BY ISHANI MEHTA
JUNE 29, 2011
Portland’s transformation into one of the greenest regions/cities in the US has been a slow and steady process over the past four decades. In addition to micro-level influences such as strong community involvement, visionary and realistic planning, and substantial activism for active transportation, a significant macro-level influence that enabled this transformation was the state-wide planning system introduced in 1973. A direct result of this visionary set of laws instituted by the State of Oregon was the implementation of the innovative concept of urban growth boundaries (UGBs) in all major metropolitan areas of Oregon including Portland. The utility of this concept has in fact led to its implementation across other states in the US such as California, Washington and Tennessee as well.
Portland metropolitan region's urban growth boundary from Google Earth
The workings and implementation of UGBs is an important lesson to learn from Portland for Indian cities that are currently struggling with urban sprawl. By keeping urban development contained in a compact boundary, UGBs promote more efficient land-use planning along with an assurance for businesses and local governments about where to place basic infrastructure necessary for future development. Moreover, limited resources can be invested on making existing infrastructure more efficient rather than constantly building new capacity for an ever-expanding urban area. Besides this, UGBs are important for another significant reason, explained below.
Urban development patterns in India over the last two decades suggest that often new cities emerge over traditionally agricultural land when escalating property prices create incentives for real estate developers to acquire such land (Gurgaon in the National Capital Region being a case in point). In addition, rural appendages to ad-hoc urban developments have been extensively used as dumping grounds for the urban waste (such as the rural areas around Chennai) while rural inhabitants migrate into urban agglomerations due to lack of lucrative opportunities in the rural areas. Clearly, urbanization in India has not just been sprawled in terms of land-use, it has also been predatory as far as rural areas and their economy is concerned.
The concept of UGBs is essentially the antithesis of this ad-hoc and predatory form of urbanisation seen in India. The boundary controls urban expansion onto fertile farmland and precious forest cover. The concept of UGBs embodies respect for urban and rural areas and their economies alike, allowing them to coexist in an inter-dependent way. As will be evident below, this was the primary realisation and motivation that led Oregon to initiate the State-Wide Land-Use Planning programme, incorporating UGBs into state legislation.
The implementation of UGBs is a unique learning experience from Portland. The approach is of interest for more than one reasons. Firstly, there is a dual focus on protecting rural farmland and forests as well as vitalising urban areas through town centers and suitable infrastructure investments. A trip to the edge of the UGB is enough evidence to prove that this dual approach works as one observes a drastic transformation from densely developed urban areas with residential and commercial establishments to large parcels of farmland and scenic forests and wetlands.
Quoting the Metro website (), “it isn’t hard to figure out why we love the Portland metro region. Through shrewd planning and a love of place we’ve kept nature close to home and country close to city”.
Secondly, the region has retained an interdependence between urban areas within the UGB and rural reserves outside through activities such as farmer’s markets that allow farmers to directly sell their produce in cities without much transportation cost. This also promotes the sustainable concept of ‘locavorism’ which hinges on consuming local agricultural produce to reduce shipping and use of chemicals, preservatives etc.
Finally, the process for implementing and revising the UGB involves a regional dialogue amongst all stakeholders including local and county governments, public organisations, citizens, businesses and farmers. This unique collaborative process of identifying reserves for the next 50 years displays both vision and inter-agency cooperation.
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