Portland’s 1971 visionary of low-car life says our city needs its next vision

Portland’s 1971 visionary of low-car life says our city needs its next vision

Alan Webber at BIF-6

Former Portland city hall staffer
and journalist Alan Webber.
(2010 photo by Jeremy Withers)

The man who, as a city hall aide 40 years ago, proposed that Portland consider an anti-congestion fee, car-free streets, a citywide bikeway network, a station-based public bike sharing system and bike-specific traffic signals stopped through town last weekend and said something else interesting.

Alan Webber, who went on to co-found Fast Company magazine, still believes in the ideas he held back then: “The good guys win,” as he put it. But in a speech last Saturday he made the case that the convictions of the early 1970s aren’t enough any more, and that Portland needs to set a new, higher target and stick with it.

In some ways, Webber’s Sept. 7 keynote at TechFestNW was a retelling of the familiar but memorable local story of how one generation of mostly white male Portlanders ousted the more auto-centric ideas of an older generation in the early 1970s.

But Webber’s speech also offers a fresh, frank take on how his generation built consensus around those big changes, why they worked and what they mean to Portland today.

The best and brightest of America’s prestigious urban planners, transportation experts, economic development gurus, and social engineers had already laid waste to most of the country’s big cities. Urban renewal had been used as a tool to bulldoze slums, displace minorities, and erect sterile single-use zones that in many cases reflected an architectural style best described as “Mussolini modern.”

Everyone who counted knew that freeways were the wave of the future—that massive concrete channels needed to be carved through old and uninteresting city neighborhoods to make it faster, easier, and more convenient for former city dwellers—the ones with money and choice—to make the morning commute from the sprawling suburbs to the rapidly rotting urban core—and back again at night. All that old housing stock, all those old neighborhoods, what difference did they make? They were the past. … The good news for Portland in 1970 was that the city leaders were so conservative, so slow, so sclerotic, they’d managed to miss almost all of these carefully planned catastrophes.

Make no mistake. Portland in 2013 is at a “what’s next?” moment, much as it was in 1970. Except in 1970 we were trying to save Portland from urban ruin. in 2013 you have the opportunity to propel Portland to urban greatness. …

If you go to war, and you don’t have a clear definition of victory, how do you know how many resources to commit, how to make the case for the conflict with your own people, how long to stay, or when to leave—or even whether you’re winning or losing? The same is true for a business—or, for that matter for a city seeking a strategy. You need to be able to answer the question, “What’s your definition of victory?” “What’s the point of the exercise?” so you can begin to know why you are doing what you are doing, and how well you are doing it. .

Which is why having a definition of victory—why asking the last question first—is fundamental to any military engagement, any business strategy or entrepreneurial startup, or any urban disruption. … Here’s the deal—for business entrepreneurs or urban strategists: Once you know your definition of victory, then you can begin to connect the elements of your strategy into a coherent, internally consistent whole.

But until you have answered that fundamental question, until you know the definition of victory, you really have no strategy. You have an assortment of programs, a loose collection of policy initiatives—but no clear strategy.

Webber is a little vague on suggestions for what that strategy should be, but with good reason: he’s not a Portlander any more. It’s up to those of us who are to ask and answer “the last question” he refers to.

Here at BikePortland, we’re looking for ways to tell the story of how bikes fit into a better city, not for their own sake but for the sake of the city and the region we share and love. How can we make it clear that bike advocacy isn’t about asking the city to make way for bikes, but about making it possible for bikes to serve the city?

While you chew on that (I certainly will be), Willamette Week has the whole text of Webber’s speech, and it’s definitely worth reading.

Hat tip to the Twitter feed of OPB’s Toni Tabora-Roberts.

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