Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How a Population Strategy Works

In my last blog I suggested that what Santa Fe needs (as an example of how to spark local economic development) is a population strategy, one that would concentrate on the "missing middle"--the young people who can bring innovation, entrepreneurship, and energy to a flagging economy.

A population strategy can work. I know, because I've seen one work. I was part of the team in Portland, Oregon in the 1970s that put a population strategy to work. Here's what happened.

If you visit Portland today, you'll see a city that is widely admired, both here and abroad, for its livability. The downtown is charming, the neighborhoods desirable places to live. The public transportation system is a model, with light rail lines and bike paths that offer reliable, dependable, and affordable alternatives to the automobile. The Waterfront Park is delightful, the housing options in the Pearl District represent wonderful living spaces for a broad demographic.

It wasn't always like this. And it didn't happen by accident.

In the mid-1970s, a poll of Portlanders revealed a startling trend: middle income families with children were beginning to leave the city and move to the suburbs.

If you lived in almost any other city in America, of course, that kind of suburban flight had already happened. Freeway construction had torn through urban neighborhoods, worsening race relations had polarized communities, and the suburbs beckoned to many middle class, middle income families.

But it hadn't happened in Portland . . . yet.

At the time I was an assistant to Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, who was working to rescue and revitalize the city on a number of fronts, from stopping a disastrous freeway from wrecking Southeast Portland, to implementing an innovative Downtown Plan, to trying to make Portland's neighborhoods safer. This poll and the threat of losing a key demographic from the city's population became the policy glue that held all the pieces together.

The Mayor and his team adopted a Population Strategy: the goal was to use the city's resources and policy instruments to convince middle-income, employed families with children to choose to stay in the city. We wanted them to vote with their feet--by staying put.


Because middle-income, employed families with children provide social glue to an otherwise unstable community fabric.

Without that cohort, Portland would be a city like so many other cities--a place filled with retired people living on their pensions, and young, unmarried people, just starting out their work lives and careers. Nothing wrong with either group--but not enough in the middle to hold the community together.

We needed the middle-income employed families with children so there'd be a group of people who cared deeply about the health and well-being of the city's neighborhoods; who had a stake in the schools; who had the time and motive to volunteer to be den mothers and scout masters; who would look out for their neighbors and their neighborhoods; who could afford to pay taxes and contribute to charities. And if we lost that group, then we'd lose a critical component that held so much of the rest of the community together.

The Portland Population Strategy knit the pieces of the Mayor's vision together into a coherent approach to problem-solving.

Why stop the Mt. Hood Freeway? Because it would destroy the livability of Southeast Portland, destroy much-needed housing stock, dump more cars into downtown Portland, add more air pollution to the mix, and facilitate the flight of families to the suburbs of the East Side. Building it would mean Portland was committing suicide!

Why implement the Downtown Plan? Because a healthy city core would contribute to the health of the surrounding neighborhoods. If downtown was vibrant, there'd be another reason for people to live in Portland's neighborhoods, another attraction to urban life. There'd be shopping, jobs, conventions, arts, culture, vitality.

Why invest in crime prevention? Because safe neighborhoods, with neighbors looking after each other, not only stopped stranger-to-stranger street crime from happening; safe neighborhoods, where neighbors knew each other and looked out for each was an antidote to the anonymous suburbs. Community was better than isolation.

There were other pieces, as well: the quality of public education, improvements in parks and recreation, efforts to recruit new companies and new investments.

But what made it work was that the pieces all fit together, once you framed it in terms of a population strategy. Efforts to bring companies to Portland and have them locate their new factories and facilities in particular parts of the city were linked to transportation investments that both protected neighborhoods and made for an easy commute. When the first OPEC oil embargo drove up the price and availability of gas at the pumps, a Portland Energy Policy became another argument for living in the city: the commute was less expensive--and you could do it using public transit.

The reason Portland looks the way it does today draws directly from the Population Strategy of the 1970s. And interestingly, in making life better for employed, middle-income families with children, Portland has also made life better for the senior citizens living on their pensions and the new generation of young people looking to get started in their lives.

A Population Strategy can work--it can help a city focus its efforts, use its resources more wisely, and bring together the pieces of life and work that create a desirable, attractive, and livable community for everybody who lives there.

How do you make it work? It takes leadership and vision, courage and conviction. It takes a fresh way of looking at the world and an innovative way of solving problems.

But it can be done. And it can work. I know. Because I've seen it happen. And I've seen the results.

The first step? Looking at the data, seeing what's missing, what's at risk, what can leverage the most change. After that, it's a question of fitting the pieces together into a coherent whole. It's how a town can create its own future.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb