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When I tell people I work at Metro, I usually get one of two responses.  One is “Oh, you mean MetroPCS?” The other is a blank stare and confused head nod.  My first couple of weeks in Portland, I was surprised by these responses. It seems like no one knows what Metro is, even though it plays a large role in the lives of everyone living in the Portland area.

So what is Metro?  Metro is the regional government of Portland, and it’s the agency that helped transform Portland into the livable, green city it is known as today.  As the only governmental organization of its kind in the United States, Metro consists of a regionally elected council from around the Portland metropolitan area that crosses city and county lines to manage Portland not as a collection of cities, but as a unified statistical area.  Therefore, Metro is in charge of managing services and issues that cross city and county lines, such as waste management, transportation planning, protection of parks and natural reserves, and land use planning.

One of Metro’s most important functions is managing Portland’s urban growth boundary, or the border between urban and rural land in the Portland area.  This boundary fulfills two functions. First, the boundary protects rural farmland and natural reserves from being assimilated into the urban area as the city grows.  Second, it prevents urban sprawl by preventing unregulated growth of the urban area as the city’s population grows. Metro is responsible for revising the urban growth boundary so that it can account for twenty years of future growth.  This allows Metro to regulate how and where the city can grow in the most sustainable way.

Perhaps most importantly, Metro is responsible for creating and carrying out the “master plan” for Portland’s progression as a metropolitan area over time.  In the 1990’s, Metro created a groundbreaking and innovative fifty-year-long plan for managing Portland’s growth while maintaining its livability, called the 2040 Growth Concept.  The concept incorporates planning for the future of Portland’s economy, land use, transportation, natural spaces, and cultural identity. One of the most important concepts of the plan is the notion of building up, rather than out.  Metro is focused on decreasing lot sizes and improving land already within the urban growth boundary, rather than building out and increasing urban sprawl.

I come from a city similar to Portland, both in size and ethos, and I have been able to notice the impact of a unified regional government like Metro on a region wide level.  Operations like mass transit and services run smoother, there is more collaboration between cities, less urban sprawl, and a larger number of well-maintained natural areas. While Portland is by no means a “perfect” city, it is easy to see the difference an agency like Metro makes in unifying Portland as one large community rather than a collection of smaller cities.

Read more about the 2040 Growth Concept here: