50 Years of Place-Based Work at ECO

May 8, 2024

Author

Increasing access to opportunity and prosperity—one neighborhood at a time

Economists have called cities humankind’s greatest invention. Physicists have likened cities to living organisms with boulevards serving as blood vessels and back alleys as capillaries. Why some thrive, and others don’t, is a question that goes back centuries.

Few places in the U.S. have intentionally attempted to guide, shape, and control the growth of cities as much as Oregon. ECOnorthwest has roots in some of the first experiments with long-range land use and transportation planning, getting its start just as the state enacted pioneering land use legislation with the aim of preventing sprawl while preserving productive farm and forestland. ECO has learned a lot about what works—and what doesn’t—to channel growth in ways that protect significant resources and rural economies, make room for economic growth and new neighbors, challenge and reverse historical inequities, and create vibrant neighborhoods, downtowns, and employment centers where people can thrive.

In the early days, ECO’s growth management work was focused on producing population and job forecasts to inform the new state planning requirements. In 1994, Terry Moore, the founder and longtime leader of ECO’s place-based practice, co-wrote the award-winning Transportation/Land Use Connection. This influential work examined forces shaping cities, frameworks for evaluating transportation and land-use policies, and the roles of regional planning. Through decades of work in planning for housing, economic growth, and land use, our approach has evolved and become more nuanced, embracing a more holistic and equitable perspective that both responds to and has helped drive changing statewide requirements. 

Today, ECO is leveraging the lessons we’ve learned from our deep roots to inform better public policy from a site scale to a state scale throughout the Western U.S. 


Housing:

—How much housing do we need to build?

—How do we accelerate construction of housing for everyone in our communities?

ECO’s housing work builds on dozens of housing needs analyses for jurisdictions across Oregon and Washington, in-depth analyses of the impacts of development incentives or regulations on housing production and affordability (such as inclusionary zoning, impact fees / system development charges, and density bonuses), and national-scale efforts to quantify housing underproduction coming out of the Great Recession. Today, ECO is:

  • Helping design better statewide housing policy in Oregon that prioritizes equity and accountability while supporting local governments to adapt 
  • Helping regions in the Mountain West work together to plan for housing for the first time
  • Working with cities in California to identify realistic and achievable opportunities to support badly needed housing production
  • Informing statewide and local efforts to align zoning regulations to expand housing opportunity, such as through middle housing
  • Helping cities and states think through how to repair past harms from discriminatory housing policies and provide more-equitable access to housing and homeownership

 


Equitable Economic Growth

—How do we expand our employment base?

—How do we expand economic opportunity and prosperity through employment and entrepreneurship?

ECO has spent decades helping urban and rural communities across the Northwest adapt to changing national and global economic trends and changing markets, supporting communities in making sound, fiscally sustainable decisions to support economic growth, prosperity, and job creation while also improving the quality of life in the places we live. Today ECO is building from our legacy by:

  • Crafting statewide strategies in Washington and Oregon to redefine economic success and recommend equity-focused actions that address disparities in education, job quality, and wealth 
  • Doubling down on the importance of future-focused planning in downtowns, main streets, and employment centers through action plans and investment strategies
  • Supporting target industry growth—e.g., in semiconductors, advanced manufacturing, clean tech—through an understanding of how investments and incentives affect economic growth 
  • Understanding how climate change will affect how our economies function and what opportunities exist to support climate resiliency through economic development 
  • Identifying housing production and affordability as two of the biggest barriers to economic growth and competitiveness across high-growth communities in the West

 


Land Use and Development

—How do we attract development to our downtowns and centers that supports the community’s goals and benefits residents?

—How can we make sure that infrastructure and regulations support efficient development in new areas?

Our home state’s focus on fostering vibrant communities in developed areas has fueled our efforts to support and improve downtowns, transit corridors, and pedestrian-friendly centers in the communities we work with. We have long since expanded this work across the Pacific Northwest and beyond, from small towns to major cities. Today, ECO is focused on:

  • Working with transit agencies across the Western US, including Sound Transit in Puget Sound, to develop strategies for equitable transit-oriented development
  • Supporting both small towns (like St. Helens) and major cities (like Portland) in reimagining key waterfront sites where a shift away from industrial uses creates new opportunities
  • Helping communities from Tigard to Missoula update plans for targeted opportunity areas including downtowns, malls, business districts, and mixed use neighborhoods
  • Working with communities to identify investments, programs, and policies to reconnect and strengthen areas impacted by historic urban renewal practices

Oregon also takes planning for future urban areas seriously. ECO has spent decades supporting communities in planning for new growth areas, and has had the opportunity to see how plans have played out—what worked, and what didn’t. This experience has given us a deep appreciation for the site conditions, economic drivers, and infrastructure funding solutions required to deliver successful new development at the urban edge.

 


Our work on these place-based plans has deepened in recent years to more fully consider how areas can best meet the needs and priorities of the whole community, including residents who have historically been marginalized. We want to help create a lasting impact: opportunities and benefits that are broadly shared. As we continue our work—now and over the next 50 years—we’re actively embracing strategies to prevent displacement, prioritizing fair outcomes in public investments, addressing historical injustices, and building a sense of belonging for people from many backgrounds