Civic Planning in Portland

Perfecting the art of citizen-based policy research

Urbanist Article November 1, 2005

We spend a lot of time at SPUR trying to learn from other cities. It’s part of our role as an urban policy organization and it’s one of the things that San Francisco most needs from us. But it can be hard to understand how things really work in other places—hard to pierce beneath the marketing and hype that surround innovations in governance and planning—and everything can look better from farther away. One of our secrets to understanding other cities is that we rely on organizations like SPUR to share their information and give us the real story on what’s happening in their hometowns.

So it was a real pleasure to finally meet with the staff and board of the City Club of Portland face-to-face as part of the SPUR board’s city trip this year. Founded in 1916, just four years after SPUR’s predecessor organization, the San Francisco Housing Association, the City Club is remarkably similar to SPUR in its mission and scope. Both organizations are member-led, evidence-based, non-partisan, policy-focused nonprofits. Both organizations are experimenting with ways to update and modernize the traditional model of an urban civic organization.

Citizen Research

To many people in Oregon, the thing the City Club is best known for is its series of Friday Forums. These are sometimes debates, sometimes prominent speakers, and they are broadcast statewide on public radio.

To decisionmakers, the core product of the City Club is its series of policy papers. Titles from recent reports sound exactly like the over-serious, but important things that SPUR publishes: The Portland Development Commission: Governance, Structure, and Process; Community Policing in Portland; Examining the Health Care Safety Net in the Portland Area; and Charter Schools in Portland.

The City Club has developed a very interesting method of producing this work. As with SPUR, the papers are written by members, with staff playing a facilitating role. But the City Club’s process involves a much more serious time commitment for each paper. Whereas SPUR produces dozens of papers in a year, the City Club produces a few, with each one being more in-depth.

In outline form, the process looks something like this:

1. Come up with a topic. This begins with a “community scan”—a call to the members to suggest questions or issues that need to be looked at. Staff works with the board to prioritize the topics and ultimately the board decides which ones rise to the top of the list.

2. Develop the scope. The City Club calls this the “charge.” The Board appoints a charge-writing committee, which spends several months doing preliminary research. This results in a carefully defined scope of work and set of questions to be addressed. The Board revises, and ultimately approves, the charge.

3. Assemble a committee of members. You have to apply to be on a committee, and when you do you are committing yourself to meet once a week for a year or two. The City Club does not want people who are experts on the topic or people with a self-interest in the topic to be on the committee. The model is more of a jury: people who will be open-minded and look at the evidence. Experts are called in as “witnesses” to be interviewed, but the work of the committee is done by citizens who have no special preexisting knowledge of the topics.

4. Write the reports. We know what this looks like: research, debating, writing, editing, re-writing. Drafts go the board for edits. Research from the City Club looks like SPUR’s—lots of data, lots of weighing of pros and cons—but the Club’s work tends to be more in-depth and results in lengthier final products.

5. Approve the paper. After the Board approves the paper, it is only a draft. The draft is sent to members. And then there is a big membership meeting at which members vote to adopt a paper.

6. Get the word out. At this point, the rest of the world hears about it. City Club papers virtually always result in major stories in the press.

It’s an incredible model, and SPUR has a lot to learn from it. For anyone worried about the decline of social capital, for anyone who ever longed for the Greek polis where participation in civic affairs was considered essential to becoming a complete human being, for anyone who wants to figure out how, today, we can cultivate the arts of democracy—the City Club’s model of citizen-led research is inspiring.

Comparing the Two Organizations

The scope of the organizations is similar, but not identical. The City Club has six issue committees:

  1. Arts and culture
  2. Business and technology
  3. Education and human development
  4. Citizenship and government issues
  5. Growth management and environment
  6. Health care

SPUR has more comprehensive coverage of the major issues affecting the city and region. We have dozens of active committees and task forces working at any one point in time and we try to have an effect on almost all of the big issues. The City Club is more focused. Their research process is more labor intensive. Their reports are always the definitive statement on the subject.

SPUR devotes more energy to implementation of our recommendations. We build coalitions, testify at hearings, provide assistance to public agencies, consult on legislation, and even run a political campaign now and then. It was not always so: the SPUR board has worked to ramp up the advocacy part of the organization for a decade. We still have a long way to go to build our implementation capacity, but it has been a clear priority for the organization to move in this direction. The City Club has faced this same question about whether to work on implementation. The answer, tentatively, is yes, and they have formed an Advocacy Committee with this job. But the City Club is just beginning to figure out what its approach will be to advocacy and just beginning to allocate resources to this part of the process.

SPUR is bigger than the City Club—three times the budget, three times the staff—but of course so is our “ecosystem.” The Bay Area has 7 million people in it (depending on how you count) compared to 1.9 million people in the Portland metropolitan area. Maybe we can take credit for good fundraising work, but to some degree funding for an urban civic group has to be proportional to the size of the urbanized region. New York has both more civic organizations and more well-funded organizations than we do.

The City Club has more clout at the regional and state level than SPUR does. Part of this is due to the fact that the region is more “monocentric,” with the city of Portland representing 28 percent of the metropolitan population, compared to San Francisco representing just 10 percent. In addition, Portland is the dominant city in Oregon, while San Francisco is now only the fourth-largest city in California. On the other hand, we should give the City Club credit for taking a leadership role on regional and state issues and earning credibility through the quality of its work. The Club does ballot analysis of key state propositions (such as the anti-planning property rights measures). And the Club regularly brings elected officials and department heads from state government in as speakers

The Power of Ideas

What does it mean to be a civic organization? It’s an old-fashioned word, but so are a lot of the other words groups like SPUR and the City Club use to describe themselves: non-partisan, pragmatic, non-ideological, looking out for the “common good.” We hold onto a couple of core principles that have gone out of style:

  • First, the idea that there is a common good, rather than just the trading of interests
  • Second, the idea that there is a “right” answer, even if it’s sometimes hard to figure out

Both ideas have come on hard times, not least because civic organizations like SPUR promoted things like urban renewal in the 1960s as if it were the objectively “best” answer to a set of urban problems. Many of the favorite causes that civic organizations worked on in the name of the common good have been shown by history to have been misguided.

Perhaps that critique is one-sided: many social movements have pursued goals that we no longer believe in; being wrong is not something confined to civic organizations. But a more fundamental problem with the model emerges with policy choices that clearly involve values, rather than merely hard facts. How are we to decide between a high-tax, high-service regime and a low-tax, low-service regime? How are we to weigh the value of the rights of people who currently live in our city against those who would like to live in our city? How much value do we place on stopping sprawl by increasing densities as opposed to preserving existing community patterns? These, and countless other questions cannot be answered by research, and yet they have profound implications for urban policy. Those who find themselves on the opposite side of SPUR and other civic organizations on these questions are understandably annoyed when we present our views as if they were based only on research, and not influenced by values.

Every urban civic organization that I know of went into decline or lost power (or folded altogether) following the social transformations of the 1960s, as people stopped believing in the model. There were other causes of the decline as well. College-educated women, who had been the backbone of many civic organizations, entered the workforce in larger numbers and stopped providing uncompensated labor. As the economy globalized, corporations became less tied to specific places and pulled back from community involvement. And civic participation in general declined across most of the country, as evidenced by declines in voter participation and readership of daily papers.

The civic organizations that managed to survive these changes—which are still very much unfolding—have had to adapt the old model and change it to the new conditions. We have all learned how to become mass-membership organizations, rather than relying only on support from businesses or philanthropists. Our boards of directors have become much more diverse and representative of the cities in which we are located.

And the paradox is that, in spite of how we view ourselves, the people who view the democratic process as a realm of competition between interest groups see us through that lens as well. The public sector unions think we only want governmental efficiency because it’s a stealthy way to lower taxes. The homeowner groups think we only want higher densities on transit lines because it’s a stealthy way to make money for developers. To people within SPUR, these are paranoid and bizarre accusations. We want good government and good planning because of our values. But we are still learning how to adopt a more modern language that speaks in terms of those values.

Being a civic organization today means working in this landscape of pervasive misunderstanding. Many people cannot help but perceive us as an interest group, and yet we rely on a process and model that still believes there is more than competition between interest groups—that wants to find the right answer for the city and region as a whole.

The City Club annual report uses the title The Power of Ideas. It’s an organization that is proud to proclaim that “ideas matter,” and that it is possible to bring people together to find the common good.

The Role of Urban Civic Organizations

We have so much to learn from other cities, including other civic groups. The City Club is one of the most interesting organizations around, a group that has prioritized deep member involvement and that has found a way to remain effective through many changes to America’s civic and political culture over almost a century.

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America’s cities do not “work” by accident. This is a country with an urban policy that, since the end of the New Deal, has ranged between hostility and neglect. The physical infrastructure that supports an urban way of life doesn’t get built by itself, and neither does the civic infrastructure. It takes vision and hard work. But you already know that if you’re a member of SPUR. Take heart: there are people like you in every city in America, working to make a sustainable, culturally diverse, and prosperous way of urban life possible. END

About the Authors: 

Gabriel Metcalf is executive director of SPUR. This article was made possible by a grant from the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, which is supporting SPUR's research into civic planning organizations across the country

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