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A city with no limits? The paradox of Houston

Recent Blog Posts - February 19, 2015 - 3:03pm
Submitted by: Nancy Hales
Director, First Stop Portland

CEO Angela Baker welcomed us to Houston’s celebrated Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center. “Big is the only standard we have,” she told our Portland delegation. “Houston is a city with no limits.”

 Neighborhood Center CEO Angela Baker tours Marc Jolin, Multnomah County (center) and Dave Nielsen, Home Builders Association (right) through their 'wrap-around services' facilityNo limits?  That’s an understatement, I thought, smugly.  No UGB, no zoning, no urban density commitments, no design review standards.  Sacrilege to everything a Portland urbanist holds dear.

But after three days of Randy Miller’s recent “best practices” trip to Houston, I had to privately eat a little crow.  No limits? Well, in Houston I also learned, it means some positives – like no limits to the size of philanthropic gifts annually contributed to hospitals, art museums and universities.  And, according to one Houston expert, it means no limits on vision or bold ideas. “We experiment a lot more here than you (Portlanders) do.” Ouch!  Did he just call Portland parochial?

James Koski (left) Deputy Chief of Staff to Mayor Annise Parker opens morning  plenary alongside Randy Miller (right)
Houston, Texas sprawls (they call it ‘outward urban expansion’) over 656 square miles. Houston Mayor Annise Parker qualified the development pattern by acknowledging, “We have very liberal annexation laws,” she told us. And when questioned by Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt if there were conflicts with neighboring cities she answered, “No, we just bring them into the city.”

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt (standing), PDC's Kimberly Branam (left),  AAA's Sarah Lazzaro (center), and Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen (right)
Is there an up-side to this un-zoned approach?  Actually yes.  Here’s another paradox:  “Housing is affordable, here,” Mayor Parker told us. “Property values are pretty close to market, so it’s affordable for our workforce sector, and our young creatives.”

Houston Mayor Annise Parker shares Houston's 'multi-nodal' approach to development So you see the conundrum I wrestled with for three days: is Houston truly livable? 

"Houston is business-friendly," we heard multiple times from multiple speakers. Houstonites don’t speak in terms of livability.  Houston home builder Will Holder bristled at the comparisons between the two cities, labeling Portland’s dense neighborhoods as “urban concentration camps.” That comment brought audible gasps from several Portlanders in the room, including green experts like Mark Edlen and Nolan Lienhart. “In Houston we build exactly what the customer wants; the worse thing we can do as a city is try to influence the market,” affirmed Houston City Councilor Steve Costello.

We all wanted to clone Houston's Angela Baker and bring her to Portland. We had to settle for a photo op.  From left, GPI's Janet LaBar, Nancy Hales, Angela Baker, Gerding Edlen's Mark Edlen, and Beaverton Mayor Denny DoyleThe result of this thinking manifests throughout the city. The heart of Houston’s downtown folds up at night: I couldn't find the street life, the cool restaurants, the night scene. Walking home to our hotel after dinner one night, Portland developer Brad Malsin and Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle commented that the emptiness in the urban center outside banking hours was downright creepy.


Rice University Kinder Institute's Bill Fulton opened his comments with this questionRice University’s Bill Fulton characterized Houston as "The Anti-Portland." The irony, however is that when you peel away the biases, we can actually learn a lot from each other.  For example, Houston has arguably solved homelessness and could teach Portland the way; I was glad to see Marc Jolin, Portland’s housing wunderkind taking copious notes. And Portland could teach Houston how to incentivize more sustainable business practices; I was glad Alando Simpson, owner of a thriving Portland B-corp had the chance to share his ideas with some of the folks from Houston.

Feedback from City of Roses Disposal and Recycling's Alando SimpsonRandy Miller took Portland to Houston to throw a monkey wrench into our conventional wisdom about how cities work. “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong,” quoted H.L. Mencken in 1880.  Maybe the first learning for us is that pat answers and simplistic dichotomies aren’t sufficient. Cities, the most complex thing of all, need the range of complexities in its answers, too.

First Stop revists "The Myth of Innovation" on location in Brazil

Recent Blog Posts - December 11, 2014 - 12:13pm
Submitted by Sarah Iannarone
Assistant Director, First Stop Portland
In November 2014, I traveled to Brazil to share the Portland Story with an ambitious conference, UpWeek2014 hosted by Instituto Jourdan in Jaraguá do Sul, Santa Catarina (click to zoom in on northernmost yellow dot on the map, below).  This week-long exploration of the role of technology and innovation in social development brought together leaders from the state's university, public, and private sectors to discuss ways local governments can develop and implement solutions and promote economic development.

Like many places around the globe, Jaraguá do Sul and its neighbors hope to attract and retain tech-based companies (and the ever elusive "creative class") as part of their development strategy. Unlike many places, a contingent of local leadership (who are also First Stop Portland study tour alumni) understand the importance of civic engagement, placemaking, and public-private partnerships as central to their efforts. 
You can see, then, why First Stop Portland was invited to kick off UpWeek! with a keynote on urban innovation, Portland-style.

Now, it’s one thing sharing “The Portland Story” from a street corner in the Pearl District but another altogether to explain to an audience (many of whom had not yet heard of Portland, let along visited) why they should care how Portland transformed from “Stumptown” of the 1850s to the “Creative City” we are lauded as today. Alongside my fellow presenters, (many from the tech industry) who approached innovation as the capacity to capitalize on the next best idea or platform, Portland's “innovation” story felt anything but. With terms like “asset-light,” “synergy,” “solutions,” and “disruptive” flying from Prezi slide to slide, Portland's steady-as-she-goes narrative of  incremental change felt megalithic in comparison.

Tech start-up at Sapiens ParqueAnd while the real innovation in the Portland Story—figure out what you want to be and do it on purpose—may have been lost on some of the younger members of the UpWeek! audience (for whom the presenter from Facebook Brazil achieved near rock star status) it was well received the rest of my time in Santa Catarina, as I met with leaders from the public, private, and university sectors around the state who are struggling with a very different set and scale of problems than the young tech entrepreneur.

For over a decade now, Brazil has been hailed as a powerhouse of economic potential. The largest economy in Latin America and the 6th largest in the world (Brazil puts the B in BRIC along with Russia, India, and China.) Its rapid expected growth is due in part to its growing population and geography rich in natural resources and agricultural land, including fruitful export industries from sugar cane to textiles. Foreign direct investment in Brazil continue to increase ($76B USD in 2012). Brazil’s GNP and per capita incomes are also on the rise (albeit with growing inequality) and human health and quality of life around the country are undoubtedly improving [1].
In Florianopolis, educational institutions like SENAI and SENAC are implementing innovative programs for mobilizing Brazil’s industrial, commercial, and professional workforces. The government-funded innovation center at Sapiens Parque is successfully transforming business as usual, diversifying the local economy through support of startups in clean energy, biotech, information technology and even green building. In nearby Pedra Branca, a family-owned development company is transforming its defunct family farm into a compact, New Urbanist development of the highest caliber. (There's a slideshow of images from Pedra Branca at the end of this post.)

Rudy Raulino, SENAC Regional Director, explains deployment of mobile classrooms around the state.With the resources at hand and innovative ideas in play, how could Santa Catarina--or Brazil for that matter--be anything less than economic juggernaut? 
Despite all the positive activity I witnessed during my short time in Santa Catarina, I also witnessed some fundamental issues persisting across municipalities and sectors which appeared to hogtie even their most enlightened plans. In many conversations, there was a focus on the lack of infrastructure as the economic bottleneck in their development goals. And while it was apparent throughout my visit that, like the US, Brazil has much work to do developing and maintaining its networks (roads, airports, distribution networks and telecommunication, power plants and energy grids), the issue of governance may play a greater role in Brazil’s long term success.

Public proposal for innovation center in Jaragua do SulThe leaders of the mid-sized Brazilian cities I visited were actively seeking tools to improve urban mobility and reduce carbon emissions. Many understood the value of compact walkable neighborhoods like Pedra Branca. Yet many of them seemed frustrated trying to implement the innovative policies, plans, and practices necessary to bring about their desired goals. 
When the matter of intergovernmental relationships—especially between the federal level and municipalities—came up, I was always quite grateful that I do NOT speak Portuguese. Conversations were heated and even in English, Brazil’s tax and tariff system as explained to me was so complex I could not wrap my head around it. Apart from development policy, however, the impacts of political instability at higher levels of government were evident at the local level. Beyond anxiety about Brazil's economic future (Will Brazil go the way of Argentina? many were wondering), were very serious concerns about the federal government's relationship to cities and regions. While the local leaders I spoke with expressed satisfaction with the government's recent initiatives regarding private sector innovation, they were dismayed by a lack of support for public sector innovation and effective government collaboration across scales. Add to this a culture of political corruption (which, while decreasing, remains high) and it becomes clear why local governments are wringing their hands.

So what "innovation" lesson did Portland leave behind? Investments in "soft" infrastructure may be as important to local sustainability and prosperity as hard infrastructure:
  • Robust public-private partnerships have been a cornerstone of Portland's redevelopment activities. Trusting relationships are not built overnight!
  • Strong sense of place is the foundation of local activities.
  • Realizing a long-range view requires institutions that can withstand political turnover.
  • Courageous, visionary leadership has been a key element of many successes.
  • Complete, connected neighborhoods drive regional and urban design and public investments.
  • Shared governance between levels of government and across sectors helps us solve complex problems.
  • Civic engagement and public participation in planning does not happen by accident. Serious investments in processes and flexibility regarding outcomes are essential.

Slideshow from a tour of Pedra Branca with President Valerio Gomes Neto and Executive Director Marcelo Consonni Gomes

Portland's Apparel Industry: Driving Meaningful Change

Recent Blog Posts - November 20, 2014 - 3:52pm
Remarks given by Nancy Hales, Director First Stop Portland to the 2014 International Textile Sustainability Conference, Monday, November 10, 2014

On behalf of our entire city, I welcome you to Portland!!

Right outside and across the street from where you’re sitting - is the Willamette River. In 1843, two men, William Overton and Asa Lovejoy paddled up that river to this spot and laid claim to the site of our future city.  The fee for filing that land claim was 25 cents!  And they couldn’t agree on the name of this new city so, in 1845 – they flipped a coin to determine whether the city would be named Boston or Portland - (here’s the actual penny)! Thank goodness I am not welcoming you to Boston, Oregon!!

Two decades later, in 1864, Thomas Kay started the first woolen mill in Oregon which, in 1909, his grandsons - the Bishop brothers - launched Pendleton Woolen Mills.Today, over one hundred years later, Pendleton is a 6th generation local textile and apparel company. I’m wearing a dress curated from their current Portland Collection.

Fast Forward.  At the turn of the 20th century, in 1912 – we Portlanders planted our first official public rose garden and thus became known as the City of Roses. Also during that decade - -one of our more famous forefathers, Simon Benson, began installing free water fountains all over the city.  Local folklore insists it was an effort to “keep loggers out of the saloons at lunchtime.” Others say that it was Bensons’ effort to assure that “decent and upright citizens of Portland didn’t have to enter a tavern for a drink.”  Today there are 126 bubblers and they’re all over town, in front of taverns, micro-breweries and even city hall. When you are out in our city this week, take a sip and enjoy this pristine water that has been free-flowing from the Bull Run watershed to Portland for over 100 years.

Columbia Sportswear's "One Tough Mother" Gert Boyle presents to First Stop Portland delegation from Langzhou, China
1938 – Oregon’s one tough mother – Gert Boyle’s family buys a hat company and begins the Columbia Sportswear company’s empire.

1972 – Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight ruin Bill’s waffle iron by making Nike’s first running shoes.

First Stop Portland study tour visits the famous waffle iron at Nike World HeadquartersLet’s fast forward to the last decade:

2000 - Portland becomes the first US City to herald sustainability with real results - in both successfully reducing carbon in its downtown, and in reversing the downward trend of transit ridership and bike commuting to the highest per capita in the country.
 
2002 – Voodoo doughnuts is launched, and becomes the iconic symbol of our ubiquitous slogan “Keep Portland Weird.”

2010 – Portlander Seth Aaron wins Project Runway
2011 – Portlander Gretchen Jones wins Project Runway
2012 – Portlander Michael Costello wins at Project Runway

Also in 2012 – Portland surpasses Munich as the city with the most breweries in the world

2013 – Portlander Michelle Lesniak wins project Runway

2014 – the Olympics in Sochi, Russia – US athletes wear TEAM USA sweaters designed by local talent Anna Cohen, made from Oregon’s Imperial Ranch natural fiber sheep wool

And just last month Fashionxt, Portland’s banner fashion forward event - walked our models down the runway made of solar panels.

So, you see, we in Portland have been getting ready for you, … and for the 2014 International Textile Sustainability Conference for a very long time!


Let me share with you the Portland I love.

It’s here in Portland, where we blend craft with innovation. Slip out after today’s sessions and visit Caleb Sayan. Caleb is a recent NYC transplant who founded the Textile Hive – a 40,000 piece textile collection, some are over 240 years old. Each piece has been curated, digitized, and is accessible for makers, designers, and experimenters who are using the incredible collection for the next great idea.  

It’s here in Portland where we blend garment production with sustainable fair employment practices. – take the #15 bus over to one of our emerging ‘hipster’ neighborhoods, Montevilla and visit the Portland Garment Factory. Meet co-owners Britt Howard and Rosemary Robinson (tell them the First Lady sent you). When you walk into their production house, it feels a little like a mini-UN. I’m not sure how many languages are spoken there, but the company’s commitment to fair trade and sustainable practices make it a model for success, and for keeping manufacturing jobs at home.   

Caleb Sayan,  Co-founder Textile Hive, shares his story with Brazilian textile executivesIt’s here in Portland where we blend business values with social values. Visit Pensole --it’s actually close-- take the Yellow Max line to Old Town. Meet Pensole founder D’Wayne Edwards, a Nike footwear designer turned “philanthropist entrepreneur.” His company is a footwear design/fabrication academy - a school, actually, that scholarships poor kids so they gain a skill, launch a career, and maybe even design the next Air Jordan.

It’s here in Portland where we blend competition with collaboration.

Stop in at ADX, - and meet founder Kelly Roy.  ADX is a maker’s space over on our Central East Side.  Portland is a hub of innovation, and ADX is an incubator for welders, carpenters, designers, boat builders, and artisans. Tools, knowledge and space is all shared. Perhaps, as ADX has found the future of innovation is in collaboration, versus competition…..

It’s here in Portland where we blend the practical with the aspirational. We’re ready for you, and your conference.

Thank you, and enjoy our city.