Portland gets all the attention for its growth policies. Its urban growth boundary—in place since the 1970s—is widely (and correctly) credited with limiting low-density sprawl on the urban fringe, and promoting compact neighborhoods with a healthy mix of homes, stores, and businesses.
But I keep hearing Portland’s critics say that Portland’s effort to promote density has gone too far. That the city has grown too dense, too fast. Are those claims right?
In a word: no.
We just released a report that took a look at growth patterns in 15 cities across the U.S. that are comparable to Portland in size or growth rates. And what we found: greater Portland isn’t the densest metropolitan area we looked at. It isn’t even close.
In average density (that is, number of people per acre in the city’s urban and suburban zones) Portland ranked 6th out of 15. In the share of residents living in compact communities (areas with 12 or more residents per acre), Portland was 7th out of 15. Just one greater Portland resident in four lived in a compact neighborhood
The big winners in the density sweepstakes were…wait for it…Las Vegas and Denver. That doesn’t mean they’re the densest cities in the U.S., just the densest among the cities we looked at. But their success is part of a broader pattern: the most compact cities tended to be in the arid west, where water scarcity acts as a curb on low-density development.
So the bottom line: Portland just isn’t all that dense. But it did a pretty darn good job in protecting rural land, given that it’s got the abundant rainfall that’s so common among the most sprawling cities we studied.
Portland really shines in 2 areas: limiting the loss of rural land to suburban sprawl; and limiting the growth in very low density sprawl (between .5 and 5 residents per acre). The two are linked: Portland saves rural land by limiting very low density development—think houses on 5 acre lots—on the outskirts of town. That kind of development is terrible for agriculture, because it consumes a lot of rural land to accomodate just a few residents. It’s relatively uncommon in Portland, but the norm in some eastern cities.
So my advice on scaremongers who decry Portland’s inhuman densities: don’t believe the hype. Portland’s not nearly as dense as the anti-smart growth crowd would have you believe.