Image: Ryan Johnson

Looking back on how we imagined Portland several months ago can seem like one of those old sci-fi illos from the ’50s, all flying cars and floating buildings: construction cranes and apartment towers everywhere, hotel restaurants packed with locals and tourists alike, a booming tech industry, a food scene out of this world. Everywhere: growth and the constant reminder of new things. But also: rising rents, for both apartment dwellers and retail boutiques, lack of affordable housing, people being squeezed out to the periphery.

And then, on March 23, 2020, the lockdown.

Yes, we are in a recession whose bottom we can’t even make out yet. Hundreds of thousands in Oregon have lost their jobs, or freelance work, or businesses. Many are now untrained full-time teachers or are worried about paying rent, or both.

“The dark side of this, the dystopian view, is we double down on our efforts to rebuild what we had before,” says Ethan Seltzer, professor emeritus at Portland State’s Nolad A. Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning. “When money for infrastructure gets freed up, for example, and we spend it on the roadways we thought we needed, regardless of whether they still make sense. Instead of investing in things that provide more access and more choices for more people, we literally cast in place the things that have delivered a city with profound disparities.”

We’re already thinking about how we can come out of this. We asked everyone from winemakers and chefs to architects and team owners, “What will Portland of the future look like?” No one wants to live through anything like this again, but how can we use what we’ve learned to our advantage?

Let’s seize the moment and think about climate change.

If we can hit the off switch on the world in a matter of weeks, what can’t we do?

Across the planet, human behavior has changed en masse ... almost overnight. From Portland to Yangon, billions of people mobilized—or often demobilized—to combat a threat seen mostly in spiking or flattening graphs, in bright red or green numbers, in suddenly trendy R-naught factors. Human cooperation, from small, remote settlements to, say, the complicated regional authority of Metro, is possible because of abstract ideas that bind us together: family, religion, urban growth boundaries. And this year, the idea of a virulent Koosh ball gave the earth, however briefly, a common cause. Yes, there are reluctant politicians and short-sighted protesters. But all of sudden the skies are clear over Delhi, and in Portland the birds seem to be singing more loudly than ever. Those are just side effects of a lockdown, obviously, and one with pretty significant economic repercussions. But the cause and effect of human industry and pollution have rarely been in starker relief. 

“Climate change is a much more serious threat than the pandemic, but we’re not adjusting to it in the way we need to,” says Portland-based urban economist Joe Cortright. “If we can throw trillions of dollars of checks at this [pandemic], then given sufficient motivation we can do anything. In big round numbers, a couple trillion of dollars could do a lot for climate change.”

Where we’re going we don’t need roads.

Driving and car usage are down—and the Portland Bureau of Transportation even closed 100 miles of neighborhood streets to all but local traffic in order to make more room for cyclists and pedestrians, a previously unthinkable development. The hidden benefit of suppressing car usage—whether through freeway tolling, value pricing, or designing better neighborhoods—is that existing road capacity actually increases.“You have more room for pedestrians and bicyclists, more
opportunities to experience nature in every neighborhood,” says Seltzer.

There’s another realization from staying near home, too: “Every neighborhood should offer a range of housing types. People who are essential service providers shouldn’t have to commute to where they’re needed. If the grocery clerks can’t afford to live in your neighborhood, well, maybe you can’t afford to have groceries in your neighborhood. That’s crazy, right? But I think we’re learning the consequence of not thinking about those things. If we do it right, I think we will end up with a more democratic, more just city.”

Let’s not give up on urban density.

The Central City 2035 plan—which was set to go to a final readoption vote around the time this magazine was on the presses—calls for a high-density urban core, a vision Portland has been moving toward for many years. In a world defined by physical distancing, urban density seems like a curse word. But it shouldn’t be.

“There’s a lot of conflation going on between density of buildings and overcrowding, which is the spacing of people,” says Cortright.

While New York City, the US metro area with the highest population density, has been hard hit, other cities with high density have relatively low infection rates for COVID-19, like San Francisco. Portland is close to the average in density among the country’s 50 largest metro areas but has one of the lowest rates of reported COVID-19 cases. The danger, Cortright says, is overcrowding small rooms and buildings—part of why nursing homes, prisons, cruise ships, and meat-packing plants have been particularly hard hit.

“I liken this situation to interviewing people after they walk out of Jaws and asking them if they will ever go in the ocean again,” he says. “Obviously, people have gone back to the beach since then.”

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