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A Portland Perspective On Hartford Hopes

Tom Condon

July 04, 2010

In 1973, when he was a 24-year-old, first-term state legislator, Earl Blumenauer voted for Oregon's landmark urban growth boundary law, one of the strongest anti-sprawl measures ever enacted. Under the statewide planning law, cities focus growth within an urban boundary, and protect the farms and forests outside the boundary.

Most of the country, including Connecticut, didn't follow suit and allowed sprawl to continue, subdivision after subdivision, occasionally interrupted by a strip mall. Oregon, and its largest city, Portland, continued on its own path. In addition to the growth boundary law analysts say it has preserved 25 million acres of farmland and forests Portland has an elected regional government called Metro, has made major investments in transit light rail, buses and trolleys replaced a six-lane freeway with a 37-acre park and became one of the premier biking cities in North America.

The result of these efforts has been a high quality of life, population growth and prosperity. Connecticut is losing 25- to 34-year-olds; Portland is gaining them. Last year, Forbes Magazine rated Portland the third safest city in the country. A steady stream of visitors from others cities come to Portland to see how it is done.

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Since 1996, Blumenauer, a Democrat, has represented Portland in Congress and tried to bring its green message to the rest of the country. He makes a statement each day by riding to Capitol Hill on his bicycle. If healthy Americans did short trips by bike or on foot instead of by car, we wouldn't have to worry about oil wars or deep water oil spills.

Blumenauer was in Hartford on Monday with Rep. John Larson to speak at a sustainability program concerning the city's iQuilt plan. I asked about the rest of the country's relationship with Portland, and he said we're all (finally) moving in the same green direction, trying to achieve energy efficiency, transportation choices, interesting, human-scale development. "If you told me 20 years ago that the mayor of New York would be a green advocate, I wouldn't have believed it."

The seven-term congressman said that last month he flew all night to make the ribbon-cutting for new bike lanes down the center of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. He said that last year more bikes were sold than cars, and that 40 cities are bringing back trolleys.

Will the iQuilt make Hartford greener and more interesting? Blumenauer liked it.

The iQuilt is a plan to connect Hartford's cultural institutions with pedestrian and bicycling routes running from the Capitol and Bushnell Park to the river, and then enhance the area with physical and programmatic improvements. One promising feature would be a "GreenWalk" pedestrian pathway from the riverfront to Bushnell Park.

As Blumenauer acknowledged, Hartford has superb cultural institutions (and better weather than Portland). But due mostly to highway and parking lot construction, Hartford's institutions don't feel connected or comfortable to walk to, so the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Blumenauer also strongly suggested that more housing be incorporated into the plan, observing that pollution and congestion are reduced if people going downtown are already there. In urging more bicycling opportunities, he asked, "How many people do you suppose are stuck in traffic right now trying to get to a gym to ride a stationary bike?" Streetcars, he said, can be built cheaply and relatively quickly, and are "a magnet for development."

Hartford is a long way from emulating Portland. That city has regional government; Connecticut and its semi-illusory home rule may well have less regional decision-making than anywhere else in the country. Since many problems congestion, pollution, energy, transportation cannot be solved locally, we're spinning our wheels. Though there's been talk aplenty, we haven't added a single transportation option since ride-share vans. Hartford is still carved up by highways

The iQuilt has been incorporated into the new city plan. It can be the tool that organizes downtown Hartford, and that will help. But Hartford needs to be part of a larger region, lest it continue to be the hole in its own donut. The next governor has to get better rail and bus service going, and turn up the dial on regionalism. Hartford spotted Portland a 37- year head start and needs to get moving.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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