New Report: Rural Sprawl in Metropolitan Portland

Clark County, WA allowed much more housing on rural land than did neighboring Oregon counties.

The Portland metro area is an interesting test case for smart growth. The Oregon side of the region operates under the nation’s most mature growth management system. The Washington side operates under a newer set of rules, enacted in the mid-1990s. On paper, the two growth management programs share many features. But as a new Sightline report shows, their records have diverged: Clark County, home to the city of Vancouver, Washington, has allowed substantially more housing and population growth on rural lands than the Oregon side of the Portland metro area.

The differences between the Washington and Oregon sides of greater Portland are both clear and stark. Data from the US Census shows that, between 2000 and 2010, Clark County allowed far more “rural sprawl” than did Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties in Oregon. To be sure, the Oregon side of the region added lots of new people and new houses—but only a smattering of that growth took place outside urban growth boundaries.  In contrast, one in ten new houses in Clark County over the decade was constructed outside urban growth areas.

Here are the maps:

Map of Portland exurban growth 1990-2000

Map of Portland Exurban Growth 2000-2010

The contrasts between Oregon and Washington demonstrate that rural sprawl isn’t simply an inevitable consequence of population growth. Instead, rural sprawl results from policy choices. And Oregon’s policy choices clearly did a better job of protecting rural land from sprawling development than did the policies in place north of the Columbia.

For more maps and data, see our report!

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  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    Great work, Clark. I’m very impressed with Oregon’s results.

  2. Cascadian says:

    I’m curious how much other factors have an effect. Specifically, what’s the impact of the tax policy differences. With Washington sales taxes reaching stratospheric heights and no income tax, the savvy tax avoider can do well by living in Vancouver and shopping in Oregon. That difference has been in place a long time, but has gotten worse in the last couple of decades.

    I’d like to see the state borders changed so that they don’t divide the Portland metro area. Just ceding Clark, Cowlitz, and Wahkiakum Counties to Oregon would do a good job of it. I’d be happy to see Lewis County go, too, but that would cross some micropolitan connections between Olympia and Centralia/Chehalis.

    • Jeff says:

      The problem of tax-avoiders is definitely part of the problem, but that still does not explain why these folks are being allowed to build their new homes outside of areas Clark Co designated specifically for urban growth.

      • Clark Williams-Derry says:

        Exactly! Tax avoidance might explain rapid *growth* in Clark County, but does not explain rapid *rural sprawl* in Clark County.

  3. Not Fan says:

    As usual, the pseudo-green Sightline Institute ignores the uncomfortable truths. One is that Portland’s fixed-rail transit network is in serious financial trouble, and is increasingly being propped up by cuts to the bus system. Buses carry more people and are more flexible, but unfortunately they serve primarily the poor, a group that Sightline pays only lip service to.

    The other fact is that 100% of Portland metro’s net job growth has occurred outside of the service area of the Max rail and city trolley systems. Anyone who hops into a car and ride around the Portland area can see it almost immediately, but Sightline and the other pseudo-greens won’t talk about it.

    The Portland area’s suburbs have turned against light rail expansion. It’s a financial drain, and provides no benefits to their citizens. It’ll take a while, maybe 20 years, but Portland’s light rail system will go out of business.

    • TOM CIVILETTI says:

      Not Fan posts a typically auto-centric critique of public transit which ignores inevitable trends in energy cost. Such attitude rich and data poor analysis is worthless.

      • Not Fan says:

        Keep drinking the Kool-Aid, then. You’d just hate to have to actually consider any facts.

      • Not Fan says:

        Even the happy talkers at the Portland Development Commission have taken note:

        “The city and the region have long assumed that investments in quality of life would result in job growth in the city. These investments have succeeded in generating an unprecedented influx of creative talent to the city, but that alone has not created new jobs.”

        – Portland Economic Development Strategy 2009

        Wouldn’t you think that, if favoring bicycles and fixed rail transit were such great investments, Portland would attract the high-paying eco jobs that have been always promised as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

        The reality is different. In the city, Seattle’s median household income is 24% higher than Portland’s, at $60,665 vs. $48,831. Metro Seattle’s median household income is 19% higher, at $63,088 vs. $53,078.

        The difference in the standard of living between the two cities is starkly visible when you visit them. Among other things, Portland’s school funding is in a state of continual crisis. Oh, and Multnomah County is 197th of 198 Western counties in long-term private sector job growth. All of Portland metro’s job growth — all of it — has occurred outside of Multnomah County, and outside of the service area of Portland’s streetcars and the Max light rail.

        Those are facts, but you people absolutely HATE facts.

    • Casey says:

      What a joke, Not Fan! Rail investments have spurred major development in Portland over the past 2 decades, and are not dependent on fossil-fuels nor do they generate carbon emissions (assuming the electricity source is renewable). They have helped the city meet its climate action goals and modern rail vehicles with street-level floors are also easily accessible for those with mobility impairments. They are also quiet (this is a big deal to some like myself who live above a loud bus stop, and breathe in the exhaust that buses and automobiles spew into the air). The list of benefits goes on and on. To say that rail provides no benefits for citizens or that Multnomah County has no jobs or job growth is as misinformed as it is absolutely ridiculous. Why you are even reading a news website about sustainability is somewhat puzzling, but I hope in the end you can open your mind enough to learn a thing or two.


  4. DayLily says:

    Good report, Clark. [As an Oregon Duck, I always love hearing great things about Oregon! :-)]

    I guess it’s not surprising that Oregon would try to preserve as much fertile land as possible (which is always a good idea for ANY state), since agriculture is a major part of Oregon’s economy.

    I’m a little confused by the sub-heading for this post, though. Isn’t Clark County in WA rather than OR?

    …Reading the comments, I learned a new word: micropolitan. Thanks, Cascadian!

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      DOH! Thanks for the catch about Clark County — which is, in fact, in Washington, not Oregon. I’m feeling mighty sheepish about that typo…

  5. jeff says:

    It’s interesting to see what I’ve always expected to be the case shown on a map. But one thing confused me when I first read your summary. You said that “the Oregon side of the region added lots of new people and new houses—but only a smattering of that growth took place within urban growth boundaries.” Did you mean to say only a smattering of the growth took place “outside” of the UGB.

    • Eric Hess says:

      Nice catch, Jeff. We’ve updated it.

      • Jeff says:

        Thanks for updating.

        It’s hard to say if these results are showing that Washington’s GMA system is flawed or if the political will to manage sprawl is there in Oregon, but not in Clark Co. I’d say the problems in Clark Co are a combined effect of the lack of political will and inherent flaws in GMA. With respect to the latter issue (flaws in GMA), one problem may be the bottom-up approach taken when GMA was first developed. More specifically, a lot more leeway was given to the jurisdiction in developing their own GMA regs as opposed to how it’s done in Oregon. In Oregon, I beleive the Metro government has a lot more say on what the counties can and cannot approve when planning for future growth.

        Although the bottom up approach to GMA may be have been more politically palatable when first conceived, it may have been taken too far. There probably should have been more of a balanced approach in WA, possibly with a greater top-down emphasis. But in reality, a top-down approach was probably more politically doable for three relatively urban Oregon counties than for all of Washington’s 39 counties.

        One problem when Washington first conceived GMA was that they allowed very rural counties to opt-in, for which many did because they were promised a lump sum of money (that most of them squandered). Washington should have never allowed these very rural counties to opt in as fully planning under GMA. Then GMA could have focused the law on the counties where there was more of a need and more will to manage growth.

  6. Vicki Neland says:

    Great report. I’d like to see a few more variables added in, though. I live in the exurban sprawl of Portland on the Westside, which has sprawled even more exponentially in the last few years in Washington County. How was this possible? Just move the UGB farther out! Notice how Portland has a UGB twice the size of Vancouver? We do have hugely more people, too, and have increased out density. But, from my point of few, farmland and green areas are being paved over faster than ever before. So, I wonder how that is. Now, speaking of farmland, the other thing to ask is how much useable farmland was sacrificed for exurban growth? Portland is surrounded by more grade A farmland than Vancouver. So, while it first appears that Portlanders may destroy less of their farmland than Vancouverites, I think a closer examination is in order. And, yes, a pat on the back is in order for both states. It’s taken an incredible amount of effort to slow down the destruction of natural habitat to this fast pace, which is just below fevered. But, if either state continues to do what it’s been doing for the last 30 years, we’re sure to look like New Jersey soon enough, no matter how elegantly we got there.

    • TOM CIVILETTI says:

      Portland metro land use planning is constrained by Oregon law that requires a 20 year supply of buildable land be maintained inside the UGB. This law needs to be changed.

      Also, local jurisdictions need to be able to charge SDCs to cover 100% of all public infrastructure needs in order to disincentify inappropriate growth.

      • Not Fan says:

        You might want to someday give some thought to your standard of living, which continues a long-term decline. A crust of yuppies are doing well in the Portland area, but as a whole the area is hollowing out and is having increasing difficulty funding its basic needs.

        But that’s not Sightline’s concern, is it?

    • Not Fan says:

      “I live in the exurban sprawl of Portland on the Westside, which has sprawled even more exponentially in the last few years in Washington County. How was this possible?”

      This is possible because ALL of the Portland metro area’s private sector job growth has occurred outside of Multnomah County, and away from the service area of the budget-busting light rail system. Businesses don’t want to be anywhere near the giant sucking sound that is the City of Portland.

      This is probably why you live in the horrible exurbs, Vicki. There’s no work to be found in Portland.

  7. Don Holt says:

    And now we need the CRC. It’s a beautiful world.

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