A Narrative Analysis on Measure 37: Urban Sprawl and the Evolving System of Growth Management in Portland, Oregon

Portland is seen throughout the world today as a shining example of a modern city with successful growth management, but this does not mean that it could not have occurred without conflicting narratives or stories of those for and against growth management regulations. Judith Layzer’s chapter, “Making Tradeoffs: Urban Sprawl and the Evolving System of Growth Management in Portland, Oregon” in her book “The Environmental Case”, elaborates how proponents and opponents of Measure 37, a “state law that allowed property owners to petition their land or be paid for any decrease in their land’s market value as a result of [land regulation]”, (505) argued their cases for and against it with particular narratives and framings in order to gain most public support.
The Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) began implementing its new framework to prepare the comprehensive plans consistent with statewide goals for local growth management regulations. Such regulations brought neighborhood “resistance to density” (504). Organizations such as coalitions of “homebuilders, real estate brokers, the Oregon Association of Counties, large retail companies, and Oregonians in Action” (504) valued property rights, quality of life, and affordable housing costs over the restrictive environmental measures that they saw being imposed on them, and Measure 37 was born.
These organizations believed that “unfettered private property rights trumps any interest in conserving a particular landscape for the common good” (505), using a narrative that appealed to property rights owners, suburbanites, and the “common people” by focusing on the importance of individual rights to get return on investments, instead of having a map, or the government, decide where people live. Backers of Measure 37 did not challenge the system itself, but “rather criticized rules, which they called irrational and unfair” (509) to describe its administrators as elitist individuals who were “out of touch with the people” (509). They offered several anecdotes of “ordinary folks” that were negatively impacted by the regulations imposed on them to get the sympathy of the common people.
Meanwhile, many environmentalists believe that they made “tactical mistakes in characterizing their position” (509). Defenders of these growth management regulations, such as 1000 Friends of Oregon, responded to the anecdotes given to them by stating that Measure 37 would “create uncertainty, bankrupt local governments, and dismantle the state’s planning system” (509). They continued to focus on the environmental threats from Measure 37, and the importance that Portland must have in maintaining its consistently “green” image. They hoped that their planning system’s comprehensiveness would help the public see the logic in their argument, and did not give a strong enough narrative in appearing in touch with the common people because they focused more on the environmental rather than social effects of their plan.
In the end, both sides had opposing narratives due to their opposing beliefs about the importance of the environment, because both had opposing knowledge and experiences with population density, and because both had opposing beliefs on the organizers of the state’s planning system themselves. Although Measure 49 was passed to find compromise between both sides, Measure 37 demonstrated the importance of narratives in public support on controversial issues.

Work Cited

Layzer, Judith A. The Environmental Case: Translating Values into Policy. Washington, D.C.: CQ, 2002. Print. 488-514

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