Death Of A City: The Portland Story?

www.forbes.com
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In Portland, Oregon, continued violence and vandalism have combined with high housing costs, homelessness and poor community leadership to raise the question: how long before this city dies?
Portland, Oregon protest. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images) Getty Images

How long does it take for a city to die? Downtowns across the country have emptied due to the pandemic, causing many stores and restaurants to close. Suburbs are doing much better, in many cases hardly touched by the recession. But in Portland, Oregon, continued violence and vandalism have combined with high housing costs, homelessness and poor community leadership to raise the question: how long before this city dies?

Portland has been doing well for years, and current problems are not certain to end the city's life.

But without significant change, decline is certain. In many other cities, leaders stepped up to the challenge and saved their cities. That will probably happen in Portland, but there are few signs of change at this point.

Pompeii, near Naples, Italy. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images) AFP via Getty Images

Cities can die. Death can be sudden, as with Pompei, or gradual, as with the Mayan city of Tikal and the Jordanian city of Petra. The United States abounds with ghost towns in the mining country as well as communities left behind by economic change. Down the road from Portland are a number of mill towns that have emptied out.

Economists tell stories about the growth of cities, usually starting with trade. Most of our old cities are on the ocean or other waterways: New York, Boston, Philadelphia. Most of the not-so-old cities are also on trading locations: New Orleans, St. Louis, San Francisco. Railroads pushed some cities forward, such as Atlanta. Although moving cargo is still important, these cities are no longer dependent on being cargo terminals.

Other cities are built on natural resources, such as access to a rich fishery or forests or minerals. Denver and Spokane come to mind.

Once cities are established, though, they often become regional trading centers. The small towns scattered around the countryside need a larger city for access to specialized…
Bill Conerly
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