OneThing2: It’s getting crowded in Portland

Portland grows up in a century.

At the turn of the 20th century, Portland was an outpost in the still young state of Oregon.  Logging and fishing were king, and some business owners wanted to attract people to the Pacific Northwest.  They organized the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition held in 1903, and Portland was never the same.  Within a decade, population spiked, fell off a bit in the Great Depression, rose dramatically again during and shortly after World War II, and then sputtered with each boom and bust over the next 50 years.  Now, after the Bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery’s trek to the Pacific Coast, Portland finds itself at the forefront of sustainability and urban planning and green technologies.

There are 1.7 million people now living in the Greater Metropolitan Area of what is now called Portland-Vancouver. If you click on the map, it will flash through four slides depicting the change in population over time; take special note of the expansion between the 1940’s – 1980’s, before urban planning took hold of the area’s imagination.  Those four decades show a city boiling over, just as most cities in the United States had done during that time.  Different in Portland was a growing number of people set on changing the city dynamic from sprawl to density, from suburbs to neighborhoods.  Note the limited expansion from 1980 to 2000.

OK.  So what?  Another Portlander bragging on his rainy, self-important city.  Dude, like, who cares?

The deal is that people thought different thoughts, and it all changed.  This change means that we have a large number of young adults and children ripe for some formalized and eminently practical education about sustainability and systems.  At De La Salle North Catholic High School, students learned a bit about Urban Planning last spring.  About 20 students built small models that focused on population and crowding,  and the effect of crowding on population shifts.

This pretty crude model of a feedback loop helped my students understand something crucial about systems, and reminded me of something spoken by Jay Forrester’s mentor Gordon Brown: the feedback is always in the social sciences.

Take a look at this model.  One stock.  A simplified feedback loop that leaves out a lot, but which helped students grapple with a complex idea.  There’s a lot to argue about in there, but the model helped us keep our rhetoric tuned to a particular element of the problem.  It reminded me that education is much less about expanding content standards and much more about simplifying.


3 comments on “OneThing2: It’s getting crowded in Portland

  1. Another interesting extension would be to examine how the Portland’s “filling up” (density) due to it’s urban growth boundary (land use planning) has impacted the growth of Vancouver, Washington (USA).

    Personally, I’m amazed to be living in a metro area that has as many people in it now as the entire state of Oregon did when I was in high school (the late 70’s)! The spaces in between places like Beaverton and Tigard have really filled in over the years and those great farms where I picked fresh Oregon berries to earn summer cash are now houses, apartments, and shopping centers.

  2. A right worthy question, Mike. Some parts of Portland seem to have no one over 30; other parts, it’s all Boomers. Portland has discussed creating a biomedical research center. Any kind of density that also led to, or was led by, longevity would also have to include serious medical facilities.

    But there is also evidence that crime rates leap dramatically once populations reach certain thresholds, so maybe there is some band of balance, a range of possibilities between close-healthy and close-destructive. Or, more likely, there’s something lurking, just outside our model boundary.

    I am curious about the living to 100, and what the model of THAT network is.

    Thanks, Mike.


  3. Great post. Very well written.

    It might be interesting to model the relationships between population density over time and improved health/longevity in the Portland area. In the distant past greater population density was seen as unhealthy and a negative, more recent research runs contrary to that old view and shows that social networks grow more easily in dense populations and that close healthy social networks are the foundation to living well and doing so through age 100.

    See two TED talks:
    the importance of a close, healthy, social network to living to be 100 (the ending of the presentation is the key):

    and visualizing social networks:

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