by Worldchanging New York local editor, Emily Gertz
Portland, Ore. doesn't typically sit high on a list of cities to compare to New York. Where New York is all about speed and self-absorption, Portland is about relaxing with friends for hours over a microbrew. Portland is the center of no particular industry or business, having lost out to Seattle in their 19th century duel to become the capitol of the Pacific Northwest. Where New Yorkers are known for their unrelenting black garb, Portlanders have a habit of fashion-backward statements involving brightly colored rain parkas, fleece and chunky sandals. The population of the entire Portland metro region would fit comfortably into Queens. Still, as a native New Yorker who lived in (and loved) Portland for several years, I like to pick out signs of a continuum along which ideas and trends seem to flow between the two cities.
Portland and New York emulate each other's green consciousness in big and small ways, such as the trend for refashioning old clothes into new. Last week's New York Times Style feature "Can Polyester Save the World," describing how the process of making and selling increasingly cheap and disposable "fast fashion" is contributing significant carbon emissions to our fast-warming globe, elicited a response from a Portland reader. "Here in Portland, Ore., savvy local fashion designers have another way to reduce the amount of carbon in their fashions," responded Leslie Carlson in the Times letters column. "Portland designers often find clothing at garage sales and resale shops and refashion these articles into new, ingenious creations." As Starre Vartan noted recently here on WorldchangingNYC, New York's on to the refashioning trend; Manhattan boutiques like Hairy Mary's and Kaight are carrying cutting edge styles made from recycled cashmere or 1970's polyesters.
The cities are also similar in the scope and ambition of their public transportation. Like New York City, Portland has an extensive mass transit system to move workers and keep congestion in check (thanks in significant part to the efforts of Oregon's Metro regional planning authority). TriMet is a multimode system that also includes an extensive bus network, light rail, and electric streetcars, as well as both routes for bicycles, and amenities that make it easy to combine bicycle commuting with the other forms of transit. Portland's transit centerpiece is the downtown transit mall zone, where most of the lines cross and people can ride for free. The transit mall has helped revitalize the once dying downtown. Relative to population, it compares in extent and variety to the Metropolitan Transit Authority's complex of buses, subway, commuter rail, ferries, and our one commuter tram connecting Manhattan and Roosevelt Island (and far outpaces the MTA in accommodating cyclists). New York was apparently the only city in the nation to have a commuter tram -- until last weekend, when Portland became the second, with the launch of the Portland Tram into public service.
"Portland's prosperity has been built by city leaders thinking outside the road grid and leveraging public investments," editorialized The Oregonian last Sunday. The paper lauded the city for its foresight: Portland's relatively small contribution to financing the tram (largely underwritten by Oregon Health & Science University, which now has a fast connection to downtown) will help leverage an overall $2 billion, multi-year redevelopment plan that will bring 10,000 new jobs and 5,000 new residents to the city. "Like the transit mall, the light-rail system and the streetcar before it, the tram will burnish the city's reputation for innovation and renovation. That's been Portland's trademark, perhaps in response to urban planner Lewis Mumford. In 1938, he asked the City Club: 'Are you good enough to have this country in your possession? Have you got enough intelligence, imagination and cooperation . . . to make the best of (your) opportunities?'"
I'd love to see New York -- the other city I love -- emulate Portland in more than making dresses from recycled polyester, as fun as that is. As both the city and the citizenry engage in the PlanNYC2030 process for planning New York's future, we ought to take an open-minded look at Portland's successes in creating a sustainable and vibrant city, and refashion them into New York-sized solutions to our own development challenges.
NY and PDX have even more in common - the only other tram in the United States dedicated solely to intra-urban transportation is NYC's very own Roosevelt Island Tram!