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Beyond the core

 Victoria Street Newz (Canada) 25 May 2019

Brian Mason takes a trip to Portland, USA and discovers that not far from the downtown core, there’s a wrinkle under the cover. Busy, noisy freeways and other car-choked arteries criss-cross the city. The elevated I-5 runs alongside and through the downtown. Efficient busses, streetcars and light-rail trains (which all look spanking new and clean) will quickly take you to the car-filled suburbs. You suddenly appreciate that Portland’s downtown struggles as a beachhead amid growing urban sprawl. (868 words) - Brian Mason

I was in Portland, Oregon, USA,  in June for a thoroughly pleasant, four-day visit.  The city's reputation for being both progressive and green had preceded it, so my expectations were reasonably high.  In one sense they were met: Portland is green and forward-thinking - for a city, that is, situated on the northwest coast of the Car Culture Empire of the world.


It's clean and well run, a city with vision, bike trails and good public transit (free throughout a small, central zone). Downtown streets are surprisingly quiet.  Around every corner, and in surprising places, central Portland has greenery, attractive public spaces, parks, fountains, and waterfalls. Most of the restaurants welcome you to a happy hour, with half-priced food and cheap local beer. There are luxuriant campuses for students, and Dignity Village for the homeless (well, for 62 of them, that is, though homeless people still sleep on the downtown streets).  It looks like a genuinely livable city - until you telescope out for a bird's-eye view of the situation.


Not far from the downtown core, there's a wrinkle under the cover.  Busy, noisy freeways and other car-choked arteries criss-cross the city. The elevated I-5 runs alongside and through the downtown.  Efficient busses, streetcars and light-rail trains (which all look spanking new and clean) will quickly take you to the car-filled suburbs.  You suddenly appreciate that Portland's downtown struggles as a beachhead amid growing urban sprawl.  If you telescope out slightly farther, you bring into focus the endless devastation of clear-cut logging that more accurately defines the state of Oregon and the system that enslaves it.  It's cruel-bent irony.


Yet, there are clear connections between these disparities.  The average size of a new house in the United States today is just over 2,300 square feet.  That's really, really big.  That's the average. That's a lot of lumber - and clear cuts.  At the same time, sixty per cent of adult United Statesians are overweight or obese and growing fatter by the day.  In some states, the obesity rate alone is over 30 per cent.  It takes a lot of semi-trailers roaring up and down a lot of interstates to move so many calories around.  It's all connected, and it all adds up.


If Portland, notwithstanding its tremendous efforts and admirable qualities, is as good as it gets at sustainable urban planning, then we are in far more serious trouble than you can imagine.  The car still rules there, although it might have lost a lane and parking spot or two to cyclists.  There is even talk of building a new bridge over the Columbia River to provide easier commutes - most by car, of course - for residents of Vancouver, Washington. I can only suppose that every gain of an environmental inch has been a monumental struggle against an entrenched status quo.


And does Portland's progress stand in constant jeopardy of erosion?  With Oregon experiencing the second highest rate of unemployment in the United States - at 14.4 per cent in June, it's only slightly below Michigan which has the long-overdue collapse of General Motors and Chrysler to contend with - green initiatives could be threatened.  Going green, after all, takes more than leadership, vision and grassroots support.  It requires a steady supply of lots of money, because going green in the United States and other advanced capitalist countries means trying to keep the old system grinding along with a few tweaks here and there.  Facing job losses and shrinking tax revenues, Oregon could quickly backslide.  Fearful people, as in an economic recession, cling to what they know, even as it's killing them.  Politicians and community leaders with vision are put into retreat at such times.  Jobs, jobs, jobs becomes the new refrain, and the goal of a life well lived in a well-run city gets displaced by the contingencies of the moment.


Under the current machinery of government - in Portland and elsewhere - moves towards sustainable living have to play out within a complex array of political, administrative and regulatory frameworks put in place over the years to "manage development."  Successive ruling classes of the day always saw to it that their interests were protected within the limits imposed.  And, for sure, it was never anticipated for these structures to have to deal with a natural world and a climate in chronic crisis during the twilight days of advanced capitalism.  Such a scenario lies beyond their scope as well as the world view underpinning them.  They were intended to have a stabilizing effect; expecting them to serve now as agents of transformation and radical change is unrealistic.  That's why every environmental gain is characterized as a victory, because that's precisely what it is.  It represents a victory over conventional thinking, laws and culture. For the same reason, every environmental victory is precarious.


Meanwhile, far from the downtown core, Dignity Village sits on a paved parking lot at the end of a runway of Portland's airport, beside a large compost centre, where it is prone to chronic flooding.  It's considered a symbol of one of the best things a progressive city can do for homeless and low income citizens.  Politicians from other cities like to visit it for inspiration.  I'll let you work the telescope this time.

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