Threats foreseen to Portland’s ideal future

Is Portland's future sunny or stormy?

Is Portland’s future sunny or stormy?

Portland’s future hinges on seven critical components, voted KPL members who attended our May meeting. They range from the city’s parks and scenic views to its public schools.

For each topic, Tim and I have listed current strengths and weaknesses (our parks are spectacular but underfunded) and upcoming threats and opportunities (increasing damage from storms, but chances to extend our trail system). We also consider how Keep Portland Livable can help thwart the threats and exploit the opportunities.

Taken together, these factors form a status report on where our city stands and how we may fare in the coming years. It will depend on leadership in and out of City Hall and citizen activism such as ours.

The seven topics voted most important in rank order are:

  • Stewarding the City’s scenic beauty and access to it
  • Maintaining a full range of social classes in the city
  • Retaining small businesses and creating new jobs
  • Supporting the quality of social life in neighborhoods and access to social services to those in need
  • Improving multi-modal transportation
  • Preserving the city’s past
  • Enhancing public schools

Fleshed out with opportunities for improvement and threats of decline they are:

#1(15 votes)Stewarding the city’s scenic beauty and access to it (physical and visual access to water and our numerous natural resources, prevalence of street trees, enhancing quality of parks and open space)

  • Strengths
    • Ocean, lagoon, and rivers – The city is embedded in salt and fresh water—the ocean, the harbor, Back Cove, the Presumpscot, Fore, and Stroudwater rivers and their estuaries.
    • Parks and trails – The City has a large, varied and magnificent set of parks, cemeteries, conserved land, and trails, which include nationally renowned water views and extended shoreline access to the water.
    • Tree-lined streets – In many neighborhoods there are tree-lined streets.
    • New ordinance – A newly strengthened park ordinance protects city parks and urban spaces.
    • Stewardship – Friends groups support initiatives in most of the major parks and cemeteries, from raising money, staffing programming, and designing improvements.
  • Opportunities
    • Trails – Portland Trails is extending city trails to link with those in surrounding towns. The East Coast Greenway connects the city to the rest of the Atlantic coast and soon the Mountain Division Rail Trail will connect the city to the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains. Then, four thousand miles of trails will join in Portland!
    • Land Bank –The city’s Land Bank continues to acquire natural open space land.
    • Open space initiative –The current open space initiative of the Trust for Public Land and Portland Trails promises to provide new perspectives on our existing park system and means for extending and better supporting it.
    • View referendum – A possible citizen’s initiative to protect highly scenic views.
  • Weaknesses
    • Park maintenance – City maintenance of parks is bare-boned and buried inside the Department of Public Services so that leadership is low-level, the actual level of service is unknown, and open space needs compete with sewers, roads and other infrastructure even within its own department.
    • Land Bank funding – The Land Bank is receiving relatively little money for acquisitions.
    • Parks Commission authority – The Parks Commission is only advisory to the City Council.
    • Paucity of trees – Downtown lacks trees due to few sites and premature deaths due to poor planting and winter snowplow injuries.
  • Threats
    • Pro-development bias – The City Council and Planning Board are so pro-development that scenic views, access to water, and other open space benefits are at risk.
    • Weather impacts – Climate change will increasingly decimate woodlands (microbursts, diseases, droughts), close more trails and cemetery roads (washouts, seawall collapses), and make being outdoors less pleasant (extreme heat and winds).
    • Funding cuts – The governor’s broad-ranging attacks on city finances combined with the city’s need to rebuild several schools, and City Hall’s focus on costly social services and other needs will all but assuredly cut funding for open spaces in the coming years.

Potential roles for KPL

  • Broadcast and advocate for measures identified by the Trust for Public Land study when they are reported out later this year.
  •  Inform and advocate for new planting methods and more sites for downtown street trees.


# 2(13 votes)Maintaining a full range of social classes in the city (income mix, ethnic diversity, and affordable housing)

  • Strengths
    • Diversity – Two city neighborhoods—East Bayside and the West End – have the most diversity of any in the state, with dozens of languages spoken in each.
    • Housing stock – The city has a wide range of housing types, new and old.
    • Tolerance – Across classes, races, and sexual orientation, the city is well known for its tolerance and inclusivity.
  • Opportunities
    • Housing road map – In January 2015, a city-commissioned report on worker housing listed steps the city could take to increase the availability of housing available for average wage-earners in the city.
    • Inclusionary zoning – The city has drafted an inclusionary zoning ordinance that would obligate developers of market-rate housing to include affordable units.
    • Portland Housing Authority – The Portland Housing Authority manages 1,000 units of affordable housing, but has not developed new units in 30-40 years. Nonetheless, it has granted land to an architect to design 40 affordable units (which won a national, funded contest), hired a housing developer specialist, received higher density zoning on one of its parcels, and appears poised to start building new housing.
  • Weaknesses
    • Housing scarcity – Because of the desirability of living in Portland and the scarcity of new housing, apartment rents and housing costs have been rising markedly year to year.
    • Unaffordable rents – Average rentals and housing costs are already well above what the average Portland family can afford.
    • Unaffordable new house prices – New housing is considerably more expensive than existing housing.
    • Supply lag – Even if the city adopted all recommended measures, the demand for affordable housing would not be met. Last year Avesta, nonprofit housing developers, had 300 affordable units to offer versus 3,000 requests for housing.
  • Threats
    • High end bias – Developers in Portland are now creating primarily expensive housing. This has multiple negative impacts:
      • New expensive housing creates more demand for service workers needing housing affordable to median incomes. Increased demand increases rents and costs of existing housing.
      • Expensive units take up more space and thus create fewer units than cheaper units would.
      • Politically, increased numbers of wealthy retirees and childless couples will put pressure to hold down the tax rate to levels lower than can provide for strong schools or city subsidized housing.

Potential roles for KPL

  • Inform and advocate for the measures for creating affordable housing.
  •  Inform about the costs associated with high-end housing – lost space for workforce housing, fewer units added, increased demand for middle-class housing, thus higher rents for all.


# 3(12 votes)Retaining small businesses

(artists, young entrepreneurs, crafts industries [e.g., boatbuilders], bookstores, a working waterfront, and generating new good-paying jobs)

  • Strengths
    • Maine’s economic engine – The greater Portland area has one-quarter of Maine’s population, one-third of its jobs, yet one-half of the state’s income.
    • Industriousness – The city has a history of artisanal and craft work, entrepreneurship, and small independent businesses.
    • Port – The city is the largest US port north of Boston.
    • University – A major branch of the University of Maine, USM, is based here.
    • Research institutions – Other research institutions—The Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Maine Medical, Idexx – are based here or nearby.
    • Commitment – The city and area businesses are committed to growing businesses in the city and its suburbs.
  • Opportunities
    • City-wide linkages – New four-year, stronger mayor form of city government instituted in 2012 allows for creation of a long-term, citywide, coordinated strategy for generating new jobs between the city, the research institutions, the business community and nonprofits.
    • Young entrepreneurs – Entrepreneurial 30-somethings are attracted to the underused industrial buildings in Bayside and East Bayside to start new ventures in walkable neighborhoods and a city center of cuisine and culture.
  • Weaknesses
    • Jobs growth strategy – The lack thus far of an overall, long-term agreed-upon strategy for job development.
    • Jobs outflow – In the past 10 years, as many as 2,000 jobs have migrated from the city to the suburbs.
    • Overfishing – This has hollowed out traditional waterfront uses. Climate change is exacerbating the depleted sea-stock.
    • Ill-planned business park – The most expensive city initiative to date created a “Life Sciences Business Park” with fast broadband connections. But it was built on the dispersed-lot, isolated setting model of the 1970s and thus has attracted only one tenant in 2-1/2 years—an insurance company. Even if fully occupied, the business park requires car commuting and encourages workers to live in less expensive, nearby suburbs.
    • Fragmentation – A half dozen entities—Creative Portland, the Economic Development Office, the Chamber of Commerce, the Portland Corporation—work in this arena each with one or two employees, a fractured landscape that would be much more effective if all working under a single roof.
  • Threats
    • Unaffordable housing – The rising cost of housing and building space generally is pushing artists and artisans to seek cheaper housing and workspaces in Westbrook, Biddeford and elsewhere outside the city.
    • USM defunding – The major research institution—USM—has been hollowed out and lacks stable or metropolitan-focused leadership to partner with the city to help generate new jobs.
    • Multiple crises – Politically, the crisis in social services, the fight over parks and development, and the costs and focus of renewed schools distract from the critical necessity of generating new, good paying jobs to keep middle-class people in the city and make housing more affordable.

Potential roles for KPL

  • Inform about initiatives for generating new, good-paying jobs.


  • Jobs and the economy are complex topics—many players, moving parts, long-term strategies, difficult to access real-time statistics—requiring expertise to report, especially in laymen’s terms.
  •  It is difficult even for City Hall insiders or the Chamber of Commerce to have great impact, except in the long term, for job creation.


# 4(11 votes)Supporting the quality of neighborhood social life (in the streets, overall safety of the city) and access to social services to those in need

  • Strengths
    • Neighborhood stability – Neighborhoods are generally cohesive and safe.
    • Residents’ associations – Every neighborhood has a neighborhood association, more than a dozen citywide.
  • Opportunities
    • Incremental growth – Adding residents to India Street and Bayside neighborhoods in new buildings constructed incrementally at neighborhood-appropriate scales.
  • Weaknesses
    • Legacy of “urban renewal” – The weakest neighborhoods are those decimated by “urban renewal,” Bayside and India Street.
    • Social service overload – Bayside’s lack of residents is exacerbated by the clustering of regional social services there.
  • Threats
    • “Silver bullet” mentality – The City Council’s continually failing strategy favoring a single, silver-bullet mega-development for ramping up city population and property values.
    • Conflicts over funding – The underfunding of the city will cause squabbles among neighbors unless a concerted effort at broad-based conversations is pursued by government, NGOs, businesses and individuals.
    • Social breakdown – Underfunding of social services will also leave more people without adequate support on the streets, leading to more dysfunctional and criminal behavior.

Potential roles for KPL

  • Advocate for neighborhood-scale development in all parts of the city.
  • Engage in broad-based coalitions for assuring adequate social funding.



  • Neighborhood associations are better positioned to advocate for appropriate scale development in each neighborhood, but KPL can advise on methods and approaches.
  • Social agencies are better informed and better advocates for sustaining needed funding for the poor and disabled.

# 5(7 votes)Improving multi-modal transportation

(buses, safety of cycling, improved sidewalks, light rail?)

  • Strengths
    • Complete Streets policy – The city has passed a Compete Streets policy that mandates that all street changes provide for all users, not car dominated.
    • Metro improvements – The new general manager of Metro, Gregory Jordan, has already begun moving the bus system to a mainstream not a marginal system—transporting public school students, coordinating with other local systems, rationalizing bus stop locations, increasing frequency, serving night entertainment spots, adding realtime GIS and station LED boards.
    • Cycle friendliness – A citywide system of Neighborhood Byways, bike lanes, and shared lanes for cyclists is being implemented.
  • Opportunities
    • Thompson Pt subsidies – The Thompson Point development is expected to offer subsidies for shuttle service between downtown, the ferries, and the Transportation Center.
    • Narrowing arterials – Narrowing major arterials—Marginal Way, Franklin Street, Spring Street—in coming years will humanize the peninsula’s streets.
  • Weaknesses
    • Inadequate sidewalks – Underfunding for sidewalks may be countered by developer’s work along adjacent streets.
    • Fragmented bus system – Refusal of bus systems in neighboring towns to become part of a single system will miss economies of scheduling and scale.
    • Tram system economics – The city lacks the population to develop a tram system.
  • Threats
    • Political gridlock – Gridlock at state and federal levels and no-new-taxes attitude at all levels may threaten to delay efforts to humanize streets downtown and throughout the city.

Potential roles for KPL

  • oc CommitteeInform about initiatives for humanizing streets and advancing multi-modal transportation. Core members of KPL are on the Portland Bike-Ped Advisory Committee and the Complete Streets Ad Hoc Committee.


  • METRO has its own board, and is thus somewhat insulated from outside influences.
  • Complete Streets has been bogged down due to lack of staff, underfunding.
  • Transforming streets occurs block by block—West Commercial here, East Anderson Street there, Greenleaf Street yonder—which requires support neighborhood by neighborhood.


# 6 (tie) … (7 votes)Preserving the city’s past (architectural, maritime, neighborhood)

  • Strengths
    • Neighborhoods: The City has more intact 19th Century neighbor-hoods than all but one or two cities on the Eastern seaboard.
    • Preservation ordinance: The city’s Historic Preservation Ordinance is strong and has worked well for the last 25 years.
    • Economic development: Historic preservation is a major basis for the city’s attraction of tourists and new residents.
  • Opportunities
    • Peninsula’s East End: Adding the India Street neighborhood to local historic districts now under consideration would extend preservation to the east end of the peninsula.
    • Zoning rules: New zoning rules make more existing housing lots and traditional development styles conforming.
  • Weaknesses
    • Pro-development bias: The Planning Board and City Council are in favor of few constraints on development.
    • Waterfront constraints: The working waterfront is compromised by the lack of fish landings.
  • Threats
    • Out-of-scale projects: The attractiveness of Portland makes every neighborhood a potential target for disruptive, out-of-scale development.
    • Gentrification: The incremental impacts of uniformly upscale developments may fundamentally change gentrified neighbor-hoods.

Potential roles for KPL

  • Inform about initiatives for new historic districts or other preservation efforts.


  • It’s hard to have serious influence beyond Greater Portland Landmarks’ consistently good work.


# 7 (tie) … (6 votes)Enhancing public schools.

  • Strengths
    • Public schools: City schools are essentially good centers for education for most students.
    • Community centers: Schools serve as strong neighborhood centers.
  • Opportunities
    • Rising tax revenues: Development may provide adequate tax revenues to sustain a good school system.
    • Upgrading physical plant: Rebuilding/renovating physical plants in the next few years may upgrade educational opportunities.
    • Leadership: Good educational and financial leadership may improve school offerings.
  • Weaknesses
    • Enrollment: A shrinking enrollment and a disproportionate number of low-income students may challenge the system.
  • Threats
    • Underfunding: Underfunding of the city may underfund schools.
    • Declining support: New retiree residents and childless couples may undermine political support for good schools.
    • Aging schools: Aging schools make delivery of learning difficult.

Potential roles for KPL


  • Affecting school curricula, budgets, or physical plants is difficult because of their size, complexity, separation from the rest of city structure, and lack of transparency.


Other Topics Mentioned:

  • The city’s humanistic tradition / cultural institutions
  • An engaged citizenry (willing to fight City Hall)
  • Culinary culture
  • The city’s geographic compactness
  • The friendliness and eye-contact of residents
  • The vibrancy of the city


One Response to Threats foreseen to Portland’s ideal future

  1. Brian Burwell June 18, 2015 at 8:30 am #

    Wow! Such a lot of good thinking and writing.

    But how many people working how many hours will be able to affect many of the above opportunities/threats? Perhaps we need a Planning Department and Planning Board that are not in the development business.

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