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In 1997, the distinguished architect and urbanist Robert Geddes offered the suggestion that “Cascadia” would be the “shock city” of the twenty-first century, following in the pattern set by in earlier eras by Manchester and Chicago, Los Angeles and Calcutta. Come again? Cascadia? Where’s that, and why might it be more interesting to twenty-first century scholars than Shanghai or Mumbai or Sao Paolo?
For Geddes, as for Ethan Seltzer, Anne Moudon, and Alan Artibise, the trio of urban scholars who contributed “Cascadia: An Emerging Regional Model” to Geddes’s edited volume Cities in Our Future, Cascadia is a bi-national megaregion consisting of the Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver metro areas and the farms and forests in between.
For a century and a half—beginning with the intrusion of Russian, British, and American fur traders, extending through imperial contests and boundary marking, through Anglophone settlement, and on through the dam-building and timber booms of the mid-twentieth century—the greater Northwest had a stable identity as region rich in natural resources and driven by their exploitation and development. Whether as the pre-national Oregon Country in the early nineteenth century or the U.S. Pacific Northwest and idiosyncratic British Columbia of the twentieth century, this was a remarkably constant region of the mind.
The vast territory has had subregions to be sure—an Empire of the Columbia, the inland sea from Olympia, Washington north to Campbell River, British Columbia, an Inland Empire (that’s the big one around Spokane, not the little one around Riverside). However, Wilbur Zelinsky’s now classic study of vernacular regions found the Northwest firmly in place in the 1970s. His study compiled and tallied the regional adjectives that appeared in business and organizational names in the phone books of the 276 of the largest U.S. and Canadian cities. “Northwest” was the dominant regional marker in Boise, Spokane, Eugene, Portland, Seattle and Tacoma, and made a strong 2nd or 3rd place showing in Missoula, Billings, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria, and Anchorage (as Canada’s windows to Asia, Victoria and Vancouver gave first place to “Pacific”). The regional core along Puget Sound and the lower Columbia River also joined the Canadian Maritime Provinces and the heart of Dixie in having the greatest regional self-consciousness as measured by the percentage of regional terms relative to all terms.
Beginning in the same decade as Zelinsky’s study, however, that identity began to come unstuck. For the last generation it has been up for grabs with competing metaphors and definitions that suggest very different planning and policy responses. Journalists, boosters, advocates, and scholars have tried out a series of ways to conceptualize and shape a regional identity for the northern Pacific coast—as Ecotopia, as bioregional Cascadia, as boosterish Mainstreet Cascadia and as the Cascadia Megaregion. Think of the change this way: The old identity was like a reliable older automobile with lots of miles but well maintained and still perking along. Suddenly, however, it is too boring, too unfashionable, inadequately trendy, causing us to shop for an alternative—perhaps a Prius? A Smart Car? A Ford F-350 pickup? A Lexus? All have their strong points, but none seems to satisfy every need and expectation. Stepping back from the simile, the goal of this paper is to interrogate these changing ways for thinking about the regional identity of the old Oregon Country.