Per Capita Davis: Portland proclaims its superiority

By From page A4 | May 02, 2013

I’m on vacation, and when I travel I try to disconnect from the connections of my regular life in Davis. Someday I should write a column about what that daily life is like.

Many friends know I retired from working for the state back in 2007, but I’m not the most chatty person in the world and I tend not to share my work life very much. Suffice to say I’m busy, and manage to get a bit more done than feeding the cat and bringing in the mail.

Anyway, when on vacation my mind drifts to subjects that don’t seem to find room in a day in Davis. This morning, as I look out the window of my hotel room in Portland, I can see a city that is very conscious of climate change and energy efficiency, with some notable anomalies.

For example, the downtown is a paradise for walkers and bikers and is connected to the suburbs (not to mention the airport) by a very efficient transit system. They promote awareness of this system for tourists such as me through what they call their 4T Route, roughly analogous to the Davis Bike Loop, except that each of the T’s stands for a transit mode.

So, the route starts with a 10-minute ride on a light rail train that takes you to the zoo, which is in the middle of a forest. Great zoo by the way;, if animals have to be in zoos, this is about as good as it gets. From there, you can walk the Marquam Trail, a short 4 miles through tall red Western cedars and a few neighborhoods, to the Oregon Health and Science University, perched on a hill overlooking Portland, where you take a tram (like a gondola at a ski resort) down to the city. The final “T” is the trolley that gets you back to the center of downtown.

The downtown has the requisite number of tall buildings, most of which are offices, but many are apartment residences. They seem to have the urban density and mixed-use thing down pat. There is green space galore, including a park along the Willamette River and small parks and open spaces sprinkled liberally throughout the town center.

There are a gazillion coffee shops, lots of restaurants, and all the stores selling backpacks and rain gear you could possibly want. There is even a university — Portland State — that seems singularly focused on sustainability.

So what’s the anomaly? I’m getting to it. Somehow, with all these amenities for a walkable city, they forgot to locate a single grocery store in the central core area. For the city that invented the “20-minute neighborhood,” this seems to be a rather large omission. There are several stores that will sell you dozens of varieties of chips, candy bars, soda and alcohol, but just try to find basic groceries. Fresh produce is available once a week at a pretty impressive farmers market, but if one wants fruits and vegetables the other six days of the week it appears to require a trip in the car.

Curiously, I also couldn’t find a school (K-12) in this dense downtown, and the impression is that there are few families with children living in the core area.

The downtown feels a bit like the financial district in San Francisco; bustling during the work day but nearly deserted weekday evenings, with a pickup in activity on the weekends as people seek out dining and entertainment options.

Anyway, it puts me in mind of how special a place Davis is. Our downtown is vibrant; there are always people, lots of people, on the streets.

One more point needs to be made when comparing Davis and Portland. They have a great big sign painted on the full face of a seven-story building that proclaims Portland to be the bicycle capital of the United States. This bold claim is just not true. Portland has some bicycle-friendly features (some hotels offer bikes, and there are a few bike lanes) but bikes are not integrated into the transportation infrastructure at a level that even approximates what we have in Davis.

It seems cities always want to proclaim themselves the “greenest,” “most sustainable,” “farm-to-forkest” more as a goal or marketing tool than to reflect what is actually true. (Are you listening Sacramento?)

Ah, that little dig at our neighbor city felt good.

It’s probably not fair to measure Portland and Davis against the same yardstick; both do some things incredibly well, both have lots of room for improvement. And sustainability is not the only place to look for exceptional actions to strengthen community. Portland recently did something that knocked my socks off: It voted to enact an income tax to establish funding to ensure that every school in the city has an art teacher and that the art teacher has the resources to make art a meaningful part of every child’s education.

Now that is something they can really brag about.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis who has a very high opinion of what the city of Portland is doing in terms of sustainability. This column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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