Saturday, September 03, 2011

A case of city envy

Sure, I get the cliché about the grass always being greener somewhere else.
I was in a coffee-shop line in Portland waxing poetic about that fair city just this past weekend, in fact, while up ahead of me a Portland couple enthused about a recent visit to Victoria. There you go.
Still, I wish we could be more like Portland. No city can get everything right, but Portland comes pretty close.
I gave up amalgamation as a column topic years ago, because there’s just no point. It’s not going to happen of its own accord in our region, and the province is never going to step in to force anything. So I’ve let it go.
But then I go to a place like Portland and get thinking about the possibilities.
In a region and climate not that much different from ours, Portland has created a friendly, vibrant city. Whether you’re walking, cycling, using rapid transit or driving a car, it’s an easy place to get around in.  
There’s cheap food everywhere, courtesy of the city’s many food carts. There’s a Saturday market packed with local wares, and a huge waterfall fountain downtown that the locals treat like an urban swimming hole.
Portland has a distinct core, but it also has any number of walkable, food-and-drink-laden neighbourhoods nearby - each with an individual feel but still part of a whole. It’s got homeless people and panhandlers, but nobody seems too worried in a city known for its sensible and humane homelessness initiatives.
Could we be that kind of city? Is that achievable in a region segmented into 13 separate municipalities?
Not that I’ve seen. But hey, I’ve only lived here 22 years. That sewage-treatment plant being debated when I first arrived here might actually happen one day, so you never know.
The south Island doesn’t even feel like a region, really - we feel like 13 strikingly different places. Spend a few years here and you’ll soon learn how very hard it is to introduce anything that extends across many municipal boundaries. Strong-minded neighbourhood associations add to the sense of living among individual enclaves each focused on their own thing.
Many locals seem perfectly happy with the way things are, and would probably tell people like me to just go ahead and move to Portland if we like the place so much. People aren’t exactly chafing for better regional governance, let alone a directly elected body like Portland has to handle all land-use planning.
But the incredulity is unmistakeable in the voices of people new to our region when they first find out that fewer than 350,000 people are governed by 13 mayors, councils and distinctly different bureaucracies. Then comes the frustration, after they realize how hard it is to make big things happen in a small region of small, inward-looking towns.
We like to talk about light rail transit for this region, something which Portland has done well. But think about how things would actually play out with an issue like that.
Think of the land-use hurdles. The politics. The conflicting interests and ideologies. Then multiply it by 13. Picture all those overheated public hearings. Imagine trying to secure agreement across 13 sets of taxpayers to pay for it all.
Well, maybe we could start with something simpler than LRT - more food carts, say. You can’t walk far in Portland without bumping into a food-cart cluster, with everything from fried peach pies to po’boys and lavender milk shakes on offer until late into the night.
More cart pods like the little one in Cook Street Village would not only bring much happiness to aficionados like me, but add more jobs and buzz to commercial areas. They would draw people in.
But forming ourselves into 13 tiny towns has also made us a region of many, many rules. Portland’s food-cart experience certainly isn’t a free-for-all, but it doesn’t much resemble the scrubbed-up, tightly regulated way we do things here. Could we ever loosen up enough to try?
We’re a charming place in our own right, as those Portland residents noted. But we could be so much better. If we won’t amalgamate, can we at least find more effective ways to reach past our municipal self-interest and get this region popping?
Until then, there’s always Portland.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I visited Portland in June this year and I agree with you. It's a lovely place to live and visit. I've never been to such a pleasant US city before. I think the general sensibilities of the population are quite similar to our region - people want to have good jobs and live sustainably without a lot of flash and cash. Having lived here for most of my 35 years, I'd dearly love to see our regions amalgamated!