Portland’s Policy Process Counteracts Urban Sprawl

Image of the Pearl District in downtown Portland, Oregon, Pacific Northwest
Image of the Pearl District in downtown Portland, Oregon, Pacific Northwest; Andrea Wells, 2010.

In the early 1970s, Oregon was one of the first states to institute a state-level growth management plan (Layzer 501). In response to this legislation, and facing local fears of unchecked urban sprawl, Portland enacted its own growth management plan. From the plan’s conception, the city proactively educated and engaged its citizens—a reflection of the state’s culture of direct democracy, and encouragement of citizen engagement. Over the next twenty years, Portland developed in accordance to strict smart growth principles; as a result, the city was nationally recognized as one of the most livable cities in the country. However, in the late 1990s, there was a wave of citizen-led backlash against growth management. Citizens relied on the ballot initiative process to counter and ultimately, modify the seemingly Byzantine approach to regional growth. From agenda setting to policy change, this case demonstrates that the efficacy and responsiveness of Portland’s policy process is a result of changing institutional dynamics, and of the influence of engaged citizen groups.

As national concerns about rapid urbanization developed in the early 1970s, Portland politicians defined their city’s lack of a growth management plan as a local problem to be solved. Consequently, local politicians set the agenda to adopt policies in response to the threat of unregulated sprawl. However, this positioning is the result of a series of institutional changes to local government. In decades’ prior, according to community activist, Steven Reed Johnson, Portland “was run by white men, and the rare instances of citizen involvement consisted of discussions among well-known elites” (Layzer 504). The demographic composition of Portland’s city government greatly changed during the early 1970s. At the same time, the number of civic organizations increased, and provided outlets for civic engagement, as seen in the organized Harbor Drive protest (Layzer 504). This atmosphere of institutional change and renewed citizen engagement, particularly on environmental and land-planning issues, motivated an intensive policy process on the subject of growth management.

The policy process began with the passing of Senate Bill 100 that created a regional plan for growth management (Layzer 505). Despite the successful formulation and adoption of SB 100, citizen engagement initially impeded its implementation. The bill disproportionately impacted rural citizens; thereby, they actively communicated their dissatisfaction through ballot initiatives to repeal SB 100 (Layzer 506). Though these attempts failed, this established a precedent: in addition to traditional forms of civic engagement, such as protesting, and petition writing, citizens could also directly challenge policy via the ballot initiative process. This method also communicated to policy makers the importance of transparency and continued communication with citizens. Moreover, this system of checks and balances between citizens and policy makers also influenced the responsiveness of policy evaluation and policy change. For example, when Portland’s Transportation Planning Rule (TPR) faced criticism for being too ambitious, policy makers adjusted the TPR’s goals to better accommodate their constituencies before the TPR’s implementation (Layzer 510).

Although the city of Portland had successfully “created an open-door policy that changed the expectation of citizens’ relationship to their government,” Portland’s primary governmental land planning committee became increasingly bureaucratic and centralized in its approach (Layzer 515). Increasing citizen support for loosened growth management policies compounded this institutional change, causing the policy process to waver, and ultimately, suffer.

Portland’s approach to growth management demonstrates how methods of direct democracy can either impede or enhance the policy process.  Citizen awareness and engagement, in addition to a more open and diverse city government, successfully set the agenda for the development and adoption of a growth management plan in the early 1970s. The local government encouraged citizen engagement and sought citizen feedback in order to implement smart growth policy. However, over time, their policies became increasingly complex and difficult for the average citizen to either understand or justify. Oregon’s ballot process initiative, a method of direct democracy, empowered citizens, and ultimately led the city of Portland to evaluate and change elements of their growth management policy.




  1. Layzer, Judith A. 2016. “Making Trade-Offs: Urban Sprawl and the Evolving System of Growth Management in Portland, Oregon.” In The Environmental Case: Translating Values into Policy, 4th Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.

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