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Getting over our Portland envy

I am getting a little tired of hearing about this urban paragon in Oregon, and I’m not the only one.

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

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.

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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.

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