The Portland, Oregon mayoral race is a crowded one with over fifteen individuals competing for the contested seat. Among this crowd is sustainability advocate and urban planner Sarah Iannarone, whose support for smart urban planning practices could put her at the head of the pack in a city with a heavily eco-conscious population.
Sarah Iannarone has been working in sustainable urban development and Portland for the past 11 years. She is deputy director of First Stop Portland, a public-private partnership that hosts visiting delegates from major cities around the world, educating them on the sustainability successes in Portland. Local business leaders collaborated with city officials and Portland State University to develop a program meant to start a conversation between officials from different cities, allowing for an exchange of information and knowledge. Iannarone believes this exchange has given her insight into how the city of Portland works as a whole, stating that "Eight years of having conversations like that has taught me what's working and what isn't in Portland and also what are the best ideas from cities around the world." This experience, along with her background as an urban planner, convinced Iannarone to join the mayoral race in order to address a disconnect in the leadership about how cities function.
Portland, although considered one of the most livable cities in the United States, has many significant problems. Gentrification, homelessness, housing affordability, air and water pollution, inequitable development just to name a few. Many of these problems can be attributed to the rapid growth the city experienced in recent years. "What we're experiencing is a very predictable urbanization process" says Iannarone. "You could see the writing on the wall probably ten years out that this would be where we are today." Iannarone believes her planning background allows her to understand the forces that have brought about these challenges and gives her an advantage over her competitors who come from different professional backgrounds. The current front runner and State Treasurer, Ted Wheeler, has a background in global finance and banking. Iannarone is afraid someone who only understands money and business could steer the city toward inequitable growth, leading to a homogenization of Portland that would cause it to lose its unique distinction among other American cities and miss out on economic opportunities. The Portland Metro area is home to many large corporations; Intel has a major office in the area and Nike, Inc. has its global headquarters in Beaverton just southwest of Portland. "Our comparative edge in the global marketplace is our place-making ... it's because the people in those firms want to live in the neighborhoods Portland creates." Iannarone wants to protect the individuality and creativity that makes Portland unique because it's essential to the economical model the city has organically crafted for itself and led to it's success and rapid growth.
Her answer to protecting this economic model is focusing on what she refers to as the "affordability ecosystem." As Portland grows in popularity across the United States, so do the city's housing costs. Property values and rent prices have skyrocketed in recent years, forcing many lower income Portlanders to move outside of the historic neighborhoods they have made their own. Iannarone believes she could shift this movement because as a planner she understands these forces and has the notion that a city behaves like an ecosystem. She sees housing affordability not as an independent variable, but as related to compact neighborhoods, connected transportation networks, intensified development in transit corridors, and creative infilling of historic neighborhoods so they do not lose their character. These strategies could protect the already vibrant and diverse communities and help stabilize housing costs so Portlanders can remain in their homes.
Iannarone wants to be careful with future development so it does not add to the growing issue of displacement in Portland. She wants to make sure that every public investment has an anti-displacement measure attached. Something similar was done with the construction of a new Metro tram line, however, it mainly focused on protecting local businesses. The measure was a success, so using a similar strategy would make it possible to protect housing and prevent the displacement of people and families. However, this will not be successful if done solely from City Hall, and Iannarone wants to go to groups such as the Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF) and ask them for their expertise in developing the neighborhoods experiencing rapid displacement. "The first thing the government needs to do is stop feeling that we are the experts in the places that people already are, and go to them because they are the experts in their place." This would also mean allocating political power to neighborhood groups and community organizations in order for them to have influence in City Hall. One way to empower groups is by steering what Iannarone calls “good development” to areas such as East Portland, an area often neglected by officials in City Hall. "If we just focus on affordability, we're just going to have a ghetto of affordability disconnected from the power and resources in Portland." She hopes to transform East Portland into a robust neighborhood and economic center. One of her strategies to ensure this happens would be to relocate city bureaus to cheaper commercial space in the area in order to bring in financial resources and solve a lack of transit connectivity to that area.
Iannarone wants to run the city with the mind of an urban planner. She views the city as an ecosystem and understands the many interlinking and compatible parts. She also understands that in order to keep growth equitable, the communities need to become empowered. She sets her ambitions high, but for now it's not certain if her message resonates with Portlanders, she remains behind the front runner just ahead of the May 17th* Primary Election. However, this does not deter her or her campaign. A second place finish in the primary would force a run-off and get her on the ballot in November. She is confident her vision of social and economic equity will inspire Portlanders and direct the city down the path it surely needs. "It's a major change from the patriarchal, top-down, bureaucratic, centralized thinking" says Iannarone. "And that vision is lacking from the city because we don't have a people's mayor."
Do you think urban planners would make successful mayors? What type of background makes the most effective mayoral candidate? How are elections handled in your community? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
Credit: Images by Kevin Gooley. Quotes from interview with Sarah Iannarone. Data linked to sources.
*Editor's Note: This was corrected to May 17th after an earlier publishing listed it as May 15th.