Big Ideas

7 Ideas to Steal from the World

As the past year has made painfully evident, Portland doesn't have all the answers.

By Julia Silverman June 29, 2021 Published in the Summer 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Gracia Lam

How the mighty have fallen. Eighteen months ago, Portland was still riding high off its international reputation as the greenest, bikiest, tastiest of American cities, with a booming economy to match. Sure, there were problems—intractable systemic racism in virtually every corner of the city, nowhere near enough affordable housing, and a houseless population that was growing apace—but have you seen all of our super-neat food carts? Shiny!

One pandemic later, things look different here.

Maybe now, though, the city is really ready to reinvent itself. And we’re here to help—we humbly present some smart ideas from around the world that Portland should find a way to adopt lickety-split. If we do, maybe in the future, the city will truly live up to its former hype.

Image: Gracia Lam

The Car-Free City

Let American cities fall all over themselves to roll out the red carpet for fleets of electric vehicles. The canny mayor of Heidelberg, Germany, has his eyes on a bigger prize: a city where cars are fully beside the point. To that end, the city has invested in a fleet of hydrogen-powered buses and sweetened the pot by offering a year’s worth of free rides to residents who agree to give up their cars. There’s more: The university town’s suburbs can be reached by a finely tuned network of bicycle “superhighways.” (Imagine if you could bike unencumbered from Hillsboro to Portland....) The ultimate goal, the city’s mayor told the New York Times, is to make Heidelberg fully climate neutral by 2030.

Ranked Choice Voting

When it comes to matters electoral, Oregon prefers to go first. Exhibit A: vote-by-mail. (Exhibit B, less well-known but quietly impactful, is the state’s automatic voter registration when people get their driver’s license, an innovation that’s being copied nationwide.) But when it comes to one of the smartest ways to improve our body politic, we’ve been left in the dust by a long list of locales: MaltaIrelandMaine. Even Wyoming got there before us. (And just this week, New York City joined the party with its first-ever ranked choice vote for mayor.) No matter—we can swallow our pride and institute ranked choice voting, which might have made a difference in a certain recent mayoral race in Portland. It works like this: Instead of a winner-take-all, whoever-gets-the-most-votes-wins system, voters rank their favorite candidates in order on the ballot. If no one wins outright with a majority of votes, the counting starts again, with the bottom vote-getters out of the picture, and their votes redistributed according to preferences indicated on the ballot. Proponents say it’s a system that makes every voter count—even if your first-choice candidate is eliminated in round one, your votes can still boost your second choice—while giving a boost to women, people of color, and other candidates who historically have a harder time building a coalition of voters.

Museums with Soul

One of the saddest losses in the pandemic was the Portland Children’s Museum, home to a giant alligator and his equally giant toothbrush, the Vroom Room for car-and-truck-obsessed kiddos and enough musical instruments to jangle even the most patient caregivers’ last nerve. Meanwhile, in New York Citydesign-forward new museums are opening their doors. Who wouldn’t want to visit the Makeup Museumin Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, to learn more about 10,000 years of cosmetics and perfume history? Or check the forthcoming Universal Museum of Hip Hop in the Bronx, which opens in 2022, featuring demo labs, live performances, and immersive exhibits? More of this, please.

Prepping for the Next Big Disaster

Given what we’ve all just been through—pandemic, wildfires, ice storms, stultifying heat wave—Oregonians can be excused for not wishing to dwell on that whole once-in-a-generation-earthquake possibility. But ... sigh. Why not look to Tokyo, Japan, which has way too much experience over the past decade dealing with earthquakes (and devastating earthquake-adjacent tsunamis, like the one in 2011)? The Japanese government has earmarked $144 billion for disaster prep over the next five years, pouring yen into everything from earthquake-resistant roads, schools and airports to a supercomputer that can pinpoint rainfall forecasts with uncanny accuracy. Earthquake-aware design is built into the city skyline for other reasons, too—consider the Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest broadcasting tower, built to allow deadly winds to simply blow through the gaps of its steel-truss tower.

Compassionate Paid Leave, Post Miscarriage

Island nation New Zealand’s star is ascending. Led by progressive, plain-spoken Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the country was incredibly successful at containing COVID-19. With 4.8 million residents, New Zealand has had just 26 COVID-related deaths since the start of the pandemic; Oregon, with 4.2 million residents, has clocked more than 2,500. That means Kiwi politicos have more time for groundbreaking policies like a provision to provide three days of paid leave for families grieving a miscarriage or stillbirth. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of pregnancies ends in a miscarriage, and in most of the world dealing with that loss requires using up sick leave or going straight back to work. (A similar paid leave law exists in India, but is rarely enforced.) The Labour Party’s Ginny Andersen, the member of parliament who sponsored New Zealand’s new law, cast it as a workers’ rights issue, tweeting after the bill passed in March: “I hope it gives people time to grieve, and promotes greater openness about miscarriage. We should not be fearful of our bodies.”

Wi-Fi Everywhere

Real talk: We’re not 100 percent sure we can find the Baltic Sea city of Tallinn, Estonia, on the map. But if we could actually get there, we could walk from one of the world’s most digitally connected cities all the way to the country’s dreaming-in-spires cultural center Tartu without once losing a Wi-Fi signal. That’s around 100 miles, or just about how far you’ve got to drive to get to a Ducks football game at Autzen Stadium. But there’s more to this than just being able to check out what’s trending on TikTok whilst sitting in traffic on your way home from Eugene. COVID-19 moved our lives even more online, and those who don’t have easy access are being left behind. Wi-Fi isn’t just about doomscrolling anymore: It’s an equity issue, and Estonia’s way ahead.

Office Building to Housing Pipeline

We don’t have a crystal ball, but we’d put money on downtown office culture changing permanently as a result of the pandemic, now that bosses have discovered the world doesn’t stop when employees work from home. Some businesses are going to choose to stay virtual, leaving their downtown office space up for grabs. So why not follow Boise, Idaho’s lead and convert some of these empty buildings into affordable housing? Around here, Portland and Multnomah County are already moving to convert motels into transitional housing; small, empty office buildings are a natural next step. In Boise, the city has an affordable land trust set up for exactly this purpose, to fund public-private partnerships with housing developers. Your move, Portland.

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