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6 January 2009 (USA)  »

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The film depicts how social interest can influence economic and environmental considerations and influence developments in a positive and sustainable manner.
16 March 2014 | by (Chicago, Illinois) – See all my reviews

Portland: A Sense of Place, is Mark Decena's informative and uplifting documentary about social interest and the role it can play in urban planning. Decena, the director, follows a simple, but effective, formula to convey its message of hope. The beginning of the documentary delivers a short history on the city that leads up to today's problem, or the conflict in the story, which it proposes is how to develop previously used industrial or commercial lands and desolate railways that where left after the industrialization boom dissolved. Secondly, it provides a general explanation of how government and local leaders went about resolving the issues at hand while achieving secondary successes. Finally, the film explains some of consequences of success but maintains that the actions taken have provided a better quality of life for those choosing to reside in Portland.

The documentary is narrated by notable actor, Brad Pitt, and begins with an effective montage of videos showcasing Portland's positive atmosphere with people walking, jogging, biking, lounging in parks and plazas and riding on a public transportation before delving into the negative aspects of the post war industrial explosion; more cars, more parking lots, high-rises, empty sidewalks and poor air quality. Although not referenced, it was Tom McCall, the governor of Oregon, along with a few civic leaders from Portland, that instituted policies concerning land-use planning. Its primary function was to preserve the rural landscape, to take back their natural resources, but the urban growth boundaries, created by these strategies, caused urban planners to have to consider by what means increases in population, within these new boundaries, should be addressed. They chose to use accessibility instead of mobility as means to augment communities and become environmentally progressive as well. Being of the mindset that praise of industrial technology and mass production creates isolation and specialization leading to fragmentation, those in charge diverted federal funding from highways into a light and modern rail line along with a transit system to avoid the trappings associated with large thoroughfares; namely sprawl and overcrowding.

Proposing to put pedestrians before cars, the street-car system aimed at shorter trips, to have less cars on the street and to be environmentally friendly. The results were that they avoided the congestion associated with connecting to outlying areas, brought down their carbon foot print and fostered developments along the rail line. Michael Powell, community leader and owner of Powell's Books noted that "developers liked permanent transportation...a statement of commitment" and with shop owners, like Darcy Cameron of Knit Purl, akin to the idea, the system began to take foot.

Planned carefully and accordingly to create circulation, this new transportation system, injected into brownfields and abandoned rail yards, became successfully used; surpassing expectations of users per day by about 7,000. Planned for about 2,800 users per day, there are now 10,000 daily riders crowded together to many destinations along the route. In effect, there is twice the density along the track compared to the rest of the city. It makes sense that because the success in the Pearl District there are attempts at imitation leading to similar developments elsewhere but that reference or further information is never expanded upon. Ultimately, however, they city has changed much so, that some of that community feeling Jane Jacobs talks about can be found. With wider sidewalks, more foot traffic, and all buildings requiring to have retail space at the ground level, this bears some semblance to Jacob's ideals. Active street use, designed for cultural enhancement, has created an up-trend in bicycling, public transportation use and more pedestrians on the street. This success has had other ramifications that are not altogether great for the city. Being a victim of its own success has caused Portland to see the value of properties rise and the character of the neighborhoods change due to gentrification. This is another particular aspect that the documentary barely touches upon but maybe does not require further explanation; it can be a topic large enough to deserve its own documentary.

A Sense of Place: Portland tries to convey that things can change for the better and that Portland can serve as an example. The way the message is delivered is through a chronicling of efforts and results, bringing forth a story of how the city undertook and solved urbanization and ecological challenges. Through policy and design, community and political leaders collaborated to accomplish the goal of bringing vibrancy to a city plagued by brown areas and blight while avoiding the pitfalls of congestion and air pollution associated with urbanization. Through each scene's progression, you sense a logical progression and the underlying theme is developed and bolstered but some points or considerations cold have been further addressed. All throughout the film , viewers are provided with statistics and statements from those involved in the process to augment its report but topics such as gentrification and low-income housing could have been further explored. Interviews with policymakers and locals leaders depict a harmonious working relationship where in no apparent contention is demonstrated before, during or after construction and the personal accounts by residents also serve to augment the dry quality of numbers through emotion. Which is fine but their point might have been stronger if the film addressed what might have been significant issues currently affecting other cities: like how bad those brownfields where: was the land contaminated or was left abandoned by owners who did not want to make it productive. And although it was mentioned, very early in the film, that funding came from the government, it did not explain how they plan to sustain the current environment when they expect the population to continue to grow at annual rate of 4 percent; we should remember the film was critical when mentioning high rises in their history. But overall, the film's depiction of how social interest can influence economic and environmental considerations and influence developments in a positive and sustainable manner is to be commended.

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