a place just because people don’t what would make them living there feasible just isn’t defensible.

It is 100% defensible and easy to do so. A current resident of a place is under zero obligation to a future resident of a place, particularly if that future residents claim to residency is just a desire to live in that place. What are the new residents bringing to this place other than a desire to live here? Are they bringing a service not currently provided, a skill not available, or just a plan to take up space and figure it out when they get here? We have plenty of those people and even worse we have far far to many people who currently are confusing a long term desire for a good, service, place, etc. to be equivalent with earning that item. I would love to live in a lot of places, but I don’t think the residents of Santa Barbara, CA or Boulder, CO are under any obligation to make it possible for me to move there. Further, it is very likely that those places are as wonderful as they are precisely because they have made the decision that there are going to be limits on growth and development past a certain point and the unfortunate result of that decision is housing becomes a scarce resource and goes up in value.

aquaticko
aquaticko
9 days ago
Reply to  PS

Bem vindo ao Brasil.

Watts
Watts
9 days ago
Reply to  aquaticko

I no longer see TriMet as a force for good — they are a force for self preservation, and, like many bureaucracies

If your disbelief in the ability of a bureaucracy to accomplish good

The second doesn’t follow from the first, and “TriMet is inherently bad” definitely doesn’t follow from either.

I’m just saying that TriMet is a bureaucratic organization like any other, and it’s prime directive is self preservation. I regard this as a neutral observation.

TriMet can definitely accomplish good, and sometimes they do, but it’s not their primary mission.

Excluding people from living in a place just because people don’t what would make them living there feasible just isn’t defensible. 

This is just a particularly negative and politicized way of stating that all places can’t be all things to all people. The people who are here are the ones who get to decide what we want our city to be, not those who would be here if we were something different.

EEE
EEE
10 days ago
Reply to  aquaticko

Growth begets growth. It’s important-crucial-to have anti-development sentiment because that democrats and republicans each reinforce each others’ gutting of environmental protections is a warning we are unable to act in our own interest in self-preservation, all too happy to gorge on No-Face’s dumplings.  We stand at the precipice — 2023 was the hottest year on record. Any increase in density should include a concomitant contraction of the UGB and yes undeveloping and rewilding of developed land.

aquaticko
aquaticko
10 days ago
Reply to  EEE

But that supposes that there’s not enough demand to fill the UGB as it exists, today, when housing prices over the past two decades suggest that that’s not the case. Cities in decline, like you find all over the midwest, could likely do with a “contracted” UGB (although, of course, most of them have no UGB of any kind). Unless we have as secondary motives to either shrink Portland’s footprint–inadvisable absent densification, because again, housing prices–or shrink its population–inadvisable because it’s already not a big city by global standards, and yet none nearby stand ready to accept those in the “contracted” areas–then shrinking our UGB can do no good.

Do it if we find that, even after some years/decades of densification, there are truly uninhabited bits of the city, sure, but America is still a growing country, and welcoming fewer here seems pretty unconscionable at our current global moment.

Lazy Spinner
Lazy Spinner
10 days ago

The region is incredibly short sighted when it comes to dealing with a growing population and housing affordability. There is plenty of land and plenty of housing units along the I-5 corridor. It’s too bad that no one worldwide has invented any sort of high-speed travel method that could transport large groups of people at reasonable cost. If you could work in Portland but have affordable and comfortable digs in Salem, Albany, Eugene-Springfield, Woodland, Kelso, or Chehalis and have a commute of less than an hour each way – gamechanger!

I suppose that we could just continue tear up some more open spaces and farmland in the ex-urbs and try to convince people that 800-1000 square feet of glass/steel tower at $700 a square foot is a great place to raise a family of four with pets. Who doesn’t love big mortgages and costly HOA dues plus using bike share in the rain? It’s the American Dream!