Endangered Ecotopia

It's three hours south in Oregon, but is now a dream at risk.

In 1981, I discovered Ecotopia. Newly arrived in Seattle from Reno, Nev.—drawn by a childhood attraction to the setting for Here Come the Brides—I moved into a house full of Whitman College grads who promptly gave me the book, describing it as a Northwest "user's manual." Ernest Callenbach's '70s fantasy quickly became mine as I relished joining the natives seceding from Ronald Reagan's United States.

But it wasn't until 1989 that I actually found Ecotopia, three hours south, across the Columbia River in Oregon. I wasn't looking for it: The dippy early-20s idealist had evolved into a thirtysomething mercenary who merely saw a Portland job as a rung on a ladder to somewhere else.

But that was, um, 15 years ago.

Rereading Ecotopia on its 30th anniversary highlighted the biggest reason I've stayed: I've been living in a secessionist state. But it also made me realize that if Oregon doesn't create an updated user's manual quickly, it's doomed to slide back into the lower 48.

Oregon's detour from the mainstream began quietly in the early '70s with two events: the passage of a statewide land-use planning law called Senate Bill 100 and the adoption of a road map to Portland's future called the 1972 Downtown Plan. Together, they sliced state and city right out of two grand American traditions: the Jeffersonian gentleman farmer turning into a real-estate speculator; and the modernist redesign of cities for the exclusive convenience of cars.

Under Senate Bill 100, Oregon established 19 statewide land-use goals: No. 1, "citizen involvement," followed by such simple, far-reaching ideas as conserving agricultural lands, creating adequate transportation, and protecting coastal beaches. Fully implemented, the bill led to the creation of the state's famed "urban growth boundaries," protecting farms, forests, and essential habitats from urban sprawl. Inside the boundary, the real-estate market determined land values. But outside it, the state froze the property tax assessments and limited land divisions. Consequently, what the land produced determined its value, whether it was agricultural goods or timber—or a more virgin landscape that simply served sportspeople and tourists, watersheds and habitat.

As much as SB 100 managed rural land for the collective public good, so did the '72 Downtown Plan guide the city. Concerned about Portland's failing downtown and the ability of the city's tax base to adequately support schools, citizens initiated the plan. But a cadre of visionary planners, led by then-mayor Neil Goldschmidt, turned that plan into a blueprint for a downtown where people could comfortably work, shop, live, and play. Goldschmidt's reputation may be mud today, but under his political leadership, the city jackhammered a riverside freeway to build a riverside park, centralized the entire region's transit system on two downtown streets, knocked down a parking garage to build a public square, and traded in a proposed freeway for the Northwest's first modern light-rail line. Planners crafted regulations putting the local streets and sidewalks ahead of freeways as the most critical urban arteries. They outlawed new surface parking lots and mandated ground-floor retail shops.

SB 100 and the '72 plan didn't spawn Portland's Ecotopian behavior, per se. But SB 100 established a line—rather than a divide—between rural and urban that, while separating them, recognized their interdependence. Most important, together, bill and plan established a foundation of collective investment and community spirit in the vein the ancient Romans called civitas. Fifteen years after SB 100 and the '72 plan's adoption, the state adopted, without irony, the slogan, "Oregon: Things look different here."

Indeed, much like Callenbach's protagonist, William Weston—a journalist and the first American to visit Ecotopia since the secession—visitors to Portland are enthralled and mystified by everything from the growing system of light rail and streetcars to the 11,000 cyclists who stream into downtown every day to the absence of Styrofoam cups (banned in 1990). In short, like Ecotopia, the city has forged a noticeably distinct civic ethic and aesthetic. Even the modestly sized signage that so irritated Weston as he tried to navigate Ecotopian cities has a Portland parallel in the strict 200-square-foot limit on outdoor advertising.

On a more fundamental level, Portlanders prize participation over spectatorship. They've yet to dump all professional sports (although the Blazers' antics may yet inspire it) in favor of Callenbach's vision for how Ecotopians released aggression—tribal war games. But Portland has the lowest TV viewership of sports in the country. The broad and deep political and community involvement Callenbach fantasized is common practice in Portland. Robert Putnam, who documented the decline of American civic participation in the seminal study Bowling Alone, last year published a follow-up study, Better Together: Restoring the American Community, detailing how Portland is—by far—the most civically involved city in the nation. In the years between 1974 and 1994, as the rest of the country saw a 50 percent drop in attendance at public meetings and membership in civic organizations, Portland's rate doubled.

Callenbach only paid passing attention to agriculture in Ecotopia. But in Oregon, it is the root and the soul of secessionism. Keep in mind, SB 100 was crafted by a rural dairy farmer, Hector Macpherson, and ramrodded through by Gov. Tom McCall—both Republicans—and passed by a legislature controlled by urban Democrats. It was, first and foremost, a farmland preservation act. No more compelling evidence of its success can be found than by comparing South King County to the Willamette Valley. Sitting in the shadows of volcanos, both valleys are filled with some of the richest soil in the world. Over the last 30 years, however, South King County has only grown industrial and suburban sprawl. The Willamette Valley, its long-range form envisioned by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin during McCall's tenure, sprouted world-class turf, wine, and nursery industries and a growing network of organic farms.

Yet, if SB 100 and the '72 plan clearly provided the architecture for Ecotopian Oregon, the system updates since have failed to provide protection from political viruses infecting the rest of the country. SB 100 and the '72 Downtown Plan began as revolts, but the divides between sides—rural and urban, business and neighborhoods, Dems and Republicans—were resolved by finding the common interests held by all as Citizens. In recent years, however, a redistricting has occurred in which the Citizens are increasingly under attack by a coalition party best named the Advocates.

The Advocates can be conservative or liberal, rural or urban, free enterprisers or communists. What they share isn't an ideology, it's guidance by ideology. As Citizens search for consensus through deliberation and informed compromise, Advocates regulate, litigate, and pass ballot initiatives. As Citizens work for what's best for the city and state as a whole, Advocates only want to win—at any cost.

This new two-party system first surfaced in 1991 when the Advocates narrowly passed Oregon's first property tax rollback measure. Poof! The unifying theme of healthy schools funded by a healthy local tax base disappeared. The depletion of timber, the rise of high-tech, the globalization of agriculture, and perhaps most pivotally, the expansion of the suburbs have all further empowered the Advocates. Urban and rural mutual dependence—moreover, mutual understanding— disappeared. Disagreements are no longer decided by finding the pragmatic middle ground of long-term, shared economic health and livability; they are decided by a suburban plurality that slides to whichever end of the Advocate spectrum offers the brightest spin.

Sounds like 'merica, you might say. Yup, sure does. There is a growing expanse of Oregon that looks like it, too. What's so aggravating is that the still-vital areas that neither act nor look like the rest of the country are now under siege courtesy of an unprecedented right-left-right combination delivered by the Advocates in 2004.

Since SB 100 was passed, the Advocates of property rights—most outside government— have attempted to damage or overturn it a dozen times, always losing. Meantime, liberal Advocates—mostly environmentalists— have buttressed the land-use planning system with increasingly byzantine regulations. In 2002, property rightists finally won at the ballot box, 53 percent to 47 percent, passing an initiative called Measure 7 that required compensation for any loss of land value due to regulation.

The courts struck it down. But rather than boldly addressing the criticisms that a growing majority of Oregonians have with the land-use system—namely burdensome regulations out of step with the state's changing demographics, industries, and economies—environmental Advocates grew even more aggressive, attempting to pass a series of draconian environmental regulations. To the already threatened middle ground, they went off like a car bomb.

Maybe even a Tom McCall would fail in this political environment. But I doubt it. Consider "Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life," the anything-goes rock festival McCall sponsored in 1970 at a state park to distract the local antiwar activists from a near-certain clash with Richard Nixon's appearance at an American Legion convention in Portland. That's leadership: When reason can't succeed, switch to street smarts.

The environmentalists' intentions were, perhaps, noble—watershed protection. But even as Measure 7 suggested reason was failing, street smarts were in short supply. In the month before the 2004 election, both the city of Portland and Metro, Portland's regional government, adopted new "environmental overlay" zones. The protests reached such a pitch, both governments stopped the overlays, but not before transforming Measure 7 into a more powerful, legally resilient virus called Measure 37. It passed 62 percent to 48 percent.

At face value, Measure 37 is simple: Any property owner whose land is reduced in value by new regulation shall either be compensated for the loss or have the regulation waived. But the fine print made the measure retroactive to the property's purchase date. In some cases of continuous ownership by a family or company, "new regulation" could mean zoning adopted in the 19th century.

Sloppily written, but politically unstoppable, Measure 37 will take months, if not years, to legally sort out. In the meantime, it is threatening to bludgeon a 30-year legacy of land-use planning into something unrecognizable as Oregon. The message is clear: Unless the Citizens of Oregon get off the ropes, the next generation will only know the Ecotopia in Ernest Callenbach's book.


Randy Gragg is the architecture and urban design critic for The Oregonian, Portland's daily newspaper.

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