Oregon’s Transportation and land use Takes

Oregon’s Transportation and Land Use Tales

To look at how buses, light rail, street cars, and bicycling have all become prominent modes in Portland, you need to trace back to important land use decisions made three decades ago. In 1974, Oregon adopted statewide land use planning goals. These goals shifted planning efforts away from freeway-building, toward investment in alternative forms of transportation. Since then, Oregon has been a leader in pushing back against car-centric landscapes and lifestyles. In this OTREC project, Professor Carl Abbott and Sam Lowry of Portland State University traced the history of land use and transportation planning in Oregon from 1890-1974. One of the project’s aims is to make transportation planning relevant and compelling to a broad audience. To do so, Abbott and Lowry gathered stories and information from a wide range of sources who enthusiastically shared their knowledge of transportation history. You can download the report to read more: Final Report: http://otrec.us/project/138.

Talking about Portland

Here is a link to a video interview in which I talk about Portland planning. it was made by a delegation of Australian planning academics. The link is http://liveplanning.net/?s=portland.

Oregon Encyclopedia

The Oregon Encyclopedia

I am an advisory board member for the Oregon Encyclopedia of History and Culture, a project that aims to place several thousand peer-reviewed entries in a searchable on-line website hosted by Portland State University. We have 700 entries up so far, with another 500 or so in the pipeline. Access the project at www.oregonencyclopedia.org to check out the range of topics. Authors include both academics and community members, and one of the project’s innovative efforts has been to hold dozens of community meetings in every corner of the around the state to solicit ideas for entries and authors. Each entry is read by four or five members of the editorial board, by the editors in chief, and by an experienced copy editor before it is posted.

As an introduction, I list here a selection from the entries I’ve prepared.

One is a quick introduction to the first comprehensive world’s fair on the West Coast.


There are several entries dealing with aspects of regional planning and land use planning in Oregon.






Two entries deal with the very distinct and possibly “utopian” communities of Vanport, a World War II housing project, and Rajneeshpuram, a 1980s religious and lifestyle commune.



Seattle Public Library

The Koolhaas Kage

I recently characterized the new Seattle public library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, as a “disasterous” structure. Is the adjective over the top? Perhaps, but I want to counter what was the initial response among architectural critics, from the New York Times to my home paper the Oregonian, which I would describe as over the top adulation.

I think it is great that Seattle invested in a new downtown library that is more striking than the uninspiring box it replaced, and also great that the library is well used. I’ve observed people lining up by the dozens waiting for it to open, as well as packing its banks of computer terminals. I suggest as a thought experiment, however, that any well equipped central library would get the same use in our current economy and information ecology. Certainly Portland’s central library does, in a renovated building from the 1910s.

The Koolhaas exterior is a matter of taste. It doesn’t excite me, but it is interesting in a relatively bland downtown, and it does have to cope with one of Seattle’s steeply sloping blocks.

It is interior arrangements that I fault. The lower level entrance spaces and reading room spaces are strike me as poorly arranged for efficient circulation and ease of finding the standard library components (checkout, reference services, and the like). From the entrance spaces to the stacks you ride an escalator up past an isolated, mysteriously color-coded middle floor whose access and purpose are hard to read. Get to the top of the building (nice views, of course) and it is difficult to get from one level of the stacks to another without convoluted maneuvers. The stacks themselves were built to show off an architectural conceit rather than designed to be easy to understand. Elevators and stairs are hard to find. I’m sure that regular users figure out the tricks, but a building of this sort should be easy to use, not a puzzle box.

I’m told that the librarians who work there are some of the most critical of the building’s users.

Charles Glaab: Framing US Urban History

Framing U.S. Urban History: Charles Glaab and The American City: A Documentary History (1963)

In the early 1960s, Americans were rediscovering cities as objects of intellectual inquiry as well as targets for public policy.

The single year 1961 saw publication of Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, Jean Gottmann’s Megalopolis, and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. These books took different intellectual stands, but all of the authors agreed that modern cities were phenomena that required fundamental rethinking/new thinking about current trends. Cities weren’t decentralizing properly said Mumford. Cities were killing their centers said Jacobs. Cities were growing into new forms that neither Mumford not Jacobs quite understood said Gottmann.

The next year came the book that I judge to be Glaab’s intellectual foil, namely Morton and Lucia White’s The Intellectual Versus the City.

Morton White was a professor of philosophy at Harvard and an expert on the American tradition of pragmatic reform and its failings. His landmark book was Social Thought in America (1949) with an examination of John Dewey, Charles Beard, and Thorstein Veblen. He grew up in the intellectually intense and politically charged environment of interwar Manhattan. He was an intellectual historian for whom ideas were fascinating in themselves, and who was therefore interested in the thinkers who occupied what were commonly recognized as the loftiest peaks of intellectual endeavor. The protagonists in The Intellectual Versus the City were men like Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Henry Adams, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

The general impression that a new graduate student took away from the book a few years after its publication was that cities were unlovable—perhaps necessary, but little to be admired. According to the back cover of my 75-cent 1964 paperback, “Our nation’s most distinguished artists, leaders, and intellectuals have proclaimed open hostility toward the city. Unlike the Englishman’s London or the Frenchman’s Paris, they have found nothing to love in the sprawling American metropolis. This significant and thoughtful study analyzes for the first time the major intellectual reactions to urbanism . . . .and offers some provocative conclusions as to why our cities have been the traditional object of prejudice, fear, and distrust.”

The Whites wrote their book from the academic citadels of Cambridge and Princeton and acknowledged advice from luminaries like Carl Schorske, Perry Miller, John Burchard, Lloyd Rodwin, and Arthur M. Schlesinger among others.

Charles Glaab came out of a very different environment—born in Williston, North Dakota, educated at North Dakota University and then the University of Missouri, employed first in Kansas, then Wisconsin, then Ohio. His monographs dealt with places very much different from New York or Cambridge—Kansas City, Neenah-Menasha, Toledo. As someone who still, after years in Oregon, considers the Miami Valley of southwestern Ohio to be the garden of the world, these are choices after my own heart.

The documentary history that Glaab assembled and edited from his base at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has fundamental merits as a text that still gives it a place on my bookshelf, its cover substantially assisted by duct tape. Its organization and categories are clear. Its excerpts are drawn heavily from magazines and popular journalism, and thus readable and accessible for novices. The selections are substantial enough to be helpful to instructors and researchers as well as students. Richard Wade assigned the book when I took his course in urban history at the University of Chicago in 1967. Ray Mohl reports that Bayrd Still assigned it in his urban history class at NYU in 1964.

Apropos of my argument, The American City is also an antidote to the Whites.

Reading through the selections, we get a much better feel for popular ideas as well as elite critiques. The intellectual protagonists in its pages are the sorts of civic leaders who tried to keep up on events and solve problems while leading otherwise busy lives. They are the travelers and journalists who want to explain phenomenal cities to their readers (or perhaps to titillate them). They are the reformers who addressed practical problems while trying to understand the urban dynamics

I count only one author—the interminable Henry James—who held himself completely above the fray. Other “intellectuals” were also politicians (Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson) or activist/practitioners (Daniel Drake, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jane Addams)

We also get a balanced view. Readers encounter fearful and negative evaluations, for where would a course in urban history be without The Dangerous Classes of New York or The Shame of the Cities? However, there are also evaluations that are variously excited, positive, and hopeful. European visitors with unhappy views of American cities (Alexis de Tocqueville, Rudyard Kipling) are balanced by those more sympathetic (Michael Chevalier, Anthony Trollope rather than his cranky mother). We get the views of important social scientists like F. J. Kingsbury, Adna F. Weber, Richard Ely, Paul Kellogg, and Graham Taylor. There are reformers and critics aplenty, but also indefatigable promoters like DeWitt Clinton and Jesup Scott and John S. Wright.

And Glaab’s selections introduced me to two of my favorite commentators: George Tucker, one of the founding faculty from Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia writing The Progress of the United States in Population and Wealth in the 1840s, and the Urbanism Committee of the National Resources Committee writing in the 1930s. Without Charles Glaab, how long would it have taken me to encounter Our Cities: Their Role in the National Economy?

As much as anything, The American City: A Documentary History sketches out a comprehensive intellectual history of American urbanization that recognized that, as George Tucker wrote, “whatever may be the good or evil tendencies of populous cities, they are the result to which all countries, that are at once fertile, free, and intelligent, tend.”

The book that turned Turner inside out

[This is a retrospective review of Richard Wade’s The Urban Frontier, originally published on H-Urban.]

As the United States entered the 1950s, highway engineers were eagerly completing plans for Middle Western toll highways and anticipating national freeway system. Automobile stylists were turning Studebakers into rocket ships and dreaming of ways to turn rear fenders into tailfins. Meanwhile, Richard Wade was determinedly following the route of the early Ohio River boatmen. His itinerary took him downriver from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to Louisville and then to St. Louis on the Mississippi, with side trips
to Lexington and the limestone soil of the bluegrass country. His stops over several years of research were the local history rooms of public libraries, city and state historical societies, newspaper archives, and dusty rooms full of early municipal records in the
city hall basements and municipal annexes. At least in Pittsburgh, home of political boss and king-maker David Lawrence, Wade’s budding career as a Democratic Party activist helped to open records that were still carefully guarded after 150 years.

The result of sweltering summers of note-taking and writing was a Harvard University Ph.D. dissertation for the elder Arthur Schlesinger, published by the Harvard University Press as The Urban Frontier: The Rise of Western Cities, 1790-1830 in 1959. In the 1960s it entered the paperback world as The Urban Frontier: Pioneer Life in Early Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville, and St. Louis. In 1996 University of Illinois Press has reissued this American history classic under its original title with a valuable preface by Zane L. Miller, one of Wade’s most accomplished and influential students.

The Urban Frontier propounded a simple and startling thesis. Cities were the spearheads of the Anglo-American frontier. Frederick Jackson Turner had gotten the order of events mixed up. Urbanization didn’t follow the farmer–it made the development of
agriculture possible. On successive frontiers in the Ohio Valley, around the Great Lakes, at the margin of the Great Plains, on the Pacific Coast, and in the western mountains, urban settlements provided the necessary foundation for intensive resource
development. They processed and marketed crops, timber, and minerals; they furnished merchandise and supplies; they mobilized capital and management expertise to build roads, canals, and railroads; they provided the refinements of civilization that westering Anglo-Americans so desperately wanted.

Obvious as this point may seem to H-Urban subscribers, it contradicted the strongest trend in regional history in the 1950s. A few years before The Urban Frontier, R. Carlyle Buley won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period, 1815-1840
(Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1950). Buley’s book is a thick, nearly unreadable compendium of tidbits about farm life and pioneer society in the early Middle West. It assumed that Middle Western history was rural history and it romanticized the quaint practices of the folk. For fiction readers, Ross Lockridge’s immensely popular Raintree County (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948) offered the same message in a novel set in the Cincinnati hinterland of southeastern Indiana. The full title of the Lockridge book shows the power of the romanticizing impulse: “Raintree County … which had no boundaries in time and space, where lurked musical and strange names and mythical and lost peoples, and which was itself only a name musical and strange.”

The Urban Frontier in this context was a wakeup call. “Get real!” it says. Take a look at social and economic realities. Look at the way that cities expressed and promoted the commercial capitalism that lies at the heart of the American experience. Wade’s study
thus extended the historical understanding of American growth that was being outlined in Louis Hartz’s brilliant Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt Brace 1955), David Potter’s equally powerful People of Plenty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1954), and the studies of state economic development policy by Oscar and Mary Handlin, Hartz, and others.[1]

Wade’s insight rang true for me when I read the book as an undergraduate who wanted to be a historian but was not quite sure what to study. Wade was writing about my part of the country, for I was a fifth-generation Ohioan. He was also writing about my ancestors, who had been townspeople–storekeepers, telegraph operators, artisans, clerks, land speculators (quite unsuccessful, I might add). I decided then, and still believe, that Wade managed a great conceptual feat. The book confirms that Fred Turner asked the right questions about the process and meaning of American expansion, but just needed his answers turned inside out.

A key concept in The Urban Frontier is “urban imperialism.” A term originally used by Wade’s mentor Arthur Schlesinger in his classic essay “The City in American History,” urban imperialism is a historical-geographic framework for understanding the ways in which urban commercial networks organize and develop hinterlands through trade and investment. The concept has been applied successfully in other regions from Texas to California. It resonates with geographer James Vance’s model of a mercantile pattern of settlement and it underlies William Cronon’s recent sophisticated analysis of Chicago’s interactions with its region.[2]

The concept assumes that the United States was born in commercial capitalism. In Wade’s Old Northwest we find no gradual coalescence of rural subsistence society into a more complex economy. Rather the Great West grows as an outpost of New York, London, and Hamburg, striving from the start to reach distant markets and fertilized by
investment and migration. The mentalite of this Middle America was improvement, not stasis. As has been true for two centuries, the battles were over the right sharing of the fruits of growth, not the possibility of economic modernization.

Also basic to Wade’s interpretation is the role of cities in the transit of culture. Wade’s Cincinnatians and Louisvillers were a conservative bourgeoisie, interested in recreating the society that they left behind. They borrowed street names from Philadelphia, filled churches and meeting halls, and looked for guidance to east coast communities. Here Wade’s interpretation extended Daniel Aaron’s previous study of Cincinnati society and complemented Earl Pomeroy’s argument about the social and cultural conservatism of far western settlement.[3]

Like most other historians of the 1950s, Wade looked for patterns in the written record. In using public records, newspapers, and published documents, he engaged in very traditional historical research. He did not explore quantitative data sources, the built
environment, or other sources of information that could have enriched his interpretation–although he certain encouraged his own students to do so and later used such sources to great effect in Chicago: The Growth of a Metropolis (University of Chicago Press,
1969), co-authored with geographer Harold Mayer. Nor did he explicitly test social theory in the way that his second book, Slavery in the Cities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964) would test sociological generalizations about the effects of
urbanization on social institutions and individual freedom.

Covering forty years of growth in five cities, Wade’s study is necessarily broader than it is detailed. It is a sketch map of a vast intellectual territory drawn from the most accessible sources. An explorer like Henry Schoolcraft or William Clark, he mapped broad contours and described large patterns that later intellectual surveyors and entrepreneurs could fill in. Those broad patterns, however, included all of the core topics of urban development, from economic growth to the differentiation of social classes to the creation of political and cultural institutions.

Wade’s study triggered a vast literature including case studies of individual western cities and comparative discussions on other urban frontiers and imperial realms. A generation of urban historians learned that the way to do urban history was to explore a theme across a multitude of cases. The result was outstanding studies by Ken Jackson, Howard Rabinowitz, Blaine Brownell, David Goldfield, Don Doyle, Timothy Mahoney, and many others.[4]

The Urban Frontier is a study of the public city–that is, the ways in which early city builders conceived and promoted their communities as economic engines and civic entities. The book describes ethnic differences, the presence of free and enslaved
African-Americans, and the stirrings of class divisions, but these are secondary to the theme. Many questions that we would now pose about the roles and experiences of women went unasked. Nevertheless, Wade’s book remains the most accessible study of the founding of an urbanized nation. It still carries the excitement of intellectual discovery that has made it so influential.


[1]. Oscar Handlin and Mary Handlin, Commonwealth: A Study of the Role of Government in the American Economy: Massachusetts, 1774-1861 (New York: New York University Press, 1947); Louis Hartz, Economic Policy and Democratic Thought: Pennsylvania, 1776-1860 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948).

[2]. Arthur Schlesinger, “The City in American History,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review (June 1940): 43-66; James Vance, This Scene of Man: The Role and Structure of the City in the Geography of Western Civilization (New York: Harper’s College Press, 1977); William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: Norton, 1991).

[3]. Daniel Aaron, Cincinnati: Queen City of the West, 1819-1839 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992); Earl Pomeroy, “Toward a Reorientation of Western History: Continuity and Environment,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review (March 1955): 579-600.

[4]. This lesson I learned in Wade’s University of Chicago seminar and tried to apply in my dissertation. Published as Boosters and Businessmen: Popular Economic Thought and Urban Growth in the Antebellum Middle West(Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981), it was a self-conscious effort to take Wade’s study into the next generation of Middle Western history.

Rocky Mountain Refuge: Constructing “Colorado” in Science Fiction

Note: What appears here is the abstract of a paper for the 2010 meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association. For the full paper, follow the link to the Word document immediately below.

Colorado as Refuge

Regional identities emerge from the interaction of imaginative representations and social and economic conditions. Business boosters, novelists, television producers, song writers, and a range of other contributors to popular culture start with conditions on the ground, abstract certain elements, and construct imagined regions whose identities take on trajectories of their own

Since the early 20th century, Americans have constructed Colorado simultaneously as the nation’s most accessible western adventureland and as its refuge from the threats of the future. We find the first Colorado in such disparate sources as tourist promotion pamphlets, the post-World War II ski culture, and the songs of John Denver, all of which attempted to erase the state’s troubled industrial past to allow the creation of a new, ahistorical image. We find the second in the NORAD complex at Cheyenne Mountain and in proposals to relocate the national capital to Denver to protect it from foreign invasion.

Science fiction writers have drawn on both constructed identities—Colorado as fortress and Colorado as tabula rasa—to imagine Colorado, and the central Rocky Mountain region more generally as a frontier of isolation.

Texts include Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, Leigh Brackett, The Long Tomorrow, Ursula Le Guin, City of Illusions, Stephen King, The Stand, Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle, and Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz. Because none of these authors had a close association with Colorado or deep experience of the central Rocky Mountain region, I argue that they were drawing on a popular sense of the area’s physical isolation and social newness to construct fictions that reiterate and reinforce that very sense of isolation.

These fictional “Colorados” stand in contrast to the construction of other western regions in speculative fiction—to a vaguely ecotopian Pacific Northwest (Ernest Callenbach, Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, David Brin) or to a dystopian southern California as depicted by science fiction writers far too numerous to list. The juxtaposition suggests the variety of roles that the American West plays in visions of the American future and the ways in which these visions draw on and reinforce distinctions among our different “frontier” regions.

The Iron Heel

Suburbia and the Dual City in The Iron Heel

Mention Jack London and most of us think about adventures stories with large-than-life figures contending with the forces of nature. We all remember Buck, the Saint Bernard who is forced to confront the wilderness of the Far North in The Call of the Wild. We may think about White Fang, the wolf from the Yukon, or the human “sea-wolf” Wolf Larsen, captain of the seal-hunting ship Ghost.

Poke further into London’s massive output, however, and we find him anticipating something that looks a lot like the twenty-first century American city—perhaps even the American city California style, appropriate for the imagination of a native Californian.

The book is The Iron Heel, a painfully unreadable novel about the rise of American fascism. Published in 1908, it takes the form of a memoir/history written by eye-witness Avis Everhard, composed after the political disasters of the early twentieth century and rediscovered hundreds of years into the future. London’s dystopian story of his near future recounts how corporate capitalism seizes control of the state and presses its “Iron Heel” upon the working class. Much of the book is clunky set-piece dialogues in which labor leader Ernest Everhard (Avis’s husband) lectures the powerful about their iniquities and argues for socialist revolution, although it does end with a fast-paced description of the bloody suppression of the Chicago Commune after workers rise prematurely against the Oligarchy and are ground to dust.

What does London think that Chicago and other American cities will look like under corporate capitalism? The answer is abject poverty in the core and happily isolated suburbanites on the fringe.

The worker slaves, the people of the abyss, are confined to miserable lives in the “great ghetto” of old neighborhoods that compound the worst of lower Manhattan, East London, and immigrant Chicago. The workers live “like beasts in great squalid labour-ghettos, festering in misery and degradation.” Writing a decade before the large-scale migration of African Americans to northern cities, London was anticipating a white ghetto rather than a black ghetto, but the impacts of spatial confinement are the same.

If the surplus labor army is confined to big city ghettos, corporate prosperity now satisfies and buys off the more skilled workers. The book describes their new suburban communities in language that anticipates the great labor-management bargain of post-World War II America that created what historian Lizabeth Cohen has called the “consumer’s republic” and made possible the housing revolution that turned Ozzie and Harriet Nelson from traveling musicians to suburban householders.

Here is Jack London’s version, as channeled through Avis Everhard: “The members of the great labour castes were contented and worked on merrily. For the first time in their life they knew industrial peace. . . . They lived in more comfortable homes and in delightful cities of their own—delightful compared to the slums and ghettos in which they had formerly dwelt. They had better food to eat, less hours of labour, more holidays.”

The elite has also suburbanized in gated and protected communities. In the paroxysm of the Chicago Commune, the rebels can attack downtown office towers but “never once did they succeed in reaching the city of the oligarchs on the westside. The oligarchs had protected themselves well. No matter what destruction was wreaked in the heart of the city, they, and their womenkind and children, were to escape, unhurt. I am told [writes Avis Everhard] that their children played in the parks during those terrible days, and that their favorite game was an imitation of their elders stamping upon the proletariat.”

There are suburban new towns as well, the specialized homes of the Mercenaries, who are the enforcers when force is needed (a cross between a Praetorian guard and company goons). They live in “cities of their own which were practically self-governed, and they were granted many privileges.” Although there is luckily nothing quite like these towns today, there is an echo of both survivalist enclaves and politically independent suburbs that turn their cold shoulder to big city problems.

There will be, finally, two entirely new “wonder cities” built after the failure of proletarian revolution—Ardis, finished twenty years afterward in 1942, and Asgard, complete in 1984. These are throw-ins to the plot, so London doesn’t provide much detail, but with the timing, I’m envisioning the San Fernando Valley for Ardis and Las Vegas for Asgard—both wonder cities in my book.

A final point is London’s version of hegemony. Living in comfort, the oligarchy and their middle class minions accept the rightness of the bifurcated city. The oligarchy, “as a class, believed that they alone maintained civilization. . . . Without them anarchy would reign . . . . I cannot lay too great stress upon the high ethical righteousness of the whole oligarch class. This had been the strength of the Iron Heel.” So too, a critic might say, suburban Americans have internalized the premises that success justifies privilege and that suburban comfort is a natural manifestation of civilized order.

The Iron Heel is a political tract that is steeped in Jack London’s ardent socialism. It is not an exercise in urban theory, and the passages about the urban future are secondary to the plot. This said, their depiction of a horizontal metropolis is a homegrown vision. Contrast, for example, the sort of dual city that Fritz Lang (raised in Vienna and working in Berlin) imagined in Metropolis—vertically rather than horizontally divided. As a West Coast boy who already thought of Oakland and San Francisco as a single community. London anticipated a future metropolis with strikingly American characteristics.

The Social Hinterlands of Washington, D.C.: A Regional Framework for City History

Editor’s Note: This is an article length piece. What appears below is an extended abstract. For the full article, use the link to the Word document immediately below.

MS Word file: “The Social Hinterlands of Washington, D.C.: A Regional Framework for City History”

From its beginnings in the 1790s, Washington, D.C. has been a border city–famously described by John F. Kennedy as a place of “southern efficiency and northern charm.” The new American nation carefully chose a site for a new capital that balanced regional interests. The members of the first Congress under the new Constitution understood the federal city as poised balanced between the northern and southern states and also between the Atlantic seaboard and the continental interior.

Washington has also been a southern city from its origins to the present. Additional roles have been overlaid on its southern character, making it also a “northern” city (especially from 1861 to the 1880s), a national city (especially in the twentieth century), and a global city (especially since 1940). Nevertheless, it has continued to maintain a distinctive regional character that reciprocally supports the distinctiveness of the South Atlantic region.

In this paper, I explore what I call the “social hinterland” of Washington, as distinguished from an economic or commercial hinterland. In effect, I propose to use Washington to show the possibilities of emphasizing a social and cultural dimension to city-regional history. Washington has never had wide-ranging commercial influence comparable to a Chicago or Montreal. But it has been a focus for interregional migration, a draw for regional elites, and symbolic prize among rival regions.

Competing Cascadias: Imagining a Region over Four Decades

Editor’s Note: This is a footnoted, article length piece. Below is a brief introduction of the work. To download the full article, use the link to the PDF Document below.

PDF: “Competing Cascadias: Imagining a Region over Four Decades”

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.

The Cascadia Megaregion is the newest in a series of recent efforts to reimagine a regional identity for the northwestern coast of North America.

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.