Making the Connection: Municipal Broadband Meets a Need in the Portland Metropolitan Area

Internet access has become critical to participating in modern American society, yet the private market is no closer to serving low-income and rural Americans.

In May 2018, the City of Hillsboro announced it would go ahead with a publicly owned and operated, affordable, gigabit-speed Internet service for the entire city. Multnomah County Commissioners voted for a feasibility study of their own in June. The Port of Ridgefield, Washington, has big hopes for its own fiber optic project. Meanwhile, the city of Sandy, Oregon, has been running its own municipal broadband service for the last six years.

What’s driving this wave? A big part of the answer is that Internet access has become critical to participating in modern American society, yet the private market is no closer to serving low-income and rural Americans. The recent repeal of net neutrality rules only threatens to widen the so-called “digital divide.”

Some of these problems are as difficult for municipalities to address as for private companies: providing broadband to rural areas is expensive, and it represents only a small part of the work happening in the Portland metro area. But for urban areas, the technology and the financing are essentially solved problems. The question is political-philosophical: Are local governments ready to treat the Internet as a public utility, and will telecommunications companies wage war on the idea here as they have elsewhere in the country?

Source: Federal Communication Commission, Metro, Washington State and Oregon State

Hillsboro

By the time Hillsboro greenlighted broadband, it had already successfully built out a fiber optic network that connected city offices and stepped up its cooperation with the local school district. In the meantime, the FCC dropped net neutrality from its standards, giving urgency to the conversation about information access. “We are in the information age,” said Greg Mont, Internet services director at the City of Hillsboro, “and future thriving communities are going to need access to consume and to share information.”

In recent years, other developments have made city administrators more confident in taking on this project. “We saw some success in [Colorado] and other areas around the country that were starting their implementation at the time,” said Mont. The city of Longmont, Colorado, had projected that 36 percent of potential subscribers would take up its municipal broadband service, but the city actually arrived at 51 percent in short order.

One key opportunity for Hillsboro is the fact that it is has a very cost-effective place to start laying fiber: South Hillsboro, a 1,400-acre planned community in its beginning stages of construction. The new district will include a mixed-use town center, a smaller village center, about eight thousand homes, and 333 acres of parks, trails, and natural areas. The development will provide prime opportunities to install conduits for fiber optic cable at little extra cost, in trenches that have already been dug for electric and sewer lines.

SandNet utility workers Chris Krieger and Peter Light install a new connection for a residential customer

The other area at the front of the line is in Southwest Hillsboro. Low-income residents there have the lowest connectivity rates in the city, according to a recent Brookings Institution analysis of FCC data. This same area has been designated an “Opportunity Zone” under the Trump administration’s new federal aid distribution scheme.

Exactly how affordable the service will be is still in question. The city’s rough estimates of subscriber fees are $50 a month for residential service and $70 or more for business customers. Low-income customers will pay around $10 a month. However, after its current seven-year funding plan, the city intends to cover operating costs with subscriber revenue.

For the first seven years, the project will be funded using Gain Share revenue: a portion of the extra state personal income tax revenue generated when local governments offer tax deals to job-producing companies through the Strategic Investment Program. Hillsboro and Washington County together receive $16 million in Gain Share a year. The projected cost of building Hillsboro’s new network is an annual $4 million.

Fiber optic cables in the SandyNet data center. Each yellow cable can support up to thirty-two households. In the background: Greg Brewster, Assistant IT Director at the City of Sandy.

Municipal Broadband

Why should the city be the entity that invests in expensive fiber optic cable installations? One answer is that the municipality has a funding advantage: It isn’t expected to turn a profit, and it doesn’t have shareholders that expect immediate returns. “A national carrier will want a return on investment within forty months,” said Duke Dexter, program coordi – nator at the Clackamas Broadband Exchange (CBX). “But a municipality can take that same exact cost and spread it out over ten, maybe even up to twenty years.”

A city that has a proven record of deliver – ing services to residents also meets a certain amount of positivity right off the bat. Mont said that he had seen overwhelming enthu – siasm from Hillsboro residents. “Every time I meet with somebody they show me where their house is and ask when we’re going to get there,” said Mont.

Patrick Preston, Hillsboro’s public affairs manager, was participating in the phone conversation. “I’ve not heard anybody argue against having the option of affordable high speed Internet access,” he said. “I don’t know what argument they would make.”

Leaders of Municipal Broadband PDX. From left: Roberta Phillips-Robbins, Michael Hanna, Noah Fontes, Colin Nederkoorn.

SandyNet

The city of Sandy, Oregon went that route in 2015, when it started installing a fiber optic network for municipal broadband. The result – ing service, called SandyNet, has signed up 66 percent of its potential customers within city limits.

The major construction phase did bring growing pains. Joe Knapp, Sandy’s IT direc – tor, spent nine months fielding angry phone calls about torn-up yards or other disrup – tions. “I just had to remind myself every morning that I know, in my heart of hearts, that what we’re doing is going to benefit this community for the next century,” he said. (Confirming his belief, SandyNet is now sign – ing up customers who had publicly declared in protest that they would never subscribe to the service.)

The percentage of potential customers who subscribe is called a “take rate” in the tele – com industry. Sandy had estimated an initial take rate of 35 percent. Reality: 50 percent. Compared to larger cable companies, that was remarkable. Soon after the service went online, Knapp shared his story at a telecom – munications conference and had telephone company executives coming up to him after – wards asking how SandyNet had managed to pull it off.

One reason Sandy’s take rate was so high is the same reason that Sandy’s city council felt driven to become Internet service providers, first with DSL in 2003 and now with fiber: there was very little else available. Even City Hall couldn’t get a DSL line installed.

SandyNet also prides itself on providing good service to the community. Knapp comment – ed: “I tell our customers all the time, ‘It’s very likely that I’ll bump into you at the grocery store, or if you have a problem and you’re unhappy with the service that you get from us, you can come to a city council meeting and talk directly to my controlling board.’”

The SandyNet fiber project was entirely fund – ed by a $7.5 million revenue bond. Knapp wishes the city had borrowed more money. So many customers signed up that SandyNet has borrowed twice from other city funds just to keep building. “We didn’t anticipate hitting 50 percent take rate until year five, and we’re only in year four right now,” he said.

SandyNet cost modeling built in small rate increases every five years, mainly to account for inflation. Eventually, Sandy’s city council intends to move to a service model similar to water and sewer, where the price of the ser – vice is more directly tied to projected costs of building and maintaining the network.

Sandy has received dozens of inquiries from other cities interested in doing something similar. Knapp reminds them that Sandy started off with ten years of running a DSLbased ISP. Thirty percent of residents were already using that service when Sandy started investigating fiber to the home. “For a com – munity to start from zero, I think, is a little bit of a harder reach for a council,” he said.

Official van parked outside SandyNet’s office in a former high school building.

Clackamas

SandyNet’s service relies on a fiber optic backbone built by Clackamas County using an Obama-era economic recovery grant. Dexter said the county had recognized major gaps in its connectivity. “In small communi – ties like Molalla, Estacada, Colton, and even the city of Sandy, everyone has some form of co-op or cable company, but they weren’t integrated,” he said. “It really lacked continu – ity from one region to the next.”

So the CBX was created with Dexter at the helm. It spent 2010 through 2013 building 180 miles of fiber backbone through both urban and rural areas. This was dark fiber— not associated with a service, but available for service providers to use if they chose.

CBX is funded entirely by leasing its fiber to other entities, and Dexter said it has never run in the red. The majority of users are pub – lic institutions like the Clackamas Educational Service District, which now uses the CBX network to provide Internet to all public schools in the county. Colton School District had previously cobbled together $10,000 worth of 100 Mbps service from four or five different telephone companies every month. Through Clackamas Educational Service District, it is now paying $255 a month for 1 GB service. Altogether, the county’s schools are saving around $750,000 each year.

The county had presumed that commercial providers would be a larger proportion of the users, but right now they account for only 10 to 15 percent of connections. Dexter speculated that was mostly because companies like to possess their own network; it offers more control and it pays off over time. But commercial providers also, he thinks, held back out of spite: till then, public institutions had been anchor tenants for commercial providers.

LS Networks, a commercial ISP serving government and educational customers, did decide to lease fiber from CBX. “The benefit to us is improved access,” said Bryan Adams, director of sales and marketing. LS owns much of the fiber in its three-state service area, but leasing more allows it to expand without heavy upfront capital expenditure.

Multnomah County

LS Networks is headquartered in the Pittock Block, a hundred-year-old building in downtown Portland that evolved into a fiber optic hub for the region in the 1990s. In the basement, fiber optic trunk lines channel most of the Internet traffic in Oregon. On the top floor, every first and third Tuesday of the month, Colin Nederkoorn takes a break from running tech company Customer.io to host a meeting of the Municipal Broadband PDX campaign at his office.

On one sunny Tuesday evening in October 2018, the meeting had five participants: Nederkoorn; Michael Hanna, co-founder of the coalition; Noah Fontes, a software engineer at Puppet; and Roberta Phillip-Robbins, former executive director of MRG. Julia DeGraw, a recent candidate for Portland City Council, joined by phone. The meeting focused on progress on the most recent municipal broadband initiative: a $250,000 feasibility study announced by Multnomah County in June.

Getting the county to sign off on the study is the first success by Portland’s municipal broadband coalition. The name of its recently formed 501(c)4 nonprofit, Municipal Broadband Coalition of America, reveals larger ambitions. “The only way we’re going to build out our fiber optic infrastructure in the United States is bottom-up,” said Hanna. “It’s not going to come from the top.”

In this, he sees a “100-year echo” of the same municipal socialism that led to public water and electric utilities in cities across the country. Portland bought out its privately owned water company in 1886. “We’re going to do the same thing for our digital infrastructure and our renewable energy grid that we did one-hundred years ago,” said Hanna. “Broadband is actually the low-hanging fruit.”

If Multnomah County does invest in public broadband, it would be the biggest urban area in the United States to take this on. “As a county of this size, we would be a real leader in developing a system like this,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who first proposed the feasibility study.

Internet access is the type of broadly felt, high-impact issue that interests Meieran. “One of my other priorities is mental health, and I see that as somewhat analogous,” she said. “That’s something that transcends any of our different departments or programs or services.”

But it wasn’t on her radar until the grassroots activists came to call. “I’d never heard of municipal broadband, to be honest,” she said. “I was approached by someone from Municipal Broadband PDX who came to my office to talk about it. And it’s like a light bulb went off.”

The Opposition

In October, the City of Portland was conspicuously absent from the list of Multnomah County municipalities that had voted to contribute to the feasibility study. Gresham, Troutdale, Fairview, and Wood Village had already committed.

MBCOA’s steering committee considered possible explanations: Was someone in the mayor’s office trying to avoid a repeat of the Google Fiber debacle two years before? Was the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) lobbying against municipal broadband? Comcast, CenturyLink, and AT&T all have representatives on the PBA’s board.

“Is this the beginning of telcos trying to interfere?” wondered Nederkoorn.

“That’s what we don’t know,” answered Hanna.

The PBA did make a statement at the time of the vote, questioning whether the county should consider investing in broadband infrastructure “at a time when the top priority for Multnomah County residents clearly is addressing the community’s housing and homelessness crisis.” And Comcast did register its disapproval when Hillsboro City Council voted to go ahead with its broadband plan. Tim Goodman, government affairs lead at Comcast, wrote the mayor of Hillsboro a letter defending its speeds and prices and asking for more face time.

Looking at the lead-up to successful municipal broadband efforts in similarlysized cities, it’s a little surprising that there hasn’t been more opposition here. The Longmont project passed despite $300,000 in opposition spending by the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association and allies. The CCTA put $816,000 against a similar ballot initiative in Fort Collins. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, Comcast sued the Electric Power Board to prevent it from building its own network.

Asked for thoughts on the subject, Comcast spokesperson Amy Keiter wrote: “The city of Hillsboro and most of the Portland metro area is deeply penetrated with top tier broadband providers—probably one of the best-served metro areas in the country. There is not a sensible argument for why another broadband network is needed in Hillsboro, or Multnomah County, particularly at the expense of taxpayers.”

In fact, there is. In Southwest Hillsboro, only 20 to 40 percent of residents have broadband access. Throughout the metro area, the availability of broadband doesn’t lead directly to high subscription rates.

“We’ve talked with another school district in Oregon,” Mont said, “where they recently equipped all of their students with laptops to take home and use for homework and they found a significant portion of their students don’t have Internet connectivity and couldn’t use the laptops at home. So it was definitely one of those things where we’re trying to fill an important gap.”

Sidebar: The Nuts and Bolts of Broadband

Washington

Opposition to municipal broadband isn’t merely reactive: in twenty states, it’s preemptive. This isn’t a widely advertised fact; Jennifer Redman, a Master of Urban Studies candidate at Portland State University, learned it only after starting research for her thesis on municipal broadband, despite a twenty-year career in IT. “The fact that state legislatures would pass laws essentially written by the ISPs and telecom industries to prevent municipalities from building their own fiber infrastructure was very surprising to me,” she said. “I don’t think the control private telcos have over state broadband policy is widely known by constituents affected by those statutes.”

Washington state law allows public utility districts to build broadband infrastructure and lease it, but explicitly prevents them from offering Internet services themselves. Ports have the opposite restriction: they can offer their own service, but are only allowed to lease access to one ISP at a time. Until March 2018, only very low-density rural ports were permitted to sell fiber access.

The legislature amended the law under pressure from, among others, the port of Ridgefield in northern Clark County, which plans to build twenty-four miles of fiber around the “Discovery Corridor,” the stretch of I-5 between Washington State University Vancouver and a new casino built by the Cowlitz Tribe in Ridgefield. One day Ridgefield hopes to fill in the space with biotech firms and other sources of skilled jobs. But similar efforts on the part of, say, the City of Vancouver are banned.

Rural Access

Ports aside, how this technology will manage to reach and serve residents of truly rural communities is still an open question. LS Networks— which is owned by five rural Oregon electric cooperatives and the Coquille Indian Tribe—is one of the providers deliberately serving rural areas, and even it has trouble justifying building fiber out to small-town residents. Its successes came through creative deal-making and government support, such as the public-private partnership that recently combined $100,000 from LS Networks with a larger state grant to install fiber in the city of Maupin.

Electric cooperatives have a long history of providing services where it seems impossible. They began as a New Deal project, with farmers using federal loans to build their own grids all across the United States. Some evolved naturally to providing high-speed Internet access as well. As of December 2016, there were eighty-seven cooperatives offering residential gigabit service, out of around nine hundred total.

“I think broadband should be treated like a utility,” said Dexter. “I think that the city of Sandy and the city of Hillsboro are making good choices to ensure connectivity and bandwidth for their communities for years to come, and I think it’s only going to pay dividends in the future for them. I would love to see different counties do the same thing not only in their urban areas, but also in their rural areas.”

Eavan Moore is a second-year student in PSU’s Master of Urban and Regional Planning program and a graduate research assistant for Metroscape.




Bike Wars: Hostile forces — drivers and riders — go wheel to wheel in the streets

Can’t we all just get along?

Portland boasts the nation’s highest percentage of workers who commute by bike—eight-times the national average—and much to the chagrin of many motorists, that number is growing. Last year Portland saw a 28-percent increase in bike traffic citywide; now it’s estimated that bicycle commuters make nearly 17,000 trips across the city’s bridges every day on their way to and from work. That’s a lot of bikes. And with the economy in the tank and gas prices soaring, more and more commuters are choosing the pedal over the pump, resulting in increased tension between bicyclists and motorists and dangerously crowded roadways that are unequipped to manage the different modes of transportation.

Without developing infrastructure to sustain the changing transportation model, Portland risks heading towards a critical mass that puts commuters in danger and might cost the city its reputation as America’s favorite urban bike destination. Portland is a bike city. According to the League of American Bicyclists, it is the number-one city in America for biking, and it repeatedly ranks at the top of Bicycling Magazine’s list of the best bicycling cities. And with the overriding ethos of sustainability that permeates the city, it’s not surprising that Portland draws residents who value two wheels to four.

Home to a booming green economy, and more LEED-certified buildings than any other city in the country, Portland is in the forefront of the sustainability movement. In fact, according to SustainLane U.S. City Rankings—a proprietary, peer reviewed, national survey that ranks the largest 50 U.S. cities in terms of their sustainability practices—Portland was rated the #1 most sustainable city in America in 2008.

Every city has a signature industry: Detroit’s is auto manufacturing; Seattle’s is software development; Portland’s just might become bikes. According to The City of Portland, the bicycle industry supported approximately 1,000 jobs and generated nearly $90 million in receipts last year. There are over 125 bike-related businesses in Portland, which can manufacture anything from high-end components to racks. It’s not uncommon for someone to wait five years for a bike frame from one of Portland’s custom designers. And because of its identity as a bike city, Portland has become the natural home for several bike trade shows, including the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, which drew over 7,000 visitors to the Oregon Convention Center in February. But no amount of bicycle business can keep the streets safe. During the cycling boom last year, incidents of tension between cyclists and motorists grew proportionally to the increase in riders. First, in July, bicyclist Steven McAtee, an employee of Portland’s transportation department, became enraged after driver Colin Yates chastised him for running a red light on SE Belmont Avenue. McAtee then chased the vehicle down and, catching up to it on SE Stark Avenue, used his bicycle as a weapon to club both the driver and his car in front of the man’s family. A passerby who witnessed the act then knocked McAtee out with one punch. A week later, frustrated motorist James Millican tried to run over bicyclist Jason Rehnberg only to have Rehnberg land on the hood of his Ford Escort, clutching onto the windshield wipers as the car sped 60-mph down Southeast 58th Avenue. The wild scene happened to be captured on video by a witness and went viral on Youtube. Two days after Rehnberg’s wild ride, Adam Leckie was riding his bike in North Portland when Patrick Schrepping leaned out of the passenger seat of his friend’s SUV to admonish the bicyclist for unsafe riding and not wearing a helmet. Leckie then followed the SUV to Lorenzo’s restaurant, on N. Mississippi Ave., where he proceeded to scratch the entire length of the driver’s side door with his key. Schrepping confronted Leckie, and the two ended up brawling in the street. According to witnesses, Leckie pulled out his bike lock and took a swing, but Schrepping wrestled it away from him, and the fight ended when he used it to smack Leckie upside the head. And although every one of these incidents boils down to personal responsibility (or lack thereof), they are indicative of a greater problem: two fundamentally different modes of transportation being squeezed into the same space of road.

All things considered, it is understandable that bicyclists, who fear for their lives when riding just feet away from speeding 4,000-pound vehicles, react explosively when drivers are being unsafe. And it is equally understandable why drivers, who fear the emotional and legal consequences of hitting a bicyclist, become infuriated when bicyclists ride unsafely. According to Criminal Behavior by Elaine Cassel and Douglas A. Bernstein, research with animals and people suggests that crowded settings increase the tendency for stress and aggression. In their studies of rats and monkeys, Cassel and Bernstein found that high-density living arrangements caused “disintegration” in the respective species’ existing social orders. In other words, chaos and violence ensued. They found the same to be true when studying American prisons: riots and inmate murders increase with population increases. The same basic principles hold true on our roads. Of course, Portland is in no way en-route to chaos and social disorder just because bicyclists and motorists struggle to share the roads, but as competition for space on the streets becomes more dangerous and more intense, it’s only natural to see an increase in conflict. It’s happening all over the country. In Austin, Texas (which also experienced a bicycling boom last year), the number of collisions between cars and cyclists jumped 69 percent between 2006 and 2008. In Los Angeles, on the 4th of July last year, Dr. Christopher Thompson became enraged that two bicyclists weren’t riding single-file on the road. Words were exchanged. Then Thompson slammed on the brakes of his Infiniti sedan in front of the two cyclists, propelling one of them through the car window, and sending another crashing to the pavement. One rider suffered broken teeth, cuts on his face and a broken nose that was nearly torn off. The other ended up with a shoulder separation that would require surgery. But conflict between motorists and bicyclists who are competing for space isn’t just an American problem. The number of bike commuters in Toronto, Canada went up 25 percent between 2001 and 2006. The increase has, similarly to Portland, led to an increase in incidents between motorists and bicyclists. Three years ago, in Toronto, a driver tossed a half-eaten Jamaican meat patty out of the window of his car, nearly hitting Leah Hollinsworth, a bike courier. The 26-year-old bicyclist then threw the food back into his car. The driver retaliated by tossing two cups of hot coffee at the courier, and then, after they exchanged insults, the driver got out and attacked both the woman and her bike. Images documenting the conflict were captured by a photographer and went on to make national news in Canada: bike-versus-motorist conflict was becoming recognized as a serious issue there. The following year, in 2007, just after morning rush hour in Toronto, a bicyclist became angry after being cut off by a driver. He then pedaled up to the car, leaned inside the open window, and stabbed the driver in the face and neck with a screwdriver. Although these anecdotes are obviously extreme situations that by no means represent the norm, they still cannot be ignored. This type of thing just wasn’t happening ten years ago; it’s a new phenomenon that has evolved in response to dated infrastructure that, in its current form, isn’t sustaining the change in transportation modes.

If a grid is designed with only one mode of transportation (which, in most cases, including Portland’s, is automobiles) in mind, then introducing a new mode inevitably causes friction. This is where city planning comes in. With adequate foresight, infrastructure can be put in place to allow cars and the growing number of bikes to coexist on the same roads.

Part of the reason Portland has been able to brag about being such a bike-friendly city is due to infrastructure plans that were enacted by the state almost forty years ago.

According to Scott Cohen’s Comprehensive History of Portland’s Transportation Systems, the 1960s and 1970s saw Oregonians (particularly Portlanders) questioning whether they wanted to rely solely on freeways and automobiles to get around.

In 1971, these advocates of alternative transportation successfully passed legislation called the Bicycle Bill, which required the state to set aside 1 percent of its highways funds for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure development. But even though the money was there, Portland’s bicycle network didn’t really start taking shape for another twenty years.

During the 1990’s, the I-205 bike path, three bicycle boulevards in inner SE, and several long stretches of bike lanes on roads like Highway 30 were built, and momentum for a bicycle-friendly culture was beginning to build.

Around that time a small group of cyclists formed an advocacy group, called the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA), to make “bicycling safer, more convenient and more accessible.” Since that time, the BTA has helped to shape Portland’s identity as the country’s most bicycle-friendly city.

Despite its humble origins, the BTA is now a formidable power in lobbying. Today it has a membership of 4,500 plus hundreds of community volunteers at its disposal. Among its many accolades, the organization is credited with convincing TriMet to integrate bike storage on buses and MAX lines, and ensuring that countless projects in the Portland Metro area have been built in a way that accommodates bicycles instead of just cars. The BTA has become such a powerful force in bicycle-infrastructure development that it has inspired copycat groups in cities all over the country.

Thanks to advocacy organizations such as the BTA working in partnership with planners, Portland has come a long way in terms of alternative transportation. But now, as more people start taking advantage of Portland’s current bicycle infrastructure, new challenges are emerging.

“New facilities for cyclists are so wildly popular that they are often full,” says Scott Bricker, Executive Director of the BTA. “The infrastructure has changed, and in those places, that’s where cycling is the most crowded.”

Possibly the only memorable moment in the 1999 fantasy-drama, “Field of Dreams,” is when Kevin Costner, a rural Iowa farmer, hears a voice from his cornfield whisper, “if you build it, they will come.” Well the same has proven true with Portland’s bicycle infrastructure – only instead of shoeless Joe Jackson, bicyclists came; and not just a few, but thousands of them.

Over the past 15 years, Portland has witnessed an increase of over 400 percent in bicyclists using the four bicycle-friendly bridges downtown. The increase in two-wheel traffic has been so profound that now it accounts for over 10 percent of all traffic on those bridges. But, paradoxically, as Portland’s bicycle-friendly streets encourage more riders, the streets actually become less safe for riding.

One span that has experienced an inordinate influx of bicycle traffic in recent years is the Hawthorne Bridge. About 7,400 people on bikes travel over the bridge every weekday during the summers. Last summer, bicycles made up 20 percent of all traffic there.

The sheer number of bikes that cross the bridge every day is touted by some, like NYC-based StreetFilms (which used footage of the Hawthorne Bridge as an iconic symbol of Portland’s successful bike infrastructure) as a victory for bicyclists nationwide. But for others, like those who have to commute across the bridge every day, the numbers can be alarming.

“Around 5:15 PM—mostly in the summer—the bridge is clogged with people. You can imagine the scene—slow cyclists, fast cyclists, walkers, people with strollers… it’s a zoo,” claimed an anonymous bicyclist in an email to Roger Geller, Portland’s bicycle coordinator. “It’s one of the most dangerous stretches of a cycling route that I’ve seen.”

The email from the anonymous bicyclist, which was printed in full on bikeportland.org, was in response to a near-tragic accident that the writer witnessed on the congested Hawthorne Bridge.

The gruesome incident came about when 24-year old North Portland resident Erica Rothman had her handlebars clipped by another bicyclist (both were in the process of passing pedestrians) on the westbound side of the Hawthorne Bridge, knocking her off the path and into traffic.

The paths on the Hawthorne Bridge are each only 10-and-a-half-feet wide and, during peak traffic hours, jam up with pedestrians and bicyclists often moving in different directions. On the Hawthorne Bridge it’s not uncommon, for example, to see groups of pedestrians walking four abreast in the wrong direction. And since there’s no rail separating motorized traffic from the growing number of bicyclists and pedestrians crowding the paths, things can get hairy.

Bicyclists and pedestrians can be just as volatile a combination as bicyclists and cars. The 12-foot-wide Minuteman Bikeway in Lexington, Virginia, which is visited by two million annual users, has its fair share of conflict as well. In one of the most famous incidents, police were notified after a passing bicyclist kicked a Jack Russell terrier and yelled at the dog’s owner, “Get the [expletive] over to the right!”

With so many more bicyclists taking to the road each day, experts claim that it won’t be long before someone dies in an accident on the congested Hawthorne Bridge. This begs the question: is Bridge City’s beacon of bicycle commuting destined to become a symbol of failed planning, or will planners design improvements such as better signage (to keep everybody traveling in the right direction) and railings to separate vulnerable road users from car traffic?

Being America’s most bike-friendly city has its drawbacks, one of the biggest being that there aren’t many models to follow. Almost everything Portland planners create in terms of bicycle infrastructure is groundbreaking. And planners and advocacy groups such as the BTA have to learn from each new project.

The safety issues with the Hawthorne Bridge are providing valuable insight to new bridge projects.
Currently the BTA is advocating that the bicycle/pedestrian path on the new Sellwood Bridge must be at least 12 feet wide and include an on-street segment of path to separate speeding bicyclists from slow-moving pedestrians. The paths on the new Columbia River Crossing Bridge will be at least 16 feet wide in both directions.

Putting wider paths on Portland’s bridges seems like a logical solution to congestion, but what about roads? Two-thirds of Portland residents say they would bike more if they had safer routes with a buffer from cars, but how does the city plan on keeping distance between bicyclists and automobiles?

In October 2005, the BTA introduced its “Blueprint for Better Biking: 40 Ways to Get There” report, listing the 40 projects the group believes would most improve biking in the Portland Metro region. One of the primary projects cited in the report was the need for east/west bikeways in North and Northeast Portland where, in some areas, well over 5 percent of trips are made by bicycle.

One option is to develop more bike lanes and bike boulevards, which turn low-traffic side streets into bicycle throughways. Bicycle boulevards such as SE Salmon Avenue and SE Ankeney Avenue, which experience no more than 3,000 cars per day, are designed to be more accommodating to bicycles than automobiles. On bike boulevards stop signs are turned to keep cyclists moving, and traffic lights and curb extensions help cyclists cross busy streets. Speed bumps discourage motorists from using bike boulevards as shortcuts. The resulting traffic calming slows cars down, and discourages motorist traffic.

The idea of bicycle boulevards may seem radical to many Portland motorists, but embracing a changing transportation system requires an open mind – one willing to accept an entirely new philosophy about road travel. For example, many cities in Europe have implemented bicycle-and-pedestrian-friendly infrastructure called shared, or naked, streets where the signage is removed entirely.

In The Netherlands several towns are experimenting with naked roadways. Makkinga, a town in the Dutch municipality of Ooststellingwerf, has no road markings and no stop signs or direction signs of any kind visible in its streets, and, according to reports, residents are enthusiastic about it. Accident figures at one busy intersection where traffic lights were removed in the Northern Dutch town of Drachten, one of the pioneering towns of naked streets, have dropped from an average of 36 in the four years prior to the undressing to two in the two years following it.

And it’s not just the Dutch. When shared streets were implemented in London’s Kensington High Street, casualties fell from 70 in the period before the street was remodeled to 40 afterwards – a drop of over 43 percent.

“The reason naked streets are successful is that they rob all commuters of their margin of safety,” says Philip Preville, a writer for the Toronto Life. “Suddenly everyone, whether on foot, on pedals, or behind the wheel, must establish eye contact before entering an intersection.”

But whether Portland decides to tear down its current infrastructure system or add to it, bicycle infrastructure projects cost money: lots of money. For example, the BTA’s working list of 112 miles of potential bike boulevards would cost about $20 million to implement. And many Oregonians, particularly those who don’t ride bicycles, would rather see their transportation dollars spent on highway improvement projects.

“There’s a perception that money spent on bike improvement is money not spent on motorists,” says Jules Kopel-Bailey, State Rep. for House District 42 (SE Portland). In Salem, Bailey is an outspoken advocate for bicycle infrastructure improvement. He was one of the primary backers of the Idaho Stop Sign Law, and the chief sponsor on HB 2902, which would have authorized issuance of lottery bonds for transportation projects for non-motorized vehicles and pedestrians. Bailey has fought so hard for Portland’s bicycle community that when local alternative newsweekly The Portland Mercury wrote a story about him recently, the piece was accompanied by a picture of his smiling face superimposed over the head of Christ.

But convincing Oregon taxpayers to dedicate money towards bicycle infrastructure is not as easy as it was in 1971. Thanks to the economy, there is little money to work with this year. And the statewide ethos seems to have changed. Now talk of bicycle infrastructure projects brings up all the grudges that exist between motorists and bicyclists. As a result, many legislators aren’t willing to alienate their motorist constituents by dedicating transportation monies to bike projects.

The battle between bicyclists and motorists is not limited to the road. According to House Bill 2001, the new transportation package, Oregon motorists will be expected to pay $121.50 in fees and taxes this year. And many of these drivers don’t understand why a portion of the money should be dedicated to bicycle infrastructure that they won’t use. They argue that bicyclists should pay fees and taxes of their own to pay for infrastructure improvements. But bicyclists, many of whom also own cars, say that a bike tax would end up making them pay twice for damage they aren’t even doing. In defense, they cite a commonly accepted formula for vehicle-caused road damage in which damage is proportional to the fourth power of axle weight. According to this formula, they claim, the average sedan is responsible for about 160,000 times the damage of bikes.

As the primary modes of travel in Portland evolve, the city needs to be both financially and philosophically prepared to cope with change. The transportation system is used every day by hundreds of thousands of motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians who all have a right to the road. Portland is on the verge of a new transportation frontier, and changes to infrastructure are coming incrementally. Until then, commuters will need to take a deep breath and make room for one another on the roads.

“We’re light-years better than most, if not every other American city,” says Rep. Bailey, “but that’s a pretty low bar.”


Kyle Cassidy is a Portland area freelance writer.

Photographs by Richard A. Stern

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Kyle Cassidy’s “Bike Wars” in the Summer 2009 issue of Metroscape® is the most controversial article ever to appear in the magazine over its seventeen years of publication. It has received both praise for calling attention to a looming problem and disapproval for factual inaccuracy. While not seeking to resolve the dispute, the editors sought the unbiased opinion of an expert on bicycle transportation about the value of the article as a contribution to the understanding of the issue it highlights. An Analysis of “Bike Wars” can be found here.

—the Editor




An Analysis of “Bike Wars”

Kyle Cassidy’s “Bike Wars” in the Summer 2009 issue of Metroscape® is the most controversial article ever to appear in the magazine over its seventeen years of publication. It has received both praise for calling attention to a looming problem and disapproval for factual inaccuracy. While not seeking to resolve the dispute, the editors sought the unbiased opinion of an expert on bicycle transportation about the value of the article as a contribution to the understanding of the issue it highlights. Among the faculty and researchers in the College of Urban and Public Affairs (where the magazine is based) who study bicycling, Dr. Jennifer Dill, Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning, is an acknowledged expert in the field. She has published several scholarly articles on bicycling based on original research. She also serves as chair of the Transportation Research Board’s Committee on Bicycle Transportation. As director of the Center for Transportation Studies at PSU, she oversees the Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation (IBPI). One of the goals of IBPI is to further high-quality research that helps in public decision making, including building transportation infrastructure that is safe and comfortable for people who decide to walk or bicycle.

—the Editor

While the article raises important questions about building facilities that will reduce conflicts and improve safety, the writer incorrectly bases the article on a notion that increasing the number of bicyclists increases conflict and decreases safety. He does so by drawing conclusions from anecdotes of conflict recently appearing in the media. For example, after recalling an incident in Toronto, he states that “This type of thing just wasn’t happening ten years ago; it’s a new phenomenon…” There are two additional statements in the article that assert that there is an increase in conflict:

During the cycling boom last year, incidents of tension between cyclists and motorists grew proportionally to the increase in riders. (p. 7)

The increase [in the number of bike commuters] has, similarly to Portland, led to an increase in incidents between motorists and bicyclists. (p. 8)

However, he does not cite any facts to back up these statements. The reason he does not is that there are no reliable statistics to support the statements. Public agencies or other reliable sources do not regularly track the types of road rage conflicts described in the article. So there is no way to know whether the number or rate of such incidents is going up, down, or remaining stable. Without data, we do not know if there really are more incidents or if people think that there are more incidents because more incidents are reported in the media and easily disseminated via the internet. It is not uncommon for people to think a trend of any type is increasing simply because it is getting more attention. Moreover, it is important to distinguish between increases in the number and increases in the rate, or number of incidents per cyclist or per mile bicycled. For example, if the number of bicyclists went up 100%, but the number of incidents only increased 50%, the rate of incidents is going down – an improvement.

bridges and crashesThe author also incorrectly states that “… paradoxically, as Portland’s bicycle-friendly streets encourage more riders, the streets become less safe for riding” (p. 10). Again, the author has no facts to back up the statement. Worse, in this case there are data that lead to the opposite conclusion – that there is “safety in numbers.” Data from the City of Portland directly conflict with Cassidy’s statement. Between 1996 and 2007, the number of bicycles crossing the bridges to/from downtown increased over 400%, from 2,850 to 14,563. This is one of the best indicators the City has on the overall numbers of bicyclists. Over that same time, the number of reported bicycle crashes increased from 155 to 186, only a 20% increase. This means that the likelihood of a bicyclist being in a crash declined, e.g. bicycling became safer as it increased.

Moreover, as shown in the City’s figure (next page), the trend in reported crashes is relatively flat over the time period, as is the number of fatalities. One potential reason for this relationship is that as more people bicycle, motorists become more aware and watch out more for bicycles. In addition, more motorists may be bicyclists themselves, making them more cautious when they drive. At least two peer-reviewed research articles support the “safety in numbers” theory with data from other US cities and internationally. Peter Jacobsen [1] used five different datasets and found that the “likelihood that a given person walking or bicycling will be struck by a motorist varies inversely with the amount of walking or bicycling. This pattern is consistent across communities of varying size, from specific intersections to cities and countries, and across time periods” (p. 205). In a 2009 article, Rune Elvik [2]  concluded that “transferring a substantial part of trips made by motor vehicles to walking or cycling may lead to fewer accidents. …The explanation of the surprising finding is the non-linearity of risk: the more people walk or cycle, the safer walking or cycling becomes” (p. 852).

Cassidy’s primary focus on infrastructure is also unfortunate. He makes an analogy with the movie, Field of Dreams – “if you build it, they will come.” While infrastructure, including bike lanes and boulevards, is important, my research and that of others shows that it’s just one part of increasing bicycling and improving safety. Education, enforcement, advocacy and interest groups, speed control, and programs (e.g. Sunday Parkways) all play important roles. The fact that the number of cyclists in Portland has increased more than the number of miles of facilities indicates that infrastructure alone is not the reason. Therefore, any effort to address potential conflict and safety must take a more comprehensive approach.

In addition to the important point Cassidy makes about designing facilities to reduce conflict and improve safety, the article reveals the lack of good data on conflict and safety. There are data on fatalities, yet many injuries are not reported, and incidents of road rage or other conflicts not resulting in fatality or injury are not tracked. Moreover, to really understand safety we need to know how much cycling is occurring. We are fortunate that the City of Portland regularly counts cyclists on many streets and bridges; few cities do so. But even in Portland we do not know how many miles people bicycle. On the other hand, there are good statistics for all metropolitan areas on the number of miles driven in motor vehicles. The lack of good, comprehensive, longitudinal data on bicycling (and walking) is one barrier to improving planning for these modes and improving safety. Faculty and researchers at PSU are working to improve the data and research on these topics. To find out more, please visit the IBPI website at http://www. ibpi.usp.pdx.edu/.


Jennifer Dill, Ph.D.
Associate Professor Urban Studies and Planning
Portland State University


[1] Injury Prevention, 2003, 9: 205-209

[2] Accident Analysis and Prevention, 2009, 41: 849-855

 

 



A Riverfront Park Runs Through It

A bend in the river for citizen involvement in Portland — 40 years later

On the morning of August 18, 1969, while Jimi Hendrix was striking a climactic chord in front of 35,000 at Woodstock with his cathartic Star-Spangled Banner, 2,865 miles away in Portland a revolution of a slightly quieter, more localized variety was on the rise.

Doug Baker was a popular, widely-read daily Oregon Journal columnist who loved Portland. The Rose City’s equivalent of San Francisco’s Herb Caen at the time, Baker once created a stir by standing at a busy Portland intersection and handing out dollar bills. He was a writer who knew how to bend the ear of his readers when he reported in the August 18 edition of the paper: “Riverfront for People, a group of guys and gals who share the commendable idea that the west bank of the Willamette River should not be allowed to become, like the east bank, one of the Oregon State Highway Commission’s concrete mystic mazes, will hold a no-host picnic at noon Tuesday just north of the old Journal Building. ‘We want everybody to come,’ says Mrs. Robert H. (Allison) Belcher, one of the organizers. ‘Old people, young people, children, fat people and lean people. We’ll provide the balloons, but people will have to bring their own picnic lunches.'”

Riverfront for People picnicThe next day on August 19, Riverfront for People (RFP), the ad hoc organization founded a month earlier by Bob and Allison Belcher and Jim Howell around the Belcher’s dining-room table, played host to a “consciousness-raising” picnic with 250 adults and smattering of 100-some children. The event, a protest of a proposed possible multi-lane widening of Harbor Drive, took place on “a barren strip between four lanes of busy traffic on Front Avenue and an even busier four lanes on Harbor Drive,” as PSU professor of Urban Studies and Planning, Carl Abbott, wrote in his Greater Portland: Urban Life and Landscapes in the Pacific Northwest. “The people came in all sizes, shapes, ages and shades of conservatism, but they agreed that they want more emphasis on beauty and less emphasis on automobiles,” the next day’s newspaper read.

What followed in the coming months on the tails of this demonstration—more picnics, newspaper editorials, a showdown with monumental figures like Portland Development Commission firebrand Ira Keller and Glenn Jackson of the State Highway Department, City Council hearings packed to the rafters and the eventual tearing up of Harbor Drive in favor of what would become Tom McCall Park—was the beginning of a new era of participation and civic will in the life of the Portland region.

Beginnings of a New Civic Will
For many people who are either too young to remember or are recent transplants, it’s hard to fathom a Portland region that isn’t shaped by forward thinking measures like the Bottle Bill, visionary land-use planning, smart transportation policy and the kind of strong civic agency that led to the defeat of the Mt. Hood Freeway or the creation of Pioneer Courthouse Square. In fact, we mythologize these progressive values at times to the point that we easily convince ourselves that, indeed, this is the way things have always been. But the city in the post-war era was like many mid-sized metropolitan centers, mutedly conservative in tone, content with cautious, paternalistic governance and a prudent use of public dollars. In essence, no news was for the most part good news. Urban renewal was good for business, cars ruled the city, and most folks were none the wiser for change.

The story of Portland up to the late 1960s–early ’70s gives a different picture. In his book Portland: Planning, Politics and Growth in a Twentieth Century City, Carl Abbott notes, “The process of neighborhood planning between 1957 and 1967 was as straightforward as its content. City Planning Commission reports make no reference to neighborhood groups or citizen involvement. They were prepared by city employees for their colleagues in city hall.”

RFP’s Allison Belcher recalls the revelatory feeling of appearing before City Council for subsequent hearings on the Harbor Drive issue: “It was something new for Portland to go down to City Hall and testify—everything had always been run by these people who’d been in power for a long time and they didn’t discuss it with anyone. There really hadn’t been much change or access up to that point.”

In the late 1960s, Bob and Allison Belcher and Jim Howell lived in Northeast Portland and were active in neighborhood and civic renewal efforts. Bob Belcher was an architect with Boora Architects, where he would work for 26 years. President of the Portland chapter of the American Institute for Architects in the mid-’80s, Bob Belcher was also active with the Architectural Foundation of Oregon, one of the handful of men who in the early ’70s protested (alongside his wife and future leaders Vera Katz and Gretchen Kafoury) the City Club of Portland’s exclusion of women as members. Belcher was in many ways the quintessential “public interest architect,” long before that term became a buzz-word. His wife Allison, in addition to working at home raising their children, had been active in Eugene McCarthy’s ’68 campaign for President. Prior to earning a nursing degree in the 1980s, Allison was vibrantly active as a citizen representative on the Portland Development Commission and was the first female chairperson of the Multnomah County Democrats in the 1970s. Jim Howell, an architect/transportation planner, was involved in early grass-roots organizing in the Woodlawn and Irvington neighborhoods as an off-shoot of the Model Cities program. Howell later co-designed Woodlawn Park with architect Robert Perron and worked for TriMet, designing the first timed-transfer system for buses, and owned a small bus company. He remains an active voice on transportation issues. All three savored their first successful tastes of citizen empowerment during late summer and fall of 1969.

Neighborhoods throughout Portland had begun to organize in the latter ’60s (partly due to increasing frustration from citizens over urban renewal practices, partly due to federal mandates tied to funding Model Cities and other renewal efforts). “Portlanders,” writes Carl Abbott, “now tend to remember the group with which they were directly involved as the first to storm the barricades of the city hall establishment. . . Portland planning went through startling changes between 1966 and 1972, as the emergence of active and often angry neighborhood organizations made local residents the actors rather than the objects in neighborhood decisions . . . In turn, the political context for the new neighborhood planning was the change of generations on the Portland City Council in 1969-1970. Lloyd Anderson, Connie McCready, and Neil Goldschmidt were less committed to old policies and personnel than William Bowes, Stanley Earl, and Buck Grayson [their City Council predecessors].” Indeed, in reflection, Abbott notes while Riverfront for People didn’t begin the movement, it was a “significant moment of people-powered energy that shifted the terms of the debate” regarding political process.

RFP’s Bob Belcher agreed, “What began with Model Cities and then Neil Goldschmidt coming on to Council. . .was part of this something wonderful that was happening in Portland of that time. It was post-Kennedy—there was a huge energy in the air … there was a lot going on, all that turmoil in Vietnam, but there was an underlying current of all these things on a national level. …Our great virtue was the times energized us—it was a hopeful time. We were pretty outraged and we were young enough that we thought we could make a big noise about this.”

Taking Back the River
“I was ironing clothes,” Riverfront for People’s Allison Belcher begins, “as was the wont of females to do of that time and I heard on the radio that the Highway Commission was going to put this road right down through where the Oregon Journal property was along the river, so I called up Ira Keller [chairman of the Portland Development Commission—one of the city’s most powerful, mercurial figures] on the telephone and I said, ‘what are you doing, why are you doing this?’ He said, ‘You shouldn’t be bothered—you’re just a housewife.’”

Jim Howell (the other third of RFP’s initial triumvirate) recalls, “The City Club had just come out with this report [Interim Report on Journal Building Site Use and Riverfront Development] on Harbor Drive, Bob and I were discussing the report, and Allison comes over and says to us, ‘You big-shot architects, all you do is talk—why don’t you do something. That’s when we came up with Riverfront for People.’”

The City Club of Portland’s report, which came out in early August 1969, had concluded: “With sensitive and imaginative planning, the riverfront can become an accessible and inviting front porch for the City, adding to the pleasure and excitement of City living and extending its lively activity to the river’s edge. . . .If, on the other hand, the waterfront becomes an inaccessible, though beautiful, parkway through inattention to imaginative design objectives or overemphasis on economy of traffic movement and disregard of other values, it will be little used and will contribute nothing to the central city’s vitality.”

This echoed Governor Tom McCall’s wish to create an inviting greenway along the Willamette, public park space that would capitalize on the natural assets of the river.

The fear of City Club’s report committee (and the Riverfront for People organizers) was that despite the Governor’s forward-thinking proposal and their recommendations that the Intergovernmental Task Force led by Glenn Jackson (of the State Highway Commission) would ignore urgent pleas and instead “bar our citizens from what should and must be one of the most attractive, livable and useful sections of the core city.”

Among the many young activists who got involved with the Riverfront fight was Gretchen Kafoury, fresh from a stint in the Peace Corps in Iran (“no one had heard of Iran then”). Like many hopeful young Portlanders hungry for change, Kafoury (whose distinguished service includes time as a State Representative, Multnomah County Commissioner, and two terms on Portland City Council) had developed a taste for organizing while working on Robert F. Kennedy’s Presidential campaign. While she did take part in the first Riverfront for People picnic in August 1969, Kafoury noted that the Harbor Drive fight was, “part of a huge mosaic of activism . . . including cofounding Oregon NOW, the Oregon Women’s Political Caucus. . .there was so much individual power at that time—we were just so aware of how much difference a small group could make. … It wasn’t just Neil [Goldschmidt], we had Tom Walsh, another bright young person who lost to Frank Ivancie, our nemesis … Seeing how much change was possible inspired many of us—Les AuCoin, Earl [Blumenauer], Vera Katz.”

Harbor Drive and Declining Downtown
To put things in context, it’s worth pointing out that during the 1960s, downtown Portland was in decline, like the downtowns of many American cities. While high-rise office buildings proliferated, retail business was siphoned off by mall developments like Lloyd Center and other projects in Washington and Clackamas counties. Additionally, housing stock had diminished by half with the demolition of neighborhoods for urban renewal projects and the I-405 Stadium Freeway.

Harbor Drive was completed in 1942— a four-lane freeway along the west bank of the Willamette, severing pedestrian access from downtown to the river. A transportation study conducted in 1960 had proposed building 50-some freeway projects by 1990—a plan that would have severely fragmented the metropolitan region. By 1964, the first project, I-5, along the east bank of the Willamette, made it so off-access to both the west and east bank of the river was cut off. In 1968, the State Highway Department proposed widening Harbor Drive, and the city of Portland acquired the former Oregon Journal Building (the one-time Portland Public Market) along Front Street to provide more land for the right of way.

Riverfront for People, while seminal to Portland’s rising tide of citizen involvement, wasn’t an isolated phenomenon. During this period across the country, metropolitan areas were seeing battle-lines drawn around the so-called “freeway revolts”—a wave of grass-roots opposition to planned freeway construction that resulted in many cancelled projects.

Beginning with San Francisco’s 1959 decision to axe seven of the city’s 10 planned freeways, freeway revolts popped up across the country. While most of the efforts focused on defeating planned freeway development, Portland’s Harbor Drive was the first revolt that saw the destruction of an already-existing freeway. Maryland State Senator Barbara Mikulski entered her political career as an anti-freeway activist organizing communities and halting freeway development—preserving the integrity of Baltimore’s Fells Point and Inner Harbor neighborhoods.

Similar victories occurred in Pittsburgh, Boston, Cincinnati, and notably in Milwaukee, where the city in addition to more recently removing the freeway was able to restore the traditional street-grid and redevelop 26 acres of land employing a New Urbanist zoning code. In the cases of both Portland and Baltimore, what was gained were major cultural amenities in the form of waterfront access and iconic tourist landmarks. For both cities this investment was key to the renewal of their respective downtown core.

Setting the Table
Around the time of the Harbor Drive battle, Belcher recalls that there were individuals who were pretty antagonistic to change, like City Councilman Frank Ivancie, who had deep ties to the old guard of Portland. “He was a pretty rigid man, with a lot of influence with City Council and business interests (allied with Glenn Jackson, probably the most powerful civilian in the state then, and PDC’s Ira Keller, Portland’s answer to Robert Moses) —he was especially influential around this idea of widening Harbor Drive. . .Neil Goldschmidt, who’d been part of the City Club report, approached me and said, ‘I hear you’re working hard to prevent this new road along the river, I’d love to help you in any way I can.’”

Much of the organizing of critical mass fell to Allison Belcher—“she was the live wire in the group,’ says Howell. She recalled that, “it was partly through the [1970] election that was coming up for City Council that put us into contact with people—people we knew, neighbors like Gretchen Kafoury, people who baby-sat our children, church lists— that we began calling to get people to come down for this picnic … then what happened, Bob and Jim started talking to architects like Alfred Staehli and Louis Crutcher interested in preservation of the bridge ramps and the cast-iron buildings, the Beautification Society, the garden societies, and began bringing in all these other people who would later come to talk at the hearings at City Hall.”

Pictures of the August picnic, unlike similar be-ins, or anti-war demonstrations of the time, didn’t show long-haired protestors, counter-culture insurgents, but rather young families with children (roped together less they stray off into surrounding traffic), up-and-coming architects and community members—and that caught the eye of everyday Oregonians and the media. As Carl Abbott told me, “the picnic was a great photo op.” Bob Belcher said, “It was a different kind of demonstration—it wasn’t another antiwar protest, it was a strong showing of citizenry. We wanted our kids to get to the river and not turn their backs on it.”

‘The whole point was to get the river back,” Jim Howell quipped. “It wasn’t political, it was civic.” Bob Belcher concurs, “We were pretty outraged and we were young enough that we thought we could make a big noise about this.”

While RFP encountered a strong opposition from many long-time leaders, there many in the business community who were in favor of stepping back from the roadway expansion and looking at something new. Bob Belcher recalls, “I’ll never forget Glenn Jackson’s reaction in hearing Bill DeWeese, the vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce, say, ‘We think this is a plan well-worth considering, Mr. Chairman’ —and this is after hearing 52 different organizations testifying that day—at the end of it, Jackson said, ‘I think I get the picture, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.’ That was the turning point, that big public hearing.”

Thinking back on the eventual victory over the Harbor Drive expansion, Bob and Allison both noted the huge excitement that grew after the public hearings and how much it energized people to encounter visible citizen-driven change.

Recalling that tipping point, Bob Belcher said, “We thought it could happen, we didn’t know our chances, I don’t think we were scared. We were both pissed and excited about what could happen. It was astounding that it came to such a point that rapidly.”

Jim Howell, in accessing the events, reflects, “This whole process surely triggered a lot of what came later. We couldn’t have had nearly the support we had in killing the Mt. Hood Freeway if we hadn’t done this first.”

Now and Then
When I asked the Belchers and Howell if we were in danger of becoming complacent or resting too much on the laurels of past successes —and forgetting how to organize and coalesce around neighborhood, regional issues—I was greeted with a rousing, “Yes.”

“I would frame it this way,” Bob Belcher elaborates. “With this event of 40 years ago, this was kind of like our neighborhood—downtown. We lived in Irvington, but in a way, we worked downtown, we played down there, we just wanted it better. …These days we’re grappling with a regional project [the Columbia River Crossing] that has a misunderstood impact on this city and surrounding, adjacent neighborhoods and all kinds of ramifications that we can’t begin to understand. It’s ended up to be not just a simple neighborhood issue that a lot of us in the past could identify with and get rallied to, with an Allison Belcher haranguing us to get out and go to the picnic. It’s far more complex … how do we make the point these days?”

The challenges of so-called progress continue today as they did then.

One Small Step
In the period between 1970 and 1980, Portland, spurred on in large part by Neil Goldschmidt’s visionary leadership, first as City Commissioner, then Mayor, made a number of pivotal decisions that not only transformed public space and transportation, but heightened citizen’s involvement in the future of urban development.

The first of these landmark decisions was the closing/removal of Harbor Drive—a key step in transforming Portland from a car-oriented city to a more pedestrian-oriented one; the second major step was the 1972 Downtown Plan—a well organized, citizen-centric plan that showed a clear Jane Jacobs-influenced mixed-use core and marked a distinct turning point towards more vibrant public spaces.

Other seminal decisions that followed in the wake of this period were:

  • the establishment of the Office of Neighborhood Associations in 1973 by a newly-elected Mayor Goldschmidt (the result of a Task Force convened by former Mayor Shrunk to explore the idea of a formal structure for neighborhood and district citizen participation)
  • the defeat of the Mount Hood Freeway. In 1974, strong citizen-led movement backed by the Portland City Council snuffed plans for a Mount Hood Freeway, diverting federal funding to build the downtown transit mall, eastside light rail, and other transit projects
  • the vision for Pioneer Courthouse Square was begun in 1970 following a vote that denied a permit to build a 12-story parking structure on the site of the former Meier & Frank two-story parking structure
  • the Comprehensive Land Use Plan, which was adopted by the City Council in 1980, established an urban growth boundary to hinder sprawl and amplify more transit-oriented development.

“Looking at the connection, ‘did RFP influence subsequent events?’” Belcher rhetorically wonders. “We were just focused on trying to make one thing happen, but I think that the Riverfront success made a powerful impression on a lot of people.” Carl Abbott agrees that RFP helped “show people a small victory, so that coming out for the next fight seemed possible.”

One Giant Step
In a year of generation-defining 40th anniversaries—the Moon landing, Woodstock—I was surprised when August 19th passed with nary a notice of Riverfront for People and their picnic, an event that signalled a shift in the dynamics of civic will, power and process on the regional stage.

While the picnic was maybe not so raucous and mind-altering as Woodstock or frontier-expanding as the Moon’s one-small-step-for-man, I think it’s only fitting to acknowledge, as Carl Abbott astutely observed, “It is the capital of a small revolution that is epitomized by Riverfront for People.”

It was certainly not the era’s first citizen activism in the region, but an early and significant success—a small victory that inspired subsequent examples of collective community efficacy like the visionary 1972 Downtown Plan (which had at its core strong citizen participation) and the eventual monumental defeat of the Mt. Hood Freeway in 1974, the event that sowed the seeds of the region’s light-rail system.

A small revolution deserves at least a modest picnic in its honor.


Tim DuRoche is a Portland-based writer and cultural advocate and the Community Programs Manager for Portland Center Stage. His writings on art and culture, urban history, and cultural policy have appeared in a number of publications, including Oregon Humanities, Willamette Week, and The Oregonian.




A Journey to Tolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Hate

History was made on Election Day 2008 in the northern Willamette Valley. The small town of Silverton catapulted into national attention with its election of the first transgendered mayor. This January, Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams will become the first openly gay mayor to lead a large city. Aside from the groundbreaking nature of these electoral victories, what made these two races truly remarkable was the lack of attention that each candidate’s gender identity or sexual orientation received throughout the campaigns. No protests or angry words of condemnation plagued Stu Rasmussen until the national press picked up the story of the Silverton mayoral election. A few weeks later, when four protesters assembled downtown, they were not local residents, but members of a Kansas-based fundamentalist church who travel around the country staging anti-gay rallies. Judging by the results of these two elections, the metroscape’s reputation for tolerance is well deserved.

Mulugeta Seraw
Mulugeta Seraw

Twenty years ago, Portland made headlines for a different type of politics, the politics of hate. In 1988, Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian immigrant and former Portland State University student, was beaten to death by three neo-Nazi skinheads in Southeast Portland. Repeated acts of skinhead violence would shake the city during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Just a few weeks before the murder of Mulugeta Seraw, Oregonians passed Measure 8, a ballot initiative that made it illegal to pass state laws protecting the civil rights of gay and lesbians. This was the first electoral victory for the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance (OCA), a conservative group that would sponsor a number of state and local initiatives including many high-profile anti-gay ballot measures. One month after the passage of Measure 8, a record number of anti-abortion protesters were arrested for blockading two Portland women’s health clinics. Although the metroscape remained politically liberal during the 1980s, it appeared as if extremism was beginning to gain ground.

Far-Right Extremists v. Conservatives

During the 1980s, a significant number of extremist organizations were launched in the state of Oregon and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Far-right extremist politics differ greatly from mainstream conservatism, which believes in limited government and individual rights. Extremist groups want to create a complete political and social revolution in the United States. Although some of these groups work through the system, others prefer to use extra-legal tactics to advance their goals.

While the extremist groups that were active in Portland differed in the revolutionary visions they espoused, they shared similar values. Members of the extreme wing of the anti-abortion movement and the leaders of the Oregon Citizens’ Alliance both wanted to turn the United States into a Christian theocratic state. On the other hand, Neo-Nazi skinheads followed a hodgepodge of racist and religious doctrines; some were Christians, while others believed in a Germanic paganism. Their goal was to turn the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) into a white homeland. Religious extremists and the racist right had different visions, but they both shared a common goal: reversing the civil rights gains of the 1960s and 1970s that were won by people of color, women, and gays and lesbians.

Portland, a city known for its progressive politics, may not seem like the ideal haven for far-right extremist organizations. However, despite its liberal veneer, Portland has a long history of racism and intolerance. The Ku Klux Klan was a major force in Oregon politics during the 1920s. Klan initiation ceremonies were held on Mt. Scott; burning crosses could be seen for miles. It was no surprise that the Klan got such a strong foothold in the state. The Oregon constitutional clause barring African-Americans from owning property was not overturned until 1926. Public accommodations, such as restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters, were segregated in Portland up until the 1950s. When the City Council passed a ban on segregation in public accommodations, Portlanders responded by sponsoring and passing a local initiative to repeal the ban. The state legislature eventually took up the issue and banned segregation in public accommodations in 1957.

Signs similar to this one across the street from the Kenton Theater in north Portland popped up around the town during World War II. OrHi CN 0034

Mulugeta Seraw’s murder took most of the city by surprise. However, the national political climate combined with regional economic turmoil created the ideal context for the rise of extremism in Portland. Nationally, the right wing was leading a backlash against the civil rights gains won during the 1960s. Affirmative action policies were under fierce attack. On the grassroots level, the Christian conservative movement was rapidly growing, attracting followers with their “family values” platform. The anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, launched a national campaign of civil disobedience aimed at shutting down health clinics that offered abortion services. During this time, the Pacific Northwest was experiencing additional turmoil both culturally and economically. In the early 1980s, the timber industry collapsed. The leading timber producing state at that time, Oregon experienced double digit unemployment. The demise of the timber industry was due in part to over-harvesting and automation. This meant that many of the timber jobs that disappeared were not going to return. Oregon had to economically transform itself. The environmental movement played an active role in that transformation, as groups pushed for protection of the state’s remaining old growth forests. An economic gulf opened up between the lagging timber industry in the rural parts of the state and the recovering urban areas that soon translated into a cultural divide, pitting loggers against protectionists.

Portland was also influenced by the national organizing drives of the religious right. Like many other cities across the nation, Portland was home to an active pro-life protest movement. While many pro-lifers used peaceful tactics such as prayer vigils and petitions, the national movement was beginning to rely more heavily on direct action, sometimes violent direct action: preventing prospective patients from obtaining abortions through clinic blockades, sidewalk “counseling,” and even bomb threats and arson. By the late 1980s, Portland was home to one of the most radical anti-abortion groups in the nation. Portland’s Advocates for Life, founded in 1986, had the dubious distinction of being the only pro-life organization to endorse the murder of abortion doctors.

Advocates for Life was the primary organizer of most of the anti-abortion protests in Portland. In 1990, eight of their members sat in jail for months for refusing to abide by a judge’s injunction against clinic blockades. The “Lovejoy Eight” catalyzed Portland’s pro-life movement. While they were imprisoned, clinic blockades grew in number, frequency, and intensity. Bomb threats, death threats, and arson attempts became commonplace at Portland area women’s health clinics, although these crimes were never attributed to Advocates for Life. When an abortion doctor was murdered in Pensacola, Florida, Advocates for Life issued a pamphlet called “A Time to Kill,” which attempted to justify the act. A Grants Pass resident, Shelly Shannon, who had participated in Advocates for Life actions, was arrested in the mid 1990s for trying to shoot a doctor in Kansas and for setting fire to six women’s health clinics. Advocates for Life drew national headlines when they created and distributed wanted posters with the pictures and home addresses of Portland doctors who performed abortions.

The anti-abortion movement wasn’t the only extremist group using violence to advance its goals. During the 1980s, white supremacist groups called for the establishment of an all-white “homeland” in the Pacific Northwest. Richard Butler, the founder of the neo-Nazi Christian Identity movement, set-up a compound for his followers in his hometown of Hayden Lake, Idaho during the 1970s. The Hayden Lake compound served as a training ground for white supremacists organizers. Butler’s Aryan Nation gatherings drew Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazi skinheads, and activists with Christian Patriot organizations. These assorted extremists were united by their racist ideologies and their willingness to use violence and terrorism to advance their goals. In the early 1980s, the Pacific Northwest was the site of a series of acts of domestic terrorism carried out by a white supremacist group known as The Order.

More common than underground cells like The Order were loosely organized neo-Nazi skinhead groups. During the 1980s, the skinhead movement exploded in cities like Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco. The skinhead subculture originated in England and was initially a multiracial phenomenon. Skinheads shaved their heads, dressed in combat boots and flight jackets, and listened to ska or punk music. A sub-group of British skinheads became involved with neo-Nazi politics. When the fashion moved across the Atlantic, young racists and neo-Nazis embraced the look. For many skinheads, the look was just a cultural statement, but a significant group saw themselves as the shock troops of the far-right political movement. Organizers with neo-Nazi and other extremist groups like American Front and WAR (White Aryan Resistance) recruited skinheads to participate in targeted acts of violence against people of color, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and anti-racist youth. In the mid 1980s, the Portland underground music scene was terrorized by skinheads, who then began engaging in increasingly violent attacks against gays and blacks, punctuated by the murder of Mulugeta Seraw.

Some members of extremist groups shied away from the violence the skinheads embraced. The OCA, seemingly distant from mainstream attitudes, worked through the electoral system to promote its agenda. The OCA was founded in 1986 by former workers from fundamentalist preacher Joe Lutz’s Senatorial campaign. Although Lutz failed to unseat Senator Bob Packwood in the primary, he nevertheless gained a substantial portion of Republican votes. The OCA built upon the electoral base they established during the Lutz campaign to launch a series of initiatives aimed at overturning civil rights and undercutting government programs. The OCA won an early and surprising victory when Measure 8 passed in 1988. Measure 8, the anti-gay and lesbian rights initiative, was the first and would be the final statewide victory for the OCA. The OCA went on to push for more restrictive anti-gay legislation in Measure 9, which voters rejected in 1992. The OCA had hoped to build upon their earlier Measure 8 victory and their recent passage of a local anti-gay measure in the city of Springfield. The Springfield measure would eventually be declared unconstitutional.

Anti-gay ballot measures soon became commonplace across the nation. Despite the Christian Coalition’s entrance into electoral politics nationally, the OCA was a homegrown organization that relied upon the statewide initiative process to promote its goals. The Christian Coalition did not even establish a presence in Oregon until 1992, the peak year of OCA membership.

Confronting the Politics of Hate in Portland

In November of 1998, Portland’s gay and lesbian community was shocked by the passage of Measure 8. The measure had been trailing in the polls, and no one expected it to pass. Gay and lesbian activists expressed their outrage by taking to the streets, blocking rush hour traffic on the Burnside Bridge. Within weeks, the gay and lesbian community organized a local chapter of ACT-UP, a national group that used direct action and confrontational tactics to draw attention to the AIDS crisis. A series of militant demonstrations followed. The community’s initial shock was channeled into a campaign of visibility and resistance. Prior to the passage of Measure 8, the community had always responded when the far-right attacked, but they never initiated any actions against the anti-gay activists without provocation. A few months before the passage of Measure 8, extremists forced Tri-Met to remove public service ads sponsored by the Cascade AIDS project from buses and MAX trains. After the removal of the ads, the gay and lesbian community protested, but to no avail. Once Measure 8 passed, gay and lesbian activists no longer waited for extremists to attack. Activists began targeting the local institutions that sponsored anti-gay proposals. In 1991, members of ACT-UP and its spin-off group, Queer Nation, staged a silent protest during Sunday services at the Portland Foursquare church where OCA held its meetings. Gay and lesbian activists disrupted OCA rallies and successfully campaigned to get anti-gay petitioners removed from local Fred Meyers.

By the time the OCA put Measure 9 on the ballot, the gay and lesbian community was organized and ready to respond. Measure 8 demonstrated that gays and lesbians could no longer assume that Portland was any more hospitable or tolerant than other parts of the nation. The Measure 9 campaign was hard fought. The “No on 9” campaign offices were broken into, and mailing lists were stolen. Gay-friendly churches were vandalized. Despite these acts of intimidation, the “No on 9” campaign carried on. The defeat of Measure 9 signaled the beginning of the end for the OCA. Although the organization continued to sponsor initiatives during the 1990s, it was no longer considered a potential force in Oregon politics.

Battling Boneheads and Bigots

The murder of Mulugeta Seraw took Portland by surprise, despite months of steadily escalating skinhead attacks throughout the city. Politicians condemned the crime. The police, who had ignored the escalation, dedicated substantial resources towards fighting skinhead violence. Portlanders rallied, marched, and formed the Metropolitan Human Rights Commission to monitor hate crimes in the city. The organization soon split after MHRC refused to support an effort to send Portlanders to march against the Aryan Nations gathering in Hayden Lake, Idaho. A new, more activist group was formed. The Coalition for Human Dignity (CHD) not only wanted to monitor hate groups, but also to actively organize to combat them.

The CHD attracted young people from Portland’s punk rock scene who had witnessed skinhead intimidation firsthand. In 1990, these young punks became affiliated with a national organization called Anti-Racist Action (ARA). Anti-Racist Action believed in using violence when necessary to drive skinheads out of the community. ARA members collected intelligence on skinheads, organized neighbors and co-workers to get them evicted from their apartments or fired from their jobs, spray-painted neo-Nazi’s homes, and fought back when skinheads attacked. Anti-racist skinheads, known as SHARPS (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), were especially eager to fight their racist counterparts. SHARPS not only opposed the racist ideologies of skinheads, but they also wanted to reclaim the anti-racist origins of the skinhead movement. SHARPS were particularly hated by neo-Nazi skinheads and were often targets of their violence. During the early 1990s, skinheads and their newly organized opponents waged war in the streets of Portland. In response, the police listed both the SHARPS and skinheads as gangs and prosecuted them equally.

In 1991, Morris Dees, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a civil lawsuit against Tom Metzger, the southern California-based founder of White Aryan Resistance, a neo-Nazi skinhead group that some of the murderers of Mulugeta Seraw belonged to. The trial was held in Portland as skinheads and anti-racists from around the country flocked to the city. Tensions ran high and skirmishes broke out. Metzger was eventually found guilty in the trial that marked the height of the war between the skinheads and anti-racists. After the verdict, many neo-Nazi groups left the city. Hate crimes continued and occasional confrontations broke out, but Portland was no longer viewed as friendly territory for white supremacists.

Protecting a Women’s Right to Choose: Courts and the Clinics

After Advocates for Life began its 1988 civil disobedience campaign, local women’s health care providers sought court injunctions to prevent protesters from blocking patient access to clinics. However, the Lovejoy Eight demonstrated that anti-abortion protesters would not passively abide by court orders. The Lovejoy Eight spent months in jail while their case moved through the courts, catalyzing the pro-life movement. Eventually the defendants were forced to pay fines, and subsequent rulings strengthened court injunctions. Despite these legal victories, women’s clinics continued to be targeted by an increasingly emboldened pro-life movement.

By 1989, local women’s health care centers were relying upon volunteer “clinic defenders” to escort patients through the protests outside their doors. Clinic defense ensured patient access, but it could not protect clients or volunteers from verbal and occasional physical attacks by pro-life protesters. Even with a dedicated team of clinic defenders, the anti-abortion movement still had the upper hand. Because abortion rights are protected under the law, providers logically looked to the court system to defend them. Although the courts continued to rule in the clinics’ favor, the anti-abortion movement stayed one step ahead, issuing new challenges to abortion providers by shifting their tactics. In the early 1990s, clinic blockades were popular. After a federal injunction passed, pro-lifers targeted the homes of abortion providers. By the mid-1990s, extremists within the movement began murdering doctors who performed abortion. Advocates for Life endorsed these actions and produced a series of wanted posters listing the names, home addresses and pictures of Portland area abortion providers. Despite this escalation of tactics, clinic administrators continued to look for protection from the courts, filing a civil suit against Advocates for Life. Unlike the gay and lesbian movement or anti-racist efforts, pro-choice activists remained on the defensive against the far-right. It was not until 1998, that a small group of feminists shocked pro-lifers by staging a protest outside a church that sponsored anti-abortion activities. But this remained an isolated incident, and the pro-life movement in Portland would continue to harangue abortion providers until it eventually defeated itself through its own extremism. As Advocates for Life took progressively more radical stances, they began to lose popular support. After the publication of A Time to Kill, the group tried to initiate a civil disobedience action a national Right to Life march. Few participants joined them.

The End?

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, opponents used a variety of tactics to stem the growth of extremism in Portland. Through an organized, highly visible, and very militant response, the OCA and skinhead groups were all but defeated by 1992. Abortion rights activists used different tactics, seeking legal protection and working primarily through the court system. Their response was not very costly to anti-abortion groups like Advocates for Life who had already demonstrated their willingness to flout the legal system. As a result, the anti-abortion movement lasted well into the late 1990s. Its demise was due more to its support of increasingly extremist tactics rather than any organized response by its opponents.

Clearly, militancy was the key to defeating the politics of hate in Portland. However, militancy comes with its own costs. The swift victories of groups like Anti-Racist Action led many activists to abandon the cause while it was still in its infancy. Although many individuals remained dedicated to fighting all forms of racial oppression, the movement never fully matured into a lasting campaign that was capable of addressing the ongoing historical legacies of institutional racism in Portland. A number of community groups continued to struggle against institutional racism in the city, but they were never able to attract the thousands who rallied against Tom Metzger. Ironically, it was this history of intolerance in the region that laid the foundation for the rise of extremists in the 1980s.
In contrast to anti-racist efforts, the gay and lesbian movement adopted a big tent approach. The visibility and activism of groups like Queer Nation, ACT-UP, and, later, the Lesbian Avengers, played an important role in defeating the politics of homophobic hate. Meanwhile, a highly capable electoral wing of the movement developed during the “No on 9” campaign. Gays and lesbians would go on to press for equal treatment and civil rights using a variety of tactics, from staging rallies to lobbying state and local officials. The 2008 election results are a testament to the success of the gay and lesbian movement’s approach.

Even though the politics of tolerance dominate the contemporary northern Willamette Valley, given the right conditions, the politics of hate could once again flourish here. Until we address the institutional conditions that gave rise to extremism during the 1980s, Portland remains susceptible to homegrown hate. Indeed, despite the electoral gains of Stu Rasmussen and Sam Adams, a woman was recently assaulted in Washington County because of her sexuality. Isolated incidents of racism, such as the noose and effigy that were hung at George Fox University, surfaced during Obama’s presidential campaign. The lessons of the 1980s remain clear. The politics of hate remain a legacy of intolerance that might one day shape our region again.


Leanne Serbulo recently received a Ph.D. in urban studies from Portland State University. This article is excerpted from a longer study of Pacific Northwest protests during the 1990s. For a detailed list of sources and more in-depth information and analysis see: “Whose Streets? Our Streets! Urban Social Movements and the Transformation of Everyday Life in Pacific Northwest Cities, 1990-1999,” Ph.D. dissertation, Portland State University, 2008 .




Oh, Give Me A Home: Kids, stability, and education

Amy is a fourth grade teacher in a Portland metro region elementary school with a high percentage of transient students. Anna, Steven and Thuyet are her students. [We have used pseudonyms to ensure the anonymity of the informants.]

“By the second week of each new school year, it’s plainly evident which students have been in the same school for several years and which are recent arrivals,” Amy says. “Attending school in the same building with the same teachers is an incredibly important indicator of success.”

Amy, Thuyet, Steven, and Anna are four of the many students, teachers, families, and school administrators in the metroscape contending with the impacts of housing instability on the education and future chances of today’s kids. Student mobility impacts not just the individual child who is entering and leaving different schools during the same year, but also other students and the overall education system, according to school administrators and researchers.

Conversely, improving housing stability—decreasing the percentage of households with school age children who move involuntarily—is likely to reap benefits not only for the affected students, but also for other families in the community.

Thuyet sometimes lives in a shelter with his family. Since he began school four years ago, he has attended five schools. He says that being at the shelter is “really cool” because he gets “babysat by nice people.” When he is at the shelter, he gets to do his homework in his babysitter’s room.

Thuyet sometimes lives in a shelter with his family. Since he began school four years ago, he has attended five schools. He says that being at the shelter is “really cool” because he gets “babysat by nice people.” When he is at the shelter, he gets to do his homework in his babysitter’s room.

Steven lives with his brothers, his mom, his grandparents, an aunt and uncle. He does his homework in the kitchen. Sometimes his brothers do their work at the same time. Sometimes it is hard for Steven to concentrate on his school work because his five year old cousins come into the kitchen and cause trouble.

Jake does his homework on the front porch because the family lives with his sick grandfather, for whom the house must be kept very warm. It is too warm inside to do homework.

Anna is a fourth grader who lives in a two bedroom apartment with her parents, two sisters and one brother. All four kids share a bedroom with two beds, where the three girls do their homework while their little brother plays in the same room. Since kindergarten, Anna has attended four schools. Her favorite subject is science.

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Moving Up or Just Moving?homelessness definition

Is moving such a bad thing? The answer is: it depends.

Mobility is part of the American way of life. According to the U.S. Census 2000, nearly one in five households moved during a fifteen month period that began January 1999. Portland metro area residents are even more mobile than average. Nearly one in four Portland area households moved, including nearly half of all renters (47.7%) and more than one in 10 homeowners (11.4%) during that fifteen month period.

Whether moving is a good thing or a bad thing for kids depends in part on whether families are moving by choice or not. Research on school age children shows that the impacts on the two groups tend to differ, according to PSU graduate student Renée Ramey.

Ramey found research that correlates voluntary moves with higher socio-economic status and improved long-term outcomes for the children. These families may move to pursue a better life for their family. They are not likely to move multiple times during a school year. They can time their move to occur when it would be least disruptive. Students from these families tend to bear the costs of moving (loss of familiar classmates and teachers, lack of continuity in class work, adaptation to a new environment) during the first year after their move, while the benefits of an improved environment or economic status tend to continue to accrue over time.

Other families, typically those with lower incomes, are forced to move. These are the households for whom housing instability—the lack of place to live on an ongoing basis that is within their means—is a critical issue.

Students with higher average mobility rates not only experience the personal dislocation associated with frequent moves, but they also tend to cycle in and out of schools that serve a more unstable population. For these students, the adverse effects of housing instability accumulate over time.

The Costs of Housing Instabilityhousing instability costs

Children and youth experiencing ongoing housing instability or homelessness experience a host of threats, including illness, hunger, exposure to violence, and impacts on their mental health.
When kids move, they also lose ground academically, and this can affect the options they have later in life as adults. The more they move, the more ground they lose. According to some estimates, students lose three to six months of education with every move. They are at higher risk of falling behind their peers and failing to graduate.

According to Ron Naso, Superintendent of North Clackamas Schools, student mobility wreaks havoc with the progression of a student through a curriculum based on remaining in the same school for the duration of his or her studies.

“Our educational system in Oregon is premised on continuity. If a student changes schools or school districts, there’s no particular guarantee that the requisite prior learnings were addressed along the way,” Naso says. “When students can stay in the same cohort throughout their time in a school, we see a much better level of performance.”

That perspective is echoed by Amy, the fourth-grade teacher in a school with a highly mobile population. “Each individual school devises a ‘building plan’ for instruction. We plan vertically, meaning that we take the objectives and benchmarks that a graduating fifth grade student must have in order to be successful and break it down by grade level,” she says. If a student doesn’t progress through the plan, they may miss critical elements.

Less than a third of Amy’s fourth-graders have attended the same school since first grade. “I have students who have no idea of where to place a period, students who are unfamiliar with the rules of capitalization, students who have missed significant parts of academic years, students who have fallen through the cracks,” she says.

According to Jean DeMaster, Executive Director of Human Services, a non-profit that provides housing and services to low-income families in East Multnomah County, homeless kids face huge learning challenges. Students may have to adjust to new ways of learning. For example, one teacher may have explained subtraction one way, but another might explain it differently, and the child can get lost between the two. And, as Amy indicated, students can miss content essential to their progression.

High school age kids who move frequently during the year face an additional set of challenges. “The educational system is not built for highly mobile youth, like kids who are dealing with highly stressful situations or housing issues,” says Jonathan Zook, Homeless Program Liaison for Portland Public Schools.

In Portland Public Schools, if a high school student is not enrolled for classes by December 1, that student cannot start earning credits again until February. While alternative schools and special education programs permit students to earn partial credit or provide flexible timing, high school students in traditional programs may find themselves far behind their age cohort in progressing toward graduation.

The problems can be compounded when students change school systems. “When high school students move, they may lose credits if they change school districts,” according to Nancy Faaren, Principal at Fort Vancouver High School.

When kids of any age move, they also lose something called “social capital”—the benefits derived from having relationships with others in their environment. “Parents and children who have many friends in their community and who are highly involved with other members of the family have more social capital than those who do not,” Ramey says.

“In times of stress, social capital can help buffer families. When families move, often these ties are broken. Kids can lose classmates, teachers, friends and helpful adults in their lives just when they need them the most,” Ramey says.

The kids who move are not the only ones who are affected by housing insecurity. Student mobility forces everyone in the classroom to adjust to fluxes in the environment.

“In elementary school, the adaptation challenges can be significant,” Naso says. “Teachers have to adapt to include the new student, and the class overall has to make adaptations. Personalities and relationships change. Some kids coming in might be very disruptive until the teacher can assimilate them.”

Studies have found that homeless children have four times the average rate of delayed development. According to the National Center of Family Homelessness, 21% of homeless kids repeat a grade due to frequent absence from school, compared to 5% of other children. Other impacts of student mobility include an increase in negative behavior and a decreased likelihood of graduating from high school. These impacts persist even when the effects of other possible causes of poor performance, such as socio-economic status, are considered.

The Geography of Student Mobility

Mapping student mobility is a complex task because there is not a single, generally-accepted measure. One way is to measure a school’s stability rate—the percentage of students enrolled in the beginning of the year who are also enrolled at the end of the year. A class with an enrollment of 30 students on October 1 would have a stability rate of 90% if 27 of those same students were enrolled on May 1.
While the stability rate portrays one dimension of classroom flux, it does not necessarily capture the full extent of student mobility because it does not count the number of students who come and go during the course of the year. In the example above, it is possible that the class had only three part-year students, or it could have had 11, 18 or any other number three or greater.

A second measurement of student mobility is the percentage of students enrolled in a school during an academic year who met the definition of “homeless” (see sidebar). The McKinney-Vento Act, the federal legislation pertaining to homelessness, defines a homeless individual as one who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. Not only does it include families and youth living on the street, but it also includes those doubling up with other households, living from motel to motel, in temporary foster care, or living in cars.

While homeless students can remain in the same class throughout an academic year or longer, often their situation results in their percent homeless mapchanging schools. National studies have found that 40% of homeless children attend two different schools within a single year, and 28% attend three or more different schools.

The stability rate and the percentage of students who are homeless generate a sense of classroom turnover. While neither measure alone is complete, when taken in combination the two are useful in describing the relative degree of student flux in a classroom, school, district or county.
Within Oregon metro-area school districts, stability rates range from a low of just under 86% to a high of more than 97%. Within individual public schools, stability rates range from just below 80% to nearly 99%, a high degree of variation.

Homeless children constitute more than a third of all homeless individuals in Oregon. Oregon public schools enrolled 1,500 homeless students in the 2004-2005 school year, which constitutes approximately 2.4% of all students statewide.

Significant variation exists among Oregon counties with respect to the percentage of their enrollment composed of homeless students. On the high end, Lincoln and Jackson Counties had the highest proportions at 7.1% and 5.1%, respectively, while Wheeler, Wallowa and Grant counties reported no homeless students. Among the six counties of the metroscape, Columbia reported the lowest share of homeless students (less than 1%) and Multnomah County the highest (nearly 2.5%).

Most Oregon homeless students—six of 10—were doubled up with other households. The remaining students were living in shelters, hotels or other temporary lodging, or they were living in the open.
A pattern of mobility is often overlaid with other stressors on a school system, such as a high rate of free or reduced lunches (an indicator of poverty) and a high percentage of students who do not speak English at home. These same districts also face the challenge of serving expanding school-age populations without the resources to provide additional facilities.

School Level Stability
Source: Oregon Department of Education (click to enlarge)

How Schools Are Responding

By federal law, schools are required to provide assistance to homeless children to keep them in school and help them succeed. The McKinney Vento Act mandates that school districts designate a Homeless Liaison to assist students, provide access to enrollment in the school of origin, provide transportation from where they are living to the school of origin, and provide access to services available to non-homeless students.

According to Zook, a homeless student liaison with Portland Public Schools, being able to stay in the same school is a big advantage to high school age youth. “It’s their rock, their stability when everything else may be in chaos. Their friends and teachers are there.”

“Each kid is different,” Zook says. One student who was homeless during part of her senior year graduated among the top five students in her class recently, he says.

Renee Holmes is a former homeless mother of three teenage girls who sees great value in the services that the schools provide. Sometimes homeless parents are not able to cope with taking care of their kids’ needs.

“I was chronically homeless from 1998 through 2003, and in and out of homeless shelters with my three girls,” she says. She ticks off the impacts on her girls.

“My oldest missed three-quarters of her ninth grade because of unstable housing. It’s hard to give busses an address. Moving all the time affects schoolwork. My kids didn’t have a computer or a quiet place to work,” she says.

Some homeless kids develop “an attitude,” Holmes says. “Their perception of school becomes something like ‘why bother’” to try to attend if they don’t even have a place to live.

Against all odds, Holmes’s story has a happy ending. No longer homeless, she is the Community Resource Coordinator for Open House Ministries, a homeless family program in Vancouver, Washington. Her girls have rebounded and are excelling. She credits the Vancouver homeless liaison with coming through for her girls when she was not able to do so herself.

Homeless liaisons not only help kids and parents navigate the educational system; they also assist with linking them to social services, after-school programs, health services, free and reduced lunches, clothing, hygiene products, and shelter. “We serve as the connection between schools and the community,” says Kristin Kinnie, Homeless Program Coordinator for North Clackamas Schools and Site Coordinator for the Family Support Center.

Despite all these services, the key ingredient is housing. “The education of our kids would be so much stronger if they lived in stable housing,” Kinnie says. “There’s just a general lack of resources for homeless families, and that impacts kids.”

What Housing Providers Are Doing

Homeless service providers and schools have been coordinating at the service delivery level for many years. “Homeless service providers understand the link between keeping kids in school and preventing future homelessness,” Jean DeMaster, Executive Director of Human Solutions, says. Homeless kids who fall behind become potential candidates for homelessness as adults.

“To get stability for the family, one of the first things you need to do is get the kids in school,” she says. This works both to the benefit of the kids, who need continuity in schooling to succeed, but also to the benefit of the parents, who need to spend their days seeking work and housing.

Recently, housing providers, homeless advocates, and funders in a four-county region (Clark, Clackamas, Washington, and Multnomah Counties) have crafted a new, more flexible approach to meeting the housing and service needs of homeless families. Called Bridges to Housing, the program is built around three principles:

1. Provide permanent affordable housing to families as long as it is needed.
2. Provide intensive family services to build on the strengths of family members.
3. Provide child services, including school support, to address the needs of kids.

The 10-year goal is to provide 300 units of family housing supported by services, including case management, employment support for adults, and school support for kids. The program has just begun a three-year pilot phase and recently issued a $900,000 request for proposals to housing and service providers in the four counties, according to Alison McIntosh, Project Associate with the Neighborhood Partnership Fund. Meyer Memorial Trust provided a $500,000 challenge grant and the Gates Foundation provided a $1 million three-year matching grant to help bankroll the pilot phase, which project sponsors anticipate will result in 30 to 60 units of housing.

According to DeMaster, the benefits of a “housing first” approach is that the family is moved into permanent housing from the start instead of moving from shelter to transitional housing then finally to permanent housing. This approach can mean a world of difference to kids in school, she says.
“They may be able to stay in their local school. If the family can’t find housing near that school, then they can pick a school and neighborhood and only move once. Then we focus on helping the kids stay in school,” she says.

In addition to providing housing and access to social services, this initiative will include at least $1,700 per family per year for client services or direct payments in support of family goals. In the area of school support, these payments could cover an assessment for learning disabilities, participation in an after-school program, and attending school field trips or other extra-curricular activities that may not be available without financial assistance, McIntosh says.

Also promising is the Schools, Families, Housing Initiative led by Portland Commissioner Erik Sten, which is aimed at retaining and recruiting families with children to Portland neighborhoods. Portland Public Schools is one of the few school districts in the region losing school enrollment. Analysts attribute the declining enrollment in part to families being priced out of core city neighborhoods. In districts outside the Portland core, analysts report that enrollment is up precipitously because families are moving to where they can find affordable family housing.

“There is a direct link to Portland’s school enrollment and housing choices,” Sten says. “We want to ensure that Portland has housing options for people in all circumstances, including parents raising children. In order to have healthy schools, we need to provide affordable and appropriate housing options for families.”

The overall initiative embraces numerous city bureaus and is supported by $2.5 million in new City of Portland funding and the realignment of existing programs, according to Rich Rodgers, Coordinator of the Schools, Family, Housing Initiative.

Family housing initiatives include boosting funding to programs providing affordable homeownership, creating a new housing stabilization program, and utilizing urban renewal and other funding to encourage new construction of family-oriented infill housing in and around selected school sites.
The housing stabilization program is a new rent assistance fund intended to help families keep their children in the same school throughout the academic year despite economic hardships and other challenges that can prompt moves. Funded with $500,000 in general fund resources, the program is currently under design, according to Rodgers.

Rodgers says that the program will work through existing school contacts, such as the SUN program, to identify when kids are at risk of an involuntary move. The notion is that a small amount of targeted assistance at a critical juncture may result in forestalling a move or possible homelessness. Funds could be used for rent stabilization to keep the family in place and direct financial assistance for one-time costs such as utility deposits, should the family have to move.

The Portland Development Commission has identified $5.5 million in proposed FY 07-08 funding to support new family-oriented infill development in key areas. Potential areas may include the Cully neighborhood, the River District, Hillsdale, Humboldt, Lents and East Portland within David Douglas, Rodgers says.

The Initiative also includes a small grant program funded by the City of Portland to be administered by Portland Schools Foundation. Grants will support collaborative efforts by community partners who want to make their neighborhood more family friendly and/or improve their schools. One of the potential uses of funds is to support family housing by helping families find and keep homes near neighborhood schools.

Meeting The Need?

Both housing providers and homeless student liaisons in schools agree that there are not enough resources to meet the needs of involuntarily mobile and homeless families. The need for affordable housing when seen through the struggles of a child experiencing housing instability takes on a new urgency and meaning.

The fact that more than one-third of Oregon’s homeless population consists of children calls for a re-examination of stereotypes of the homeless. One has to wonder what the future is going to be like for those kids. Some, like Renee Holmes’s daughters, will rebound; others, like the homeless student who graduated at the top of her class, will beat the odds. Without a stable place to call home, others may fall through the cracks.


Andrée Tremoulet is a community development practitioner and doctoral candidate in Urban Studies at Portland State University. Elizabeth Mylott is a Ph.D. student in Urban Studies at Portland State University.




Rekindling the Public Romance: Rethinking Civic Engagement

In an ideal world, there’s a romance. A romance where government decides on behalf of the community, and residents stay informed while sharing those decisions with their neighbors. Relationships grow, information is shared, and decisions are generally understood and transparent.

This is the ideal, but, unfortunately, not today’s reality. These scenarios likely exist momentarily, yes, but it’s time to be honest about the state of today’s public affairs. The disengaged, or simply oblivious, civic climate requires policymakers and community advocates to rethink engagement and communication methods in order to rekindle the romance. This discussion highlights what community leaders and government professionals are doing in the metroscape to bring folks back to the civic conversation.

To start, this relationship is not a new phenomenon. The connection between the community and government is a product of generational culture shifts, evolutions in public opinion, changing demographics, and mostly the lack of a “retail” relationship among most people and government agencies. Maybe this is also nothing more than a phenomenon unique to American democracy, an enormous system built on contrarian checksand-balances.

The current relationship is also no one person’s fault. On the government side, it’s always a resource issue. From my experience as a Public Information Officer at the Oregon Department of Forestry, no staffer, administrator, or elected official would agree that public agencies have done all there is to do to fully engage communities. Like any workplace, competing priorities emerge. Projects pile up. The flavor of the moment and budgets take precedence. Until public engagement – including communications and public affairs staff – are seen as a necessity, it’s fair to assume that priorities will be directed elsewhere. 

On a positive note, polls report that local governments are trusted more than state and federal agencies. National voter turnout, though, typically hovers at 40% for midterm elections, and 60% for presidential races, and Oregon is no exception. These averages usually shrink for local and state elections, unless there’s a presidential race. The latest Oregon Values and Beliefs (2013) study revealed increasing public concern over government spending, efficiency, and education reform. Local pollsters repeatedly hear from Oregonians that government is the least trusted American institution overall – often stemming from questions about transparency and inclusion, and frustration with inefficiency. This, in turn, breeds apathy, and voter turnout decreases or fluctuates instead of climbing upward.

So we have a problem. One housing good intentions, diminishing resources, and a spectrum of players so varied and complex that there’s no single solution. But we can’t sweep this one under the rug anymore, or point fingers at ignorance. We have to acknowledge it, and realize that as policy professionals, we are fully capable of changing this troubling dynamic. 

Part of the solution involves refining traditional and antiquated government communication, starting from scratch, and asking tough questions to inform a new era. Questions like what should the goal of public engagement be – helping people own decisions? Increasing information sharing and education? Increasing the number of people who participate outside the usual players?

Maybe all of the above. Sherry Arnstein started this discussion in the late sixties, pushing a framework she labeled a “public participation ladder,” and requesting an overhaul of government-ushered public participation. Her vision and callto-action were compelling, but she failed to provide a roadmap for how to do it, instead residing in the hypothetical world of academia.

[Jacob’s] vision and callto-action were compelling, but she failed to provide a roadmap for how to do it. . . 

Fast forward forty years. Renee Irvin, Associate Professor with the University of Oregon’s department of Planning, Public Policy and Management packaged reality, experience, and vision in her 2004 article “Citizen Participation in Decision Making: Is It Worth the Effort?” This award-winning article not only tackles a number of tough issues, but reflects on personal experiences, concluding that, of course, citizen participation is worth the effort, but that it also must be targeted, strategic, and evaluated. Simply hosting a public meeting, and saying, “well, we tried,” isn’t enough anymore.

“I wrote the article in response to a feeling of frustration,” Irvin said from her Eugene office. “Why did just the government representatives come to our meetings, and not members of the public? It was just not compelling enough for an individual citizen to come to a meeting. When the stakes are high for certain individuals or businesses, they’ll come. Everyone else affected by a proposed change just doesn’t have the time to participate in meetings – not even a single meeting. Thus, the broad public is never heard in these participatory processes, even though that’s the point of incorporating participation.” 

“There may be high costs, but there also may be highly effective solutions,” Irvin continued. “Go to where the people are – their workplace cafeterias, their soccer games, their 5K runs, the dog park, their places of worship, and so on. When the stakes are high and you really need input from those who don’t have huge vested interests in the outcome, go visit with people where they congregate.”

When the stakes are high and you really need input. . .  go visit with people where they congregate.

One solution, used by many but by no means the silver bullet, is technology and online options – social media, online surveys, websites and blogs, interactive maps, and online communities, for example. Technology is one way to reach exponentially more people without adding full-time employees or spending countless hours in board rooms.

Technology, or what some have coined e-government, is a new wave but should not stand alone. It’s a great way to reach people where they are, but not a replacement for good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation.

Thad Miller, an assistant professor with Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, has spent years researching and understanding how engagement processes help people interact with technology, and how it can be used to improve involvement. Miller led community members on city tours, where they took photos that were later posted on a website to help reflect their story and priorities for the urban landscape. 

“Technology can cast a broader net, but usually only for a specific audience. Online options are almost always inherently set. There are also a number of access issues. The ways in which you frame projects matter – and this may naturally leave some people out,” Miller said.

Technology can cast a broader net, but usually only for a specific audience.

 

 

 

 

 

What do we do then? What’s happening in our region? What are best practices to borrow from and who’s pushing the envelope with new ideas? Our region is a big place with many different community identities. How do local agencies embrace and accommodate this diversity? The following ideas provide a snapshot of what’s happening in our backyard.

BPS: Map App

The Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) has translated the complex maze of prioritizing and explaining the city’s comprehensive planning process through an online mapping tool, called the “Map App” (find it here: http://www. portlandbps.com/gis/cpmapp/). The tool allows people to see and interact with future and current plans, implications for neighborhoods, employment ramifications, stormwater logistics, transportation planning and more. It has been the centerpiece for open houses, workshops, and planning meetings.

BPS’s Map App represents a major stride in technology’s role in public participation, both for information-sharing and hands-on involvement. But is it enough? While not a standalone device for improving the public relationship, the tool allows for a greater degree of interaction than, for example, online surveys. But, in many ways, the Map App is a blackbox where only the options that planners want the public to consider are offered.

Beaverton: Outreach and Photovoice

The City of Beaverton, partnering with Portland State University, has worked hard to highlight the importance of the messenger in public engagement efforts. When having conversations with communities, the messenger matters. Finding and using the right messenger is key to rekindling the public romance.

Beaverton, using a number of social media and online tools, empowers relevant messengers for open houses focused on bringing more people to the civic conversation. In fact, Beaverton has prioritized this approach in their budget and planning.

They also initiated a participatory research process for the City’s Creekside District planning effort, called Photovoice. The Photovoice approach asks community members to use photography to explore issues that matter to them. Because it heavily relies on the power of images to tell stories, Photovoice can be a very effective tool for engaging nonEnglish speaking residents and youth — priorities for Beaverton’s planners.

“The bottom line is to try new things, look for creative options to make engagement easy and go where the people are to get input,” said Stevie Freeman-Montes, Sustainability Coordinator for the City. 

The participants’ photographs, captions, and small-group conversations about the Creekside District revealed, in often compelling and personal terms, many of the day-to-day challenges that community members face. Much of the feedback is being fed directly into the Creekside District Master Plan to revitalize downtown Beaverton.

“In Beaverton, we’ve realized it takes different options to get people involved,” FreemanMontes continued, accompanied by program manager Holly Thompson. “We have to make it easy, welcoming, and provide multiple platforms. For example, one in four Beaverton residents were born outside of the United States. To support the participation of our diverse community, we have a Beaverton Organizing and Leadership Development program to train 20 or more immigrant and refugee community members about local government. We have started a Diversity Advisory Board, tasked with advising the City on culturally specific outreach strategies. We have to evolve with the people we serve to make sure we are working together to define vibrant civic engagement and participation.”

“One of our biggest challenges is capacity,” Thompson added. “We know that you have to use multiple methods to reach people, but in trying new things you still need to invest in the traditional methods. Our city newsletter and print postcards still rate as top ways that people get information.”

Metro: Opt-In and Metro News

Metro, the region’s unique government planning agency, has followed its pioneering planning efforts with redefining engagement and involvement.

The first, the Opt-In Online Panel (http://optinpanel.org), is a fancy brand for a huge mailing list. At last count there were over 20,000 people signed on. The list itself isn’t necessarily the inventive piece to this, although the numbers are impressive. More significant is how the panel functions as a two-way conversation and educator through online surveys and interactive information. People can weigh in on major Metro Council decisions, and do so from the comfort of their own homes. 

For panels and online communities to work, they must stay relevant, active, and applicable. There’s also a fine line to dance to stay present in inboxes without spamming. Managing these panels isn’t rocket science – some, even Metro, have spent money on consultants to craft messages, questions, and management plans. But consultants aren’t needed for this relatively cheap approach – all it takes is someone computer savvy enough to upload contacts, vet questions with key staff, and enough foresight to make adjustments over time.

Another Metro idea redefines transparency through employing a Metropaid, though independent, reporter to write about council decisions and events through Metro News. The challenges involved are straightforward – an independent reporter paid by those he’s reporting on – but introduces an interesting point. The Metro News project asserts both that it’s okay to experiment and blow up traditional government PR, and that trust can be built through knowing someone on the inside. Unfortunately, the project seems to have lost steam, based on the tone and nature of recent stories, and Nick Christensen, the brave soul “infiltrating the halls of bureaucracy” continues on in the hope that Metro News will survive. 

“Oregonians place a special value on public participation. I think with that comes a responsibility to be informed before participating. If we can clearly explain the sausage-making process, there’s less room for complaint later on when the sausage is actually made,” said Christensen. “As traditional media descends deeper into a weird world where a default attitude of cynicism, search-engine-optimized headlines and omnipresent click counters guide news gathering and storytelling, I still think there’s a place for government to hold the beacon, and perform journalism in the interest of public service. At the end of the day, the public should be the ultimate judge of the content – if they don’t feel like it’s trustworthy, we aren’t doing our jobs right.”

Black Parent Initiative

Though not a public agency, the Black Parent Initiative (BPI), headed by community leader Charles McGee, is setting the tone for public agencies in engaging communities of color. With the premise that online options and technology are great tools, but that people genuinely engage through social interaction and community-building, McGee and BPI hold regular parenting classes that go beyond simply teaching good parenting. The classes also provide the tools for active community participation, stressing that involvement must be taught and instilled early and often. 

“By engaging children early, and telling them they can be great from the beginning, we’re succeeding in positively touching and engaging young people early on, and working to change the message and conversation,” said McGee.

“Let’s imbed diversity into Portland’s culture and the greater community as a form of outreach – through jobs, through committees, through conversations. We have to be more critical, and define what it means to engage in the system as a person of color. How can local governments better connect with communities of color? It’s about building relationships, so that we can then have those tough conversations and move to next steps from there,” McGee added from his north Portland home.

VisionPDX

In 2007, VisionPDX was the largest engagement project undertaken by the City of Portland, and one of the largest nationally. It brought together diverse Portlanders to articulate a twenty-year vision for Portland, occurring through workshops, committees, online tools, surveys, kiosks, entertainment, and submitted comments, among others.

“It was a community-driven process resulting in a community-driven vision,” said Sheila Martin, Director of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies at the College of Urban & Public Affairs at Portland State University, and co-chair of the project.

VisionPDX wasn’t a single tool serving a single mission. The project is a model for how multiple engagement approaches coalesce to pursue a broader set of goals, resulting in a complex dialogue packaged into a community-inspired vision for Portland’s future. Notably, it also points to the significant challenges associated with rekindling the civic romance. 

“I think Portland is a very engaged community for the most part, but there are many people who don’t have the time or attention to get deeply involved in some of the important decisions that our leaders are making on behalf of the community,” Martin reflected. “We need to make it easy for people to engage by using terminology that they can understand, processes that they can easily plug into when they have time, and opportunities to learn and provide input outside of the normal format of community meetings or city council sessions. Using local groups and nonprofits that are already working in the community to engage citizens is a good idea.”

Martin said that just because an engagement tool is interesting or intriguing does not always mean it’s effective. She said, for example, the “interactive kiosk” used for the VisionPDX project generated a lot of attention but didn’t work very well and wasn’t fully accessible.

Just because an engagement tool is interesting or intriguing does not always mean it’s effective.

“Sometimes technology is NOT the right answer. But most importantly, when taking input from the community, take it seriously and use the information that is provided. If people can see their own lives and their own concerns reflected in the document or plan, they will feel ownership and feel that they have been heard,” Martin added. 

Oregon Department of Forestry: Rural Engagement

At Forestry, we’ve learned similar lessons and work hard consistently to increase public involvement. For rural communities in the northern Willamette Valley, we’ve found that online options are nice, but that traditional face-to-face interaction works best for addressing polarizing issues. By refining the “talking head” approach, and giving community members a seat at the table to discuss in a truly community-driven fashion, residents confront challenges, learn, and take ownership. Natural resource conversations include disparate interests, and although tensions may boil, discussions are productive and two-way, even amongst those on different sides of the aisle. These discussions, called “Roundtable Events,” allow community members to lead and provide front-end input on forest planning efforts.

Call to Action

Don’t tread lightly. The erosion of community engagement in civic decision making is a very real dilemma, making innovative engagement efforts all the more necessary to improve today’s cultural climate. Unfortunately, for any number of reasons, engagement efforts often tend to divert back to the status quo, or face the unfortunate fate of an eliminated project expense. Luckily, we have models, in our own backyard, to learn and borrow from.

The new engagement conversation requires honest and experimental brainstorming amongst everyone – not just people making a living from it – about how to rekindle the public romance and what the ideal looks like. Complacency and the status quo will only lead to irrevocable issues or the need for a too-late marriage counselor.

Fortunately, we live in a region open to the challenge of finding the right set of solutions—solutions that can effectively reach and engage the diversity of the people who live here. Not finding these, or discontinuing trying new things, could result in a separation of far-reaching proportions.

This won’t happen overnight, and it isn’t going to happen at a Portland City Club banquet. This shift will happen within communities, with folks outside the inner circles, telling their neighbors to join the conversation and to stay engaged.

Tony Andersen serves as the Public Information Officer for State Forests at the Oregon Dept. of Forestry. He currently resides in Milwaukie, Oregon. You can follow Tony on Twitter @ pdxpen and Instagram @tonytonyandersen.




Whither Skamania?

As long-standing financial concerns deepen in Skamania County, solutions are sought-after but thin on the ground.

By Eavan Moore

When the Eagle Creek fire blazed up last summer, it made surreal viewing for residents of Skamania County, Washington, directly across the Columbia River.

“Our office is right on the river,” said Pat Albaugh, executive director of the Port of Skamania County. “You would just watch the flames shooting 300, 400 feet in the air and the trees exploding, and the whole sky’s orange. It’s apocalyptic. It was really, really weird, and mesmerizing, too.”

It was also just one of a string of recent difficulties for the county. Fire-related evacuations and road closures effectively shut down much of the Columbia Gorge, as had a winter ice storm earlier in 2017. That same year, Congress declined to renew the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program negotiated by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) in 2000 to compensate for lost timber revenue. Skamania County had been receiving increasingly irregular payments under the program, which it relied on to fund basic services. A spending bill passed in March 2018 reauthorized SRS with retroactive payments for 2017, but the dollar amounts involved were not immediately clear. 

Should the federal payments continue? What is needed to replace them? There’s no unanimity on either question, but there is a strong sense in Skamania that something urgently needs to change.

Commuter County

Although the county is part of the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro Metropolitan Statistical Area,[1] opinions are mixed over whether it has much connection with urban areas. “I think we’re only lumped into that because of the US Census Bureau,” said Albaugh. “It’s an easy commute from here to Portland, but I don’t think we have a whole lot in common.”

The majority of county residents do commute to other parts of the region for work. One downside of this pattern, from Skamania’s point of view, is that residents who work in another city are also going to do their shopping in that city, particularly if there are stores there that their hometown doesn’t have. If a person gets out of work, stops at Costco or Fred Meyer, fills up on gas, and makes other transactions  before coming home, that’s business revenue that doesn’t make its way to the county.

The kinds of jobs that people do have changed as well. Average wages in Skamania County declined along with the timber industry in the early 1990s. Now, the Skamania Lodge resort is the largest private employer in the county. Food and beverage and tourism jobs dominate the job market, and they pay significantly less on average. They are also cyclical, adding 200 jobs in summer and shedding them each winter.

Taxes

When County Commissioner Tom Lannen wants to illustrate Skamania’s property tax position, he brings out an illustrative painted wooden stick. It marks off, with different colors, the county’s land uses. Eighty percent is Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Ten percent is private timberland. Eight percent is owned by the state. That leaves only 1.8 percent of the entire county subject to regular taxes.

 “And that’s how we got the short end of the stick,” he finishes.

Most of those taxable areas, and most of the county’s 11,000 residents, are strung along the Columbia River in the county seat of Stevenson, the Carson unincorporated area, and the city of North Bonneville. The Port of Skamania is responsible for much of the economic activity in Stevenson and North Bonneville, where it owns 162 acres of land. Right now, the port’s tenants include a number of breweries and cider makers, including one that bottles for a few hundred niche labels sold on the West Coast.

“Our tenants are mostly startups,” said Albaugh. “They come here because we have really inexpensive properties. As startups, they’re doing their best just to hang on, and last winter we had all the ice storms that pretty much shut everybody down for a few weeks. Just as they were trying to crawl out of that this last summer, then we had the Eagle Creek fires, which shut everything down for a good portion of the summer. Those have a major impact on really small businesses.”

The Columbia River is also simply a difficult place to undertake new projects, because there are many layers of oversight. A National Scenic Area overlay limits new development to urban areas. The Army Corps of Engineers manages the Columbia River Basin. Working with its office has slowed the port in developing a multi-million-dollar business park in North Bonneville; since 1999, the port and city have been working on an easement to connect the park to a road owned by the Corps of Engineers. “They helped design our business park,” said Albaugh, “but when it came time to connect the roads, the people that were involved fifteen years ago were gone.” A recent draft easement lays out some next steps, he said, “and now they are going through the rest of their bureaucratic processes.” The campus has sidewalks, fiber optic lines, and stormwater and sewer drains, but cannot open for business until the roads are connected.

County Commissioner Tom Lannon uses a stick to illustrate the county’s 1.8 percent share of county tax revenues.

Small business in Stevenson

Tourists to Skamania are likely to pass through downtown Stevenson, a small, attractive stretch of independent businesses with mountain views in every direction.

Melissa Still moved here from elsewhere in the Gorge to start Bigfoot Coffee Roasters in 2015. “I’m a traffic refugee,” she joked. She looked around, saw that Stevenson had beer and cider but no roaster, and decided to fill that niche with a coffee and souvenir shop tucked behind a gas station on Stevenson’s main drag. She was prepared for the up-and-down cycle of tourism dependency, but 2017’s ice storms and fire came as a rough surprise for a business owner still working on being able to pay her first employee.

Still would love to be able to train people in the art of coffee roasting – or see any new skills develop, really. She thinks young people in the county don’t know how to cope with the new economy. “They’re not techy,” she said. “That’s not a judgment. They are blue-collar working folks that were left holding the bag without timber jobs. We need our own trade school.” Alongside practical skills like carpentry and bookkeeping, she thinks Stevenson could become the craft beverage hub of the Pacific Northwest.

Why don’t larger companies land in Skamania? According to Kari Fagerness, executive director of the Skamania County Economic Development Council, it’s partly a workforce issue. “When we do get industries interested in locating here, the challenge is finding workers that are already here, or willing to move here,” she said. Local residents don’t have the desired skills; workers elsewhere can find jobs that pay at least as much closer to where they already live.

“Now, if they wanted to move out here, there’s no housing,” she added. “There’s literally no housing. Like, if there’s a rental house that comes on the market in Stevenson, it’s gone in a day.”

Contractors are willing to build $400,000 homes for those who can afford them, but smaller houses priced for mid-level incomes aren’t turning up. Nor are apartment buildings turning up. It’s not just about potential relocations: people already working in tourism and recreation in Skamania have difficulty finding homes there.

Fagerness has learned this from conversations with employers and house hunters, but she is now working on finding funding from real estate groups for a more reliable housing needs assessment. “So we can really identify where the gap is in housing and get some projects going based on that assessment,” she said.

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Safety

“Because our staffing levels are what they are, we typically only have two patrol deputies working the county at any given time.”

Government jobs are some of the best paid in the county, and county government agencies have historically depended on SRS to function. In the two years before the Stevenson-Carson school district passed its first levy in 2012, the budget was cut by $800,000 and the district lost its elementary school librarians and counselors. The Carson middle school closed. The levy was renewed in 2015, and a further levy passed in 2017, adding $1 million to the 2017–2018 budget and staving off cuts to music, visual arts, theater, and sports.

One of the biggest impacts of losing SRS—on tourists and locals alike—landed in the county sheriff’s department.  “In the last five years, we’ve seen a 33 percent reduction in our patrol staff,” said Sheriff Dave Brown. “Because our staffing levels are what they are, we typically only have two patrol deputies working the county at any given time. There are two hours every day when no one is working.”

On the ground, that means uniformed deputies are fitting in cases that would normally be investigated in plain clothes. It can be more difficult to interview a child sex abuse victim while in uniform, and it is impossible to do a controlled drug buy.

This situation also hampers the county’s ability to meet demand for emergency services. When an emergency call comes in, a deputy trained to manage search and rescue missions either leaves patrol duties or comes in to work overtime. Six of the seven staff who left in the last five years were search and rescue coordinators. Until now, the department has used an SRS fund to cover search and rescue on national forest lands. But that money will run out by the end of June, and the annual expense budget will cover the cost. “If things go the way I think they will, the bulk of responses and the financial impact is going to be put back on our local taxpayer,” said Brown.

That does not necessarily seem fair, given that it is generally not the local taxpayers needing to be rescued. “Because of the vast recreational opportunities in the county, we see upwards of one-and-one-half to two million visitors a year coming through the county,” said Brown. “Those visitors generate more than ninety percent of our recreational accidents and search and rescue calls.” In the first six months of 2017, Brown’s emergency services department responded to thirty requests for help: eighteen “overdue person” calls, eight searches, and four accidents. Some of these calls are competing with local emergencies. Brown is reluctant to charge for rescue service, but he is not alone in thinking that visitors should be better prepared.

The Eagle Creek fire has piqued new interest in Skamania among hikers looking for alternative trails on the other side of the river. This annoys some locals, whose favorite secluded spots are more popular now, and has mixed potential for the local economy. On the one hand, it could mean more revenue for recreation-related businesses. On the other hand, it could put more pressure on emergency services.

Tracy Calizon, the Forest Service’s community engagement staff officer for the Gifford Pinchot forest, said that Forest Service employees had noticed an uptick in use in September 2017. Longer-term, she said, it’s hard to tell what the impacts of the fire will be.

“We’re anticipating that more people will know about the Gifford Pinchot National Forest as they think about other places to go,” she said. Those used to the relative creature comforts of the Gorge need to be aware that the Gifford Pinchot has rougher roads and fewer amenities. “I think a lot of search and rescue… comes from people getting lost or not being able to rely on their cell phone for directions or not having enough food. Eagle Creek fire or not, I would like to encourage people to always be prepared when they come to the national forest.”

Timber

Brown, Lannen, and Albaugh all agree on one point: The county can and should be receiving more natural resource revenue. Under the Northwest Forest Plan, allowable timber sales by the US Forest Service are more than fifty-two million board feet a year. Over the last twenty years, the actual harvest has averaged half that—for a variety of reasons, but above all because of litigation or the fear of litigation. Between 1999 and 2002, there were almost no sales at all. The formation of forest collaboratives—multi-stakeholder working groups that meet to discuss and negotiate forest management practices—ended the period of intense litigation, but the process of working in a collaborative and putting up trees for sale is still slower than some would like.

Forest collaborative participants generally agree on the value of thinning existing plantations. More controversial is a practice commonly called a “regeneration harvest.”  Northwest Forest Plan co-authors Jerry Franklin (University of Washington) and Norm Johnson (Oregon State University) suggest that deliberate tree-felling can create space for species that are part of a healthy forest ecosystem. In its most widely proposed form, regeneration work clears a large area to mimic the effects of wildfires, landslides, and other natural events. This creates early seral habitat that supports deer, elk, and birds that prefer open spaces.

“What it looks like on the ground is a clear cut, to us.”

The enthusiasm for regeneration harvesting concerns conservation groups.  “What it looks like on the ground is a clear cut, to us,” said Matt Little, executive director of the Cascade Forest Conservancy (known from 1985 to 2016 as the Gifford Pinchot Task Force). He sees a difference between a moderate approach as recommended by Franklin and Johnson (two-thirds clearance of a unit, with some trees left in the cleared area) and current proposals to reduce hundred-acre areas of timber by 85 percent.

“One of the groups. . . said you ought to be able to take a hundred million board feet off the forest every year.”

Lannen supports multiple approaches to increase timber yield, including thinning and regeneration harvesting. The Forest Service has published research on the rate of new growth in the forests, called the annual increment. In the Cascades, the annual increment is around 500 million board feet a year. Lannen believes that volume makes a case for a much bigger harvest. “One of the groups that we worked with said you ought to be able to take a hundred million board feet off the forest every year to support local economies, improve multiple species’ habitat, and not do anything severe as far as the covered lands for the spotted owl are concerned,” he said. “We call it the hundred million plan.”

Concerns over logging methods notwithstanding, Little agrees it is naïve to think that recreation can replace timber as a sustaining economic force. Recreational visitors do pay for hotel and gas station wages, but their economic impact on the county is ultimately limited. Even hunting and fishing licenses are paid to the state, not the county, Little explained. “There has to be a multi-tier solution,” he said. “It has to be a combination of more thinning projects in the forest, supporting the Forest Service in their funding and projects, working with the counties to support continued [federal] funding, and trying to figure out new revenue sources.” 

Fagerness said the local workforce development council was looking to address the employability of Skamania County residents, many of whom are just out of high school and unused to the working world. “We’re working with WorkSource, and People for People, which are both organizations that place workers and have employer benefit programs,” she said. “A lot of what we’re seeing is the need for training on soft skills – how to make eye contact, and shake hands firmly, and show up on time.” Cooking and serving skills are also in demand in a recreation-based economy; there is interest in putting together a community kitchen that could train young adults in culinary skills.

Investing for the future

While SRS compensates counties for ongoing restrictions on federal land use, many think of it as a bridge for counties on their way to becoming self-sustaining. As the years went by and these counties continued to depend on federal payments, support for the program waned in Congress.

The disappearance of SRS has reportedly caused some new consternation in DC. Losing that funding automatically increased payments under another program called Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes, or PILT, which compensates counties for the untaxed federal land within their borders. About 62 percent of US counties receive PILT funds – and because the pool is a more or less fixed amount, some areas previously unaffected by the SRS issue are seeing their payments reduced.

In the face of SRS’s continued unpopularity, however, the Montana-based nonpartisan research center Headwaters Economics has proposed an alternative bridge in the form of a federal natural resource trust. There are different ways to implement it, but the general idea is that either resource revenue or federal appropriations would seed an endowment that would generate annual interest income for the counties.

 “It’s not a new idea,” said Mark Haggerty, staff researcher at Headwaters. “Trusts are used by every state in the West for state lands. Any royalties and fees that states receive from timber or grazing or oil or gas, they put into a permanent fund…. We’re basically borrowing an idea from the states to do the same thing with federal land revenue.”

If the fund followed the model most states use, it would distribute a fixed percentage of the ending fund balance every year, with the amount matched to the fund’s growth rate. $1 million invested in a trust could generate $40,000 a year.

If this is such a great idea, why hasn’t it yet been implemented? One reason is that the White House Office of Management and Budget opposes any plan that would send investment income anywhere other than the federal treasury. Another reason is that permanent, consistent payments would weaken the hand of those who advocate for changes to forest management. To some, persistent county budget holes are a compelling argument for increasing the timber harvest.

In response to that argument, Haggerty asks: “What was the purpose of the payments in the first place? Was it to compensate counties for nontaxable federal land? Or was it really this promise that the Forest Service would cut down trees?”

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Future growth

As distant as Skamania County may currently feel in a cultural sense, its proximity to urban centers means that urban growth is starting to ripple out in its direction. Melissa Still remarked that her hometown of Fall City, in unincorporated King County, Washington, had rebounded from similar timber-related problems largely because of settlement by Microsoft employees and others in the tech industry.

Lannen thinks the county should be preparing for new residents. He foresees potential spillover into Stevenson-Carson from Portland, Vancouver, Hood River, and White Salmon. “Ridgefield is the fastest-growing community in the state of Washington right now,” he said. “News to me, but, you know, those things happen. People are going to come this way, so I think we need to be actively thinking about it.”

The idea of merging with Clark County for the sake of administrative efficiency has been raised but immediately panned. The sense in Skamania is that it would be neglected by a government based in Vancouver.

However, there may be a case for looking across other borders for solutions. “For us, the Gorge is its own region,” said Albaugh. “We more identify with the Gorge, but half the Gorge is Oregon. When we had that weather event, it would have been declared a disaster if we’d been able to combine our losses and damage with the losses across the river, but that isn’t how it works.”

He thinks that better transportation connections might also help Skamania County. There are two bus services in Skamania County and Hood River County, for example, but they don’t connect. The Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks is the county’s only road connection to Oregon. “If we’re talking pie in the sky things, I’d like to see more bridges across the Columbia River,” said Albaugh.

Fundamentally, said Haggerty, the opportunities that Skamania County has to grow its economy have changed in the last couple of decades. Timber jobs will never provide the same levels of employment; automation has sharply reduced the number of people needed, even though it brought up the skill level and associated wages. “But the county’s public land and the kinds of services the county provides contribute to a quality of life,” he said, “that really can help it attract more businesses and more people, because of its proximity to the Portland Metro area. The local government being adequately funded is absolutely essential to their economic development opportunities.”

[1] Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA): A region defined for statistical purposes by the US Office of Management and Budget, consisting of at least one core urbanized area of 50,000 or more inhabitants and surrounding communities that have a high degree of economic and social integrat




Nohad Toulan: The University in the City

by Carl Abbott

I’m writing this commentary in my office in the Urban Center Building, overlooking the busy Urban Plaza that has become one of the focal points for Portland State University. The building and plaza exemplify three distinct stories about Nohad Toulan and his influence on the university where he worked for thirty-two years.

For PSU faculty like myself, the central story of Nohad’s three decades of service is the creation of the College of Urban and Public Affairs as a key unit within the university. The new building—that it still feels new after more than a dozen years is testimony for the quality of the partnership between Nohad and architect Tom Hacker—kept the different departments and research institutes of a growing college under one roof. It also gave us very nice offices that we try not to talk about with colleagues working in older campus buildings.

As a practical accomplishment, the building and plaza demonstrate Nohad’s strategic thinking, his patience in reaching his goals, and his ability to pull together pieces from here, there, and everywhere to build what he envisioned—in this case working over many years to piece together money from the city, the state, TriMet, the federal government, and private donors. This was also characteristic of his approach to the creation of the University District Plan that has guided the university since the 1990s to keep his eyes fixed on his goal while being flexible about how to get there. 

In the words of former PSU President Judith Ramaley, the building and plaza are also “a physical representation of the idea of an engaged university.” Nohad played a key role in defining our university as an urban research university and giving substance to that idea. Light rail and streetcar tracks connect the university to the city while first floor commercial space in the Urban Center caters to students and non-students alike (a week before writing this article, I taught my last class of fall quarter in a classroom one floor above a very nice pizza restaurant). And in a larger sense that goes beyond both pizza and plaza, Nohad Toulan “represented the idea of the city,” to again quote Ramaley.

The College of Urban and Public Affairs

“Nohad Toulan put together the College of Urban and Public Affairs like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Nohad Toulan put together the College of Urban and Public Affairs like a jigsaw puzzle. Like puzzle-solvers, he had a good idea of what the final result should look like, but he had to find the right pieces to fit together in the right pattern. He usually had a great eye for spotting the matching colors and shapes, although, like all jigsaw puzzle work, there was an occasional piece that seemed right at first but ultimately didn’t quite fit.

Nohad Toulan arrived at Portland State from a faculty position at Columbia University in 1972 with the challenge of bringing greater coherence to a disparate collection of urban studies activities. An undergraduate Urban Studies Certificate dated from 1959, making it the oldest such program in the country and the same age as MIT’s urban studies doctorate. It operated with a single core course sequence and one dedicated faculty member under the umbrella of the Center for Urban Studies—a research and service institute within the College of Social Science that had offended the Portland establishment by revealing the unhappy reality of embedded racism in the city’s treatment of the Albina neighborhood. There was also a nascent Ph.D. in Urban Studies. It was one of three interdisciplinary doctorates that the state allowed PSU to establish in 1969 (the others were Systems Science and Environmental Sciences and Resources, and all were designed not to encroach in the turf of the academic big boys in Eugene and Corvallis). It operated by a committee of faculty from geography, economics, sociology, and political science and reported through the Dean of Graduate Studies.

Within four years, Nohad was Dean of a new School of Urban Affairs. It included Black Studies (which had previously been essentially homeless within the university); Administration of Justice (from Social Science); a new Institute on Aging; the Center for Population Research and Census; and the three urban studies programs. For the first time, some of the graduate urban studies faculty had their primary appointments in Urban Studies, which could operate like an academic department rather than a committee. The different research institutes and programs were now housed together in Francis Manor, a red brick apartment building from the 1920s converted for academic use. Lucky faculty got offices in the old living rooms, which were more spacious, of course, than those in the converted bedrooms and kitchens— which would again be true of East Hall where the School was located from 1987 to 2000. 

The next dozen years brought curricular development—a new Master of Urban Planning, a Graduate Certificate in Gerontology, a Master’s degree for Administration of Justice, and separate tracks in the Urban Studies Ph.D. One of these tracks would evolve into the separate Public Administration and Policy Ph.D. in 1989. There was also an important addition and name change. When the graduate Public Administration program moved from the Political Science Department, the School of Urban Affairs became the School of Urban and Public Affairs.

The final organizational expansion came in the 1990s. Budget cuts in the early 1990s eliminated the university’s School of Health and Human Performance and set its faculty adrift,. Nohad offered many of them a safe harbor, laying the foundation for the present School of Community Health. Jack Schendel, who had been the dean of Health and Human Performance, recalls that those faculty were impressed by Nohad’s openness and responsiveness. He comments that “they were at ease and believed that they would be respected and supported in the School of UPA. Their conclusions were a direct result of Nohad’s skill, sympathy, and understanding of their circumstances.”

Then in 1997 the School of Urban and Public Affairs became the College of Urban and Public Affairs, an upgraded title and status in academic lingo. The School of Government added Public Administration faculty from Lewis and Clark College, which was shedding its small graduate programs, and PSU’s Department of Political Science moved over from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The next year, Senator Mark Hatfield allowed his name to be given to what is now the Hatfield School of Government, fulfilling one of Nohad’s long-standing goals. After all, if Harvard had a Kennedy School of Government, and the University of Minnesota had a Humphrey School of Public Affairs, why should Portland State be left out of the mix? 

“. . . if Harvard had a Kennedy School of Government, and the University of Minnesota had a Humphrey School of Public Affairs, why should Portland State be left out of the mix?”

Was Nohad always successful? Did he always see the future clearly? Certainly not. It is unlikely that Community Health was on his radar in 1972, but he recognized the possible synergies when a group of faculty was available. Architecture and urban design were his first loves as a scholar, but he never found the right arguments to convince architecture faculty to align with an urban studies and policy school.

While navigating the educational bureaucracy, Nohad was intensely loyal and supportive of his faculty and colleagues. Melody Rose, a former Hatfield School faculty and now Interim Chancellor of the Oregon University System, has called him a “champion of his faculty” who held them to high standards and rewarded their accomplishments. Many of his seemingly routine bureaucratic actions, such as consolidating small programs into larger ones, were designed to preserve faculty jobs (including my own) during times of budget slicing. For one specific example, he was willing to support his new health faculty by incorporating an exercise laboratory into the Urban Center despite his zero expertise in the field. His loyalty extended outside his own school, leading the effort to rename what was originally Harrison Hall on the PSU campus for George Hoffman, who had been Dean of Social Sciences when Nohad first arrived and who shared something of his vision of what Portland State could become. 

The University District

The Urban Center block is a pivot point in the development of the larger University District. It is a physical link between the older campus around the Park Blocks and the expanding university presence along Southwest Fifth and Fourth avenues, paving the way for the Engineering Building, the Academic and Student Recreation Center, and other buildings to come.

In the mid-1980s, the City of Portland undertook a Central City Plan that revisited fifteen years of successful downtown development and expanded the narrow downtown focus to a more extensive set of core districts.

“Commentators give Nohad the credit for the inclusion of a single item among the dozens of action items: “Create a University District which fosters Portland State University’s growth.”

Commentators give Nohad the credit for the inclusion of a single item among the dozens of action items: “Create a University District which fosters Portland State University’s growth.” The 1988 ordinance adopting the Central City Plan included Paragraph 124: “The Plan supports the growth of Portland State University by calling for the development of a master plan for the University District, and committing the city to work with PSU to assure that such a master plan will meet the full range of the University’s needs.”

When Lindsay Desrochers arrived as Vice-President for Finance and Administration in 1991, Nohad helped her turn those brief sentences into concrete plans to meet the needs of a burgeoning student body. He chaired the campus planning committee and worked with the city to have the University District plan adopted as a component of the city’s comprehensive plan—an action that opened up freedom for the university to grow and develop. The plan aimed at multiple outcomes, including improved transportation for the campus, more classrooms, and more student housing, but also market rate housing and retailing to make the district a vital part of the larger city. These are things that Nohad had been thinking about since he had arrived in Portland, and which he would continue to work on even after his retirement in 2004. It was, Desrochers says, “stewardship over a long period of time” In more detail, she adds:

I wanted to really start undertaking an overall planning process for the physical development of the university. No small job when you consider we’re right in the middle of the city. But there were many things happening, like the light rail had just been launched. There was discussion about the street car. There were a lot of reasons why we needed to be thinking about how we would fit in to this metro landscape. The thing was that I needed some allies. You don’t get something like that done alone. It’s about a network of people. Nohad really became my chief ally in getting this agenda moved. In a way, he became kind of like the godfather for me. In a good sense. Whenever I’d get stuck at a certain point about how to proceed, whether it was with the city or someone on the campus. Nohad was my point of departure.

The Engaged Urban Research University

Nohad was always aware of the junior position of Portland State within Oregon’s university system, and looked for ways to build on its unique advantages—its location in Portland, its diverse population of nontraditional students, and its ability to attract faculty interest in building community connections. He drew on his own passion for urban life—not just the streets and buildings, but the people who use those buildings and walk those sidewalks. As a result, he helped to make PSU a pioneer in community-based education.

This commitment dated to his first years at Portland State. In 1974, PSU President Joe Blumel held a retreat about community engagement. One result was the Vital Partners compact among the City of Portland, Multnomah County, and Portland State involving jointly agreed research and support for graduate students. An important player in the process was Don Clark, chair of the Multnomah County Commission in the mid1970s and previously a faculty member in Administration of Justice. The specific Vital Partners initiative died in the severe Oregon recession of the early 1980s, but one of its research reports resulted in the decision for the county to stop providing municipal services and for Gresham and Portland to annex what had previously been unincorporated suburban neighborhoods and thus shape the political landscape of the twenty-first century.

Fast forward to 1990 and another crisis for Portland State, timed for the arrival of Judith Ramaley as the university’s new president. The Governor’s Commission on Higher Education had just floated a proposal to dismantle PSU, giving the parts that generated outside funding like Engineering and Business Administration to Oregon State University, the University of Oregon, and Oregon Health and Science University and leaving the remnants for a truncated and surely impoverished PSU. Nohad was one of a handful of people who helped Ramaley think through a strategy to keep the university intact and actually grow it. He pointed her to provisions in the federal Higher Education Act that sketched the outlines for a new sort of institution to be known as an urban research university, on a rough analogy with the land grant universities that had such fruitful relations with the nation’s agricultural and resource economy.

“It was a plausible and appropriate vision for a scrappy urban university. . .”

It was a plausible and appropriate vision for a scrappy urban university—we might call it the mammal versus dinosaur strategy.

Nohad had already been thinking along these lines, and he contributed important ideas to a five point Portland Agenda for the university. Portland State was able to fend off dismemberment by offering a compelling alternative as an urban university whose research and teaching would serve the metropolitan community. Agenda items included the Portland Education Network, PORTALS (a regional library cooperative that was an important step toward an interconnected scholarly information system), and the Institute for Portland Metropolitan Studies. IMS was “a hand in trust to the community” in the words of Ethan Seltzer, its first director. It was a neutral university forum for researching and debating important regional issues, and it was and is governed by an external board on which a Portland State representative has a vote.

With Ramaley, Toulan, and others running with new ideas, Portland State became a nationally admitted example of the engaged university. Even before the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching had articulated the parameters for the engaged university, Nohad was already helping Portland State walk the talk. The model includes shared risk and responsibility, an openness to institutional learning, and a commitment to two-way engagement rather than a oneway transfer of expertise from university to community. As Nohad understood, an engaged university is not a consultant to the community but a partner with it.

The Toulan Style

Nohad was a planner, a city planner by profession and long-range thinker by temperament. He fit right into the Oregon political ethos, which valued a rational “public interest” approach to issues ranging from land use to health policy. He was adept at defining a long-range goal, rationally analyzing barriers and opportunities, and developing a flexible strategy to capitalize on those opportunities. 

“Associates were in awe of the massive spreadsheet that he developed to track expenses and revenue sources and test budget scenarios.”

He was meticulous in day to day work. Associates were in awe of the massive spreadsheet that he developed to track expenses and revenue sources and test budget scenarios. As his longtime assistant dean Victoria Gilbert put it, the 68,000 cells amounted to “acres of data” that would have been impossible to print out. He used his data to prepare for the worst and line up talking points in defense of his units. Faculty groaned when he came to update us on budget issues armed with two or three dozen overheads detailing enrollment and revenue, but we also knew that those same charts and graphs were powerful ammunition in contests with other deans for the allocation of university resources.

Nohad worked incredibly hard. In the early years of the 1970s and 1980s, he was everywhere in the urban studies and planning graduate programs. He tracked the progress of every Ph.D. student on hand-written tables. He chaired comprehensive exam and dissertation committees and came to every oral graduate examination and dissertation defense. He advised students, especially international students from Africa and the Middle East and older adults who faced the challenge of juggling families, jobs, and studies.

In the same years, he made sure that Portland State was an active participant in national networks for urban studies and planning education through the Urban Affairs Association and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. Whenever outside experts questioned the combination of urban studies and urban planning as a single academic unit, he would point to exactly the same structure at MIT, and he was extremely pleased when research by PSU professor Jim Strathman used objective criteria to find that PSU had the fifth-ranked urban studies program in the country. As the relatively small School of Urban Affairs grew into CUPA, he was less directly engaged in promoting individual programs, but was equally pleased when the Hatfield School and School of Community Health earned accolades.

At the same time he kept his eye on 68,000 spreadsheet cells, he always thought ahead. He could wait patiently for senior professors to retire so that he could reallocate the salary to hire two up-and-coming new faculty. People who knew him and worked with him at Portland State all say the same thing in slightly different ways. As Ethan Seltzer puts it, good things take time, and Nohad had the patience of someone who had committed his career to a single university. To Sumner Sharpe, who was on the faculty when Nohad arrived, he was a “determined implementer and developer” who was “always looking for opportunities” to realize his vision. Former Provost Michael Reardon has commented that he knew that PSU has had to “develop on the margins” and follow opportunities as they arise. To Judith Ramaley, he was a long-term thinker who was faithful to his vision while always being willing to make tactical adjustments. As Lindsay Desrochers might say, Nohad exhibited what Aristotle called phronesis or practical wisdom: 

. . . he was a long-term thinker who was faithful to his vision while always being willing to make tactical adjustments.

He was so successful because he was a wise man, and a wise man knows what to say and when to keep quiet, cultivates a strategic approach to dealing with people . . . Brilliance is a great quality, but it’s nothing without wisdom [and] the ability to interact with other people. He was also successful because he had a fundamental, perhaps spirituallybased, belief in the individual dignity of each person. 

I want to end on a personal note. As everyone who met him remembers very well, Dr. Nohad Toulan was formal person, always properly dressed and somewhat (very!) intimidating when you met him for the first time. I was definitely on my best behavior when I was picked to team-teach the introductory graduate course with him my first quarter in urban studies (it worked out fine when we compared notes after reading the first set of student papers and he decided that I was a tough grader). Yet despite his formality, none of his faculty called him Dr. Toulan in our conversations. He was Nohad when we talked with him and Nohad when we talked about him. I have been reflecting in the past weeks about our relationship. Our age difference of fifteen years was too small for me to think of him as a father figure. Instead, I think of him as the serious older brother who was always looking out for his “families” of CUPA faculty, Portland State University, and our larger community, willing to correct when necessary but always supportive and always thinking about the future of his team, his university, and his city.

Carl Abbott is a nationally renowned urban historian and Professor Emeritus at the School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University.

 




Hiding in Plain Sight

The Baldock Restoration Project

by Andrée Tremoulet, Ellen M. Bassett, and Allison Moe

On a winter night in 2010, 109 men, women and children slept at the Baldock Rest Area on I-5 south of Wilsonville, Oregon. Approximately one third of them had set up camp in back parking lots, away from the stream of visitors who stopped at the expansive rest area to take a break from driving. They were the chronically homeless, the self-named Baldockeans, the people whose lives revolved around the community at the Baldock. Some experienced physical or mental disabilities or addictions. The Baldock was their home, their refuge, their community.

The other two-thirds slept near parking area lights, where they felt safest. They were the “shadow people,” the transitionally homeless. Their lives had hit a bad patch—the loss of a job, major debt from medical costs, divorce, domestic violence—and they had found themselves without sufficient income to stay in their homes. They did not identify as being part of the alternative world of the homeless; instead, their goal was to remain part of traditional society and regain their former status. During the day, they hid their homeless state, leaving the Baldock to work or spend time in libraries and other public places.

“The long-term resident population had formed a complex, self-regulating community . . .”

The long-term resident population had formed a complex, self-regulating community, with shared meals, organized shopping expeditions and delineated roles and responsibilities. One man had called the Baldock home for 17 years, and St. Vincent de Paul, a social services agency, had provided weekly hot meals there for several years.

Some of the features that made the Baldock an attractive area for visitors also made it attractive to people without a permanent place to live. Hot and cold running water, toilets, picnic tables, water fountains, shady groves of trees and plenty of space were important amenities to people with only a vehicle, tent or camper as a home. It also provided privacy, with three parking areas on each side of the highway. For some, the steady stream of visitors provided a remunerative panhandling opportunity, and a few may have engaged in a grey market in prostitution or drugs. Others travelled to work from the Baldock. The rest area is just 14 miles south of Portland, with its urban services, and even closer to Canby. A truck stop a  few miles to the south had showers, laundry facilities, a small market, a gas station and a restaurant. In short, the combination of amenities, relative privacy and location made it an attractive place to live for those with vehicles but no traditional homes.

That winter, the lives of the people sleeping at the Baldock were about to change. On January 1, Oregon Travel Experience (called Oregon Travel Information Council at the time) had assumed management responsibilities for five rest areas in the state, including Baldock. In anticipation of this new role, in the fall OTE had organized a local business and public sector advisory committee to develop a vision for the Baldock Rest Area, and the group had expressed concerns about panhandling and other problems associated with the homeless community. On January 1, OTE was faced with the delicate decision of how to proceed.

OTE Executive Director Cheryl Gribskov chose hot chocolate.

Homelessness and Transportation Agencies
Although the homeless community at the Baldock Rest Area was unusual in its duration and sophistication, homeless encampments or urban campgrounds commonly occur on public land. In a national survey of state transportation agencies conducted by Bassett, Tremoulet and Moe in 2011, 70% of respondents (representing 25 U.S. states and British Columbia) said that they encountered homeless encampments as part of their routine work. Any major public land owner with conveniently-located sites with some measure of privacy and shelter is a likely candidate for experiencing challenges with homeless individuals.

Upon learning of these research results, Emily Badger, a writer for The Atlantic Cities, commented, “This means that public agencies better equipped to run trains or pave highways must often act as the first responders to homelessness. It’s a sad commentary on how we handle these populations—in a society that doesn’t treat access to shelter as a right—that the task falls to the front-line employees of transportation agencies untrained to do anything like this.”

Hot Chocolate
OTE was not the first agency that had attempted to deal with the homeless encampment at the Baldock Rest Area. Round-the-clock stays were against rest area rules, and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) had, upon several occasions, called Oregon State Police to clear the area. However, neither the state police nor ODOT had sufficient resources to remain at the rest area on an ongoing basis, and thus the Baldockeans gradually returned. This cycle was repeated several times, creating a culture of distrust between the residents and state police.

Instead of leading with an enforcement-only approach, OTE decided that the agency needed to have a better understanding of the situation before proceeding. On New Year’s Day 2010, Executive Director Gribskov and a community volunteer showed up at the rest area with hot chocolate

“Executive Director Gribskov and a community volunteer showed up at the rest area with hot chocolate . . “

to greet the residents, introduce themselves and listen to their concerns. Gribskov quickly realized that her agency alone could not solve the complex social, economic and political challenges underlying the presence of the Baldock community, so she sought help. She enlisted not just ODOT and Oregon State Police, but also state, county and local social service agencies, homeless advocates, local law enforcement, community leaders, and the county district attorney’s office.

At fortuitously-timed Problem-Oriented Policing workshop sponsored by the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office, the basic strategy took shape in a committee comprised of social service and community justice representatives. The strategy involved intensive outreach and one-on-one assistance to provide opportunities to make changes that would enable them to move on from the Baldock to better living conditions. This was the “pull.” It also involved changing the conditions that enabled Baldockeans to stay where they were. This “push” included changing the rest area rules and developing new methods of enforcement.

“The period of transition would have to be a carefully orchestrated ballet . . .”

The period of transition would have to be a carefully orchestrated ballet of pushing and pulling, with the professional partners presenting a humane but united front. The strategy came together in February 2010; the partners set a goal of clearing the rest area and beginning a higher level of enforcement on May 1, before the seasonal influx of new residents. It was a tall order, and initially there were no extra resources available to make it happen.

What made it happen was the personal commitment of the key partners involved: Ronell Warner of the Canby Center; Bill Stewart of the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office; Fred Testa and Dan Swift of Oregon State Police; Liz Bartell and Linda Fisher of Clackamas County Social Services; Karla Keller of Oregon Department of Transportation; Mary Carroll of Oregon Housing and Community Services; Amy Cleary and Cyndy Heisler of Clackamas County Domestic Resources Center and Cheryl Gribskov of Oregon Travel Experience. Eventually, a small amount of one-time-only funding —funds not available today— was found from state and county sources for enhanced case management, and local non-profits and donors chipped in with donations of cash and supplies.

Implementing a Push-Pull Approach
On the pull side, social service agencies met with residents willing to accept assistance. They helped each person imagine and build a path to what they wanted for themselves. This could involve addressing old debts, obtaining a new social security card and identity papers to replace lost ones, taking responsibility for one’s behavior to reunite with family, finding and accepting steady employment (no matter how hard), reinstating a commercial driver’s license, enrolling in an in-patient substance abuse program, or any number of things. While the additional funds covered the costs of one-on-one case management, the pull partners creatively managed existing resources—classes, assessments—to bring services to the residents and tailor them to their needs.

The push-side partners developed new rules and enforcement procedures to dislodge the long-term community and ensure that a new one did not take its place. They tightened up Oregon Administrative Rules that governed behavior in rest areas and made failure to comply a Class B violation. The Clackamas County Community Court was poised to take on criminal cases if they arose and divert offenders to rehabilitative services as an alternative to serving jail time, if warranted. OTE made plans to refurbish the rest area and staff it with both a site team and volunteers to promote its use as a visitor resource. They also allocated funds to pay for enhanced police patrols after the enforcement date of May 1 and through the rest of the summer to discourage visitors from staying more than the allowed 12 hours during a 24-hour period.

The professional partners soon discovered that implementing a push-pull approach also required forging new levels of trust among themselves—social service agencies and law enforcement do not always see eye-to-eye on matters involving both their professions—and with the Baldockeans, who, until this point, had had little reason to believe that anyone cared. The professionals learned to trust each other’s judgment and be flexible about enforcing the rules. They came to have each other’s back, to be attentive to each other’s safety and to show up if needed. For the Baldockeans, trust meant believing that these people were sincere about both the opportunities and permanent change at the Baldock. They began to believe that this time was different.

Moving Day and Beyond
Moving day, April 30th, 2010, was quite an event. The preceding 48 hours had involved a flurry of activity, with volunteer and paid mechanics working to get old vehicles road-worthy and the remaining Baldockeans packing their possessions. For those who had no other place to go immediately, the county had arranged temporary camping at a nearby state campground. Beyond that, they would do “in-and-out” at the Baldock, staying no more than 12 hours at a time, until a more permanent solution was found.

Moving day was not picture-perfect, but it was successful. A state trooper who had not been involved with the project showed up unexpectedly and began ticketing the Baldockeans. Chaos ensued, and trust built over months of hard work was nearly destroyed, until the situation was sorted out by other state police who had been involved.

In the short term, half of the 20 people who had accepted county help found other places to camp, 30% did in-and-out at the Baldock, 10% found permanent housing, 5% went into detox and treatment, and 5% found other solutions. Approximately sixteen months later, half of them were in permanent housing and 15% were in transitional housing, waiting for a permanent spot to open up. Only 35% were in unstable living conditions. Given the circumstances, a long-term housing retention rate of 65% for this population is considered to be very good.

The Baldock is now a lovely, well-maintained visitor resource. The restored Grove of the States provides a walking path for those needing to stretch their legs. The back area sports a new solar array. While most who stop are there for just a short while, parking is also available for up to 12 hours a day to truck drivers and others (including former Baldockeans) who need a place to stop and sleep. There is no evidence of the long-standing community that once lived there.

Learning from the Baldock
The economic, social and political choices made as a nation over the last decades haves ensured that our country will have an ongoing population of homeless individuals. Local housing and social services networks are, in most cases, struggling to keep up with the demand for services. Thus, homelessness is a messy, complicated societal problem with many spill-over effects, some of which are likely to continue to affect the maintenance and operations of our shared public land.

Perhaps there is an opportunity for those with the land and those with the services to sit down together with representatives or advocates of people without permanent housing to develop new approaches that accommodate the ongoing and permanent reality of homelessness in our communities today. The Baldock Restoration Project is one such example of that occurring. The solution reached was humane displacement.

In some cases, more long-term arrangements have been reached. Dignity Village, a self-managed homeless community, has a lease with the City of Portland for Sunderland Yard near the Portland airport. Over the last ten years, tents have been slowly replaced with small structures which must meet basic building codes for camping structures. Dignity Village is guided by a set of democratically-created rules, including no drugs, alcohol, disruptive behavior or children (for the children’s safety). Residents must participate in weekly village meetings and contribute time and labor to maintaining the community.

In Eugene and nearby communities, St. Vincent de Paul manages an overnight parking program for homeless people with vehicles. They work with faith communities, non-profits, local governments and businesses that volunteer sites. St. Vincent de Paul provides garbage disposal and portable rest rooms. In 2011, the program assisted 81 individual adults and 27 families with 41 children.

In King County, Washington, the self-managed Tent City 4 rotates from one location to the next every ninety days, so that no one community absorbs the impact permanently. It is associated with the non-profit SHARE/WHEEL. Currently, Tent City 4 is located in a church parking lot across from the police station in the prosperous town of Kirkland. Their self-imposed rules require that they be respectful neighbors, as they are often located in residential neighborhoods. Loitering outside the camp, parking nearby and loud noise are prohibited, as well as drugs and alcohol. They work with law enforcement to screen new community members.

Perhaps the ultimate challenge for collaboration was issued by a Federal Highway Administration official from the Midwest. At a January 2012 national transportation conference, where a case study of the Baldock Restoration Project was presented, he posed this question: What if transportation engineers started designing facilities such as overpasses or bridges to accommodate the needs of homeless people instead of chasing them away? Perhaps the sites could be maintained by social service agencies or self-managed communities. That solution would certainly represent a new kind of thinking about how to respond to the issue and require a new level of collaboration and trust among public agencies and the people whom they serve.

There is little question that living in a car, camper or tent in make-shift accommodations is far from the perfect long-term solution to the nation’s intransigent problem of homelessness. But it may be a practical and humane one that is hiding in plain sight.


Andrée Tremoulet is a research associate for the Center for Urban Studies at Portland State and owner of Commonworks Consulting. Ellen M. Bassett is an Associate Professor at the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia. Allison Moe is an Associate Planner with McCool Development Solutions in Denver, Colorado.


Metroscape, Summer 2014