Sunday, December 13, 2015

Rochester, NY vs. Portland, OR

As may have been apparent in previous posts, I have Portland envy.  Not that Portland, ME, is any slouch, but I'm referring to Portland, OR.  Granted the Portland, OR, metro area is over twice the size of the Rochester metro area, is around 90 minutes from the Pacific Ocean, and has mountains.  On the other hand, Rochester is reasonably sized, is on Lake Ontario and very near the Finger Lakes, and holds its own when it comes to outdoorsiness.  Furthermore, Rochester is beginning to mirror Portland's beer and coffee scene, and it abuts a formidable wine region just as Portland does.  The demographics of the Rochester region are somewhat similar to those of Portland, and educational attainment is nearly identical.  Both cities have an inferiority complex, with Portland's self-doubt stemming from proximity to Seattle and Rochester's insecurity deriving from its Northeast neighbors.  Both areas have ample precipitation, with Portland actually taking the edge in terms of cloudiness.

Why, then, is Portland viewed as remarkably desirable while Rochester gets the shaft? Appearance goes a long way, and downtown Portland's appearance essentially crushes that of Rochester.  Which demands yet another question: WHY?

Many factors may be in play, but regional planning, or lack thereof, is quite possibly the key.  Portland has a directly elected regional government (aptly called Metro) which takes a broad view on metropolitan development.  Logically, the health of the core is prioritized over the health of the periphery.  Unfortunately, Rochester has opted for persistent fragmentation.  The result of Rochester's system is a wide array of geographically connected entities which are in economic competition.  Perhaps someone more informed than myself can explain the following (and correct me if I'm wrong):

  • Rochester's fastest growing suburb, Victor, is not in the same county as the city of Rochester.  Victor, in Ontario County, has attracted many young families with its lower property taxes compared to Rochester's Monroe County.  As such, Victor residents benefit from the economic and cultural assets of the region without having to contend to the same extent with supporting the urban core.  
  • Within Monroe County, Rochester's suburbs seem to compete with the city of Rochester.  A new development in a suburb is not on the city's tax roll and vice versa.
  • The city of Rochester and Monroe County enjoy bickering over who pays for what, apparently ignoring the fact that they may have a common interest or two.
Because of this fragmentation, Rochesterians have to point to data to sell the area, while better managed regions can allow aesthetics to do the talking.


  1. The land area of the "city" of Portland is nearly 4 times that the size of the city of Rochester. Check out this map that shows how much land Portland has annexed from it's suburbs over the years:

    A lot easier for one group to run the show when they actually control everything. I don't know the history of it, but I have read numerous times that New York state has ridiculous annexation laws that make it basically impossible for the city cores to actually grow, so you end up with cities directly competing with their similarly sized suburbs. If you ask me, this is one of the biggest issues cities in this state face. This is also why you can never compare cities like Rochester and Buffalo with cities in other states on raw numbers alone. We have decent sized metro areas but the "cities" themselves are pretty small comparatively.

    1. Great map! Without a doubt, annexation has been a huge factor. Even Portland saw a decline in its urban population by 1980, but aggressive annexation (as indicated on the map) has allowed the city to grow from about 365,000 in 1980 to about 583,000 in 2010. So it's completely correct to state that comparing our upstate cities to other cities around the country is not totally fair. With that said, I still think the Rochester region is more fragmented than it needs to be.