Sunday, September 26, 2021

Portland suffers - is a great city on the decline?

Portland, Oregon. Much of it is still a beautiful city

by Gregory Saville

This city was once one of my favorites. Even today, there are still great, and well-used, neighborhood parks. Nature here is spectacular with nearby rivers, lush forests, and a Pacific Ocean coast an hour or so drive. Yet, all is not well in this once spectacular city.

Portland, Oregon is applauded in urban planning for its efficient public transit, beautiful architecture, and a famous urban growth boundary that preserved farms and forests alike.

Portland was a model for America and here on SafeGrowth we have posted blogs on neighborhood innovations that show how neighborhood planning can work, such as the Intersection Repair program.

Sadly, no more. I spent a week there recently co-teaching SafeGrowth and discovered something is catastrophically wrong in Portland. I truly hope it does not portend the decline of that great city. I hope it is not a bellwether for other cities.

Homeless encampments. Like other cities, Portland struggles 


As in all major cities in the U.S., crime, especially homicide, is increasing. Homicides have been increasing yearly in Portland for 5 years (the police defunding movement cannot claim full responsibility). 

Homelessness has never been worse. Downtown streets are lined with boarded-up buildings, vacant properties, and addicts on seemingly every corner. It looks like the beginning of the worst years in Detroit! 

In spite of innovations in housing the homeless, the problem grows

How did this happen? For starters, consider 100 straight days of protests and riots in 2020. Then add racial unrest and anti-police protests. Throw in COVID shutdowns and economic strife and a persistent inability to respond effectively to street homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse. This is a perfect storm for urban decline.  


Our work there has just begun and the Portlanders engaged in the SafeGrowth crime prevention work are impressive and dedicated to making things better. I’m curious to see how much help they get from other organizations. They have plenty of conceptual crime prevention tools and a system for tackling the big issues. But they are just getting started and there is much work to do.

In the meantime, there are so many critical questions to consider: How to respond to mental illness? How to tame the rash of shootings? How to provide humane and effective services to the homeless? How to reclaim downtown Portland for all Portlanders?

A transformed downtown

Vacant stores, companies leaving downtown


One of those critical questions involves the Portland Police. 

I have worked for three decades to reform the police academy curriculum toward the 21st Century. I have co-written books on the deficiencies in police training, patrol, hiring, and supervision. I have co-written, with my colleague Gerard Cleveland, OpEds in the Denver Post newspaper describing what should be done.

As Jane Jacobs said, as necessary as police are, they cannot control crime without the intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary social controls among people themselves (in other words, SafeGrowth). But her injunction deliberately attaches the phrase "the police - as necessary as they are." So what is happening to the necessary role of police in Portland?


Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell says his force now has less than 40 officers patrolling the streets each night and, according to CNN "he doesn't think that is nearly enough to deal with the increased violence. During one weekend, his department had over 1,200 calls for help.”

Is he right, I wondered? As a former police planner, I slipped back into my habit of crunching the numbers: 

  • 1,200 calls divided by 48 hours = 25 calls an hour. 
  • Only 40 officers patrolling the entire city means 40 officers – 25 calls = 15 officers available each hour 

Of course, that only works if Portland police use single-officer patrols and not two-officer patrols (I have no clue which they use). Further, many of those 25 calls require two officers to attend (car crashes with injuries, bar fights, etc). What does that do to the bottom line? 

  • If 25% of those 25 calls require a two-officer response (I am being cautious - it’s probably much higher) 
  • Then 25 calls per hour = 30 officers tied up in calls every hour 
  • Therefore, 40 officers – 30 officers = 10 officers remaining for calls 
What do we know about the geography of policing in Portland?
  • Portland is a city of 660,000 residents and 145 square miles. 
  • Since I have no idea how their department structures patrol zones, let's estimate. 145 / 10 = 14.5 
There are maps showing better ways forward - Our book You In Blue outlined some 6 years ago


Admittedly, this back-of-the-envelope calculation is probably too conservative. But it is a best-case result and to leaders and citizens alike, it should pose an alarming question: Is there really only 1 officer available for every 14.5 square miles in Portland during busy weekends?

If so, no wonder the Portlanders I spoke to complained about a complete absence of police. After all, if Portland cops are not already on a call, then they are spread so thin it is unlikely the dispatch supervisor can afford to send them to anything but the most serious offenses.

Do Portland residents no longer have a police department able to do its job! If so, then who is responding to the drug dealing, street assaults, robberies, sexual crimes, and so forth? 

Is this call-ratio/quality-of-police response all that matters? No. But it is enough to get started.


SafeGrowth can make a major impact on community engagement. And there are many reasons to reform the police. But stripping down your emergency response to almost zero? Does that really make sense? What are the alternative emergency response options? I know of attempts to create small special response units. I know the recent trend is to pair officers with social workers in cars. 

But, let’s be frank. These are piecemeal answers. There are better ways to solve problems, better training methods, better leadership styles, and better ways to govern police.

Today Portland suffers. The residents, minority groups, the disenfranchised, and the police themselves, deserve better! 

Monday, September 13, 2021

E-scooters on the loose - rethinking urban form

by Mateja Mihinjac

At its core, SafeGrowth builds on the environmental philosophy of Smart Growth urban planning, a concept that aims to restructure the way we plan cities to improve sustainability, livability, and public health. 

Over the past century, the urban structure of cities has undergone some dramatic changes. With the emergence of motor vehicles, space originally intended for pedestrians became increasingly smaller and vehicle use increased, adding vast amounts of pollution into the air. It also decreased the amount of walking, which affected public health. 

One strategy to transform these trends is the 15-minute city philosophy, where people have easy walking or biking access to services and amenities within 15 minutes of their residence. The concept of 15-minute cities was first laid out in the Congress for New Urbanism Smartcode, twenty years ago. More recently Mayor Anne Hidalgo adopted it as part of her re-election bid in Paris.

Unfortunately, efforts to adopt these alternative modes of transportation have not come without their own challenges, one example being the growing popularity of e-scooters that have dominated the streets of many cities since 2017.  

E-scooters have taken cities by storm


In a very short time, the use of e-scooters has surged and many cities allowed e-scooter start-up companies to set up shop. However, while loved by some, the scooters are hated by others. 

One of major drawbacks of e-scooters appears to be their major advantage – the ability to leave scooters anywhere without having to park them. This flexible use has popularised their use but also led to conflict between different traffic groups. While prohibited on main roads or bike lanes, many e-scooter riders choose to ride on sidewalks, prompting concerns for pedestrian territory being under assault.

E-scooter users take over public sidewalks and annoy pedestrians

Further, e-scooters can reach speeds of 25km/h and that has led to an increased number of injuries of both riders and passers-by. Another issue is “scooter pollution” - scooters often block the already limited sidewalk space and thus obstruct mobility for other groups of users. This has led to the introduction of parking fines for scooters in some cities while other cities have completely prohibited parking of scooters in their city core.

The result is a conflict between start-up companies that offer scooters and municipalities that think scooters should be banned from their streets. However, scooter users cannot park where such infrastructure does not yet exist. Clearly, there are unsolved implementation snags.

Are there solutions that could preserve this mode of transportation rather than simply eliminate it? 15-minute cities need alternative transport options so there must be solutions. 

Industry leaders themselves acknowledge that it is time to rethink the model and build public-private partnerships that can help develop more effective and sustainable solutions.

Possible solutions - e-scooter parking or charging stations?


If municipalities adopt a 15-minute philosophy, they also need to invest in redesigning urban infrastructure, such as e-scooter parking. The complete streets initiative offers one such approach that envisions wider pedestrian and bike lanes. In this case, the issue is not whether to allow e-scooters, but that sidewalks have become increasingly smaller at the expense of car lanes, which creates additional conflicts. 

Others suggest that more emphasis should be on shared lanes for different types of users while increasing heightened awareness for the safety of those users.

Charging docking stations are another possible solution to the “scooters-on-the-loose” problem. Not only could they reduce the issue of loose scooters, but they would also reduce operational expenses and reduce reliance on gig economy workers (such as informal, temporary workers who hunt wayward scooters and charge them for a fee), and scooters damaged during transport. 

Shared bike lanes - another solution?

Docking stations would also increase the availability of scooters to their users and reduce the environmental impact needed to transport scooters for charging.

Innovative technological companies have offered many ideas for these stations, which could leverage existing city utilities and infrastructure (e.g., bus stops) or become situated adjacent to bike parking corrals found in almost every street corner. Sweden has already made progress with the Street Moves project that plans a parklet with a mobility hub placed on every street by 2030.

These novel ideas offer a different way to encourage the shift to a new urban structure. They can help to better integrate e-scooters in multi-modal mobility networks where scooters don’t become a nuisance for municipalities but an alternative mode of transportation integral to the regular transport network.