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  • A Capetonian perspective on Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, after a whistle-stop tour visiting all three over a one week period, during the gloomiest time of the year in these shining cities.

Something happened on the Pacific slopes of the Cascades that happened nowhere else in North America, a continent renowned for its love affair with the automobile. Something made the cities of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver foster a different take on the ubiquitous Canadian and American sprawl model.  

View from Gasworks Park towards Seattle with South Lake Union in the foreground

View from Gasworks Park towards Seattle with South Lake Union in the foreground

There are obviously exceptions to the rule, like the older Northeastern cities. There, a lack of land, high real estate prices and age of the urban entity forced the hand of urban planners. In the Northwest, like in the Midwest and Sunbelt, urban entities are relatively new creations of the automobile-age. So, what made them think progressively and sustainably, when the aforementioned Northeastern factors were not at play in their formative years?

Firstly, mindset brought about by natural setting. Oregonians, Washingtonians and British Columbians have something in common: An intense love for that which surrounds them. Nature has blessed this region of the world with an oversupply of the elements: wind, water, earth and fire. Statuesque mountains and snow-clad volcanoes jostle for space above verdant forests, washed by fjords, rivers and the vicious open Pacific. To protect that which they love the most, the populace is open to policy which promulgates long-term vision over short-term gain. These citizens love their cities, but love what surrounds them more; they want the former contained to protect the latter. Even transplants living here embrace this, as the beauty is so ostentatious, it’s impossible to ignore.

Cities of the Sunbelt have been less fortunate. With a harsher, hotter climate and unostentatious natural assets; this coupled with being populated by numerous transplants, rather than in-state endemics, the will to protect what surrounds them is eroded. City planners have capitulated and individual developers have been allowed to set the agenda, rather than the greater good taking precedent. This is case in point when analysing the grotesque urban footprint and ad hoc planning methodology that is Houston.

Panorama of Vancouver CBD's density from Queen Elizabeth Park

Panorama of Vancouver CBD’s density from Queen Elizabeth Park

Secondly, it has been a cohesive planning vision and regulatory framework; this has been more successful in Vancouver and Portland than in Seattle. American cities are not administratively homogenous. Numerous councils control various sub-units of a metropolitan area, unlike South Africa’s unicities. Even Vancouver, on the Canadian side, has numerous city-governments within its urban entity. Seattle’s Achilles Heel has been the plethora of governments to co-opt; Bellevue, Redmond, Mercer Island, Kirkland, Renton, Burien, Seatac, Kent; listing less than half of the city-governments within King County, in a tri-county metropole! Forging a cohesive urban vision is impossible, or is it?

Greater Portland has fewer city-governments, but with the state support of Oregon, they have managed to forge and enact a unitary vision for the Portland Metropolitan Area; with urban renewal efforts aided by the Portland Development Commission. The result is an eclectic mix of Pacific-rim, American and almost European urbanism; very successful in creating a walkable, liveable and highly efficient city. Something similar is seen in Vancouver, with its palpable Hong Kong-Canuck feel.

Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park, once a freeway, now Portland is reconnected to the Willamette River

Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park, once a freeway, now Portland is reconnected to the Willamette River

Portland's efficient TriMet MAX light-rain system

Portland’s efficient TriMet MAX light-rain system

Portland and Vancouver do something few North American cities do: It’s public-transit first and private cars second; additionally, urban edges are city-wide policy, are well-defined and enforced. In fact, Oregon mandates UGBs (urban growth boundaries) be rigidly set long-term, determining maximum growth limits for 50-years. Vancouver has effectively self-policed sprawl by disallowing freeway construction into the urban core. You simply do not want to live on the city’s fringes if you work here; it’s impractical, if not almost impossible. Due to this, successful sub-cores have arisen in North Vancouver, New Westminster and Burnaby, distributing economic activity throughout the metropole, without negatively impacting the viability and success of Vancouver’s actual CBD. Congruently, developers have opted to hone their efforts in urban-infill and densification projects, rather than Greenfield ones.

Portland’s freeways are surprisingly constricted for a city of its size, but that said, the public-transit is awe-inspiring for a city of its size. With the construction of the TriMet MAX (light-rail) Orange Line and the stunning bridge across the Willamette River, it’s clear the public-purse spends on transport for thousands, rather than transport for the sole driver. This has created a vibrant urban core with a retail, eatery and zoning mix that could put cities 4-times its size to shame. Surprisingly, despite public-transit and NMT taking up the majority of the inner-city street cross-section, congestion is light. Portlanders have clearly embraced their progressive urbanism, actually taking pride in that cars-are-optional.

Bellevue, WA: Boomburb east of Seattle whose development could put numerous cities to shame

Bellevue, WA: Boomburb east of Seattle whose development could put numerous cities to shame

It isn’t like Seattle is doing nothing; being the largest regional city, re-engineering how it works, is more complex.Seattle is investing $1.9bn on Sound Transit light-rail from the CBD to the University District and $4.25bn on burying the Alaskan Way Viaduct, reconnecting Seattle’s CBD to Elliott Bay. The public-purse is behind improving pedestrian and mass-transit access within the city, perhaps bolstered by Seattleites being the most public-transit dependent in a city in the USA (that previously had no light-rail system). Developers are reciprocating, with South Lake Union seeing a residential high-rise boom, as people move towards the urban core. With the eastern shore and Bellevue exploding on an epic scale, seldom seen in boomburbs to this degree, Sound Transit will need to expedite their trans-Lake Washington expansion soonest. This intervention, coupled with an enforceable metropolitan-UGB, will hopefully keep the urban area from expanding further, beyond Sammamish to the Cascade Mountains beyond.

Vancouver's Granville Street, heart of the CBD shopping district

Vancouver’s Granville Street, heart of the CBD shopping district

Thirdly, it could be the cleverly designed and aesthetically superior streetscapes of Pacific Northwest cities. Cleanliness and sustainability are paramount here, with Vancouver’s streets even having cigarette butt receptacles for recycling and hybrid-cars as taxis. Urban lighting is innovative, with Vancouver’s Granville Street being adorned with statuesque fluorescent light-poles, Portland’s Pioneer Square having their trees fairy-lit from trunk to crown and Seattle’s Westlake District having multi-coloured up-lights imbedded in the paving. The landscaping is inspired, with soft and hard landscaping being multi-layered and multi-facetted, with a healthy dose of large urban art. Where they lack historic architecture, they have made up for being fresh, bold and modern. Few new buildings draw the ire of, “Oh, that was value-engineered to within an inch of its glory.”

These three factors are contributing to cities that not only strive towards new urbanism, but are spending billions on it. Developers are reciprocating, where the mindset is towards marrying profitability with the urban aesthetic and lifestyle.  Where residents take great pride in place, for place-making has not only been about reinventing, it’s been about fitting in with what surrounds them. It’s about cities thinking big whilst trying to be small. I interpret the mindset thusly, “We are but on borrowed land between the Cascades and the Pacific. To keep what we love, lest we take more from it.” 

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