Focus Story – Improving the Portland Metro Area

Like many metropolitan areas around the country, Portland is more than just the technical city limits. When areas of the country have high population densities and close economic and social ties, they are dubbed Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The city of Portland finds itself in the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro MSA, more commonly referred to as the Portland metro area. This area encompasses seven counties in northern Oregon and southern Washington, and more than 2.2 million people call it home.[1]

Portland street trees

Portland street trees. Credit: City of Portland, Oregon Bureau of Environmental Services

Back in the mid-1900s, the Portland metro area first recognized the unique challenges that coordinating efforts between multiple counties and dozens of cities would pose. As a result, organizations like the Metropolitan Planning Commission and the Columbia Region Association of Governments were formed to help planning and government on a regional level. Then, in 1978, Metro was created, an organization whose mission was to offer regional planning and management services to the Portland area. Today, Metro is an Oregon regional government agency comprised of seven elected members — a president and six councilors — who provide management on issues that cross jurisdictional lines. One of those issues is natural resources related to Portland’s urban growth boundary (UGB).[2]

By Oregon state law, all metropolitan areas in the state must have a UGB, which is designed to separate urban land from rural land and will prevent urban sprawl from invading natural landscapes being used for farming and recreation. Portland’s UGB appears to be doing exactly that: From 1990 to 2010, the Portland metro area’s population grew by more than 46 percent,[3] but from 1992 to 2006, the urban growth area only grew by approximately nine percent.[4] This success isn’t without pitfalls, though. While promoting compact urban form has been supported by the region’s conservation community, those concerned with ecological health and livability inside the UGB have significant concerns regarding the loss of nature in the city.

“The conundrum is that if you’re going to have a compact urban area,” says Mike Houck, executive director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute, “then you must simultaneously protect natural resources and quality of life within that urban growth boundary.”

Houck, a native Portlander, has spent his career working in the Portland-Vancouver region on urban park and greenspace issues, and his Urban Greenspaces Institute promotes the integration of gray and green infrastructure. He relates how it has taken years to get full buy-in from elected officials on the importance of protecting, restoring and managing greenspace within the UGB, as well as outside. These efforts have been strongly supported by the region’s residents, including the passage of two property tax measures totaling $363 million, which Metro and local park providers have used to purchase more than 15,000 acres of natural areas and build a regional trail network.

Willamette River bike path

Willamette River bike path. Credit: Don Hankins

“The general public did not want to see only densification inside the city without the attendant parks, trails and natural areas,” says Houck. “People no longer see parks, trails and natural areas as amenities, but as essential elements of the urban fabric.”

Concern over the loss of urban natural areas led to the creation of the Metropolitan Greenspaces Program in 1991. This bi-state partnership, funded by Congress and administered jointly by Metro and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), focused on land acquisition, active (non-motorized) transportation, environmental education and habitat restoration within the context of Metro’s Region 2040 growth management program. According to the program’s 1992 master plan, “The protection, acquisition and active stewardship of greenspaces must become just as important as planning highways, transit, water and sewer lines and other basic public services.”[5] While this program no longer gets the bulk of its funding from federal sources, the programs and ideas it instituted are being carried forward by The Intertwine Alliance, a coalition of government, nonprofit and business partners.

While officially incorporated in July 2011, The Intertwine Alliance first started in 2006 as an ad-hoc coalition of regional organizations that joined together for natural area acquisition. Since then, the alliance has grown to include more than 70 partners and focuses on key issues like acquisition, conservation, conservation education and creating the regional system. All of these activities are geared toward a primary goal of creating “a powerful coalition capable of championing a world-caliber network of parks, trails and natural areas,” according to the alliance’s 2010-11 Annual Report.[6] It plans to accomplish this by bringing together elected officials, civic leaders, environmental nonprofits, park professionals, businesses and others to create regional initiatives aimed at improving the bi-state region’s natural resources. Among the alliance’s partners are Portland’s BES, Friends of Trees, Hillsboro Parks & Recreation, Metro, Portland Parks & Recreation, Kaiser Permanente, Vancouver Watersheds Council, Audubon Society of Portland and Urban Greenspaces Institute, as well as federal agencies like the National Park Service and FWS.

As Houck, an alliance board member, puts it, “Basically, what we’re trying to do is duplicate or expand what the Bureau of Environmental Services, Metro, Portland Parks and Clean Water Services are doing to the entire Portland-Vancouver metropolitan region.”

Previous: Portland – It Comes Back to Water                                                               Next: Phildelphia – Introduction



[1] U.S. Department of Commerce. United States Census Bureau. Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2011. (accessed Sept. 4, 2012).

[2] Metro. (accessed Sept. 4, 2012).

[3] Metro. 1990-2010 Population. (accessed Sept. 4, 2012).

[4] Metro. Maps, data and research. (accessed Sept. 4, 2012).

[5] Metro. Metropolitan Greenspaces Master Plan. (accessed Sept. 4, 2012).

[6] The Intertwine Alliance. The Intertwine Alliance 2010-11 Annual Report. (accessed Sept. 4, 2012).