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Livability and Community Renewal



By Congressman Earl Blumenauer

[Excerpted below are portions of a speech made by Congressman Earl Blumenauer to a Town Hall meeting sponsored by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi in September 1999 in San Francisco, California.]

Fecently (on the Charlie Rose show) Bette Midler was asked what she would do if she had an opportunity to start her career anew. What would she choose if she werenít an entertainer? And without missing a beat, she said she would be an urban planner.

When Bette Midler suggests she wants to be an urban planner because she is concerned about the urban forest canopy and traffic congestion and livability,

The creation of livable communities is part of an ancient cyclical, perhaps spiritual tradition, the quest for the new Jerusalem.

I think it is an issue whose time has come. But it is not a new discussion.

If we go back some 2,500 hundred years, there is a marvelous passage that is found in a book Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson, a professor at Columbia, where he sites a passage on cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia in 539 BC, the earliest known reference to suburban living. And I quote from a letter to the King of Persia:

  "Our property seems to me to be the most beautiful in the world. So close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the City, yet when we come home we are away from all the noise and the dust."

At that time, Babylon was the most sophisticated city the world had yet seen. And some of you who are familiar with your history know that it was also the home of the Israelites, who were living as captives in exile. And while our correspondent was extolling the virtues of living in suburban Babylon, the prophet Isaiah was calling on the Hebrews to return to and rebuild Jerusalem.

I would suggest that the creation of livable communities is part of an ancient cyclical, perhaps spiritual tradition, the quest for the new Jerusalem in whatever our time might be.

Isaiahís cry for renewal can in fact be heard today in virtually every American community, whether they are concerned about brownfields, urban flight and decay, hopelessness and homelessness, or they are struggling with the issues of gentrification and traffic congestion, or the threats to the way of life in rural America. The evidence suggests that this is an issue advancing, as Nancy mentioned, that is not only capturing the attention of Presidential candidates and people in Congress, but it is actually being driven in my judgment by what is going on at the grass roots level, not unlike the conversation that we are having here today.

Last November, there were 240 local ballot initiatives across the country dealing with urban growth boundaries, open space acquisition, and transportation issues. Over 70 percent passed. The reason you are seeing the national media and the national politicians involved in this is because it is an issue that is being driven at the local level.

And it is being driven at the local level because people in communities from coast to coast understand that for the last half century weíve been involved with a pattern of development that simply is not sustainable.

Youíve seen the evidence here in the State of California. From 1970 to 1990, traffic quadrupled in your state -- four times the increase in population. The greater Los Angeles area tripled in developed land, reaching an area roughly the size of Connecticut, growing six times faster

For the last half century weíve been involved with a pattern of development that simply is not sustainable.

in urbanized area than the increase in population, but this is not unique to California.

In Chicago, the metropolitan area increased 46 percent in urbanized area, but the population grew only 4 percent -- eleven times greater than population -- and between 1950 and 1990, the Cleveland metropolitan area lost eleven percent of its population, and the urbanized area increased by a third.

The American people understand that we cannot continue the pattern of unplanned and thoughtless development that has characterized American history since World War II.

Much population growth is going to be focused in areas in California, so your challenge has just begun. Nancy referenced what is going to happen in the Bay Area -- the 1.6 million people. The only question is how soon do they come. But its not just in the Bay Area. Youíre looking at (the same) patterns in the Central Valley -- the nationís most productive farm area, producing more agricultural product than 24 other American states. The projection, as I understand it, is that you are going to loose a million additional acres of farmland as the population triples.

Well, Iím prepared to engage in a conversation with you today about what some policies (in response to this) might be. I am prepared to talk at some length, risking boring some of you who have been involved with these issues and maybe donít want to hear about the prescriptions of the Portland metropolitan area -- the urban growth boundaries that weíve had in place over the last 20 years -- work that we have done in terms of trying to change our transportation system to make it a little more balanced.

Weíve not really added any major freeway lanes in our community for the last twenty years, and we have none planned for the next thirty. Weíve made investments in parks and open space and looked at some of the cheap and green solutions -- under the auspices of strong statewide mandated planning processes conducted at the local level but according to rules and regulations that are promulgated on the state level (so everybody plays by the same rules). As I say, Iím willing to talk about it, to debate the issues, and Iím looking forward to the period that weíre going to have in a few moments where weíre going to be able to deal with questions from you, and have an opportunity for the panel members to deal with specifics from your communities.

There are a few items I would like to put on the table for your consideration. First and foremost is that government does in fact have a role in providing a framework for solving the problem. Thatís not popular in some areas where people are talking about devolution, but in fact, government helped create the problem today responding to what many of us thought we wanted, and there is a constructive role for government to play as a partner in livability.

Second, I am prepared to argue at great length that there is no solution thatís going to be possible for promoting and preserving the livability of the Bay Area unless it is (developed) on a regional basis.

From the Space Shuttle looking at the Bay Area, people cannot distinguish the odd little fractured governmental framework. Watersheds, trafficsheds, and airsheds do not observe the governmental boundaries that weíve had frozen in place in some cases for decades.

From the Space Shuttle looking at the Bay Area, people cannot distinguish the odd little fractured governmental framework.

And weíre not going to be able to (manage) them unless we can deal on a regional basis.

Third, there needs to be a sense of urgency. Thatís why I canít commend you enough for being here and being a part of this discussion.

There are some that suggest that we can sit back, that thereís lots of room in the United States, that we donít have to worry about loss of farmland and global warming and these sorts of things, and I just suggest that that is categorically wrong.

When I was born, the number one agricultural producing county in the United States was Los Angeles. And before I was through grade school, that industry was basically wiped out. And weíre looking at the potential for growth to accelerate more than you saw in the post World War era.

Next, Iím prepared to argue at great length that whatever solutions we (choose), government must be prepared to lead by example.

Much more important than promulgating new rules and regulations and fees and charges and dictates, is that government and the people who run it need to operate under the same rules that they are telling the rest of America to operate under.

It makes my blood boil when the Post Office wants to pave a wetland for a parking lot when we donít allow private developers to do that.

I was stunned when I went to Washington DC that I was able to give free parking to everybody who works for me, either in Washington or in Portland, but I couldnít take a fraction of the million dollar budget that I was given and subsidize transit passes to use on the DC Metro.

And yet Washington DC has the second worst traffic congestion they tell us in the country, and Congress allegedly was worried about that.

The staff members in my office under 25 have a technical term for this -- itís called "dah!" -- but it took two years to change the policy.

I finally had to shame Newt Gingrich in the House Gym, and with the help of people like Nancy pushing on the Appropriations Committee, they changed the policy and

The staff members in my office under 25 have a technical term for this -- itís called "dah!"

we now can subsidize transit passes instead of just giving free parking.

Government needs to lead by example. And one of the things Iím most proud of in my twenty year history was eliminating free parking for the City Council people in Portland when I was on the City Council. It made such a difference for them to start taking advantage of our transportation system the way that most Americans do, either paying for parking or riding a bike or a bus.

I havenít driven a car since I went to DC. I take my bike and take Metro, and it gives you a different perspective. Government needs to lead by example, and that will give you better rules and regulations and I think better performance.

There needs to be an emphasis on low tech high impact low cost solutions -- cheap and green -- before we get off in technological never never land. There are things that we can do, and Iím prepared to argue about them later, that really donít require huge expenditures of time and money, and oftentimes they are the most effective.

And last, but not least, and here I really tip my hat to Nancy and her approach, we need to involve citizens in the formulation of solutions, like the discussion weíre having here today. Thatís not to say as a local official that I always agreed with a variety of input I received. In fact, it gave me gray hair, it aged me prematurely, but in Portland, no matter how heated the discussions sometimes were, I am absolutely convinced that the solutions were improved as a result of that citizen input, that activity, that energy, and thatís got to be a part of any solutions we come up with on whatever level.

Back at the time when our correspondent was writing to the King of Persia, the prophet Isaiah wrote, and I think it ought to be our scriptural verse for the morning, itís found in Isaiah 58:12 --

  "Those from among you shall build up the old waste place. You shall rise up the foundations of many generations, and you will be called the repairer of the breech, the restorer of streets and dwellings."

To me, thatís the theme that Iím looking forward to discussing today and working for in the future -- to make our communities livable, our families healthy, economically secure, and safe. Thank you.

Earl Blumenauer has been an Oregon elected official for more than 25 years. He was born, raised, and educated in Portland, and at 23 was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives. After serving there, he was elected to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, then to the Portland City Council, and in 1996 became Oregonís Third Congressional District representative in Washington.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Mr. Blumenauer is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where he sits on the Water Resources and the Environment Subcommittee and the Ground Transportation Subcommittee. In addition, Mr. Blumenauer is a founder and co-chair of the Livability Task Force and is a member of the House Sustainable Development Caucus.

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