After nearly two years in the Pacific Northwest I finally had the opportunity to visit the posterchild of modern American planning: Portland, Oregon. I have one word to sum it up: overrated.
"But how so?" you ask. Let me start by stating that it has a ton going for it. The compactness, the walkability, bikability, and vitality is glaringly apparent the moment you arrive within the center city area. There is a reason it is described as the most European city in the US, particularly with the mish mash of density and transportation options. But in the end, I think it was doomed due to its stratospheric reputation. In Seattle and many cities in this country, the planning community is constantly preaching Portland examples to the point where one begins to place it among the elite cities in the country. And rightly so in terms of planning. But alas, it is a young city of only two and a half million citizens. And while that number is rather large, it ranks 23rd largest in a list of US metropolitan areas. This fact begins to prove itself after a day or two in the city and then you being to ask, "Is that it?"
There are two more significant factors to my overall assessment. First is the fact that there is no major university in the city. Portland State has a growing presence in the southern end of downtown but it's more similar to a CNM-type campus (granted, it's much more attractive and attentive to its context) but you get the idea. This factor subtracts from the city's vitality in a way that provides a sterility to the environment through its older, professional image. Second, there is a blaring lack of diversity that gives the city the feeling of a midwest suburb - ala Boulder, CO. I kid - kind of. One of the various attractions of our cities is the diversity they contain. Portland's diversity exists across the Willamette River in small pockets while its center city has apparently left certain classes(races?) out of its burgeoning urbanity.
However, it's hard for a city to live up to a reputation that has been lauded for years. Where Des Moines has my vote for best midsize city in the country, I would vote for Portland in a "best American city with a population between 1 and 3 million people" in terms of its built environment. The urban design qualities of the city easily match the natural beauty of the surrounding area. If the image of the city is a reflection of its citizen's values, then this city rightly deserves its kudos.
Albuquerque, being in the tier of cities below Portland's, should take note of its successes and failures in an assessment of what it can be. The principles of its urban design, through its network of transportation systems, its accessibility, and its attempts at enhancing the sustainability of its built environment, and thus, its inhabitants. These are the elements that construct the principles of the city that is held to such a high esteem. Take heed, ABQ, and then go out and do better - because you can.