A few days ago, in a recent post, I made a reference to Portland being more “European” in its urban planning and its more pedestrian and transit-oriented focus. A reader soon commented that this tendency of characterizing Portland this way is lazy, that not all European cities make such perfect role models, and that each city is different. And they of course were right.
This got me thinking about a book I received a press copy of a few months ago called Urban Imaginaries: Locating The Modern City, edited by Thomas Bender and Alev Cinar.
“For millennia,” they write, “the city stood out against the landscape, walled and compact. This concept of the city was long accepted as adequate for characterizing the urban experience. However, the nature of the city, both real and imagined, has always been more permeable than this model reveals.”
When you start into the ten essays in Urban Imaginaries, the writing can be pretty dry and academic. But the larger point is a relevant one: that grasping and defining and describing the city, as if there is one uber-city template, can easily flounder. That’s true not just when describing a city like Portland versus other cities, but also in the context of itself and the different levels of city, suburb and rural existing within. It also serves as a reminder that there are many, many cities outside of Europe to which we can look for inspiration. (Japan, anyone?)
“There is not even a settled name for the agglomerations of populations on all continents that are larger than any point in history,” Bender says in his conclusion. “Not only are they more extensive than could have been imagined as recently as a half century ago, but they are also increasingly multi-nodal metropolitan regions, with a variety of trans-local connections…such apparent incoherence raises the question of whether there is in fact either a city or a city culture.”
In other words, does someone living in the close-in central city of Portland have more in common with a Beaverton resident, or someone from the close-in part of another central city? Or, to look at that same question in the opposite way, are the social and geographical differences between a central Portlander and an outer Hillsboro resident less than we think?
I’m not just talking about the ways in which infrastructure and zoning differ, but also the ways in which people move and interact there? I probably don’t spend much of any time in the suburbs, for example, unless it’s passing through on the way out of town, or to purchase some kind of electronics at one of the big-box stores.
Bender also points out the importance of shared space both real and imagined. In the case of New York, for example, he compares the poetry of Walt Whitman celebrating the city with Central Park doing so in a different way.
"Whitman's best poems fuse the long lists of Manhattan's chaos of peoples, things, movements and ideas into an imagined but never finished whole that seems to include them all. Likewise, that is what Frederick Law Olmsted's Central Park was intended to provide, and on occasion it does. When Olmstead described the park as democratic, he did not refer to governance, nor did he claim that it could overcome the social and economic structures that divided the city. But he thought that in such a great public space there could be moments of transcendance when the whole could imagine its collective selves there. He thought individuals could imagine themselves into the whole that was represented by the public space of the park -- and they could do so whether they were actually in the park or not."
Natural wonders here like Mt. Hood, the Columbia Gorge and the other valleys and beaches and forests here serve us in that same unifying way. I hardly ever actualy go to Mt. Hood, but knowing it's there is part of what makes me an Oregonian. In our built environment, I think of Portland's light-rail trains and streetcars as well as its buses (less romantically) in the same way. Even when I'm not taking mass transit, I think it's important that this is a strong part of our city's identity.
These are all rather abstract, contemplative thoughts that have little to do with the brick and mortar of building, of course. But so often I and others throw around definitions of Portland that are knee-jerk and rather outdated. It’s never a bad idea to rethink our most assumptive tendencies.