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Oregon’s Urban Growth Boundaries Have Deepened Economic Chasms

March 1st, 2019 by dk

The very thing that set Oregon apart now seems to be tearing it apart. As Governor Kate Brown and the Oregon Legislature meet to wrestle with the state’s most intractable problems, a clear pattern has emerged. Oregon — by our own design — has a widening chasm between its urban and rural cultures.

In 1973, Oregon Senate Bill 100 essentially outlawed suburbia. Statewide land-use planning limited urban growth to 240 jurisdictions. Only those with sufficient acreage to call themselves farmers, ranchers, or foresters were allowed to build homes anywhere else. For those who wonder what might be Oregon’s “secret sauce,” this is it.

Some come for the scenery and then find a job. Others come for a job, but stay for the scenery. No matter how consuming your workaday world might become, there’s always a “nearby nowhere” to help you reset and rejuvenate. Where the cityscape stops, the countryside begins. There’s really nothing in between. That’s the Oregon mystique.

Or was.

Now we have two Oregons, each with very different sets of problems to solve. Rural Oregonians are desperate for economic development. They can’t attract new residents if there are no jobs available to them. City jobs are usually — by our own design — too far away for a daily commute. And there are no other jobs, unless you can operate the machines that replaced a village of workers that used to sustain the timber industries.

You can blame it on the spotted owl, but automation and consolidation killed most of the timber jobs that were once available in rural Oregon. The owl would rather be left out of it.

In the cities — Portland, now Eugene, soon elsewhere else — there is plenty of work but no place to stay. Affordable housing is a memory, but it’s not a good memory for anyone who couldn’t or didn’t buy a home before prices exceeded their reach.

We have places where workers can’t afford to reside. We have places where residents can’t find work. And — by our own design — nothing in between.

Each desolation produces a special desperation. Urban areas fight homelessness and all the social stress that flows from chronological bigotry. Those who bought before the boom consider themselves better, but they were only earlier — and so, luckier.

Rural areas struggle with property crime, depressed land values, and a shrinking tax base. Those who wanted a better life left to find it elsewhere, leaving only those who didn’t or couldn’t.

In 2008, three Oregon professors — Richard Clucas, Mark Henkels, and Brent Steel — wrote a research paper that surveyed this increasing polarization. They offered one sure way for Oregon to become more united: rural economic revitalization.

“More than anything else, if the state government took steps to help booster the economic position of the rural communities, the rural and urban areas would no longer be as divided by differences in economic well-being,” the paper concludes.

How can Oregon’s leaders close this economic gap? Two words: universal coverage, but I’m not referring to health care. I’ll write about that next week.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at More information about the professors’ 2008 paper can be found at

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