This week I was a guest panelist at the forum “Sustainable Portland by 2030! How Do We Get There?” sponsored by the Portland Society of Architects and the Urban Land Institute. My fellow panelists included former city councilor and mayor Jim Cohen, Muskie School professor Charlie Colgan, CBRE/The Boulos Company president Morris Fisher and investigative journalist Colin Woodard. The title of the event threw me off as I thought it was focused on green initiatives but the core question was more along the lines of “looking ahead, what do we want our city to be?”
As always, when I get invited to be a speaker, I ask, “why me?”
The answer this time was they needed a voice for youth and the creative sector. At 37, I am not sure if I qualify as young but because I work with so many Maine College of Art students and alumni, I am at least connected to youthful thinking, energy and concerns.
The panelists met three times before the event and these gatherings provided an opportunity to learn more about each other’s perspectives.
What I learned was that the problems that I see in the art scene – lack of leadership, lack of coordinated efforts, lack of resources, lack of common vision, lack of a singular point person – were true not just of the arts but for the city as a whole. It made me feel better and then worse. When I think about the city as an organism, I want someone to be in charge, someone to be responsible — a grown up who will remember to take the dog out, make us all eat vegetables and plan for the future. That is not happening currently. Perhaps this will be change if we switch to a political structure that allows for an elected mayor in Portland. It seems like a tall order for one person.
Perhaps the success of the city’s future depends on the ability to bring together the disparate groups, currently very busy in their silos worrying about their individual issues without a sense of how they affect other sectors and the city as a whole.
Guest speaker Gary Lawrence, the former city manage for Seattle, likened it to the game whack-a-mole, an arcade game where players use a mallet to pound plastic moles that pop out of holes. As one goes down, another comes up elsewhere. Solve your sector’s problem and you may have just created a new problem across town.
In preparing for the forum I was scouring my bookshelf for some reference material and came across “Greater Portland: 1990, Keeping Livability in Mind” a publication from 1984. It was fascinating to look back in history to see the positive trends of the day: enlightened leadership, expansion of the arts, importance of preservation, growth of postsecondary education, expanded economy. Negative trends: lack of comprehensive planning, shortage of housing, fear of neighborhood erosion, downgrading of public space maintenance, devaluation of standards in school and teenage unemployment, drugs and pregnancy.
What interested me was how some of the trends have morphed from negative to positive and vice versa.
Time and again these types of public dialogues return to this question of leadership. So who is going to bring everyone together to sing Kumbaya? The days of bank presidents running the town are over now that bigger banks from out of state have bought up all the local banks. So who’s going to craft this vision of Portland in 2030? Is it the responsibility of the government? The Chamber of Commerce? Neighborhood groups? How do we balance all the competing needs?
With more than 300 people attending the forum, it was clear that there is a strong desire to take this conversation to the next level and start figuring out the answers.