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Look Who's Visiting - June 27, 2014 - 10:49am

The Myth of Innovation

Recent Blog Posts - June 26, 2014 - 2:58pm
Remarks given by Sarah Iannarone, Assistant Director, First Stop Portland to 1000 Friends of Oregon Tom McCall Gala, June 20, 2104.

I want to debunk for you what I'm calling The Myth of Innovation, the idea that anything other than the relentless hunt for the next best game-changing idea is synonymous with complacency, stagnation, and decline. As Wayne Gretzky put it (please forgive the hockey reference in the midst of the World Cup), the mandate that we must "Skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it's been." Don’t get me wrong, change is inevitable and we must continue looking for creative solutions to the problem that arise. However, I’m here to tell you that--based on the feedback I’m getting--we’re doing something right here and we need to keep our eyes on the puck at our feet.

So, who am I to tell you this?

What I’m sharing with you is based on 5 years hosting over 5000 visitors who’ve dropped by Portland to see what’s so special about this place. As the Assistant Director of First Stop Portland, I occupy an interesting position in an important conversation--learning what matters to leaders from around the globe, hearing the questions they’re asking, the answers they’re getting, and capturing their sometimes very frank feedback about how things are working here.

Like it or not, we’ve become a model for the world.

As I speak:
  • 6 Oregon mayors are in Dallas, Texas presenting to a conference of mayors from around the country on the transformative power of collaboration…. spreading the message "There are no republican forests to protect; no democratic jobs to create."
  • Brookings economist Bruce Katz is applauding how "weird and crunchy" Portland just happens to be one of America's most global regions with the third-highest export intensity in the US
  • College educated individuals under 40 (the ever desirable "creative class") are migrating here at remarkably high rates--in good economic times and bad--along with affluent empty-nesters and retirees
  • The New York Times' love affair with our artisan culture continues week in and week out they gush over our "rules-be-damned style…divorced from old-school notions of propriety, service and polish"
  • And I stay extremely busy at First Stop Portland hosting the hundreds of people—from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to the Planning Czar of Auckland, New Zealand—who visit each year to see for themselves whether what's really going on here lives up to the hype
So, does it?

The answer--from these visitors at least--is a resounding yes. From the moment people touch down here, they experience active transportation networks, a vibrant city center, connected neighborhoods, and an engaged citizenry.  And it’s true: we are unique. Through smart land use planning, collaborative governance, and citizen activism we’ve come a long way the past four decades toward creating the quality place we want to inhabit.

Despite these efforts, though, we’ve still got a long way to go. So, what aren’t these visitors seeing at first glance?
  • Our lack of affordable housing
  • Racial disparities in home ownership rates
  • Increasing income inequality
  • Limited transit access to family-wage jobs
  • Intensified gentrification
  • Increasing poverty, especially in outlying counties and rural areas
  • Limited access to parks and natural areas for youth,
  • And even toxic air quality around our neighborhood schools
What our visitors see, then, is a place that is much stronger at its center than its fringe.

Before I tell you where I think we should go from here, I want to share a story with you about a recent delegation we hosted from Laikipia, Kenya.

In 2012, 50 years post-independence, the people of Kenya called for a more democratic system. They convened and rewrote their constitution. They transferred power from their federal government to local governments to realize the principles of democracy, revenue reliability, gender equity, accountability and citizen participation. In March 2014, the men and women who rewrote this constitution and now serve as the first-ever elected Assembly of Laikipia County, Kenya crossed the globe to Oregon --the only stop on their trip. 

Impressed? I certainly was.

The delegation came here explicitly to study land use planning. They gracefully donned rain jackets and set out to learn from our history and our wisdom gleaned from 40 years working to protect and develop this amazing place. But before we could share our smart growth policies and practices with them, we needed to drill down to the core values of participation, conservation, and collaboration underlying our efforts in our state and region.

The first conversation we had was with Former Secretary of State now PSU Professor, Phil Keisling, who shared the story of 1970s Oregon in transition and the establishment of our then innovative land use system through Senate Bill 100. They key, he stressed, was Tom McCall's courageous leadership and ability to communicate that intentional, across-the-aisle collaboration was essential to Oregon’s future livability.

Traversing the region, they spent the week meeting talking with local experts from across sectors--government employees, lawyers, planners, non-profit directors, marketing experts, elected officials, and community members.

At the close of their study tour, the delegation debriefed with Congressman Earl Blumenauer who, drawing on decades of experience as a livability advocate, advised Kenya’s emerging leaders to be very intentional about their future:

"There is no place on the planet that has worked harder on the planning problem or attempted as many strategies as we have," he shared. "We'd like to think we've done something a little different. Now you have the opportunity to carve out a future that works for you. Achieve your goals incrementally. Keep your projects close to home and affordable. Improve and enhance your places, don’t re-create them. Know what you have to offer and be proud of it. Don't do anything phony. Your plans should reflect your heritage and your dreams."

Which brings me to back to the myth of innovation. While many of us are debating whether we’ve become too complacent or how we’re going to maintain our edge, our time-tested ideas are being successfully implemented around the globe. If intentional, incremental, inexpensive, inclusive strategies are what the Kenyans and thousands of other visitors are taking home as “innovative,” then they’re certainly worth continuing to practice ourselves.

Oregon is a model, I’ve come to learn, because we innovate only when necessary and the rest of the time we focus on working really hard to get things right.

I caution: our greatest challenge ahead lies not in coming up with better best practices or more effective strategies but rather in continuing the work we know needs to be done, such as:
  • equitable implementation of existing policies and practices,
  • focus on vibrant communities and healthy economies, in both urban and rural areas, and
  • development of the next generation of land use experts and advocates
Our greatest challenge lies not in innovating, but in maintaining our day-to-day commitment to getting it right.


Look Who's Visiting - June 9, 2014 - 10:30am

Dinner Tsukuba

Look Who's Visiting - May 28, 2014 - 3:41pm


Look Who's Visiting - May 12, 2014 - 2:58pm

My afternoon with Auckland's Regional Planning Czar

Recent Blog Posts - May 9, 2014 - 2:49pm
Submitted by: Soleil Rowan-Caneer
First Stop Portland Student Ambassador

We meet in the lobby of the Marriott Waterfront and hit the pavement. I'm with Dr. Roger Blakeley of Auckland, New Zealand. We stroll down to Tom McCall Waterfront Park, seat ourselves on a bench overlooking the Willamette and open a window into the street level experience of Portland. After a quick intro about our interests and concerns, we walk south along the river towards the South Waterfront District, enjoying the teeming life and vitality of the park and the activity along the boardwalk on a beautiful, sunny day in May. Perfect Portland spring weather.

Roger came to Portland after participating in New York RPA's World Cities Regional Planning Workshop. He was one of 13 experts that were invited from around the world to advise on the most recent iteration of their regional plan. Roger tells us their goals were to “share world best practices on Regional Planning, give advice on the preparation of the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut Regional Plan, and be an ongoing international peer review group as the plan is prepared, and prepare a global manual on Metropolitan Regional Planning.”

In 2010, the Auckland region boldly merged all of their local governments into a single entity, The Auckland Council. Roger Blakeley is the Chief Planning Officer on the council, and one of his main roles is to develop a 30-year “Auckland Plan” before the end of the year. This is a visioning plan, similar to Metro's 2040 Concept Plan, that will guide future development for Auckland.

We stop at the west bank termination of  the new Tillikum Crossing, the new transit bridge going in just south of downtown that will allow light rail, streetcar, bicycle and pedestrian traffic, but no cars--the only one of its kind in the US!

Roaming through the South Waterfront neighborhood, we show Roger the direction Portland is trying to go with its development: emphasizing mixed-use buildings, high-density neighborhoods, high connectivity with public transit, and a commitment to livability and sustainability.

We catch the streetcar from the South Waterfront District and take a leisurely trip through downtown Portland to the Pearl District. Stepping off the crowded car into Jamison Square, we find it full of Portlanders out to enjoy the sun. We head down the boardwalk to Tanner Springs to show him the daylighted stream. While we are talking, Neilson Abell, one of the earliest investors in the Pearl District, ambles by with his cute little dog. He stops to greet us, and once introduced to Roger, graciously shares a quick history of the district.

Neilson and his wife came to Portland from New York City in the late 80s, moving into one of the old warehouse buildings in the Pearl. He laughs about how terrible it was in the early years when they were some of the only people living up here, surrounded by rail yards and decrepit industrial buildings. Looking around it is hard to imagine the Pearl as he describes it.

Today this neighborhood is a development Cinderella story and an example of  Portland's use of urban renewal districts (URAs) as an tool for revitalization. Roger was really interested in how we operated our URAs and used tax increment financing to reinvest tax revenues from within the URA back into the area to further redevelopment within the boundaries. The Pearl District has been extremely successful at using this extra funding to spur development, prosperity, and livability.

(There is a fun controversy over how the Pearl got its name and it has become somewhat of an urban legend. Neilson tells us that a local gallery owner, Thomas Augustine, called the area the Pearl because he thought that the decaying industrial buildings were like crusty oysters and the galleries and artists within were like pearls.)

Leaving the Pearl we take Roger up to NW 23rd to have the truly Portland experience of Salt and Straw's artisan ice cream. We sample some of their more unique flavors, “Mint Leaves with Sea Urchin Meringues” is surprisingly delicious and we both enjoy their “Honey Balsamic Strawberry with Cracked Pepper”. (Roger goes with a double scoop, adding the seasonal black currant sorbet, too, in case you were wondering.)

We sit in the window enjoying our cones and the late afternoon sun streaming over Forest Park. Our conversation turns back to why Roger was in Portland in the first place.

"I wanted to stop by the most progressive cities in N. America while I'm here," Roger replies. "Portland has a very good reputation globally as a livable city. But your reputation as an innovative, sustainable city in some ways is larger than your actual activities.... In Toronto, I counted 27 cranes in the sky, only four of them office towers." Do you have that same level of demand for urban housing here in Portland, he wondered.

When pressed to comment what he would focus on if he were at Portland's helm, he offered that we're on the right track in many ways (regional governance, transit service, green infrastructure, civic engagement) but that there's plenty of unfinished business left to be done, growing our knowledge economy, maintaining a supply of affordable workforce housing, and continuing to expand transportation infrastructure while maintaining core services.

The afternoon was such a great opportunity to share ideas and learn from with Roger. He has been a part of the movement for more climate friendly cities for decades. As New Zealand's Secretary for the Environment in the late 80s-early 90s, he developed the country's first Resource Management Act. He was at the table for the UN Conference for Environment and Climate Change ("Rio Earth Summit") in 1992, which was the first international conference on climate change. (The agreements there eventually lead to the Kyoto Protocol.)

But he's chagrined that we haven't made more progress: "Twenty years later, and we still arguing with climate change deniers." National governments aren't doing what's necessary, he explains. The conversation now is that same as it was then, except for the new emphasis on adapting for climate change instead of on ways to prevent it. He seems concerned about this trend, fearing that cities and governments are giving up on decreasing emissions and are focusing their efforts too exclusively around adapting their cities to the expected changes. “We need both,” he says firmly. And in his estimation, progressive cities, like Portland and Auckland, will be leading the way.


Look Who's Visiting - May 6, 2014 - 12:04pm

Nankai, Japan

Look Who's Visiting - April 21, 2014 - 2:37pm

San Diego

Look Who's Visiting - April 21, 2014 - 2:27pm

Auckland New Zealand

Look Who's Visiting - April 21, 2014 - 2:15pm

ASu Sustainability Center

Look Who's Visiting - April 21, 2014 - 11:17am

Da Nang City Vietnam

Look Who's Visiting - April 21, 2014 - 11:17am