A Fresh Take on Building Prosperous Cities

Local government strategic planning is needed to move cities forward at the necessary rate of reform.

I help lead one of America’s cities—Portland, Oregon. It is known for being a well-planned city. It’s not. At least, not as well as we want it to be. And not as well-planned as every American city must be.

When I talk about planning, I’m not just referencing plotting spots on a map where new bikeways will run, or where new business districts will pop up. Instead, I’m talking about how to understand the specific and real human challenges we face, and then how to establish priorities that are shared by community members and government. This is what creates a real playbook to guide future decisions.

Our challenges? Our historic approach to planning has widened the economic and academic disparities between white and nonwhite Portlanders. In addition, and until recently, only 54 percent of our high school students graduated on time. And increasingly, global and national decisions impact our main streets as much as or more than local City Council decisions.

I believe that all cities face these challenges too, and I believe that a different approach to planning can help fix them.

Here’s what I mean: On its own, the federal government cannot move cities forward at the necessary rate of reform. The kind of strategic change this nation needs must start at the local level. Local governments are closer to our nation’s residents and businesses than state and federal governments, and better positioned to understand and address their unique challenges. Additionally, meaningful statewide strategic planning is rare, prevented by lobbyists and politicos who too often gain advantage by stoking our real and perceived societal, partisan, and geographic divides.

We need plans based less on politics and more on the facts; plans with integrated strategies and a short list of specific measures to provide public accountability for real results.

Can local government strategic planning really make a difference? Absolutely. When we plan well, we make progress on some of society’s toughest problems.

For example, Portland’s last city plan, developed more than 30 years ago, focused on limiting sprawl, facilitating urban renewal, investing in light rail (instead of highways), and helping to inspire new business sectors, including clean tech. As a result, we have lowered total carbon emissions 6 percent while the rest of the US has more than a 10 percent increase in emissions. And we’ve done it while growing our population and jobs. When I became mayor of Portland in 2008, we began the process of creating a new kind of strategic plan that adds a critical element: a new focus on the success of our people. The result of that work is the recently completed Portland Plan, which integrates actions to make Portland prosperous, educated, healthy, and equitable.

The plan, adopted unanimously by our City Council in late April, is the result of more than two years of research, 300 public events, and 20,000 comments from residents, academics, youth, workers, businesses, and nonprofits. It’s not just a plan from city government. More than 20 local and state agencies that spend an estimated $8 billion annually inside the boundaries of Portland shaped the plan’s direction and its actions. By sharing the responsibility, they also share the savings and efficiencies that flow from the plan.

Unlike most planning efforts, we didn’t wait to finish the plan before taking action. It’s still early, but we’re seeing promising results, particularly in the areas of prosperity and education. We passed the city’s first economic development strategy in 16 years. We also launched the first Metro Export Initiative in the country in conjunction with the Brookings Institution, and we now have a coordinated, regional strategy that calls on us to double our exports in five years. For the first time in decades, we are seeing increased high school graduation rates—in part due to several innovative new education programs and partnerships. We convened the Cradle to Career partnership, which has mobilized the community into a regional support network for education. We invested in innovative programs including Ninth Grade Counts, which serves as an 8th grade summer school. Another program, Summer Youth Connect, reaches the kids who are most at-risk of dropping out of high school. And, our local Future Connect Scholarships come with academic supports to help students earn a college degree.

Again, these are early actions that emerged from our “reborn” planning process, and they look promising. Since these actions (and all the areas of focus) in the Portland Plan are interconnected, success in one area is designed to improve them all. For example, increasing graduation rates also benefit the economy, which stabilizes our community and helps to level the playing field. Similarly, building sidewalks and bike lanes in underserved neighborhoods helps promote physical activity and provides better access to schools and local businesses.

Implementing this plan may sound expensive, but it’s not: It is first and foremost about doing more with the dollars we already have by embracing individual actions that have multiple benefits. By working across agencies, we can better leverage limited resources.

A plan such as this certainly helps us here in Portland, but it can also inform the state and the nation. If more locales had integrated strategic plans, they would use resources more efficiently; in turn, that might inspire state and federal government efforts so that they become more grounded, realistic, and effective.

Prosperous, educated, healthy, equitable: Taken together, these four interlocking goals of our Portland Plan are the building blocks of a self-reliant city, a Portland where people truly thrive. I hope local governments in all metropolitan regions will join us.

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  • BY Milton Friesen

    ON May 10, 2012 01:48 PM

    Just a tip of the hat to Participle’s Beveridge 4.0 document where they note on page 13 that delivering services from a municipal rather than a state/provincial/national vantage point is not per se better but depends critically on the nature of those services and how they are delivered. If you “help” in a way that locks in dependencies, it matters little who is delivering the program. If Portland is working better it is likely a result of cooperative, enabling processes that compound the gains that are made rather than componding the problems.

    Working on implementation before a final, tidy, well-designed plan is produced is both necessary and prudent. Wise approaches design for the interactions of plan/execution in a constant flow that moves forward with purpose - some of that is captured well here in sketch form. It’s not planning that is the problem but the assumptions, processes and nature of that planning that always proves crucial in the end.

  • BY jim karlock

    ON May 11, 2012 02:43 PM

    Mayor Sam Adams——For example, Portland’s last city plan, developed more than 30 years ago, focused on limiting sprawl,
    JK————————————Sam forgot to mention that sprawl limit has increased density which has take Portland from one of the most affordable housing markets to one of t he least affordable. He also forgot to mention the dramatic increase in traffic congestion due to more cars on the same roads. And the destruction of neighborhood character through infill with out of character skinny houses.

    Mayor Sam Adams——facilitating urban renewal,
    JK————————————Sam forgot to mention that currently urban renewal (redevelopment) is taking almost $100 million per year out of basic services such as schools, social services for the poor, police and fire departmenmts.

    Mayor Sam Adams——investing in light rail (instead of highways), and
    JK————————————Sam forgot to tell you that light rail has taken money from the bus system and that the real purpose of rail transportation is NOT transportation, but a catalyst for redevelopment tax subsidies to well connected developers. He forgets to tell you that they have spent an amount of money on rail that would have totally solved our congestion problems. He also forgot te tell you that our light rail operator is essentially bankrupt.

    Mayor Sam Adams——helping to inspire new business sectors, including clean tech. As a result,
    JK————————————Such as the biotech investment made by our local OHSU after Sam built a whole new neighborhood for them. OHSU then mad massive new investments in biotech in another part of the country!

    Mayor Sam Adams——we have lowered total carbon emissions 6 percent while the rest of the US has more than a 10 percent increase in emissions.
    JK————————————This is so easy to do that any region can do it - just get rid of family wage manufacturing jobs and replace them with low pay service jobs.

    Mayor Sam Adams——The plan, adopted unanimously by our City Council in late April, is the result of more than two years of research, 300 public events, and 20,000 comments from residents, academics, youth, workers, businesses, and nonprofits.
    JK————————————Most participation was by smart growth zealots with very little input from average people who have to live with the results of the plan.

    For other views of Portland see:


  • JK is only telling part of the story

    The infrastructure - roads and bridges are crumbling. One bridge has needed replacement for 2 decades, sorry, we need to build a new bridge somewhere else to handle the light rail line nobody wants.

    The whole “mass transporation builds neighborhoods” theory is a complete failure in Portland. Billions of tax dollars have to subsidize any other development that occurs. Meanwhile, potholes are going to be unfilled for 5 years.

    As noted above, Trimet is on the verge of bankrupcy and is cutting bus service due to failed rail lines. In the last one (WES) the city had to take over the rail car builder and still the cars failed. Untold millions spent on a rail line with minimal ridership.

    Oh yeah, the city is broke according to the auditor, but Sam keeps on borrowing and spending, borrrowing, borrowing, borrowing.

    People are avoiding downtown business because light rail and bike paths have taken away parking. Larger businesses leave Portland regularly due to their insane policies - the city is propping up several business that are teetering on bankrupcy right now with tax breaks and other incentives

  • Tim H's avatar

    BY Tim H

    ON May 11, 2012 04:11 PM

    Sam Adams has a way with words.  Unfortunately most of them are what I would call, Political Babble.  They sound reasonable but are more or less meaningless.  Anyone who knows Portland politics knows that the “planners” are all working to promote the interests of a small class of developers.  The term “Smart Growth” is just another way to say, “if you want to build a new apartment complex close to a major transportation line and have the public pick up most of the tab, you’d be smart to put some money into my campaign coffers.”

  • Jasun Wurster's avatar

    BY Jasun Wurster

    ON May 12, 2012 12:18 PM

    Adams talks a good talk to those who:

    1) do not know him; or

    2) agree with him

    Sadly, once people start to question him he becomes vindictive and alienating.  The above posts show demonstrate how good ideas suffer from Adams lack of credibility and inability to create public buy-in.

    As a Portland resident I wish him the best in the private sector, whilst counting down the days when he is no longer the Mayor and the citizens of Portland can once again become part of the decision making process of our local government.

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