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Getting over our Portland envy

CC/Flickr/Ben Amstutz
I am getting a little tired of hearing about Portland, Ore., as an urban paragon.

Every time I talk to city planners, developers and the like, they bring up Portland, Ore., to which they are constantly making holy pilgrimages. To hear them tell it, the place is the bee's knees, which an old-fashioned way of saying an outstanding example of its kind. (Apparently, bees do have joints in their legs, and that's where they store pollen. At least, Google tells me so.)

Anyway, Portland's got a better transit system and a better way of funding it than we do (an employer payroll tax versus a metro sales tax and on-again-off-again appropriations from the state Legislature). Portland edged out the Twin Cities this year as the best place for biking, and Travel + Leisure declared it America's Greenest City. Portland also has a metropolitan government that has been successful in fending off sprawl and directing development inward, according to Steve Berg, my predecessor. While Minneapolis and St. Paul lost population in the last census, Portland added 55,000 citizens. 

I've visited Portland, and I have to admit it's pretty nice. It has a mild climate, sits at the junction of two rivers and provides vistas of mountains in the distance. I traveled via bus and light rail from my inconveniently located hotel to downtown, where I enjoyed a huge Saturday morning market, good coffee and raw oysters.

Still, I am getting a little tired of hearing about this urban paragon, and I'm not the only one. "Whenever you bring up Portland, people's eyes glaze over," says James Erkel, land use and transportation director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

So, while I wish that the Twin Cities had done more with transit — and sooner — and that the Met Council weren't so wimpy about letting every dinky development on the edge of the metro have a sewer system, I'm here to say that there are many areas in which we've gone toe-to-toe with Portland — and come out ahead. Take a gander:

Most inventive

A new study from the Brookings Institution, “Patenting Prosperity: Invention and Economic Performance in the United States and its Metropolitan Areas,” takes a measure of innovation by counting patents the United States has produced since 1790. Except for the decades between 1935 and 1990, the advance of technology has been onward and upward, even during the recent recession. And get this: Of the cities that produced the most patents from 2007 to 2011, Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington scored ninth, while Portland was a lowly 15th. And we produced more inventions per million residents than Portland (945 v. 837). 

Fittest cities

Eat our dust, Portland. We're first of 50 metropolitan areas in fitness, according to an annual ranking by the American College of Sports Medicine (probably done before I arrived in town). The survey weighs a zillion factors: rates of diabetes, deaths from cardiovascular disease, golf courses per capita, farmers markets per capita, and on and on. Portland, you are a sad seventh.

Best places for young people

In 2012, Forbes crunched projected job growth rates for 2010 to 2012; cost of living data; median salaries for 24- to 34-year-old employed college graduates; unemployment rates; Census data on the number of small businesses and large businesses per capita; and the percentage of college graduates in the local population. The Twin Cities ranked 10th, chiefly for their relatively high salaries and low unemployment rate. Portland didn't even get into the top 15.

Best cities for families

In Parenting magazine's annual rating, the Twin Cities came in seventh. Portland came in third -- Portland, MAINE, that is. The Oregon Portland trailed way down on the list at No. 25. In developing the ranking, Parenting's data meisters assembled statistics on 40 items in four categories: schools, health, safety and culture. Wrote the editors: "The Twin Cities’ dual commitment to green living gives parents the opportunity to enjoy big city life without sacrificing health and safety."

Greenest cities

And what about that green thing? Portland came in first in Travel + Leisure's assessment, which looked at cleanliness, pedestrian-friendliness, public transit and parks. The city ranked so high because a quarter of it is shaded by tree canopy and can count 288 parks. But consider this: We're a not-too-shabby No. 3, notable for our bike-friendliness, 84 miles of off-street paths and "green" restaurants. Savannah, Ga., ranked No. 2, in case you wondered.

Best cities for seniors

We're No. 1! We're No. 1! At least we were in 2011, which is the last year for which I can find such a rating. Portland? Yoo-hoo, I can't find you! This ranking comes from the Bankers Life and Casualty Company Center for a Secure Retirement, which with the help of Sperling's Best Places, weighed statistics about health care, the economy, longevity, social life (including the number of restaurants, museums and performing arts venues) environment, spiritual life, housing, transportation and crime. To be fair, Portland ranked first on the same survey back in 2005, while we were only 18th. 

Best and worst cities for public transportation

Well, guess what? Portland did not make the top 10, and neither did we. (Fortunately, neither city was in the bottom 10.) The Brookings Institution, which completed the study in 2012, looked at two variables: coverage (the percentage of people who live three-quarters of a mile from a transit stop) and job access (the share of city jobs accessible within 90 minutes). Coming in first was Honolulu and worst was Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Portland ranked 12th with coverage of 83 percent and a job access of 40 percent. We, sadly, came in 39th, with coverage at only 67 percent and job access at 30 percent. We do need that LRT.

Most literate cities

Every year, Central Connecticut State University assesses which cities are the readingest in the nation. The ranking is based on several indicators, for example, the number of bookstores per 10,000 inhabitants (St. Paul is one, Minneapolis is three), the percentage of the population that's graduated high school and attained a bachelor's degree, newspaper circulation, libraries and so on. In the overall score, Minneapolis came in third (behind Washington, D.C., and Seattle), St. Paul ranked sixth and Portland 10th. But good work Portland. This is the first time you made it into the top 10 since you tied with St. Louis back in 2010. Meanwhile, Minneapolis, what happened? We were first back in 2007. Time to hit the books.

In sum, we have nothing to be ashamed of. True, Portland was the best city for dogs, while we were only 15th, third best city for gay people, while we didn't even score, and we totally failed to get into Esquire's "Seven Best Cities to Drink Beer," while Portland came in fifth. And we don't have a satirical TV series (“Portlandia”) airing on IFC and winning Peabody Awards.

But we were first with the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” So there, Portland.

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Comments (24)

Portland lives up to the hype

Honestly, those kinds of rankings you cite are typically so haphazard and dubiously created that they're almost not worth the scant seconds' attention. (They serve mostly as linkbait.)

I wanted to be skeptical about Portland too, mostly because so many people had told me I'd love it. But when it comes to urban design, Portland should be an inspiration for the Twin Cities. Their bike bouelvard system is amazing; the only route that comes close in Minneapolis is the Riverlake Greenway, and that's despite the fact that we had a $25M federal grant devoted to building these things.

Their transit system (LRT + streetcar) is way ahead of the curve. Going to Portland is like seeing what might have been if the TC had actually followed through on their innovative rail transit plans from the 70s and 80s, plans that sit on the shelf in government libraries to this day, gathering dust.

Portland is immensely walkable. The city has small blocks, and has traffic calmed (road dieted) most of their main commercial streets (like SE Hawthorne Avenue) to create a wonderful pedestrian network, filled with local businesses. There are many grocery stores to walk to. The shift in the mindset of the business community there is very noticeable; business owners are demanding corral-style bike parking, requiring the removal of on-street parking spaces. To my knowledge, there's only one place in the entire Twin Cities that has made a similar move (The Birchwood Café), but in Portland it's commonplace. We have a long way to go to catch up. We need to develop similar attitudes that support walkable urbanism, and that kind of change is institutional, regulatory, and cultural.

Portland has amazing beer. Enough said.

There are 3 food trucks in Portland for every 1 in Minneapolis.

Ask someone in the publishing industry what the important cities are, and they'll probably say "New York, San Francisco, and Portland." While Minneapolis does have great publishing houses, Portland is in a different class.

It's easy to make fun of Portland or dismiss it, but that would be a shame because there is so much we can learn from their approach to urbanism. The density, housing stock, and much of the economic culture is very similar. We should embrace our Portland siblings.

Minnesota, get over it...

Dear Minnesota...

I grew up in Minneapolis, and still know the words to "Minnesota Hail to Thee." However, I've lived and worked in Portland, the Oregon one, for the lat 32 years. For such an obviously literate place as Minnesota, you still clearly don't get the message: envying any place, or trying to copy it, is not the point. Note: we don't care whether you envy us or not. The fact of the matter is that Portland, for many years, wasn't on any list. In fact, a short 40 years ago, we were on the fast track to nowhere. What Portland did was to take steps to be the best Portland it could be. Not the best Minneapolis, which would have been tempting at the time, or any other locale. In the ensuing years, we've become a better Portland, and we know that we can become better, yet. Further, we are acutely aware of the fact that what worked 20 years ago might not work 20 years from now. Being a good Portland is the legacy of a lifetime, not the product of Googling our way through a litany of urban best practices. The fact that you are tired of Portland or any other kind of envy is information to me: who is committed out there to making Minneapolis and Minnesota the best that they can be? If you learn anything from us at all, and I'm not sure that envy is actually a useful form of learning or motivation, know that you can make changes in things that seem unchangeable. It takes time and commitment and conviction. It's not "who do you love" but "what do you love." And how many of your 20-30 somethings know who Lou Grant was? Take that! Good luck.


Not sure how you can talk about either city without talking about the climate in both and geographic location. One of the nice things about living in the Pacific NW is a close proximity to mountains and cold water beaches. In Portland you can drive to winter in the mountains in an hour and be home out of the cold. The outdoor actives in the NW are endless if you like to hike, mountain bike or walk the beaches. The good and the bad is the weather, very temperate but not as rainy as Seattle. I lived in Seattle for a number of years and used to do a organized 200 mile bike ride to Portland every summer in one day, so my feeling about Portland was I couldn't wait to get there after a long ride.

What about.....?

Minneapolis named gayest city by Advocate magazine in 2011? 5th gay-friendliest by Ranker? How about the State of Minnesota being the FIRST to defeat an anti-gay marriage amendment in 2012?

Methinks the lady doth protest too much…

First and most important, envy is unbecoming…

I've never lived in Portland, so I have no real basis of comparison, but I have lived in other metro areas, and the Twin Cities metro could be – should be – a lot better than it is in multiple areas, even if Portland sinks into the Pacific. Portland is pretty cool. On the other hand, it’s about 1,800 miles away. Unless the Twin Cities’ one-percenters are packing up in droves and moving to Portland, a list like this smacks more of insecurity than anything else.

Most citizens don’t care – nor do they have a reason to do so – about the number of patents produced. The Twin Cities scored 9th and Portland was a “lowly” 15th? C’mon. A difference of six spots is not going to have any sane person wringing her/his hands over the supposed “lack of innovation.”

In similar fashion, the difference between 1st and 7th out of a list of 50 cities rated for “fitness” doesn’t make the lower-ranked city a haven for the blubber-laden, while the other is inhabited by poster children for “Fitness” magazaine covers. Both cities are very bike-friendly. Both cities manage relatively healthy populations despite significant weather-related drawbacks.

As a certified old person, I have no idea whether the factors measured by “Forbes” magazine are necessarily the most relevant ones to determine if an area is among the “best places” for young people. I give the Twin Cities a slight edge for the music scene here. Beyond that romance seems to work in both cities, as does technology.

As for “best city for families,“ I don’t believe the differences are terribly significant. My experience as a grandparent has been here, and I’ve never lived in Portland, but I’ve been a visitor in both places. The downtown areas do not provide particularly green or family-friendly living in either one.

The shocker for “greenest city” is that Savannah, Georgia came in 2nd.

As a senior, I wouldn’t give the Twin Cities especially high marks as “best city for seniors” unless – this does make a difference – I were relatively affluent and lived downtown. Unfortunately, I'm not, and I don't.

I’m not at all surprised that the Twin Cities rank significantly lower than Portland in terms of public transit. One of the disappointments of moving here was the discovery of just how auto-dependent the Twin Cities are, and remain.

Literacy can be judged subjectively, too, but there’s no surprise for me in seeing both the Twin Cities and Portland in the top 10.

Indeed, this area has nothing to be ashamed of. Neither does Portland. The premise of the article smacks of at least a mild inferiority complex, which Minnesotans should get over. If it helps any, Denver (another area with which the Twin Cities region is often compared) suffers even more from the same sort of inferiority complex. It, too, has little reason for the complex. Every metro area has flaws, every metro area has attractions and benefits. Work on the first, don't get complacent about the second.

I have an idea

Put a bird on it!

Possibly the wrong crowd, David? But I hear you...

Until Minneapolis has it's own TV show, we are at significant disadvantage. Perhaps it cold be "Minneapolitan" or "Miniapples"?

Aside from that, have to agree with other comments people are making on the piece. Anyways, I hear Malaysia is the place to be.

Try flying to Portland!

I have a daughter who lives in Portland, and it is a rare event to find reasonably priced and convenient flight times into the Emerald City of the Northwest. In this regard, MSP has Portland beat hands down!

And by the way, when the snow is gone, there is no better road bike city in the U.S. than MSP. Once you get outside of Portland proper, the routes are far more limited and the roads are not nearly as bike friendly as those in our surrounding suburbs and small towns.

We still have much to learn from Portland

Thanks, Marlys, for brightening ort day, but as the above illustrate, we should not let these kudos make us smug. As Ethan Seltzer--an urban planner from here but now in Portland, notes above, a little more time, thought and commitment is necessary from all of us. I'd agree we are for sprawl and we'd better think hard about that. The good news is that more people are looking to live in our inner cities, but we need to become smartly dense, conserving and renovating sturdy housing rather than demolishing it. We also need to be looking ahead, not back. So enjoy these kudos and let's get busy planning for the future. Start by pushing every candidate for mayor, city council or park and school board to tell us why they want the job and what they would do if elected to make Minneapolis a better city.

Doing the population numbers

Ms Harris says our two large cities lost population in the last census, but the Twin Cities metro area grew from 2,968,806 to 3,202,412.

Thank you for finally saying

Thank you for finally saying this. My husband and I have been saying similar thoughts for a long time. We are for good transit design and know there are better examples than Portland. I only wish we had fallen in love with those other cities before developers sold our city government on Portland.

Marlys Marlys Marlys...

The Twin cities is currently #1 in bikeability, not Portland.

I've been to Portland and I can see why the Twin Cities pulls ahead on biking once and a while. I don't know what Lindeke is talking about, most of Portland's bikeways are lanes on the streets, with the exception of the river way you ride with traffic in Portland. We have many more miles of dedicated separate bike path in the Twin cities along the rivers, lakes, and out into the suburbs along the Greenway and other trails. In addition to that we now have many more bike lanes on the streets. We also have a flatter geography. Given the difference in climate it's amazing that the Twin Cities has so many bikers. Portland has nothing on the Twin Cities when it comes to biking, as a biker I would much rather ride in the Twin Cities than Portland.

As for the rest of it however, all I can say is I wouldn't want to live in Portland. If had to live in PNW I'd much rather live in Seattle. I don't see any advantage to living in Portland and Seattle is much prettier.

Obviously the Twin Cities has blundered on the sprawl and public transportation front but I don't see why we could learn more from Portland than from Seattle or Boston or Washington DC, or even San Francisco. I don't think Portland has any special genius, frankly I suspect geography and climate is the main culprit. Portland has a very different geography and climate, it's hemmed in by mountains and has much warmer climate. I think the flat wide open spaces surrounding the Twin Cities promoted sprawl. We have major highways entering from all directions, Portland is primarily fed from two directions north and south. They deserve credit for their public transportation system, and I love the mature tall trees on their city streets, but I don't see what all the fuss is about. I'd rather live in St. Louis Park.

And further more...

Portland still does not have a Nice Ride bike system!

no need for envy

I lived in Portland for 18 years. In 1984 it was a city to envy. Now, it's crowded and yuppified, so it's a great city for the young. It used to be a great small town city. Now it's almost the same as everywhere else. It's warmer than Minnerapolis, and I do not mean climate, though that is true too. And oddly enough, Portland was hastened to ruin by it's most liberal mayor, the Cherryhomes-like, developer loving, where's my perk, the royal lady Vera Katz.

What Portland does right

1. The transit system is focused on making it possible to live without a car, not on getting people back and forth to work.
2. There's a lot of citizen representation in city government. In my last two years there, I served on the Pedestrian Advisory Committee. We had input on all new building and road projects, evaluating them for pedestrian accessibility. At one point, I encountered a construction project in which the sidewalks on both sides of the street had been blocked off unnecessarily with no alternatives. A phone call to the city employee responsible for pedestrian matters quickly fixed that.
3. Portland knows how to put on a political demonstration. It has bigger and more inventive demonstrations than either Minneapolis or St. Paul, even though the two regions have very similar political patterns.
4. The downtown is walkable and not broken up by surface parking lots. Almost all the major cultural institutions are within a few blocks of one another. I attended a lot more musical and theatrical events there than I do here, because I never had to worry about parking (not owning a car then) or having to wait to long for a bus, since they ran a minimum of every fifteen minutes seven days a week, up to 20 hours a day on the main lines.

What Portland doesn't do so well:
1. Its daily newspaper is even worse than the Strib, although it does have real arts critics
2. Littering and graffiti are more prevalent there than here. More homeless people go there, including some I met who had ridden the rails from Minnesota, because of the milder climate.
3. Its rental housing market has bifurcated, so that you have $1500 studios for the affluent and low-income housing downtown, but little else until you get quite a way out near the burbs.
4. There's a bit too much of a "whatever" attitude.
5. Its PBS and NPR stations aren't as good as ours.

Those are my impressions as a native Minnesotan who lived in Portland for 10 years and has been back here since 2003.

And further further more...

My wife and I stayed at a BB on East side and we actually ended up deciding it was easier to drive around instead of use the public transportation system. We wanted to hang out downtown and then check out the Japanese Garden (highly recommended) and then find an art gallery in the Pearl District and we found it was just too much of a hassle to do it all on public transport. From Paris to Seattle this is the only city we've ever opted out of the public transport system in favor of driving.

Now I'm certainly not saying MPLS is better, it most decidedly is not as far as public transport is concerned. And maybe our experience wasn't typical. I'm just saying I don't see what all the fuss is about. MPLS has a prettier skyline as well. My wife says Portland is very granola. I say granola shmanola.

I could have done that trip on public transit easily

but then, that's the only type of transport I had back then, Depending on which part of the East Side you were on, you'd take a bus downtown, catch the Council Crest bus to the Japanese Garden, reverse the process to get back downtown, and then take the streetcar to the Pearl District.

The system may be a bit complicated for the uninitiated, but it does work.

When I first moved back to Minneapolis, I tried to live car-free as much as possible, but I encountered too many "you can't get there from here" situations.


Portland's system is still better than MPLS, no one's denying that. But the system you're describing was far more complicated than we expected it to be. Our best bet actually would have been to drive over and park and take the light rail into downtown, then follow your advice. But in the time it would've taken to do that we were already downtown with the car. Parking was no problem, we found a nice metered spot two blocks from Powell's Book Store. I'm not complaining I'm just saying we always prefer public transport when we travel and it just didn't work out in Portland.


Portland also has the best bookstore in the country, Powells. Unfortunately, the Twin Cities has nothing that compares.

Moving on . . .

Hey, Minneapolis, let's put this minor competition behind us, eh? We've got that annoying Texas interloper to shut down, Austin. They think they're so cool, what with Austin City Limits, and SXSW, and "Keep Austin Weird" stickers. C'mon, it's TEXAS, for goodness sake. That neutralizes any good thing that Austin might bring to the table.

So, Minneapolis, you're welcome to tag along with us, and we might even pick up a thing or two from you. Just don't bring that crazy southern relative, OK? Us Portlanders would flattered if you would accompany us to the dance . . .

I heard...

Austin has Space Needle envy and their first book store is opening this spring.

We're both good towns...

So, rather than consider which of us is better, we should (a) learn from each other's successes (and non-successes); and (b) all be glad we're not in [insert your favorite arm-pit city that pretty much nobody loves, but which I'm not going to fill in because whatever I'd say somebody will be ticked off because every town has somebody who loves it].

Seriously -- Both metros are actually pretty cool on balance. That's what matters.

But the homeless!

My gosh, you need a "homeless person" ap for your phone so that as you're walking down the street texting you know when to step over all the homeless people.


I lived in Portland for nearly a decade in the late 90's-mid 2000's. I loved it. I was so impressed by how clean, green, liveable and walkable the city was. Straight away I sold my car, because I simply didn't need it. I took the bus or MAX everywhere. I hung out in Pioneer Square. I hiked in Forest Park. I spent lazy Sunday mornings at Powell's.

I left in 2006, following my heart to Boston to be with the man I loved.

Just a few months ago, I returned to Portland for the first time since leaving.

I was HORRIFIED. There are homeless people EVERYWHERE. Parts of downtown and the Pearl look like homeless camps. Chinatown is now a boarded-up, empty shell of its former quirky, beautiful self . In just over a week, I saw 4 needles in the street.

And that fantastic public transportation system, which in my first week as a Portland resident convinced me to sell my car and put my faith in TRIMet? That beautifully color-coded, pictographically navigated dream ride? Gone.

I spent a frustrating week in Portland, lost and frustrated, and spent way too much money on cabs because the old easily navigable system has been replaced by a run-of the mill numbered system which makes no sense. The easy-to-read maps are gone, and there are no travel kiosks anywhere.

Portland is a dump. Don't go there.