Portland fares poorly in one measure of smart growth compared with Washington cities: how many people live downtown. As the table below shows, Portland trails not only Seattle and Tacoma but also Seattle’s suburb Bellevue.

Still, all of these cities are pale imitations of greater Vancouver, BC’s various downtown centers, as illustrated in this 2002 report we did. The city of Vancouver itself has roughly one fourth of its people living downtown and thereabouts. Across Burrard Inlet to the north, North Vancouver has about 29 percent of its residents in its core. To the east along the Fraser River in New Westminster, some 27 percent of residents inhabit the downtown. In fact, roughly one tenth of the residents of the entire metropolitan area of Vancouver live in its various downtowns—a larger share than in any individual city in the table.

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  • In fairness, the table uses slightly different definitions than we did. In fact, the table isn’t even based on any consistent definition of downtowns. A fair and uniform comparison of Cascadia’s downtowns is on the list of projects we plan to undertake sooner or later. That’ll provide a better handle on how various cities stack up for urban living.

    The table comes from an excellent Seattle Post Intelligencerarticle about Bellevue’s long-odds efforts to transform its made-for-driving center into a live-work-play cluster of dense, mixed-use neighborhoods. Plans on the books will bring Bellevue’s downtown population from 4,000 to about 10,000 in the next few years, making it into a sort of echo of the downtown renaissance underway across Lake Washington in Seattle. This development is doubly remarkable because it shows so clearly how people rethink and rebuild their communities over time: Bellevue conceived itself 60 years ago as a wide-streeted haven for four-wheeled living.

    In Lower Lonsdale, across the water from downtown Vancouver, BC, even more ambitious plans are playing out, as described in the latest PriceTags. These plans will add 10,000 new residents to the neighborhood.

    Both articles are well worth reading for the light they shed on the challenges and possibilities for suburban downtowns.