City of Vancouver can learn from Portland’s many charms

Art, heritage architecture, transit infrastructure impress Cascadian neighbours to the north

When spending a number of days with my wife as first-time tourists in Portland, Ore., I chose to explore the Cascadian outpost through the eyes of a city lover. It did not take long for us to be charmed by Portland, as we took stock of many of its appealing attributes that made a pair of Vancouverites a little jealous.

Our visit took place during the week Vancouver released its damning homelessness numbers, showing significant growth in the number of people either living on the street or without permanent shelter.

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Portland has its own significant struggles with homelessness, and currently estimates around 4,100 people are homeless in the metropolitan area on any given day of the year. Those numbers line up with the totals in the Lower Mainland, which in 2017 was calculated to be more than 3,700 homeless.

On more than one occasion, my wife and I were asked what we thought about Portland’s visible homelessness, and we had to admit that it felt much worse back home in Vancouver, as there is less visible panhandling and open use of hard drugs in Portland.

Not that this makes their homelessness problem any less severe.

The reason why the homelessness issue factored into our Portland observations is that we were struck how placid the downtown area felt when compared to Vancouver. I asked a retailer there why the streets felt fairly empty, and he cited the homelessness issue as a determining factor.

A major sporting goods company made news here a couple of years ago when their CEO openly lamented moving their headquarters in the downtown due in part to number of people living on the street nearby.

Notwithstanding the city’s homelessness struggles, it is impossible not to love downtown Portland and the growing Pearl District. The city has taken a page from Vancouver by densifying part of its urban core with new housing, office buildings and retail.

We discovered beautiful public spaces in the Pearl District such as Tanner Springs Park, an “urban marsh” surrounded by mid-rise towers and planted with native grasses, and large steps that allow you to sit at the water’s edge.

Portland is a foodie’s delight with rows of food trucks and smaller sidewalk carts showcasing an incredible variety of culinary choices.

The civilizing influence of good food and craft beverages makes Portland feel less stuffy than Vancouver, which is still hobbled by outdated liquor regulations and red tape. Oregon proudly promotes its indigenous wine industry, which produces world class Burgundian-style Pinot Noir less than an hour’s drive from the city.

Portland is a transit-lover’s paradise with streets heavily emphasizing walking, transit and cycling
Portland is a transit-lover’s paradise with streets heavily emphasizing walking, transit and cycling. Photo iStock

We became envious of the city’s incredible transit amenities, such as its downtown streetcar network. Portland is a transit-lover’s paradise with streets heavily emphasizing walking, transit and cycling. It is hard to imagine half of either Pender or Burrard Street turned over to buses and bikes only, but doing this has transformed Portland for the better.

An aerial tram located on the city’s northwest side transports thousands of health care workers to a large hospital district. The tram was controversial because it spanned a residential neighbourhood, but they went ahead and built it anyway — just like they should up to the Burnaby Mountain SFU campus here.

In a previous column, I made a case for more drinking fountains to satisfy the thirst of our active citizens. Portland’s four-spigot drinking fountains perfectly execute on that idea — slowly trickling to keep the water cool, tasty and always available for thirsty passersby.

A short ride via Lyft, Uber or by bus takes you across the Willamette River into the trendy Southeast Division neighbourhood. One of Portland’s charms are its many vibrant town centres, where many young people have flocked for great dining venues and gathering spaces.

My wife and I were also amazed by the courteousness of drivers within the city. Before you set one foot in a crosswalk, traffic quickly rolls to a stop. Lead-footed Vancouver drivers could learn a thing or two from Portlanders.

Where Portland really impressed us is through its collection of sculptures adorning downtown streets.

The “Keep Portland Weird” slogan can be found across the city. Photo iStock
The “Keep Portland Weird” slogan can be found across the city. Photo iStock

Through its art, its heritage architecture and the iconic wall painted with the “Keep Portland Weird” slogan, we found the city to be not only visually captivating, but friendly and inviting to neighbours like us from the north.


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