What London can learn from Portland (OR)

Portland Neon Sign

They are not words that I expected to utter, but I think that London could learn something from America. Well, to be more precise, from Portland, Oregon.

While I’ve been here I’ve been impressed by a number of things, simple things that I think that London could also benefit from.

What London could learn from Portland:

1) Portland has an incredibly positive attitude to recycling. Special recycling bins proudly proclaim “Portland Recycles”, garbage trucks have positive messages about the number of homes that will be powered by burning of the rubbish they are carrying, and most coffee-shops and cafés separate all their waste to minimise the amount of stuff that gets thrown away. In London people to find recycling more of a chore than a way of life, if our bins said “London recycles” perhaps we’d start to become proud of it too.

2) Better attitude towards cyclists. Portland has 100 miles worth of dedicated cycle-lanes within the city and have numerous bike corals. These replace parking space for two cars with parking for 40 cyclists and complement the smaller bike racks around town. I know London now has ‘Boris Bikes’ but there is still a long way to go…

3) Water run-off management. In the UK we see a rise in the number of people concreting over their front gardens to create driveways, thus reducing the area available for storm-water drainage. In Portland the council has taken to using permeable paving techniques which allow water to drain away through the paving blocks. There are also bioswales dotted around the place. These are vegetated ditches which not only slow the flow of water into the sewers, but also help filter it naturally.

Infiltration planter


Trimet Transit Tracker4) Transit Tracker. Every bus-stop and train stop has a unique ID number which you can use to call, text or check online to see exactly when the bus/train you want is due to arrive. It doesn’t just work on printed timetables, this is real-time data, immediately updated to show delays. Portland’s transport operator, Trimet,releases all the data in an open format avaialable through an API, which has enabled an entire ecosystem of transit apps to be build around it (only the phoneline is actually run by Trimet). They were the first to do it in the US, and thus their data format has formed the blueprint for many other cities to follow suit.

5) Educational billboards. I especially liked the use of billboard space to hammer home the message that if you catch a cold then antibiotics won’t help you. Patients demanding antibiotic treatments from their doctors for viral ailments is a real problem. I was impressed to see the council spending money trying to reduce this problem.

All that Art that Fits6) Council Art Exhibition. “All the art that fits” was a small exhibition of artwork that had been created by members of Portland council. Any member of staff could submit a piece to be displayed and they crammed in as many as would fit in the exhibition space. The blurb about the exhibition mentioned how they want to encourage their employees to be creative even if they are stuck in offices all day. I just thought that it was a nice way of personalising the workers that run the city’s amenities.

All that Art that Fits

Powell's Bookstore7) Powell’s Book shop. Wow. Every city should have an independent book store like this. Covering an entire block, the maze of bookshelves in Powell’s could keep you occupied for days if not weeks. Not only do they sell new books, but also second hand books alongside them. You can take your pick as to which you’d like to buy. Receiving 4000-6000 books per day, you’re sure to find something to your taste, and a few gems along the way. I picked up two vintage NASA books of photographs from the Gemini programme for less than $15. They were in the “Space Exploration” section of their technical book store which is across the street from their main shop and includes all sorts of weird and wonderfully specific sections.

8) Scrap. We need to have Scrap in London. I’ve already blogged about it being a wonderful Aladdin’s cave for crafty folk, but it’s worth stating that again. It’s a not-for-profit organisation that finds a home for unwanted things from local businesses and Portland natives. They run classes for schools and provide a fantastic little work-shop space if you can’t wait to get home with your latest treasure. Last time I visited someone came in and donated a sackful of colourful zip components, there were concrete gnome moulds, kites, floor samples, violin chin-rests and all kinds of paper, pencils, materials for inventive minds to enjoy. The staff are friendly and always on-hand to suggest interesting re-uses and fun craft projects for you to try. I love it. I seem to recall something called “Scrap-Project” that my mother used to visit when she was a teacher, but that was not open to the public. Somebody please create Scrap for London. It is a wonderfully positive place.

The ReBuilding Center9) The ReBuilding Centre. This is like Scrap, but for building supplies. Want a door, a sink, or some glass lampshades? They’ve got the lot! I guess our equivalent would be salvage yards, but these don’t seem to user-friendly to me. The recycling centre in Portland has a lovely entrance-way and encourages donation of old furniture to be recycled by someone else.

10) Free trains in the centre of town. Never going to happen in London, but it’s a nice idea. To be fair, their trains seem more like trams and it’s only a small area that they are free, but still.

11) Cheerful bus drivers. Everyone here seems more cheerful. I understand why there is protective glass/plastic in front of our bus drivers, but they could still make eye-contact and smile from behind if they wanted to. Equally, I know Londoner’s are a rushed an busy bunch and our buses and generally more crowded, but there’s something nice about everyone saying “thank you” as they get off the bus, and the drivers wishing you a nice evening.

12) Bars have to serve food. There is a law in Portland that all bars have to serve food while they are serving alcohol. No more realising you’re getting hungry (and thus tipsy) at 9pm and finding out they stopped serving food at 7.30pm.

13) More neon. Some of the neon signs around Portland are fabulous, tastefully done, classic. London might look cool with a few of these.

Of course there are some things that my beloved London could teach Portland too….

Portland can learn from London:

1) Oyster cards – seriously, Portland, get with the programme. It’s all about swishing your Oyster card as you get on the bus, instead of faffing about sorting out exactly the right money and slowly posting your dollar bills into the machine. Especially when it’s $2.05 for a single journey. Fishing around for that elusive nickel is immensely frustrating.

2) Buses should run later. There I was thinking that London was lame because the tube stops just after midnight, but in Portland you can get stranded if you don’t catch the bus by 10.30pm (7.30pm on a Sunday)! Madness. For the trendy city you appear to want to be, you really need to sort that out!

3) Night-life. Friday night and a restaurant in downtown closes at 6.45pm? Wow. I know they called you the breakfast city, but some of us are night owls. Londoner’s may not be able to eat in pubs past 8pm, but we can dine like kings until late into the night.

4) How to brew beer. Beer doesn’t need to be eye-wateringly hop-py! You know they only added hops to beer to keep it fresh when they were sailing it to India right? It’s not really meant to be there. Portland, proud of its enormous number of breweries is a great place for beer, but not if (like me) you’re not keen on the hops. Also, if your beer is flat, especially if you know it is flat, then don’t serve it to me. No-one people over here don’t drink too much in the way of English ale, every time I try to order it is undrinkable.

5) Ordering at the bar. Table-service is nice every now and then, but sometimes I just want to stand at the bar, choose my tipple, order and pay for it and walk it back to my table myself. It’s not complicated. Please Portland, let me do that more often.

6) Art galleries and museums should be free. Cost should never be an obstacle to gaining new knowledge. London has some splendid museums that won’t cost you a penny. Long may it stay that way (I’m too old to break out my Blue Peter badge you see).

7) Less neon. Listen-up Portland: A little neon goes a long way. Using a neon sign on a police station is perhaps taking it too far.

Portland Police

6 thoughts on “What London can learn from Portland (OR)

  1. I saw the first episode of Portlandia at the weekend (IFC channel) and it painted the city as something like a cross between “It’s Grim Up North London” from Private Eye and The League of Gentlemen. I wonder how the series has gone down locally?

    I’m pretty sure that Powell’s was one of the earliest internet bookshops. I know that I ordered books from them before I ever used (or even discovered) Amazon.

  2. (London can tell Portland how to brew beer…) “Beer doesn’t need to be eye-wateringly hop-py! You know they only added hops to beer to keep it fresh when they were sailing it to India right? It’s not really meant to be there.”

    Oh no. All this time in Americashire has made you go insane.

    Hops have been the main flavouring used in beer since the sixteenth century. The only purpose for cultivating hop vines is to use the hop flowers in beer: they have no other purpose. Hops are used for bitterness, and really hoppy beers, of which Portland is justly proud, are a wonderful invention. Not only are the hops supposed to be there, but they are vital for the taste of any beer – from Budweiser, to Coors, to any of the fine Rogue beers from Oregon.

    “India Pale Ale”, so the story goes, was brewed especially to cope with the long journey to India. Hops do act as a preservative; but then, so does the alcohol (so more sugar also acts as a preservative, too). More recent research on this appears to show that IPA was mostly a marketing gimmick, and mainly drunk in the UK rather than shipped over to India, and you can see why a more exotic and bitter-tasting beer would appeal to pasty Londoners.

    If you removed hops from your pint of London Pride, I can cheerfully tell you that it would taste like drinking a cross between watery honey and Marmite; with none of the benefits of any of those ingredients.

    Finally, London can’t tell anyone how to brew beer, given that over the last five years most of the London breweries have shut down. A few small ones have now started up (Camden and Battersea-based Wandle are particularly good, or trendy but unsatisfying Meantime); but you might like to know that until recently, the largest brewery in London, on the banks of the Thames, was the brewery for… Budweiser.

    Now, please apologise to the good brewers of Oregon, and come home soon.

    1. Oregon, I apologise. I bow down to the greater beer-knowledge of Mr Cridland. I still prefer maltiness to hoppiness though, beer-newby that I am. I’ll be home sir, for a pint of your choosing and a full lesson in brewing history..

  3. Hi!

    In Vienna we have the tube open 24 hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays!. It was quite a controversy to get that throuhg, but everybody is happy with it.

    greetings from Vienna,

    (a Part-Time Scientist happy with living here)

  4. Great post, Kate!

    Totally with you on the beer thing. Hops are great, but it seems that every Portland beer tries to be super-hoppy, and that gets old. Cascade Hops grow nearby, and the brewmasters seem to use and use and use them to death.

    I use and love Transit Tracker all the time, but I would never compare Portland’s trains to London’s. Maybe someday Portland will have a great tube system like London’s but not today.

    Making art galleries free and keeping the restaurants open late at night would be great. Hope they listen to you about those!


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