I’d like to begin this entry on Portland and Design with a disclosure: though I grew up in Portland, I don’t live there anymore. Somewhere along the way, the notion was transmitted to me that there are no longer jobs or places to live in the city, so I stay away. Also, I don’t know anything about design. Possibly I know a little, you know, intuitively, by virtue of the fact that I interact on a daily basis with the designs of others. But I definitely possess zero percent formal knowledge on the subject. That said, as a person who spends a fair portion of each day writing, what I have to bring to the party is an interest in language. I think about what words do, and how they mean. Since this entry is to respond, in part, to the idea of city “branding,” let’s begin there, with the iron pressed to the flesh.
I’ll spare you the etymological crawl and say, for our purposes, brand can be defined as “a particular identity or image regarded as an asset.” What is the Portland brand? Having now watched a mind-blinding number of promotional videos about what makes Portland so Portland, I have learned precisely what you’d expect. (Apologies for beating a dead horse here, but there’s no way to talk about branding without talking about this particular mélange of nouns.) To be a Portlander is to enjoy: novelty doughnuts, microbrews, coffee, roses, bicycles, yogic acrobatics performed in public parks, locally sourced, cage-free animal products—in other words, everything Portlandia lampooned in season one. One of the videos I watched, “36 Hours in Portland,” produced by The New York Times Travel Section, serves as the exemplar; nearly parodic in its concise enumeration of the contents of the echo-chamber. In it, residents say things like, “Portland encourages self expression;” “It’s not a commercial scene, it’s a creative scene;” and perhaps most tellingly, “Portland is so authentic it almost hurts.” If consumption is the measure by which Portlanders determine their so-called authentic-selves (probably worth noting, novelty doughnuts and quirkily labeled microbrews are also commercial ventures) then we need not hedge. It definitely hurts. But how, and whom?
Consumption for sport hurts the consumed, obviously, and generally occurs via a nexus of consumption extending beyond the product itself. I’d argue it also injures the “self,” if that self constitutes around the same handful of consumerist activities as its neighbors (however sustainable they may be), rather than the self’s relationship to those neighbors, to place, or to future generations on a dying planet. Underneath this consumption lies a deeper injury; the erasure-by-omission of those territories which the Portlandia map does not reflect: sex-slaves trafficked up and down the I-5 corridor, folks without shelter, communities pushed out of their neighborhoods, and the incarcerated, to name just a few. Never mind the non-human communities felled and mined and dammed into oblivion that we might live as we do, or the fact that this is occupied land. And so these ghost territories summon brand’s shadow definition, “a mark that is burned into the skin” to indicate ownership. Rarely does the flesh consent.
Also, lesser point, the aesthetic of Portland’s brand is pretty icky. It’s not an individual quirk that bugs, so much as the way a franchise of quirks has been packaged, branded, and “communicated” by the shellacking machine of hipster-capitalism (see aforementioned NYT video, or this video from Travel Portland, involving, in one scene, a jauntily bouncing bottle of micro brew, a rose, and a cartoon blackbird that drops a doughnut on a veritable orgy of other products, all to a soundtrack I can only describe as “falsetto doo-doos performed by acolytes of ‘90s alternative group The Presidents of the United States of America”). From my armchair here in Tucson, Arizona, it appears my hometown has become to indie culture what the store Hot Topic was to grunge. The aborted injunction to “Keep Portland Weird!” conceded for a new slogan: “Keep Portland Consuming!”
Allow me to pause here and say, I take no issue with any particular doughnut; I buy over-priced organic groceries several times a week from a climate controlled co-op in the sprawling desert-city in which I now reside. (The slogan in these parts, by the way is “Keep Tucson Shitty”—and I’m here to tell you, things are as advertised.) I am no less guilty of the consumerism I describe, and I’ve also internalized the racist, classist, sexist, anthropocentric structures that have underwritten the genocidal-project of industrial civilization since the Romans first torched the Celts. Obviously, I don’t expect sketch comedy or a travel video to address the complicated legacies of injustice that continue to plague the city, but if its actual inhabitants (and the hordes flocking there every day) buy into, believe, and enact the brand as it’s sold to them—Portland’s in real trouble.
To this design dilettante it seems that so long as we’re entertaining notions of “best practices” it would be a good idea to, at a minimum, learn the histories of where we live and connect them to the issues we currently face. In a few hundred years, industrial civilization has managed to undo the result of truly sustainable, reciprocal land-management practices, undertaken by our indigenous forebears the world over for millennia. You’ve heard it all before: biodiversity is at an all-time low, the human population is at an all-time high, and there are more people living in cities than ever before (which requires the importation of ever more resources from that rapidly depleting biomass). The devices through which our lives are increasingly transacted provide a front row seat to the desertification of the planet, to extreme weather “events,” and the great migrations of those ravaged by resource wars and climate change. We’re next in line, and yet, there seems to be a real reluctance to bring the lessons of the past fully to bear on our imagination of the future.
We are each in relationship with the place we live, whether or not we acknowledge it as such, and yet, many of us continue to conceive of the others on whom our lives depend as “resources.” Though I’ve indulged a few human relationships in which I was similarly figured, they’ve never lasted very long. What if I said to you, my loved-one, “Baby, I want to take everything you have to give, without giving anything back.” That would make me a certain kind of girlfriend, perhaps of the narcissistic variety, or, in terms of citizenship, a disciple of the sociopathic, free-market capitalism that has brought us to the brink. If instead I said to you, “Baby, I want to live in relative peace, neither of us asking too much of the other,” perhaps you’d take me for an amicable roommate, or a spouse of 25 years for whom you feel a distant if deadening fondness. To my mind, this is the vibe of the current best practices imagination—electric cars and LEED Certified buildings (interesting propositions from an urban design standpoint, but a pretty cold way of relating to the others on whom our lives depend)—as if we could opt out of relatedness by requiring nothing of the other. A strangely dystopian “utopia” in which bretharian citizens occupy islands of mute self-sufficiency. It goes without saying the aforementioned initiatives are better than their polluting alternatives, but I think it’s dangerous to imagine we might invent our way out of our dependence on planet earth. Human life is expensive (as is the production of solar panels, and the toxic batteries that power electric cars), and we need to be honest about how much we require to live. So long as we’re staring down the barrel of collapse, why not dream a little bigger? There are more than two ways of relating to the beloved.
Imagine, instead, I said to you, “Darling, I’d like us to live in a state of mutual enrichment and interdependency, in which each of us retains our subjective integrity while giving to, and receiving fully from, the other.” Sexy, right? A true best practice in which human communities grow stronger each year whilst simultaneously engendering more biodiversity than the year before. A world in which we give back more than we take. What might that look like? As is the case with most places on earth, people lived sustainably in this region for thousands of years, and in that time developed best practices specific to living here. I’m no expert on this, but I’ve been reading about some of those best practices in the book Keeping it Living; Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest coast of North America (suggested to me by David Harrelson, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde—thanks David!). Some best practices detailed in the book include controlled burns, selective harvesting, and transplanting, in the tending of the wild gardens that once blanketed the West. Practices that support human life and simultaneously increase biodiversity. Were there a slogan for such reciprocity, “Keeping it Living!” could be it. I’m not proposing that a return to these practices is the only way to proceed (indeed, given the destruction, no such return would be possible for most), but they certainly seem worth study as we approach a post fossil-fueled future.
It seems to me that cities themselves are inherently unsustainable (as is industrial civilization in general), and our only hope is to dismantle them and start planting literal seeds for the future. Then again, as I’ve said, I’m not a designer. Early experimentation with drugs and alcohol have blunted my faculties and limited my imagination. Perhaps you are a person capable of inventing some kind of machine that sucks mercury and radionuclides from the ocean—if so, I do not wish to impede your creative trip. I have only a couple of suggestions. Before constructing your world-saving machine, consider doing so in consultation with the people who’ve known all along how to live in this place. And if the challenge to designers and city planners is, as Professor Ethan Seltzer said in his talk for Design Week Portland, “imagining desired futures and working towards them, even if we never experience them,” then let’s brainstorm some slogans worth striving toward, even if, perhaps especially if, they describe an era long after we’ve gone.