Urban Story

Going Down...
U.S. trends 1970-2000

Time with friends   
Family dinners
Petition signing

Like Union, most rural towns still experience fairly high levels of civic involvement. The exact opposite is true in every major American city – except Portland, Oregon.

Looking back 30 years to the 1970s, Portland was just like the other cities, with similar levels of letter-writing, voting, group membership, meeting attendance, and so on. But over the next three decades, other cities saw a steep decline in every measure of public participation – even voting. Meanwhile, in Portland, every form of civic engagement increased substantially.

Why is Portland different?

Experts in the areas of civic engagement and public participation believe that several factors were working simultaneously.

For starters, Portland got the right mayor at the right moment. When 32-year-old Neil Goldschmidt was elected in 1972, he was the youngest mayor of a major American city. He was charismatic, persuasive, and very energetic. Two terms later, Goldschmidt had reshaped Portland's governing structure to include citizen participation and power sharing.

For example, in 1974, the city opened an Office of Neighborhood Associations. It was their job to provide technical support and training to emerging citizen groups. Instead of resulting in government gridlock, the experiment generated a groundswell of productive, community-based cooperation. Today Portland has nearly 100 active neighborhood associations, each encompassing about 4,500 citizens.

Portland may also benefit from a traditionally low-key political atmosphere. In many major cities, the primary objective at Town Hall is the control and exercise of power. In contrast, Portland has a history of engaging (and often colorful) mayors with fairly modest political ambitions. Over the past 30 years, many of Portland's top officials have added to Goldschmidt's original structure. Today, the city's political culture continues to put a high value on "non-political" traits such as cooperation, flexibility, and openness. As a result, Portlanders may feel more comfortable about getting involved in local government. One urban analyst, Carl Abbot, goes so far as to say Portlanders "trust government because they are government."

Of course, many other factors could have influenced the progress of Portland. For instance, the city enjoyed a relatively slow growth rate for many years, giving citizens time to adapt to community changes. And Portland's population is very homogeneous, a factor in community cohesion. By 1990, only one major city had a lower ratio of minorities per million than Portland. (In Union, over 95% of the population is white). And there's one more possible influence: Portland may attract large numbers of activists because a large number of activists already live there. Over the years, Oregon, and Portland, have earned reputations as "politically enlightened" places.

Whatever the mix of forces and factors, the civic success of Portland proves that any community, anywhere, can grow and improve-when citizens and public servants make the effort to connect.

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