The Portland Area's Urban Growth Boundary
Photo courtesy City of Banks
One of the many draws to living in Portland, Oregon, is how quickly you can escape the urban area. While most cities stretch out as they grow, turning rural areas into suburban sprawl, Oregon law as established an urban growth boundary to control urban expansion, and protect farms and forest that surround Oregon’s cities.
Thanks to the urban growth boundary, a short drive will land you in the countryside where fresh air, trees, and farms abound.
The land within the urban growth boundary supports the development of metropolitan infrastructures, like roads, water and sewer systems, parks, schools, and fire and police protections, while land outside of the boundary is protected from urban sprawl, to preserve the abundance of nature and local farmers that area residents depend on.
In order to keep up with the housing demand and preserve the farms and forest that surround Portland, urban infill has been utilized to optimize the use of already developed areas. Infill is an urban planning term, defined as the use of land within a built-up area for further construction. More specifically, abandoned lots and underutilized spaces are converted into homes to serve the rising demand, without taking over more land.
Portland has a reputation for urban sustainability. In 1991, zoning changes were approved by the city to redevelop existing urban land into housing. This led to developers purchasing lots, subdividing them into much smaller lots, and building contextually inappropriate tract housing on those slivers of land. (Tract housing is a type of development in which nearly identical houses are built on a tract of subdivided land.) The intention was good — building more houses in the space that existed — but the result was visually unappealing to many neighborhood residents.
The “Living Smart” program was launched in Portland in 2003 and ran through 2011, in response to that rise in small lot, tract housing. This program limited infill to currently vacant lots and added design requirements, ensuring that new properties would not become an eyesore on the existing neighborhood. This led to a dialogue between designers and builders, and an international competition was launched to encourage design firms and individuals to design houses with specifically defined, compact parameters. Entrants were encouraged to use sustainable approaches to their designs. Winning designs were chosen and became models not only for Portland, but for International urban development.
This progression of the urban growth boundaries, infill, and the Living Smart program showcase Portland’s dedication to constantly evolving as a sustainable, livable city.
As the city continues to grow, the urban growth boundaries are revisited every twenty years to assess the population growth within the city, and adjust the boundaries if necessary. To better manage the expansion of boundaries over time, urban and rural reserves were created. These reserves currently exist outside of the urban growth boundaries, but designate land that is of high value for farms, or of high potential for urban growth.
These reserves do not change existing zones, but they enable better long-term planning by predicting which land must be preserved and which land can potentially be utilized for urban expansion in the future.
Portland density currently hovers around 4,375 people per square mile, but thanks to thoughtful, sustainable planning, Portland has been able to maintain its European vibe with friendly, accessible streets and efficient public transportation.