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Growing by leaps, but within bounds

Drive down West Union Road in suburban Hillsboro, about 10 miles from downtown Portland, and you are witness to a remarkable achievement.

From one side of the pavement stretch pleasant homes and apartment complexes that you might see in a hundred other suburbs. On the other side: acres and acres of rolling, undeveloped farmland and forest.

One side of West Union Road is not like the other because the street runs along the Portland area's Urban Growth Boundary, a line on a map that sets limits on development. Within the boundary is an urban "reserve," where all sorts of building can happen _ and with a robust local economy, a lot is. The land outside the boundary stays rural.

In an era when the words "government planning" are written off as either an oxymoron or a terrible danger, the Portland experience comes as a shock. Even more shocking: the planning system _ in place since 1973 _ is popular. Protecting land from urban sprawl has become something of a civic religion here and one of the city's selling points.

The boundary has come to embody more than its original objective. When Republican Gov. Tom McCall pushed the system in 1973 _ it covers the whole state _ his major concern was for Oregon's natural environment. Farmers worried that a way of life would be plowed under for tract housing.

But Ethan Seltzer, director of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies, says the planning system has not only protected farms. It has changed the way cities develop. Concentrating growth creates incentives for a different urban environment. For example, it has spurred new interest in more tightly packed row houses, a venerable urban form.

Portland also has invested in a light rail system that is expanding to growing areas within the urban boundary. Housing has sprung up near the line even before it's completed. "The market is responding to the public investment in light rail," says Seltzer.

Seltzer's comment is revealing. Planning is often seen as the enemy of free markets. But planning is not an effort to stifle investment. It tries to channel the way investment happens so that the sum total of thousands of individual decisions still leaves a metropolitan area that those individuals want to live in.

Robert Liberty is the executive director of 1,000 Friends of Oregon, a group that supports planning. He says that those who criticize Portland's system as "social engineering" miss the fact that traditional zoning, which segregates people by class, and the construction of highways are "social engineering with a vengeance."

Planning hasn't stopped Portland's economic boom. Many companies, especially those in high-tech, know the environment Portland has created is attractive to the employees they need to lure.

The boundary has expanded slightly to accommodate growth. But it will survive because of the depth of public support for it. Robert Landauer, former editorial page editor of the Oregonian, says citizens see the planning as growing out of a participatory process and not from decrees issued by professional planners. "It's built, created, fashioned and textured by the people who have to live with the results."

Seltzer says Oregon's political culture is less sour on the possibilities of public action and political engagement than are other parts of the country. "There's still an expectation that problems can be solved, and we can change things."

For Liberty, one of the most important achievements of Portland's approach is an elected metropolitan government with authority to make decisions on matters affecting the whole region. "Our governmental structures are leftovers from the 19th century as we're about to enter the 21st. They are irrelevant to our lives and our landscapes." That, in part, explains public disaffection from government. "Even Rube Goldberg wouldn't have cut metropolitan areas into so many dysfunctional parts."

No, Oregon is not utopia. People worry both about keeping growth going and about growth's effects. There's a tax revolt on, and also a big fight over how to finance public education.

But most national discussions of our discontents pay little attention to the impact of sprawl on the way people live, on the time and money spent commuting, on the cost of building new water systems, roads and schools to accommodate new development. Portland is worrying about these questions for the rest of us. All of its solutions can't be exported, but the city might consider bottling its vision.

Washington Post Writers Group

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