Opinion

Portland vs. Seattle

By Dan Bertolet September 29, 2010


In the background, Gerding Edlen's LEED Platinum office building at 12th and Washington in Portland---yup, those are wind turbines on the roof.

Twenty years ago, my girlfriend and I put everything we owned into a 2-seater Honda CRX and drove 3,000 miles from Northampton, Massachusetts to Portland, Oregon, where we ended up living for a year in Northwest Portland, a.k.a. the cutest urban neighborhood in the entire U.S. of A, bar none and still true today. Then we moved to Seattle. And ever since I've been vexed with this question: Why is it that Portland is so much cooler than Seattle in so many ways?

That is, of course, not an original observation, and if you're among the throngs who are similarly puzzled, there's an event this Friday evening that you ought not to miss. Alex Steffen's sustainability non-profit Worldchanging is hosting a fundraiser, starring the mayors of Portland and Seattle, details here.

Today, in terms of the most critical factors of urban sustainability, Portland and Seattle aren't that different---for example 14 percent of households in Portland are car-free, compared to 16 percent in Seattle; Portland's per capita greenhouse gas emissions are higher than Seattle's, but that's only because Seattle happens to be blessed with abundant carbon-free hydro power.

However, all indications are that the prospects for the future favor Portland. There are so many areas in which Portland is a step ahead of Seattle it's hard to keep track of them all. (Tacoma is also, apparently, putting us to shame.) Rail transit and cycling infrastructure are two of the most well known examples. This post at Worldchanging gets into some of the more innovative ways in which Portland is working towards becoming a more sustainable city.

To add to that, here's a pseudo-random list of "Portland envy" items that have caught my eye recently, in no particular order:

For sure, Portland got very lucky when its founders decided to plat the City with 200-foot blocks that, compared to the 250--350-foot blocks typical of Seattle's core, make for a superior pedestrian environment. But there's a lot more going on down there than luck.

True, Portland's economy is not as strong and diversified as Seattle's. But if future-oriented firms like Vestas keep choosing Portland, that situation could end up reversed in the long-term.

So what is it about Portland? To an outside observer, the people in the two cities are pretty much culturally indistinguishable.

Is it related to the corporate mindset in Seattle driven by the influence of mega-corporations like Boeing and Microsoft? Seattle's history as a more extraction-based economy? The differing organization of City Council and Mayor in the two cities? River versus Sound? Would Portland build the deep-bore tunnel?

Hopefully the mayors of Seattle and Portland will have some answers at Worldchanging's event this Friday night.
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