The Public Purpose

Number 56 - March 2003

Smart Growth Champion: Portland

By Wendell Cox

For the last few days there has been some discussion on the Congress of New Urbanism listserv about whether or not Portland is a good example of smart growth. One of the leading Portland promoters, G. B. Arrington has rightly defended Portland as being without peer in terms of achieving what smart growth is expected to achieve. G.B. is right, though not for the reasons he cites.

It is an economic fact of life that rationing raises prices. Because smart growth rations land for development, it can be expected that it will result in extraordinary losses in housing affordability. That has certainly been achieved by Portland, with its urban growth boundary (read "American Dream Boundary"). During the 1990s, Portland's housing affordability loss was considerably greater than that of any other metropolitan area in the United States with more than one million residents. This is consistent with recently released Harvard research, which found that much of the difference in housing affordability around the nation was the result of land regulation --- where land regulation is greater, there is less housing affordability.

It is a physical fact of life that more putting more of something ---like cars, for example --- in a constrained area means that there will be more of them there. Because smart growth forces more people to live in a smaller space, there will also be more cars. Further, because it favors spending money on downtown oriented rail transit systems and neglecting the highways that provide 95 percent or more of the mobility throughout the urban area, smart growth can be expected to be associated with extraordinary increases in traffic congestion. Here too, Portland has been successful, with traffic congestion having increased at a rate more than all but two of the nation's major urban areas in the 1990s Indeed, the Portland metropolitan area has the worst traffic congestion of any of similar size

Let no one detract from what Portland has accomplished. It is hard to imagine another set of policies that could have so inevitably led to the same results. Portland has tried hard to limit housing opportunity, and succeeded. Portland has tried hard to increase traffic congestion, and has succeeded. Congratulations to smart growth champion Portland


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