- peter korn
- Portland Tribune - News
Portland's good intentions often have unexpected results
The way Homer Williams remembers it, Jamison Square in the Pearl District was going to be a quiet, sophisticated public space where quiet, sophisticated adults could relax and socialize.
Yeah, that Jamison Square. The one with all the kids.
Williams, primary developer of the original Pearl, says when final designs came in he saw a problem - the rocks and steps in the center of the park. They were likely to become a magnet for skateboarding teenagers, Williams and others on the design team figured.
So landscape architect Peter Walker suggested a solution, according to Williams - run water over the rocks into a little pool. That would keep the teens out.
Well, not exactly. What it did was turn Jamison Square into an urban beach, a place overrun with children from all over the city any afternoon or evening all summer long.
Economists call it the Law of Unintended Consequences, otherwise known as the Law of You Never Know. Portland State University urban studies professor Carl Abbott says, just maybe, there's more of it here than other places, far beyond Jamison Square.
'Portland is a city that likes to experiment with things,' Abbott says. 'Not every innovation is going to work out quite like you like it to. Maybe we do more things here that might have unintended consequences.'
Those homes playing dominoes as they slide down the West Hills may have been part of an unintended consequence, says Scott Burns, chairman of the Portland State University geology department. Burns has been sounding an alarm for years about the shortsightedness of Portland's storm water disconnect policy.
Years ago, all downspouts, which direct the rain from rooftop gutters, fed into the sewer system. But when it rained, the sewer system overflowed, pollutants and all, into the Willamette River.
Wanting to reduce pollution in the Willamette, the city for more than a decade has been encouraging homeowners to disconnect their downspouts from the city sewer system - in recent years by providing cash and tax incentives.
Having homeowners disconnect their downspouts from the sewer system (and requiring new homes to send their rainwater into the ground) may have helped clean up the Willamette. But all that rainwater going into the ground and eroding hillsides has been a disaster for a big chunk of Southwest Portland, according to Burns.
Over four very rainy days in February 1996, Burns says, there were 358 landslides in the West Hills which destroyed more than 30 houses. Burns, who has catalogued Portland landslides as part of his, well, groundbreaking study, calculates the storm water disconnect program is responsible for a 5 percent to 10 percent increase in West Hills landslides.
You want more? We've got a comically large number of Portland-ized examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences.
• Sunscreen works - too well
Chaim Vanek, an endocrinologist who works at the Oregon Health and Science University bone and mineral clinic, says he's seeing a mini-epidemic of bone diseases going around, and one of the causes is people not getting enough exposure to the sun.
Sun exposure helps the body produce vitamin D, and vitamin D is what people need if they are going to avoid diseases such as osteoporosis and rickets.
All those well-intentioned warnings about skin cancer that induced people to cover every inch of their bodies with clothes and skin block have had the unintentional effect of creating a vitamin D deficiency in many of us, Vanek says.
Vanek, who isn't recommending any of us risk skin cancer, says nearly every patient he sees with bone disease also tests positive for vitamin D deficiency - almost unheard of a few decades ago when people actually enjoyed the sun. Other scientists have begun linking our lack of vitamin D with other diseases, including cancer.
But the increase in cases of rickets, a bone disease suffered only by children, cannot solely be attributed to the bundle up and sunscreen effect, Vanek says. There's another cause. And that would be, according to Vanek, 'an unintended consequence of breast-feeding.'
Vanek says breast milk doesn't contain as much vitamin D as baby formula. And for years, public health authorities have been successfully advising mothers to, that's right, breast-feed.
• If you build it, they will come
Interstate 205 and its Glenn Jackson Bridge are a favorite of Portland economist Joe Cortright. When the new highway opened in 1982, it was intended to reduce congestion on Interstate 5 between Portland and Vancouver, Wash., and to serve as a bypass for trucks.
But in the years after I-205 opened, it not only relieved the congestion on I-5, it induced a lot more people to start driving between Portland and Vancouver.
The year before I-205 opened there were 109,000 weekly vehicle crossings between Portland and Vancouver. In 1983, the first year the Glenn Jackson Bridge opened, that number jumped 14 percent, with 127,000 average weekly crossings. Ten years after I-205 was opened, the I-5 bridge was back to carrying just as many car trips as it had before I-205 was built, and I-205 was just about as busy as I-5. Today, the two bridges combined carry 276,000 weekly crossings.
Some of those new drivers were new area residents, but not all, according to Lynda David, senior transportation planner for the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council.
Prior to the opening of the I-205 bridge, according to the council's figures, 25 percent of employed Clark County residents worked in Oregon. Eight years later, 32 percent of the employed Clark County residents commuted to Portland.
'The argument is made now that we build freeways to reduce congestion,' Cortright says. 'But it has the effect of stimulating additional travel.'
• Fender benders or T-bones?
Transportation is full of unintentional consequences because of the Whac-A-Mole nature of trying to guide traffic. Fix a street here, watch the traffic move over there.
Rear-end car crashes have increased 15 percent at Portland intersections where the city has placed red-light cameras to photograph cars that run red lights, according to Portland Office of Transportation officials.
'The theory is that people are aware of the camera and they think they can get through, and then they realize they're about to get a ticket, so they hit the brakes and the person behind them is following too close,' says Portland Police Bureau spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz.
Transportation officials say the additional rear-end crashes are more than offset by a decrease in broadside crashes involving red-light runners, so the cameras are still worth it.
• Stop, then go faster
Those same transportation officials say the reason they are reluctant to put stop signs on residential streets when neighbors complain about dangerous traffic is because their studies show that when they put in the signs, people drive faster.
'They feel they've been impeded and they try to make up time,' says Scott Batson, Office of Transportation engineer. 'People ask for stop signs to slow (drivers) down. But it usually has the opposite effect.'
• Time for donuts!
And then there are the city's traffic-calming devices, which have the opposite effect on a lot of the city's citizens.
Portland developer Sam Galbreath can't handle traffic circles placed in the middle of intersections, ostensibly to slow down traffic, making the street safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Galbreath is a bike rider, and he says the traffic circles often are the most dangerous thing he comes across on his rides. They squeeze available pavement so much, there isn't enough space for a bike and a bus going in the same direction.
Karl Rohde, spokesman for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, says bicyclists such as Galbreath need to be bolder when approaching the hated traffic circles, moving from the right-hand side of the street into the middle, taking control of the street.
But as far as Galbreath is concerned, daring a car or bus to yield might not be the safest course of action. 'It's terrible,' Galbreath says. 'I just scratch my head. I have found myself having to stop and get off my bike when I knew there was a TriMet bus coming up behind me.'
Galbreath might want to have a talk with PSU professor Abbott about that one. Abbott, a driver, not a biker, confesses he views the traffic circles as a challenge. 'I pride myself on not having to hit the brakes when driving (around a traffic circle),' he says. 'If I touch the brakes I figure I've lost.'
• What would Warhol say?
Then-Portland Mayor Vera Katz just wanted to beautify Portland back in 1998 when she pushed for strict regulation of billboards in the city's sign code.
But Katz and the City Council hadn't factored into the equation that Clear Channel, the company that owns most of the billboards in Portland, would object on free speech grounds.
Clear Channel successfully argued in court that there was little difference between a billboard and a large mural. So billboards and murals became lumped together in the city's sign code, both of them highly restricted.
And that is why there are so few large murals beautifying Portland. It also explains why there is plywood covering more than half of the 180-foot mural on the front of the Mirador Community Store at 2106 S.E. Division St.
Today, murals in Portland still are subject to the same restrictive sign code as billboards. Old ones, pre-1997, are grandfathered in, and new ones must get pre-approval from a regional arts council if they don't want to incur a $50 a day fine for violating city sign code.
In fact, Lynn Hanrahan, who co-owns Mirador, says she has a letter from the city stating she would be fined $50 a day on her unapproved mural. Hanrahan says she's never paid the year's worth of fines, and that city Bureau of Development Services officials have told her told her they'll likely let it slide.
The plywood covering makes the visible mural small enough to ensure no more citations will be issued, and no more Division Street strollers will get to enjoy the Mirador's artwork.
• Think before you snip a ribbon
Katz has her own version of the law, learned after 12 years as Portland's mayor. She's bothered by Memorial Coliseum, sparingly used since the Rose Garden was built next door, and a bit of a white elephant for the city.
What really bugs her about the out-of-date building is the name. Memorial Coliseum, she says, was selected as a memorial to honor veterans. A nearly abandoned eyesore doesn't do that quite the way it was intended.
Katz says she's learned at least one lesson about how to avoid the Law of Unintended Consequences: 'Before you decide to dedicate something, think through what that means 50 years from the day you've cut the ribbon.'
So what is it about Portland and unintended consequences?
Here's one possibility: Portland planning consultant Peter Finley Fry says fooling around with nature usually guarantees an encounter with the Law of You Never Know. And that's something we do a lot here.
Protect sea lions, and they end up eating the endangered salmon. Suppress forest fires, and you build up tinder so the next fire becomes uncontrollable.
'My wife calls it the Cat in the Hat Effect,' Fry says. 'Where you try to get rid of one thing and the thing keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. You keep chasing the problem instead of going to the source.'
Portland parks officials were doing just that - chasing a problem - when they tried using nets last year to rid Tanner Springs Park in the Pearl District of goldfish and koi in its pond.
The park was built as a re-creation of the wetlands landscape that must have existed at Northwest 10th Avenue and Marshall Street location before people arrived.
But Pearl District residents, wanting to add a little color and action to the park's dullish nature, began dumping decidedly non-native gold and orange fish into the water. The fish, or their droppings, began turning the pond into an algae factory. Park district netters did their best, but the darting fish proved too quick for them.
And so they remained - until nature began resolving the problem itself this summer. Decidedly native ospreys that nest on the Willamette River discovered the pond and began divebombing into the water and removing the interloping fish for dinner. And breakfast. And lunch.
Fry's take? 'The ecological system correcting itself,' he says. 'But that osprey probably causes problems.'
He's right - now there are osprey droppings along the outside walls of the condos bordering the park, where the big birds perch waiting to pounce.
Somebody really ought to do something about that.