How Cities Are Getting Smarter

Portland Mayor Sam Adams believes his city will endure economic realities and environmental demands in the future with 20-minute neighborhoods.

You’ve seen those IBM commercials where a dozen experts or so from around the world speak of a “smarter city,” right? Maybe it speaks to my nerdiness, but I love those commercials because I love the idea of technology that can streamline the function and bundle the  infrastructure of the cities we live in.

Portland, Ore. is becoming an example of said smarter city. This month’s issue of The Atlantic features a fascinating interview with Mayor Sam Adams about the growing number of 20-minute neighborhoods in PDX. Lisa Camner defines these neighborhoods as, “One in which residents can walk or bike to places and services people visit on a daily basis: transit, shopping, quality food, school, parks, and entertainment. In the jargon of real estate development, these neighborhoods are “mixed use” because they provide diverse activities — living, shopping, working — in close proximity to one another.”

Eleven percent of Portland is made up of 20-minute neighborhoods. Ours is one. My girlfriend and I live across the street from a large grocery store, a block from a city park, three blocks from metro transit, and you’ll find some of the best restaurants and locally owned boutiques up and down 23rd Avenue, just five blocks away. There’s a sports stadium featuring minor league baseball and soccer just down the road, and to top it off, plenty of job opportunities, too. Our neighborhood — the Alphabet District — is like in island within a city. The only difference is we require no imports.

As my girlfriend said after I read her this article, “If I could work across the street, we’d never leave the neighborhood.” (She works for the same grocery store chain, only about 9 miles east of our apartment.)

Mayor Adams points on the 20-minute neighborhood is about more than just convenience, but also environmentalism and economy:

“For the city, the benefits are multiple. We’ll more readily meet our climate change goals because there will be less driving. On the individual side, households save energy costs and fuel. And, people who are walking and biking are going to be more fit. People healthier and insurance premiums go down. There’s less pollution. CEOs for Cities did a study and we already drive 20% less than comparably sized cities. We don’t have car companies here, we don’t have oil wells here, we don’t have car insurance companies here, so every dollar we don’t spend on something we don’t produce here is a dollar that stays in the economy. For us, based on 2005 figures, that’s about $800 million that stays in Portlanders’ pockets.”

How is this different from the suburbs? It’s all about location. On average, suburban commuters spend 24 percent of their annual income on transportation expenses, compared to just 16 percent for urban residents. Suburbs can maintain a similar autonomy, but the reality is 50 percent of Americans now live in U.S. cities, not just outside of.

Think about where you live, especially if you live in a major city. Could you get all of your needs met within a 20-minute walk or bike ride?

2 thoughts on “How Cities Are Getting Smarter

  1. Your mayor’s hot. Anything I need is a walk or short bike ride away. However, because of weather and time constraints, I don’t always take advantage of it. I have a 10 minute bike ride to work or a 7 minute car ride. Too often I save those 3 extra minutes and drive because I feel rushed or the weather isn’t perfect. Looks like Portland elected a smart mayor. (and hot, did I mention that?)

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