A short trip to the Pacific Northwest shows that some of the land use issues facing Hawaii are common in mainland locales. Oregon's biggest city has established an urban growth boundary that limits development to downtown. But it comes with a cost.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland has an invisible line. I strained to see it on the 40-minute light rail ride from Portland’s international airport to the city’s downtown area about 10 miles away. I tried to remain conscious of the transition between the rural expanse and the urban center.
I thought about that transition again on drives out of and then back into the city that bookended a day touring the nearby Columbia River Gorge last week. I took one final stab at it during the rail ride back to the airport.
But the line was easy to miss; suburbs and other somewhat-developed neighborhoods were uncommon. It seemed like before I knew it, I was either back in the heart of the city or out in open space. There was little in between. At some point, I crossed the proverbial line in the sand, and my surroundings changed almost immediately.
The reason: a strict urban growth boundary.
The Portland area is renowned for green practices. The enormous Saturday farmers market at Portland State University had a sometimes-overwhelming multitude of organic options, and composting bins in addition to trash and recycling ones. The city boasts numerous public transportation options, including free light rail in the urban center and buses, trolleys and trams to boot.
And of course there is the much-discussed and sometimes-maligned urban growth boundary. Essentially an artificial limit on developable land, the boundary, through zoning regulations, restricts growth to established urban areas. As a result, Portland’s downtown is dense for a small city of less than 600,000 residents, while its open spaces remain open. Its restaurants and culture are condensed into a small area, making infrastructure more easily manageable and making it possible for me to get around without a car for days. That’s the good.
But the restrictions are criticized for escalating housing costs. The Portland-Beaverton-Vancouver, Wash. area has a median single-family home price [pdf] of $237,400 as of the first quarter of 2010, according to Realtor statistics. There are some American cities with pricier houses — Honolulu, of course, among them — but the relatively high Portland pricetag could be a contributing factor in a noticeable homeless problem. That’s the bad.
While Oregon and Hawaii are quite different geographically, local leaders face some of the same land use issues. A strong connection to the environment has remained a central part of both cultures. Environmentalists are passionate about protecting plant and animal species in both places.
Hawaii’s land limitations are real — only so many people can fit on islands of a finite size — but some growth limits are self-imposed. The statewide land use law, created a half-century ago, has created pockets of growth and remains unique in its scope. Developers argue that the rules here are already overly restrictive. Conservationists, of course, disagree.
It was interesting to see how another city took a different approach to development and yet ended up with some similar results. There are lessons to be learned from both Honolulu and Portland.