The State of Utopia

Portland, Oregon, is still a model for the rest of the country. Some people would like to break it.

By James Conaway

Portland's historic Skidmore neighborhood may be changed forever by high-rise development.

Credit: Barbara McIntyre/Portland Oregon Visitors Association

Yes, there is a city where old warehouses are recycled as condos and offices, streetcars efficiently trundle passengers between home and work, and people are polite. They have organized themselves into influential neighborhood groups, the mayor rides a bicycle to protest the hegemony of the automobile, and a developer sends his engineer to China to study feng shui. Known as the City of Roses, it has the largest urban park in the country (more than 5,000 acres) and the world's smallest park (452 square inches). A reasonably short trip takes drivers to the gorge of the Columbia River or across unspoiled landscapes to Mount Hood or the rocky Pacific coast.

The city is, of course, Portland, Ore. I went there recently to learn how a concern with open space and quality of life has given both city and state a reputation as places apart; driving around, I experienced a pleasant sense of time past—no isolated strip malls in the countryside or dinky housing developments beyond community limits, and a more or less neat divide between urban and rural that is at odds with America's sprawling developmental ethic. In the past decade Oregon has lost only half as much rural land and open space as other states. Of a total of 62 million acres of scenic landscape (half of it forested), more than 17 million acres are in private ownership.

Last November, a shadow was cast across all this by a statewide referendum that turned people into adversaries and gave pause to community planners all across America. Known as Measure 37 and put forward by property rights advocates, it stated that government "must pay owners, or forgo enforcement, when certain land use restrictions reduce property value," and passed with 61 percent of the vote. People who owned property prior to 1973 and still owned it (or their heirs) were to be granted waivers of the existing laws. If not, they had to be compensated for any loss of value due to building restrictions.

Measure 37 is now infamous—or righteous, depending upon your point of view. In effect, it creates two classes of citizens: those bound by state and local building regulations, and those free to do anything they please with their land and to prosper from it in ways their neighbors cannot. Basically an antigovernment vote, Measure 37 dealt a decisive shock to the state bureaucracy and promises to profoundly affect not just the rural communities and vistas for which the state is justly famous—and upon which depends most of its $7 billion tourist trade—but the cities and suburbs as well.

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