RMJM Hillier, one of the world's largest architecture firms, has a released a new list of America's "Best Cities For Design". And in a crop of cities much larger than ours (the poll was restricted to cities with populations of over 500,000), Portland finds itself in the top five at...well, at number five.
The rankings were based on ten criteria: public transit systems, LEED certified or registered buildings, art and design universities, museums, sustainability rankings, architecture awards, employees in creative industries, housing and community design awards, and buildings on the National Historic Register. RMJMH then commissioned a public opinion and research firm to interview over 1000 residents of those cities on architecture and design issues and incorporated those results into the research to determine the final rankings.
2. New York
4. Los Angeles
6. San Francisco
10. Washington, DC
Beside our relatively small size, there are other reasons one might not expect Portland to be on the list. We have until very recently lacked local university masters' programs for fine arts and architecture. Portland is also way behind other cities in providing public funding for art and artists. Even so, the city's pioneering sustainability efforts certainly played a roll, as well as the kind of cultural popularity Portland is enjoying among the media.
Maybe our presence on the list is the equivalent of Oregon or Oregon State's basketball making the NCAA final four in a field with UCLA, North Carolina and Kentucky. We're not the perennial power, but we're the team on the rise that people are talking about. The question is, will Portland be on next year's list, or the one after that? Or a decade from now? More pointedly, how does the city retain the energy and dynamics of an outsider as it becomes a more visible part of the broader mainstream culture?
Amongst all this talk of top 10 lists, it should go without saying that these needn't be taken as a real, infallible barometer of design in America's city's. Top 10 lists were a cliche a couple decades ago. (According to my Late Night With David Letterman Book of Top 10 Lists, for example, the #5 rejected Campbell's soup was "Manhattan style Windex & Shrimp". The #2 nickname most popular nickname for Jack Klugman was "Cap'n". And so on.)
Even so, just as with the recent coverage Portland has received from the New York Times to Anthony Bourdain's Travel Channel show, there are worse things than people saying how cool we are. It reminds me of this long-ago series of TV commercials promoting the city, all to a re-written version of the old Tin Pan Alley standard "You're The Top". The only line I remember was "You're the top! You're the Coliseum," sung by a woman in a tuxedo and top hat.