Some Civic Brainstorming


I accept Carl Abbott's call for civic brainstorming. (Oregonian, Sept 28, 2002).

I came to Portland in 1972 amid the beginnings of the Downtown Plan, the transit mall, and the rise of neighborhood associations.

I came to Oregon just before the energy crisis when the Governor was Tom McCall -- a real character who had the nerve to say NO to 50 MPH and Christmas lighting. Oregon embraced a Bottle Bill, public beaches, and trees.

Senate Bill 100 promised meaningful citizen participation. But citizens have often been confined to pre-cooked alternatives; their voices limited to two minutes. I found that even if the brand of participation included brainstorming, institutions and citizens themselves were reluctant to leave their comfort zone. Knowing this, and without delusion, I offer three radical ideas to the next generation.

Idea 1. Regional Re-organization.

We need a new pattern language in order to express our unique Northwest culture. We suffer daily from jurisdictional confusion and inefficiencies -- fighting fires and building byways across arbitrary straight state and county lines. Portland is surrounded by four contending counties complicating the simplest planning efforts, perhaps the worst such situation in the Northwest.

Why not do away with states and counties altogether, instead of trading counties between states? We are the Northwest, a region of distinct rural, marine and urban areas. For example, we have the Columbia Gorge, Cascade, and Willamette Valley rural areas. The Puget Sound islands make up a marine area. We have the Portland-Vancouver urban area.

Urban areas are, in turn, constellations of towns, towns have communities, communities have villages, and so on, down to the grass roots of home and business. (Portland neighborhood associations are more the size of villages.)

Why not morph our man-made mess into a natural pattern of geography and demography? We should re-organize all appropriate systems (schools, libraries, courts, emergency services, transportation, and so on) along these geographic scales, from the local watch group to the regional or national level. True homeland security comes from the bottom up, from our own soil. Arm our best minds with weapons of mass participation!

Idea 2. A New Transportation Landscape.

We'll need a web of transportation to better integrate land use in this new organic region. What would an optimum transit map for our area look like? I imagine interconnected communities and towns as well as regions. I imagine it would have many of the same trunks, like Hawthorne and Barbur Blvd. I imagine being able to get from one town (center) to another quickly - without stopping.

Citizens would love to participate in such a re-design if it were truly wide open and reached into the neighborhoods. We could all help create a system as diverse as our geo-cultural landscape.

Idea 3. A Portland Pyramid.

We need a focal point, something symbolizing the new pattern language. The block just east of the Justice Center is currently being held by Hong Kong investors and used as a parking lot. Imagine a city-block glass pyramid, the eye of our regional brainstorm, overlooking the Willamette. Put that on a postcard!

For more on these ideas and others, visit my home page at

John Miller of Collins View in Southwest Portland developed these ideas while teaching at Lewis & Clark College. He is now a system architect for Metro.

Carl Abbott's article: This fair city fails by resting on it laurels.

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