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Topics: Community

Portland Participation

Citizens of Portland, Oregon, began creating neighborhood associations in the 1950s, and then built upon Model Cities and Community Action programs in the 1960s and 1970s to create one of the most effective city-wide systems of citizen participation in the United States today. After a series of struggles between the associations and the city government in the early 1970s, the city formally recognized the neighborhood associations, and has since helped to build an elaborate structure to fund them, ensure open and fair participation, and give them an important role in city budgeting, crime prevention, and land use planning. Case study plus.

Prepared by Ken Thomson as part of the Citizen Participation Project at the Lincoln Filene Center at Tufts University, funded by the Ford Foundation, 1988.


A. Beginnings and Authorization
B. Neighborhood Structures
C. Citywide Citizen Structures
D. Outreach to Citizens
E. Major Program Components
F. Overall Perspective of the City on Participation

A. Beginnings and Authorization

Born: February, 1974

Place: In a city council ordinance creating the Office of Neighborhood Associations

The Portland CP system grew out of the neighborhood associations that began forming in the mid-1950s to preserve the residential character of their neighborhoods. In the early 1970s, eight northeast neighborhoods had Model Cities Funds, five inner southeast organizations had OEO funds, and the renewal agency had several field offices.

The specific pieces of the Portland system were developed in a two-year struggle to determine the best method of organizing these multiple programs, and of covering the whole city. The city planning staff version was founded on a proposed system of District Planning Organizations (DPOs). By the beginning of 1973 all the political ingredients seemed to be in place to promote this approach: a DPO task force had met through 1972 to consider the proposals, budget authority for a Bureau of Neighborhood Organizations had been obtained by newly elected mayor Neil Goldschmidt, and Commissioner Mildred Schwab had developed a draft ordinance to implement the whole works. But at a meeting of 100 citizens to review this draft ordinance, major concerns were expressed that the DPOs would take power away from the neighborhood organizations. These concerns prevailed, even though a second tier of Neighborhood Planning Organizations had become part of the proposal by this time. A second draft, providing that DPOs would be established by neighborhood associations and have only the authority neighborhoods chose to delegate to them, fared no better.

Finally in February, 1974, the city council passed an enabling ordinance establishing the Office of Neighborhood Associations (ONA) , without any DPOs but with specific membership standards (open to residents, businesses, property owners, and nonprofits) and with formal council recognition of each neighborhood association. Even these two restrictions were dropped in the amended ordinance of November, 1975.

The first year's budget (1973-74) was $105,000. By 1976-77 the budget was still only $187,000, passed in council by a 3-2 vote. In addition to these city general fund monies, Federal money and local Portland Development Commission (PDC) money was also available, particularly in Southeast Portland.

At first all ONA contracts were directly with neighborhood associations. By 1976, coalitions had formed in only four areas:

  • in Inner Northeast, a board existed as a successor to the Model Cities Board;
  • in Inner Southeast, seven neighborhoods, successors to the OEO efforts, had formed a coalition;
  • the larger Southeast, including the inner section, had developed a formal organization called Southeast Uplift, formed as a result of city council action directing Portland Development Commission funds to the southeast at the time model cities was established in the Northeast;
  • and finally, seven smaller neighborhoods formed a coalition in North Portland.

Gradually, the "contracts" to oversee what have become the district offices were held by an ever-growing coalition of neighborhood groups. This finally led to the establishment of formal district boards (except, apparently, in the West/Northwest section). Only in April, 1987, were formal written guidelines established for neighborhood groups, after a year-long process of negotiations between ONA and the groups.

B. Neighborhood Structures

1. Neighborhood Associations and District Boards

The basis of the Portland system are the neighborhood associations that exist in most of the city's 87 neighborhoods. These neighborhood associations send representatives to six District Coalition Boards (technically five, the sixth in the West/Northwest apparently has refused incorporation or recognition as a DCB). The downtown area, divided into two neighborhoods, has no District Coalition Board. And the Outer Northeast or Mid-County area consists mainly of newly annexed areas and has yet to form a District Board. There are now from 6 to 23 neighborhoods within each of the District Coalitions. Population within these districts ranges from 19,000 to 143,000, while the populations of the individual neighborhoods range from 70 to 13,800. The median neighborhood population is 4,250.

A set of ONA Standards and Guidelines, adopted in April, 1987, are now the official standards which provide for recognition and support of a neighborhood association by the city. These guidelines include open membership requirements, prohibition of mandatory dues, and the same open meeting requirements that governmental bodies must abide by. A heavy emphasis is placed on providing for and recording opposing views in any neighborhood process.

Membership in the neighborhood association must be open to all residents and property owners within the neighborhood boundaries. In addition, the associations can and do include others as official members (i.e. businesses and nonprofits). They can also have boards and committees which meet more frequently than the general membership. These matters are governed by their individual bylaws.

2. Selection of Board Representatives and Neighborhood Officers

Elections for officers and representatives of neighborhood associations are governed entirely by the individual neighborhood bylaws. The District Coalition Boards are composed of delegates from each neighborhood association in their area, plus any special representatives (i.e. of social service, business, or civic organizations) established in their bylaws. They must be incorporated and qualify as a nonprofit tax-exempt organization.

There are no other election requirements. Both the Boards and the neighborhood associations are independent, self-governing bodies.

3. Drawing Neighborhood Boundaries

Each neighborhood determines its own boundaries, and applies for recognition to the ONA based upon those boundaries. In the past, neighborhoods have been recognized with overlapping boundaries, and even boundaries totally included within another neighborhood. The 1987 guidelines state that overlapping boundaries "should be discouraged," and assert that any boundary dispute will be resolved by the District Council Board, using the services of the neighborhood mediation center and surveys of area residents if necessary. The determination of boundaries is much more decentralized in Portland than in any of the other cities we have examined. There have been a few boundary disputes, but for the most part neighborhoods have boundaries that each association feels comfortable with.

4. CP Administrative Funding

The original funding for Portland's participation system was a mix of general funds and local and federal development funds. Most of the current budget comes from the general fund. The 1986-87 fiscal year budget for the participation system was 1.2 million dollars, exclusive of staff support for Budget Advisory Committees provided by the individual departments. Of this, over $1.1 million was from the general fund, while only $75,000 came from development funds of any kind. Approximately one-third of these funds are administered directly by the central Office of Neighborhood Associations, and the remaining two-thirds contracted out to the District Coalition Boards.

5. Offices and Staffing

There is now a central office, six district offices, two additional crime prevention offices (downtown and in North Portland), and a mid-county office (newly annexed areas).

Except for central office staff, all staff are hired by and under the control of the District Coalition Boards (or the equivalent in the W/NW). The Boards are under annual contract with the city to provide "citizen participation and crime prevention services". There are seven staff positions in the central office, and the District Coalition Offices each have two or three staff with the exception of the southeast coalition (Southeast Uplift) which has nine. In addition, a mediation team of four people is located in the northeast district office. Each district office develops its own set of written personnel policies and work program, including procedures for annual performance reviews. They must have an affirmative action and equal opportunity policy which is approved by the city.

6. Neighborhood and District Activities

The District Coalition Boards typically meet once a month. Each district office has the responsibility to assist neighborhoods with whatever requests they may have---particularly in the area of producing newsletters for distribution to the households in the neighborhood. In addition, each district office has one full time crime prevention coordinator whose major role is to assist in the organization of neighborhood crime watches and crime prevention efforts. Finally, each office is responsible for ensuring that neighborhood need reports are developed by the neighborhoods and the Board and transmitted to ONA. Beyond these basic functions, the district offices vary greatly in the work they do. Under the new (1987) guidelines, they must file a semi-annual progress report and annual accomplishments report with the ONA.

The neighborhood associations are free to take on any issues in any way they chose. The only conditions on their activities are that they must be open to all residents and property owners, they must be nondiscriminatory and require no dues for participation, and that any formal positions taken by neighborhood meetings must be recorded, along with attendance, the results of any votes, and a summary of dissenting views.

C. Citywide Citizen Structures

1. Budget Advisory Committees (BACs)

Four BACs were initiated by Mayor Goldschmidt in 1973. They were expanded over the next six years, and formally established by Commission ordinance in 1980. By 1987, 21 city bureaus had Budget Advisory Committees in place.

The membership of each BAC comes from many different sources, only one of which is the neighborhood association and district board system. They average a little over eight citizens per BAC. An attempt is made to have each of the six city districts represented on each committee, but there is no firm formula to guarantee such representation. All members of the BACs are appointed by the Commissioner in charge. The stated goals of the process include helping to "produce a final budget that is responsive to the wishes and needs of the citizens of Portland" and enabling citizens "to address policy questions of the City as a whole as well as recommend the policy direction of individual bureaus and departments."

The "Big-BAC" or Bureau Advisory Coordinating Committee (BACC) is composed of a representative from each of the BACs. In 1986 the BACC produced, in addition to the collection of BAC reports, a series of ten recommendations on issues such as: long range bureau planning, a volunteer program, a cost/benefit study of annexation, a plan to preserve the city's public works infrastructure, a crime-prevention plan, a citywide computer plan, and support for rebuilding fiscal reserves for the city.

Staff support for all the BACs comes primarily from the each bureau's staff, but ONA recruits members, coordinates the orientation process, and maintains BAC records and files.

D. Outreach to Citizens

1. Neighborhood Newsletters

The city contracts with each District Coalition Board to provide the funding equivalent for printing and mailing one neighborhood newsletter to each household in a neighborhood each year. The district offices provide technical assistance and secretarial services to produce these newsletters. The southeast office has the capability to produce computer desktop-published newsletters, and provides this service to some neighborhoods. If neighborhoods can find sources of in-kind services such as donated printing or volunteer door-to-door distribution, the city- provided funds can be stretched over more than one newsletter.

2. The ONA Newsletter

ONA produces a four page newsletter ten times a year that goes to all neighborhood officers and individual citizens who have expressed an interest in receiving it. It does not attempt to cover all neighborhood events, but provides a range of stories about recent successes.

3. District Coalition Newsletters

Four of the District Coalitions produce regular newsletters that cover the major issues facing the neighborhoods in its area. These newsletters often include statistical information, such as listings of reported crimes on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. They also attempt to list most neighborhood meetings occurring each month in the Coalition area, which in the larger areas runs up to 30-35 events each month. The total coverage of households in the city by these newsletters can be quite high. In the southeast district, for example, a total of 200,000 newsletters, between the district and its neighborhoods, were distributed in 1985-86.

4. District Surveys

Some boards conduct surveys of citizens in their district in conjunction with their neighborhood needs report. In the Northwest District, a neighborhood needs mailing is done each year to a mailing list of 1,000 households (out of approximately 11,000 in the district). Such surveys are not a regular process in most areas, however.

5. Citywide Population Survey

Since 1978, the city has conducted an annual population survey focusing on different issue areas each year. In the 1986 telephone survey of 1200 residents (using a sample frame of 150 residents in each of five districts, and downtown, plus two 150-person samples in two halves of the southeast district), the 75 questions focused particularly on transportation and human resources, but covered many other service-related issues as well. The survey was completed under the auspices of the Office of Fiscal Administration.

E. Major Program Components

1. The Neighborhood Needs Process

This process now runs from September of each year to the following July. It begins with the distribution of forms by ONA to the District Coalition Boards and to the neighborhoods, accompanied by some training opportunities about the budget process. In October, ONA receives completed forms and transmits them to the appropriate bureau, which acknowledges its receipt to the person submitting the request. At this point a specific contact person in the bureau is assigned to handle the requests. By January, the Bureau's response is sent to the neighborhood association and forwarded on to the Commissioner in charge and to the mayor. The mayor makes his/her budget presentation in early April, and the final budget is passed by the Commission by June. By July, ONA sends out the final "neighborhood need decision form."

Important components of this include:

  • As part of the initial needs identification, ONA provides a detailed checklist of potential problems including about 25 questions and a listing of "need areas which traditionally have been a source of community concern."
  • ONA "tracks" each need through a computer database organized by neighborhood and by bureau.
  • The bureau response is sent to the originator of each individual needs request with the name and phone number of a bureau contact person. This includes a specific indication of whether the request was accepted, rejected, included in a budget package (with budget document number provided), or held for further review on as specific date.
  • The bureau BACs reviews a listing of all bureau actions on neighborhood needs requests, as part of the bureau response phase in November and December of each year.
  • The ONA "Neighborhood Needs Briefing Report" includes information on the process and timeline, sample forms, BAC contact lists, and a two-page description from several major bureaus on their services, priorities, example projects, and contact people.

2. Crime Prevention

Since crime has been the number one issue in Portland during the past few years, crime prevention efforts are extensive. Full time crime prevention coordinators work out of the central ONA office and each district office. Their role is to help organize citizen crime prevention groups, many through neighborhood associations, and to help these groups gain access to the police and other city officials. The neighborhood watch is the central focus of this program.

3. Land Use and Comprehensive Neighborhood Plans

Land use planning in Oregon appears to be among the most elaborate in the country. Comprehensive plans in the state's major cities are mandated by state law. In Portland, many neighborhoods were involved in preparation of land use plans in the early 1970s, but only a handful actually seem to have produced full neighborhood-based comprehensive plans.

The strength of the system is that once such a plan is in place, state law makes it difficult to create variances and zoning changes that in many other states have made land use plans not worth the paper they're written on. Any individual or organization can challenge a land use decision that departs from the comprehensive plan, and is able to take the complaint to a state hearing officer. A result is that neighborhood organizations in Portland seem to have a very strong voice in any land use changes. The Fred Meyer case, at one extreme, pitted one of the biggest local corporations against several neighborhoods---in this case the neighborhoods lost the administrative battle, but have taken the issue to the state Supreme Court.

4. Self-Help Grants from the Housing and Community Development Department

This program only operates in specifically designated HCD (Housing and Community Development) neighborhoods. Most of the money for these grants comes from the federal Community Development Block Grant Program. Contrary to other cities in our study, the CDBG process seems to be almost totally independent from the participation system, and not very responsive to it. These CDBG grants are administered by an autonomous body, the Portland Development Commission. Throughout the history of the Portland system this HCD process and the participation process seem to have run on parallel tracks, with little connection except within specific neighborhood associations which received support both through HCD and ONA.

5. Leadership Training and Neighborhood Small Grants Program

For the past three years, one-day leadership training conferences have been provided by the southeast District Coalition Board (Southeast Uplift) for the whole city. The conference is designed to develop ways for neighborhoods to be more effective in organizing and presenting their issues to city hall. There were 130 participants in 1985.

This program is funded by the Neighborhood Grant Program of the Oregon Community Foundation. Individual neighborhood associations have also received grants from this foundation program. The southeast board runs several other training and issues forums each year, focusing on topics such as housing, crime, and drugs.

6. Neighborhood Technical Assistance Program

Another major neighborhood training organization is the Center for Urban Education. Receiving significant church-based and foundation funding, the Center has a dozen programs focused on the nitty-gritty of neighborhood organization development, from computer-assisted newsletters to effective volunteer programs and the use of a technical assistance resource bank.

7. Central City Plan

This three-year effort to redesign the downtown area of Portland was developed by a specially-created task force created by one of the city commissioners to bypass both the Portland Development Commission and the Planning Department (the latter being under the control of a mayor who, at the time, was relatively unsympathetic to citizen participation).

The first year of the plan saw an enormous participation effort eliciting the responses of over 10,000 citizens. Outreach efforts included special festivals, a mobile information van, and self-operated computer programs to survey citizen attitudes, and a wide range of creative participation initiatives.

The budget and timetable for the process were overrun, however, and as the program was transferred to a new commissioner, major cutbacks were made and most of the participation component disappeared. The whole process operated relatively independently of the neighborhood associations, although several of the inner southeast neighborhoods were specifically involved.

8. Neighborhood Information and Neighborhood Organizing Materials

ONA has recently been designated as manager of the city's information and referral center. The program's offices were moved in 1987 to occupy nearly half of the first floor of city hall in order to be more visible. The effect of this move on the operation of the office has yet to be seen. In addition to the documents it has always produced to suggest how to organize a neighborhood association and how to work with the Budget Advisory Committees or the neighborhood needs process, ONA is now responsible for basic information for citizens about all local governmental functions. To some extent they share this function with the independently-elected city auditor's office [which functions much like a city clerk in other cities] across the hall in city hall.

ONA is also responsible for maintaining a calendar of all neighborhood meetings and events and a list of all neighborhood contacts, updated twice a month. These resources supplement those of the individual district offices which also make available such information for their own areas.

9. Neighborhood Mediation Center

Located in the inner northeast district office, this center provides professional mediators and trains volunteer mediators to help resolve individual neighbor-to-neighbor problems before the courts get involved. They also mediate between businesses, neighborhood associations, nonprofit organizations, and the Housing Authority.

10. Neighborhood commercial districts

Formal organizations within specific commercial districts of the city were increasing in number and visibility in 1986. An Alliance of Portland Neighborhood Business Associations has been formed to represent their interests. In many ways they have been inspired by the neighborhood associations, but also reflect a sense that the interests of local business establishments are not necessarily well-represented by the neighborhood associations or district boards. In most situations, however, the commercial associations and neighborhood associations seem to have worked well together to resolve specific issues in the community.

11. Other Projects and Events

  • The second week of May is "Neighborhood Recognition Week." It involves day and evening workshops with staff from six major city bureaus that affect neighborhood life, presentations and small group discussions between neighborhood leaders and city council members, and individual and organizational recognition through the Mayor's Spirit of Portland Awards.
  • The Neighborfair is held in Waterfront Park, the downtown area bordering the Willamette River which was reclaimed from an old arterial highway. Sponsored by KGW, a local radio station, this fair has drawn as many as 250,000 people from the city and nearby suburbs. Individual neighborhood associations are able to have booths at the event, recruit new members, and demonstrate the results of specific projects they have undertaken.

F. Overall Perspective of the City on Participation

Portland seems to be a good example of a city in which reluctant officials were often brought along by citizens into a growing participation system. The focus of the system is clearly on the individual neighborhood associations and their ability to make things happen. Unlike St. Paul, Dayton, or Birmingham where the neighborhood-level groups are frequently the creation of the city, a large proportion of Portland's neighborhood associations have a history of autonomy from city hall. They demonstrated their power in the late 1960s and early 1970s by stopping or drastically modifying a number of projects, including redevelopment efforts (i.e. Albina slum-clearance) and major highway projects (i.e. the Mt. Hood Freeway). The recognition of these neighborhood associations by city hall was born out of this activism. From the beginning of ONA, the individual neighborhoods have fought any sign of structure or control by city hall on their own activities---only after several years were district offices accepted, and only after 14 years would neighborhoods accept written guidelines covering their operation.

Several Commissioners, which have independent administrative powers in Portland's Commission form of government, and at least one mayor, have not been supportive of the ONA operation. Yet substantial allocation of the city's general funds has been maintained throughout the history of the participation system. In spite of other budget cutbacks in many other agencies, the ONA funding seems to have been increasing every year.

With this history, the goals of ONA are generally stated in terms of considering and acting upon citizen needs. Participation in decisionmaking is a major factor in the design of nearly every new program in the city. Officials frequently make clear that the ONA system itself is only part of participation in the city---no individual or group is to be discouraged from participating "directly in the decisionmaking process of the City Council or any City Agency." Citizen activists also express a strong feeling that each neighborhood has a style all its own, a definite sense of values, and an opportunity to take any of a multitude of participation paths to city hall. In some ways there may be an underlying fear that making any one participation route too powerful may allow one interest or another to gain too much influence. In any event, the system strives for a balanced approach to participation rather than dependence upon any one agency or structure.

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