In the latest issue of Atlantic Monthly, writer Lisa Camner talks to Portland mayor Sam Adams about the creation of the creation of "20-minute neighborhoods", in which residents can access places and services (shopping, schools, parks, entertainment) by walking or bike within 20 minutes.
"The 20-minute neighborhood plan is a part of Portland's long-term strategy to manage the challenges that face many urban environments across the country, including rising energy costs, population growth, roadway congestion, and demand for expensive public transit to connect more and more distant suburbs," Camner writes. "This contrasts with our conventional notion of the American cityscape, where large residential communities are connected via highways to large shopping centers, which in turn stand miles from large office parks."
Camner also tapped Mayor Adams for a Q&A about the 20-minute neighborhood strategy:
How do 20-minute neighborhoods create more camaraderie than drivable neighborhoods?
Well, if you're going to the same place repeatedly, you're more likely to meet people. If you see the same people, you're going to feel more comfortable introducing yourself and striking up a conversation. And when you look at ratings on "sense of satisfaction," it's that sense of belonging, of being noticed, of hearing what the latest news is. I don't know if you have a favorite coffee shop or restaurant where, even if they do not know you by name, it's clear they like to have you back. It's that sense of belonging, that informal exchange. Your neighborhood becomes an extended family.
So people tend to visit the same places over and over again when everything is nearby.
Exactly. If you're going to the same neighborhood grocery store, you're going to get to know the people at that grocery store. You have a connection because you live there, and they work there, and hopefully, a good percentage of them will also live there You've got something in common, more than if you drive across town to the big box stores in the suburbs, where you're overwhelmed with people from all over the region. And when you go to the neighborhood store, you might ask, "Hey, can you carry this?" There is a positive cycle. Each grocery store, let's say, will begin to reflect the needs of the surrounding neighborhood because of a sort of mutual dependency. They're going to be very reliant on neighborhood business.
For the city, the benefits are multiple. We'll more readily meet our climate change goals because there will be less driving. On the individual side, households save energy costs and fuel. And, people who are walking and biking are going to be more fit. People healthier and insurance premiums go down. There's less pollution. CEOs for Cities did a study and we already drive 20% less than comparably sized cities. We don't have car companies here, we don't have oil wells here, we don't have car insurance companies here, so every dollar we don't spend on something we don't produce here is a dollar that stays in the economy. For us, based on 2005 figures, that's about $800 million that stays in Portlanders' pockets
How does the city go about converting "regular" neighborhoods into 20-minute neighborhoods? I know Portland has a number of these neighborhoods already, but the project is not complete yet.
Right. About 11% of our city is what we would characterize as 20-minute complete neighborhoods. That is sort of the platinum standard. One key factor is walk quality. Some of our neighborhoods lack sidewalks. You might have an inexpensive grocery store that really meets the specific and unique needs of an area of town, but if you don't have sidewalks to get there, you can't very well call it walkable. The other key piece here is getting clear what the market is. What do people want?
How do you determine that?
We're doing market surveys to figure out what the economic profile is of a potential 20-minute neighborhood. We want to not only meet people's basic needs but also find out where they'll go for play and recreation and entertainment. This kind of research is a relatively new area for government. We're used to being "sticks and bricks." What we are trying to do now is figure out information. Where do you want a neighborhood park? How many school-aged kids within a proposed boundary are going to the local public school? A local business does not have the resources to go out and do a market analysis of the mile that surrounds it. But we can do that for 30 businesses on a main street.
What are the biggest challenges for converting to 20-minute neighborhoods?
Well, the challenge of money is long lasting and universal. After that, it's lack of insight, lack of research. I hate to say it, I'm a nerd--but it's data. Not data in and of itself, but insight. The notion of what can we do better with the resources that we have, is really, really key. In a lot of cases, it's the matchmaking of needs and wants that comes with analysis and insight. And that's not free, but it doesn't cost the kind of money it costs to expand arterial streets and freeways and other things.
I think the other big challenge, on the federal level especially, has been the lack of valuation of the trip not taken. The 20-minute complete neighborhood concept puts a very high value on the trip not taken, the mile not driven. It's changing now, because this administration gets it. But the biggest challenge has been getting federal funding for investments that prevent trips.
And how many bicycles do you own?
Well, Sanyo donated to the mayor's office an electric bike. You pedal, and there's a little bit of extra juice behind it, a little electric motor. And then I just have one bike, a Trek bike.
Do you think there's something about Portland that makes it uniquely suited for 20-minute neighborhoods? Or do you think this can be replicated in other cities?
I absolutely think it can be replicated in other cities. I do not think it's anything in our water, as wonderful as our Portland water is. I don't think it's partisan, I don't think it's ideological. In fact, in many ways it's a conservative pitch. You want to get the most out of the infrastructure you've already invested in. You want to be a more self-reliant city that isn't as vulnerable to the vagaries of energy costs--most cities don't have oil wells or gas wells. These are the kind of self-reliant things you should do anyway. In the process, you actually make more of your business owners' money, and save more of your residents' household costs. It's radical common sense.
Meanwhile, Oregonian commuting columnist Joseph Rose has a story that may be partially related, about the efforts of entrepreneurs like local blogger PDXebiker to promote the idea of electric bicycles in Portland - the kind that kick in with a little electric motor when you're too tired to pedal, or unable to pedal on the way to your big meeting without breaking a major sweat.
Rose talks a little about how electric bicycles are frowned upon by the city's purist cyclists. They have called PDXebiker "traitor" and "cheater" when he whizzes through bike lanes. But electronic bicycles could be a key component of the 20-minute neighborhood.
"The city's new bicycle plan calls for 25 percent of all trips to be made by bike in 20 years," Rose writes. "Now, I think we have a better chance of going to war with zombies than meeting that goal. But a lot of Portlanders say they would love to ditch their cars, if only the transition to bicycling wasn't so extreme."
"With the motorized assist, riders can pedal in work or symphony-going clothes without breaking a sweat."
If we're really going to get to a point where most Portlanders live in a 20-minute neighborhood, and where residents make 25 percent of their trips by bicycle, this is the way to do it. And as Rose adds at the end of his column, "I don't get it. eBike. o(ld)bike. Either way: one less car."