Reproducing Spatial Inequality

The sustainability fix and barriers to urban mobility in Portland,

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Mahmoudi, Dillon, Amy Lubitow, and MacKenzie A. Christensen. 2020. “Reproducing spatial inequality? The sustainability fix and barriers to urban mobility in Portland, Oregon.” Urban Geography. doi:10.1080/02723638.2019.1698865


We explore how the language of “just sustainability” may become subsumed into a sustainability fix strategy, depoliticizing the utility of concepts such as justice and/or equity. Building from critical GIS insights,we combine digitized spatial data from participatory mapping exercises and community-organization-based focus group in Portland, Oregon, regarding a proposed six-mile biking and walking path around downtown. We find that 80 percent of participants’ typical travel destinations are outside of downtown Portland and that participants experience planning and sustainability in a highly localized manner, challenging the equity rationale of downtown investment. We argue the top-down planning model, which presumes that the spatial diffusion of benefits is equitable, is inherently ahistorical and fails to benefit those in historically marginalized neighborhoods. Finally, we argue for the value of community-oriented research, which, in this case, inspired a coalition of community organizations to formally oppose a city-led project based on the inequitable distribution of infrastructure benefits.

We show how development based on a sustainability fix hinders an equity evaluation whose primary metric is access to central city amenities, where “access” is perceived to be a mechanism that serves traditionally marginalized populations. The uneven spatial structure of the city instead reveals that wealthier, white central city residents have much higher rates of access to the proposed project than those connected to the project later through bike and pathway development.

When asked about their typical travel concerning the central city, participants either didn’t want to travel downtown or found that there were barriers to doing so. Traveling to and from the central city was not of immediate interest for a clear majority of our participants, despite the Green Loop project’s goals of creating infrastructure that would serve a large share of Portland residents. As one participant put it:

“And the reality is that a lot of people who now live here don’t or can’t work downtown because toward downtown requires higher education. And it requires you being in very specific industries . . . a lot of folks are working in blue-collar industries . . . So a lot of our folks who live here, downtown isn’t where people are going to work.”