Just Big Enough

Portland was a promising and livable city when I arrived in 1978. In 2016 it’s an exciting and livable city.

It helps that it’s bigger. When we got here, I offended people by telling them that I liked Portland because it was a large city. “No!” they said, “No! We’re not a big city. We’re just a large town.” I was surprised. What I thought was a compliment was taken as an insult—as if I were saying that Portland was Los Angeles.

I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, and I’m sticking to it.

Size brings critical mass for businesses and activities. Portland has a vibrant—if constantly shifting—restaurant scene because the pool of diner-outers is large enough to support them. The same goes for music, theater, film festivals, book stores, and other cultural institutions. It goes for themed charter schools, model railroad buffs, fans of 1950s architecture, and every other activity that requires customers or participants. Sports entrepreneurs know what they’re talking about when they rank metropolitan areas as markets to measure their suitability for an NBA or MLS franchise.

Size also lets business sectors develop an abundance of skilled and knowledgeable workers. If the city is large enough to support a wide array of good brewpubs, it automatically has a skilled pool of brewmasters to further advance the art and craft. A flourishing electronics industry depends on the availability of computer engineers who can move from one company to another. Metal fabricators, animators, sound technicians—a large city has pools of talented people who can staff and support new ventures.

How big is big enough? As far as I’m concerned, a metropolitan area of a million people just barely makes the cut (that’s Portland in the 1970s). Two million is a whole lot better (that’s Portland today).

Here are some off the cuff comparisons: Spokane, Boise, and Fresno aren’t big enough. They’re more likely to have one or two of something than a wide variety. Salt Lake City has just edged into OK-ness in the current century, but Seattle passed the two-million mark back in the 1970s and Denver did it around 1990.

More than anything else, size brings variety of people. Cities are huge machines for making connections. You can call a city a market, a switchboard, or a search engine. Whatever the metaphor, we have cities because they make it easy for us to exchange things and ideas, and the build new things and ideas as a result. Big is good because of simple mathematics—more people with ideas mean more possible combinations and permutations of those ideas.

More than a century and a half ago, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill had it down. In The Principles of Political Economy (1848) he wrote: “It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Such communication has always been… one of the primary sources of progress.”

J. S. Mill was a very smart guy, and as far as I’m concerned, he nailed it. We go to the country to relax. We come to the city to get ideas.

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Just Big Enough”