This is part II of my series of trying to convince Winnipeggers that we need to look to Portland, Oregon as a model for our future. Part I is here.

I am no synaesthete, but when I think of Portland, the word is green.

Oregon looks like what I imagine the Cretaceous looked like: huge and deep and dense with life, but somehow just a touch unfinished. Like some cosmic painter decided to go big or go home, but then — when the job was nearly done — packed up his paintbrush and hit the pub instead.

At least he left behind his palette.

From near the middle of the steep slopes of Washington Park, the world is green. The hills roll with emerald and deep pine and now, in the dying days of November, bright flashes of orange and gold.

To the east, in the heart of Oregon, lies a desert. But here in the Willamette Valley — and south, along the coast, through the mountains and the vineyards that nestle in their laps — the land blossoms and the city shines, watched o’er by the crowning volcanic glory of a single snow-capped peak.

There is a colour filter on this photo of Washington Park. But not as much as you might think.

Portland is one of the most  beautiful cities you will see in this hemisphere, and the geography plays no small part. On the slopes of Mt. Tabor, another old volcano, the windows of houses and condos glitter; the city slides graciously towards the Willamette River, its crisp waters ringed by a park of the greenest green.

Oh, to live in those houses on the hill. To wake up to this bounty every day.

Okay, I’ll be honest: for all the placid beauty of the prairies, we can’t compete with this biznatch. That’s okay. Because what makes Portland truly beautiful is less the work of God, than man.

Mark my words: you will never see a cleaner major city than Portland. Here, check out these scenes from the heart of the city. Try and see if you can find anything on the ground that isn’t a golden maple leaf.

Nothing here...

Nothing here either.

The crisp and shining streets help make Portland walkable — and form a perfect canvas for the city’s public art. Sculpture looms everywhere in Portland, shapes of men and women and animals cavorting along the edge of streets.

Patti Warashina: City Reflections. Bronze and granite. 2009.


The first time I ever saw this gentleman in Pioneer Square, I actually jumped back because I thought he was a real dude I had bumped into.


A passerby asked if I wanted my picture taken with "her." Uh, I'm good.

How could you not want to explore this city? To wander its streets and consume its delights?

Make no mistake: this type of city does not happen by accident.

Portland survives, thrives and grows more lovely not because of its many natural gifts, but because it is ultimately governed by laws and people that are committed to a largely shared vision of what the city could be, and should be.

It has not been thrown up piecemeal, in fits of stucco and concrete (cough cough), but tended like a garden.

And we’ll get more into that in my next Portland Diary.

  • W. Krawec

    Interesting post. I’ve never been before, but between all I’ve heard/read about Portland before it’s certainly on my short list of places to visit.

    One criticism I’ve heard of Portland is that  the city itself is a bit of an urban nirvana as you describe, but it’s something that ends sharply at the city limits with the suburbs being as sprawled out as anything in North America. Have you found that to be the case in your travels? 

  • Melissa Martin

    Yes and no. The suburbs are still, most definitely, suburbs, and I’ve spent a good amount of time in some of them. They still have much to be said for them, however, versus comparable suburbs I’ve visited in terms of fostering sustainable infrastructure — for instance, bike lanes on the freeways (!), decent public transportation into the city. Also, small farms. Tons of small farms in and around the suburbs that I’ve seen.

    From what I’ve seen and heard, the entire Portland metro has a fairly well-functioning regional government that covers most of the major suburbs (Forest Grove, Beaverton, Gresham, Tualatin, Tigard, Wilsonville, etc.) and manages to keep the Portland metro working well together. Heck, the amount of data and interesting stuff about planning and vision documents on the Oregon Metro site alone is… well, let’s just say it’s better than anything I’ve ever seen in Winnipeg:

    So I’m not sure if I can see it as a criticism so much as a way to deal with current reality. The suburb issue is almost inevitable given the way our culture currently works. But to my eyes, the Portland metro has been doing fairly well at managing it in a way that limits the negative impacts.

  • Melissa Martin

    By the by, if you ever do go let me know. I have quite a list of places you MUST EAT and/or visit in Portland — the food culture there is REALLY underrated, but it’s BY FAR the best eating city I’ve ever been to.

    To me, so long as one is looking for more of an experience, Portland is a must-see city. There aren’t necessarily any large-scale tourist attractions (though the Oregon Zoo is AMAZING, and worth it whether you’re with kids or alone), but there are so many delightful things to be discovered.

  • Cherenkov

    My vocabulary is one word larger today. Thanks!