Answering Portland's Misleading
Urban Growth Boundary Claim

Portland smart growth promoters frequently claim that Oregon's land rationing laws (urban growth boundary) has reigned in sprawl. The following statement, from the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) News Hour with Jim Lehrer is typical:

Battling Sprawl: The False Portland Claim


LEE HOCHBERG: A quarter-century later, Oregon proudly touts the approach in videos like this as a model for other states. While the Portland area population has surged 25% in two decades, its developed land has increased only 2%. Compare that with Chicago, where with only a tiny population increase, the amount of developed land there has ballooned by 50%. Oregon farmers, especially, seem to have benefited. For three generations, the Vanderzandaen family has grown grass, peas, and corn on these 1,250 acres 15 miles from Portland, just outside the growth boundary. Land they used to farm for people inside the boundary has been chewed up by suburbs.


The change in the urban growth boundary (UGB) is not reflective of the amount of developed land. There was much undeveloped land within the UGB when it was adopted in the late 1970s. Since that time it has largely filled up, and the Census Bureau data indicates. The authoritative source for developed land data is the United States Census Bureau urbanized area data, which is shown below.

In fact, the Oregon portion of the Portland urban area experienced an increase of at least 25.8 percent over the past 20 years, 12 times the Portland claim. Moreover, between 1980 and 2000 the Census Bureau considerably tightened its urbanized area definitions, to the extent that, on average, previous developed land figures were at least seven percent high (meaning that Portland sprawled even more).

Chicago Claim Also False: The claim about Chicago is also false. From 1980 to 2000, the Chicago urbanized area expanded 26.7 percent, not the claimed 50 percent (includes the current constituent units of the Chicago urbanized area, which were separate in 1980, Aurora, Elgin and Joliet). The population increase was hardly tiny, representing nearly 85 percent of Portland's 2000 population. Despite its recent lower density development, Chicago remains more dense than Portland.

Phoenix Densifying Faster than Portland:The Phoenix urbanized area also increased by an amount similar to Portland from 1980 to 2000, at 24.6 percent. Adding 158 square miles, approximately twice the land area gain of the Oregon portion of Portland, Phoenix added 1.5 million people, more than 3.5 times the Portland gain.

Portland Densifies Less than Other Western Urbanized Areas: Finally, during the 1980s, a period during which the Census Bureau definition of developed land remained unchanged, the Portland area expanded at a lower density than all other major urbanized area in the 13 western states. Portland Last In Densification Trend

Oregon Portion of Portland Urbanized Area  
Year Developed Land (Square Miles) Population Population/Square Mile
1980 291 895,896 3,079
2000 366 1,298,697 3,548
% Change 25.8% 45.0% 15.3%
Exhibit: Chicago 26.7% 15.2% -9.1%
Exhibit: Phoenix 24.6% 106.3% 65.5%
Calculated from US Census Bureau data.  

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