NYC to PDX: An Interview with David Bragdon

New York City and Portland, Oregon; Winter 2013-14

by Tom Webb


Most Portlanders remember David Bragdon as the president of Metro, Portland’s regional government, from 2003 to 2010. New Yorkers, on the other hand, recall their native son as Mayor Bloomberg’s choice in 2010 to serve as director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City. Indeed, Bragdon has had his feet planted firmly in both the Big Apple and the Rose City. He once drove a cab in Portland, before working in shipping for Nike and as marketing manager for the Port of Portland. Today, he bike shares his way across Manhattan and is the new executive director for Transit Center Inc., a nonprofit promoting the use of public transit. Prior to Transit Center Inc., Bragdon was involved in the revitalization of Jamaica Bay, a 10,000-acre parkland running from Queens to Brooklyn.

Born in New York City, Bragdon moved to Portland with his family at age 12, when his father became president of Reed College; he returned to New York 39 years later to take on sustainability planning for the country’s largest metropolitan area.

A bicoastal city boy, with an ingrained appreciation for a regional sense of place, Bragdon quipped upon leaving Oregon that Portland’s decision-making process suffers “paralysis by analysis.” Here he returns to the discussion and shares his perspectives on planning from Portland and New York points of view. Bragdon sees the strengths and weaknesses of each and calls for forceful leadership that retains street-level involvement.

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Can you compare planning in New York City to planning in Portland?

DB Planning in New York and in Portland are very different because they spring from very different origins. From 1811, when the commissioners’ street grid was adopted in order to settle Manhattan in an orderly way, or around 1916, when the first ordinances were considered to regulate skyscraper heights and bulk, planning in New York at its essence is about how to shape growth and make the city “greater”—in whatever way greater is defined in a particular era. That emphasis on building was certainly amplified in the Robert Moses era, with colossal infrastructure projects, much of which didn’t take individual human beings or public opinion into account. Even today, much of PlaNYC [Mayor Bloomberg’s 2030 plan for New York], while progressive, is fairly technocratic and addresses the built environment and making urbanity better, but it is not much about land use or sprawl and certainly not much about citizen action. It wasn’t until the late 1960s (relatively recently) that neighborhood power played any sort of role in New York planning, whereas in Oregon the neighborhood is where everything started.

Oregon’s big defining moment in planning was the 1970s, and unlike the urban development orientation of New York, Oregon’s system was rooted in respect for agriculture at the state level and respect for the neighborhood at the local level. It wasn’t about making an urban place greater, it was about keeping the state the way it was, which was, of course, a pretty good state.

I’d say another big difference is that civic literacy about planning in Oregon exceeds public awareness in New York City. New Yorkers are resigned to city development being driven by huge mysterious forces, whereas in Oregon the individual thinks that if he or she wants to change something, you can call up a few friends and the mayor will probably come to your house to hear your idea.

The other huge difference is that in New York a plan invariably directly relates to investing money, while in Oregon plans are often separate from an irrational system of government finance that has been warped by initiative ballot measures and makes capital planning difficult.

Both the “urban promotion” orientation of New York and the “rural preservation” orientation of Oregon are important, and both have their drawbacks: You can look at the under-utilized lots and vacant land in the Portland region and regret that you don’t have the types of housing investment and taxation and brownfield remediation tools that New York does and, for that matter, the disposable income and higher wages that keep the prosperity going. You can be frustrated that the state system in Oregon forces you to keep thinking about moving the urban growth boundary instead of making life in the current UGB better. But you can look at Long Island today and regret that they didn’t have the foresight to have growth boundaries in the 1970s as Oregon did or the fact that you can enjoy fantastic tomatoes and kale and berries from a few miles away in Portland.

What’s exciting now is that the two paths are coming together. New York is recognizing that urbanity can include nature—green infrastructure can mimic natural functions and provide economic benefits. Meantime, the city of Portland and some of its progressive neighbors like Gresham and Beaverton have transcended the original rural emphasis of the Oregon statewide program and are assertively urban, positive and ambitious, seeking to become much more vibrant places. The confluence is exciting, and I am lucky to have seen it from both coasts.

TBD What are the best ways to avoid groupthink in the planning process?

DB One thing I have learned in New York is the importance of data. Though I am not much of a “quant” myself—I didn’t even know such a type of person existed when I lived out West, but they’re running around all over the place here. Mayor Bloomberg is guided by facts rather than by polls or sentiment (his or anyone else’s). While he operates with a strong moral compass on issues like climate change or public health, those commitments get actualized in day-to-day actions driven by hyper-rational analysis. That approach helps him to usually “do the right thing” in the public interest, even though his own personal circle and his day-to-day life experience is, in fact, pretty insular. On some issues, like police stop-and-frisk tactics, that insularity has not served him well, which results in the democratic system (i.e., the City Council) eventually snapping back at him.

Portland has a reverse irony, in that the leadership is not insular, but all the ritualized participation and extensive outreach processes—sincerely designed to elicit diverse points of view—seem to usually produce sentiment-based conclusions that could have been easily predicted. We spent years on an urban and rural reserves process at the Metro Council, but it basically came down to decisions on the handful of places and hot issues that had been lingering in plain sight all along. Like the NYPD stop-and-frisk story, but by the opposite route, you still end up where you were bound to end up, but nobody’s learned anything from anyone else or had their groupthink position change through the tortuous years of “process.” A more Bloombergian approach to something like urban and rural reserves would have cut to the chase a lot faster and certainly been a lot more efficient.

The antidotes to groupthink in both settings, I have found, are: one, leaders who are willing to question their own assumptions and surround themselves with strong critical thinkers who are willing to do the same, and, two, leaders who also have the willingness to seek out and listen carefully for the underlying interests (or even the kernel of a good idea) in the voices of the people initially perceived or expected to be on “the other side.” That mysterious blend of arrogance and humility is hard to find.

TBD Who are your planning heroes?

DB Ernie Bonner, who was planning director in Portland and later served on the Metro Council, long before I did. Ernie came to Portland from Cleveland in the 1970s, where he had seen the city decline and was committed to preventing a similar slide in Portland. I admire him because he knew instinctively that everything starts in the neighborhoods, and that planning has to be about people and their connection to where they live, while simultaneously recognizing that the neighborhood exists in a broader region. He had a mind that could appreciate both the block-by-block texture and the metropolitan scale of good planning.

I also admire Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago for putting the words “city” and “beautiful” together and for proving that plans can be big and achievable and uplifting to the human spirit of the people. Josef Stalin or Robert Moses or Jane Jacobs could each do one or two of those, but Burnham did all three.

TBD What is a legitimate planning horizon—20, 30, 40 years?

DB The planning horizon needs to be long enough to be ambitious and have some sway over succeeding office holders rather than be upended every four years when there is an election, but short enough so that the people making decisions now won’t be long dead by the time the consequences are known. Otherwise, death tends to absolve them of accountability. It is neat that there are still people active in public life, like [Oregon Congressman] Earl Blumenauer, who were around in the 1973 [Oreon] Legislature and can look at the Willamette Valley and say that much of that farmland is there because of votes they cast in favor of land-use planning. Or that [former Portland mayor] Vera Katz and [urban planner] Gil Kelley can look at South Waterfront and say, “Hey, we thought of that, and it worked.”

On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for time pressure and decisive action, as the reclamation of Times Square by turning Broadway into a plaza proves. If Mayor Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner had taken eight years to gather “input” and “develop consensus,” in the Oregon way, Times Square might still be choked with cars and traffic jams and dirty air today.

So in terms of how to balance the immediate and long term, I discovered the most effective feature in Bloomberg’s PlaNYC is that it contains what they call “goals” for the year 2030, which are aspirational, but it also includes “initiatives,” which are specific actions that they will take in the short term to get on the right path—now! The plan also includes “milestones,” by which the current administration is judged each year as they mark progress toward the applicable goal. So New York City not only declared where it hoped to be in 20 years, the aspirational part which Oregon does very well, but New York City is also honest if it is on the way there this year (the type of accountability which Oregon usually ducks), whether it’s land-use or educational-attainment goals or all that benchmarking stuff they used to do in Salem but then quit doing when the Legislature didn’t want to hear the truth.

TBD What can Portland learn from NYC’s transit system?

DB Before you get to be 109 years old, make sure you keep up with deferred maintenance! That is a serious comment, although the two situations are totally different. New York’s system is of a size and vintage that is comparable only to London or Paris or Tokyo, and by any measure it is at least twice the size of any transit system in this country. NYC Transit performs a herculean task every day with remarkable reliability for its age. One lesson, regardless of size, is: Don’t let the physical assets and behavioral standards slip a millimeter, because it can go downhill very fast. That’s what worries me about the cutbacks and apparent decline in standards of both maintenance and onboard behavior on Portland’s system. We think of MAX [Portland’s light-rail transit system] as relatively new and shiny, but in fact it’s over 25 years old and in some not-so-subtle ways is starting to show its age.

Personally, in recent years, I find myself feeling more secure riding the New York Subway through Brooklyn at 2 a.m. than I am on TriMet at some points in broad daylight, and it wasn’t that way a few years ago.

Portland’s peer group for transit are places like Denver, Sacramento or Austin, and Portland is still a leader but only by virtue of having started earlier—some of the others are gaining quickly. Who would have guessed 15 years ago that, today, a supposedly conservative place like Salt Lake City, which had zero miles at the turn of the century, would now have more miles of light rail than Portland? Those so-called conservatives did it by spending money, for which supposedly liberal Oregon has state constitutional aversions.

TBD Other Portlanders making their mark in NYC?

DB We’ve got a little club of what we call “New Yoregonians,” or the “Astoria-Astoria Club,” which stretches from Astoria, Queens, to Astoria, Oregon. There are about 150 people in NYC with Oregon links who have joined the group so far, ranging from people who moved here 40 years ago thinking they would stay a little while to what seems to be the entire Grant High School class of 2006, or others who have been here a few months. They range from top journalists to people in the finance or hotel or entertainment industries, several of the great people at NYC Parks. They come from Heppner and Corvallis and all over the state. We’ve had two Beaver State banquets here the past couple of years, and we all eat salmon and drink pinot noir and talk about how we want to move home.

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Illustration by Jasmine Silver, art direction by Ryan Brown.