Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site

To Attract Others, Iowa Should Borrow a Page from Portland

Carol Hunter

Des Moines Register

September 25, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

Laura Svanfelds left the snow and cold of Chicago with a boyfriend, who followed his sister, all part of the young-adult migration to Portland, Ore.

Now 33, she could do her job as a hair stylist anywhere. But she likes Portland. "People are more friendly here. The weather's nicer. There's isn't so much traffic."

Sounds like what people say about Iowa, except for that weather part.

Dressed head to toe in black, and with a mid-chin ring and short-cropped blue hair, she might have stood out on the streets of Des Moines. But she fit right in with the crowds of local browsers and tourists at the block-long Powell's bookstore, on the edge of the city's eclectic Pearl District.

Portland's on-every-corner coffee-shop scene makes it easy to meet people, she said. And it's easy to make friends, "because everyone is from someplace else." That was true for half of Oregon's population as of 2004. In contrast, 76 percent of Iowans were born in the state.

I was in Portland a week ago for the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Beyond attending the writing and editing sessions, (yes, boss, I did go), I wanted to check out what had made Portland such a mecca for twenty- and thirtysomethings and see whether there were lessons for Iowa.

Granted, Portland has geographic and geologic blessings that Iowa can't match. On a clear day, you can see Mount Hood, part of the Cascade Mountains. In not much more than an hour, you can take in the panoramic views of the Columbia River Gorge or dip your booty in the Pacific Ocean.

But I came away convinced that Portland's attraction has as much to do with attitude as latitude. David Sarasohn, columnist for the Oregonian, believes part of the Portland cachet dates to 1960s and '70s political mavericks who branded the state as a place for independent thinkers. U.S. Sens. Wayne Morse and Mark Hatfield stood out as unrelenting critics of the Vietnam War. And Gov. Tom McCall, defender of Oregon's mountains and farms, famously invited everyone to visit his beloved state, but not stay. (At least people got the first part right.)

They all conjured an image, Sarasohn believes: "If you wanted to do something different, Oregon was open to the idea."

When I look at Iowa's recent political landscape, I see mostly solid, earnest types who try to do right by their constituents but would hardly capture the imagination of the nation's youth. Maybe that's why I'm pulling for the implausible Coralville rainforest project. If businessman Ted Townsend and his group succeed, it would send the message that just about anything is possible in Iowa.

Portland's commitment to planning funneling growth within the city and helping preserve surrounding fields and mountains also built its image as a different kind of place. A light-rail system and streetcars offer cheap, quick transportation for young and old.

Even one of the region's biggest employers, Nike, which has its world headquarters in nearby Beaverton, has cultivated a culture of "Just Do It" independence. Oregon's wine and microbrew industries mix in more dashes of free spirit. As do Portland's thriving visual-arts and music scenes.

Portland's politicians have fixated on livability factors creating lots of parks and trails, working to keep housing and jobs close together and commutes short, offering multiple public-transit options and supporting cultural organizations. Iowa's leaders could do that, too.

Greater attention to planning doesn't mean turning swaths of downtown into look-alike cubes. Most of Des Moines' East Village would look right at home in the Pearl District, with its chock- ablock clothing shops, homes, art galleries and eateries. Des Moines should nurture a funky mix of businesses in the East Village, rather than threatening condemnation of structurally sound buildings.