Replacing American Sprawl with More Compact and Sustainable Regional Development: Metropolitan Governance in Portland, Oregon Region


City Profile:

Portland is the largest city in the U.S. state of Oregon. The city covers 145 square miles (376 km²) and had an estimated population of 632,309 in 2015, making it the 26 th most populous city in the United States.




Robert Liberty is Director of the Urban Sustainability Accelerator. He has worked for more than thirty years at all levels of government to promote liveable and sustainable cities and regions. Liberty was Staff Attorney and then Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the implementation, defense, and improvement of Oregon’s comprehensive land use planning program. Liberty has worked as a land use hearings officer, a planning consultant, and a speaker on planning topics in the United States and other countries. He served as Senior Counsel to Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, and in 2004 he was elected to the Metro Council, the metropolitan government in the Portland, Oregon region and re-elected in 2008. On the Metro Council he chaired and co-chaired committees considering rail transit investments, regional housing policy and other matters.


Metro, the metropolitan regional government for 25 cities and 3 counties in the Portland, Oregon region, has had measurable successes in replacing the typical American pattern of sprawling growth with more compact, higher density development that supports a higher level of transit use, walking, and biking. An important component of its strategy is an urban growth boundary coupled with strong state level protections of farm and forest lands. The factors that contribute to its successes in changing the patterns of regional growth most relevant to other (primarily mid-sized) metropolitan areas in other parts of the world are 1) the independent political authority of its council derived from its direct election by electoral districts that are more populous than almost all of the local government electoral districts; 2) sufficient powers to achieve its missions derived both from state laws and a mission and charter directly approved by its voters; 3) being integrated within a supporting statewide framework of planning and land regulation which delegated to Metro the responsibility to adopt and amend an effective urban growth boundary, and which has protected lands outside Metro’s jurisdiction from development; 4) a much greater level of land use and transportation planning and forecasting analytic capacity and competence than any other unit of government, which is essential in a system that is controlled by legal and numeric standards; and 5) delivering sufficient results that enable it to withstand political pressure from the local governments, and which often resent and sometimes resist compliance with Metro’s regional planning mandates.