Coava coffee bike portland oregon




A place where tattoo ink never runs dry. A fabled land of coffee and beer and fixies and hipsters and strippers and food carts and stuff with birds on it.


Someone made a show about it.


Someone wrote a book about it.


People like me, and all the alterna-kids from the flyover states, want to move there.


I’m in the business of building great cities, so even when I’m on sabbatical, I can’t help noticing things that my hometown of Vancouver (not the Couve one, the Canadian one) could learn from lovely Stumptown.

Here’s my working list, and it grows longer every day I’m here.


Food Cart Culture


I know, Vancouver already has food carts.  If you work downtown, or you go to the farmers market, or you need something to temper your buzz on a long afternoon at 33 Acres or Brassneck, you eat at them.  But for the rest of Vancouver, food carts aren’t really part of the everyday food scene.  I think this would change if we had more than 700 of them, clustered in parking lots in every one of our neighbourhood commercial areas.  They could become gourmand grazing, social gathering spots, like they are in PDX, and that would be fun.


Reusing Old Buildings


In Vancouver, if it’s old we usually tear it down. Sometimes we keep the façade or the sign of an old building and make a big deal about it in the marketing campaign for the 30 storey glass monolith that we build in its place.

Portland repurposes everything. Gas stations that could be sets in 1950s movies become noodle bars or Hawaiian restaurants. Thanks to the McMenamin Brothers, asylums become breweries that host outdoor concerts and weddings, and defunct elementary schools continue as playgrounds, but for grown ups, with beer and hot tubs and $3 movies.


An Urban Scandinavian Spa


Loyly Spa Portland Oregon


Hydrotherapy is a fancy word for getting really hot, and then getting really cold, and then doing it all over again until you feel calm at a cellular level.

Whistler has lovely outdoor baths in the mountains but they are a long trip from Mount Pleasant on a rainy Saturday.  Portland scores in my books with its easy-to-get-to urban storefront Scandinavian spa, Loyly.  The small, modernist facility is an oasis of calm and warm and jarringly cold, where a couple hours of bliss is a very reasonable USD$23.


Loyly Spa Portland Oregon


Loyly Spa Portland Oregon


Indie Drinking Is Mainstream


Small batch liquor flows like water here in Bridgetown. Wherever you are, there’s a craft tasting room just around the corner.  Cafes sell Americanos with a shot of bourbon on the side and call it a Working Girl, because it’s just another day in the office for Portland’s army of freelance professionals.

In Portland, almost every warm weather weekend hosts a festival to celebrate liquor. The International Beer Festival. The Cider Summit. The Great American Distillers Festival. These celebrations of drinking always include good food and good music, two other Portland staples.

So please, Premier Clark, relax those draconian liquor laws so Vancouver can catch up.


Deschutes Brewpub Oregon


City-Wide Happy Hour


Happy hour is an institution in Portland. Every afternoon, Portlanders have almost endless choice of location for great food and cocktails. This isn’t the “one dollar off a G+T and some olives” kind of happy hour – that wouldn’t fly in food-forward Portland. Many restaurants have full menus showcasing the best they have to offer at deeply discounted prices.


Happy Hour, Portland Oregon


Neighbourhood Movie Theatres


Portland’s neighbourhoods still have lots of single screen movie theatres. How do they stay in business? Beer. Pizza. Concerts.  Second run movies that people will watch again and again. Permissive, mixed use awesomeness.

I know this request might be too late for Vancouver because almost all of the neighbourhood theatres that haven’t been torn down for condos have been gobbled up by the Cineplex giants. But please, for the few that remain, think about it.


Bagdad Theatre Portland Oregon


Small Is Beautiful


Portland embraced this simple motto from day one when it laid out a downtown with petite 200 foot block lengths, and inner city neighbourhoods with skinny streets and modest lots that hold small houses with big front porches.  The result is a modern urban centre that feels like a bunch of side-by-side small towns.

People who visit both of my  favourite cities in the Pacific North West always think Vancouver is a lot bigger, but in terms of population, we’re pretty much twins. The population of the City of Portland was 590,000 people a couple years ago, compared to Vancouver’s 603,000, and Portland Metro has 2.3 million residents compared to about 2.4 million in Greater Vancouver. The difference in the cities is density: Vancouver proper squeezes into 114,, while the City of Portland spreads out to 376 sq. km.

I know that Vancouver has to go up, not out. But in a city of glass boxes in the sky, I hope we’re thinking a lot about how we can create our own higher density version of Portland’s front-stoop-chatting-with-your-neighbours culture.


Low Cost Of Living


I get reverse sticker shock when I come to Portland. Rents are cheap, good food is weirdly inexpensive and there’s no sales tax. When someone brings me a bill I always look twice because the decimal point seems one spot too far to the left.

I’m not an economist so I won’t pretend to understand how this happens. But I do see the link to the city’s vibrant creative economy. In Portland, people can enjoy a high quality of life while working flexible schedules that leave them lots of time and brain space for creativity.  The cool things they do in their free time reinforce the city’s unique culture and vibrancy, which in turn, draws tourists and nomads like me here to spend money.

So yes, Vancouver, you’re awesome.  You win much-lauded awards all the time.  And you’d be even more awesome in my eyes if you drank a bit of the Portlandia Kool-Aid.


Photo credits: Dennis Tang, Jim Ellwanger, Wayan Vota, Jason Lander