Mayors and Managers

5 Questions for Charlie Hales

The mayor of Portland, Oregon, on why the benefits of his city need to benefit everyone

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales with staff from AARP Oregon

Mayor Charlie Hales visits the AARP booth at a Portland Sunday Parkways event in September 2014. — Photo by AARP Oregon

When he was running for the Portland City Council in 1992, Charlie Hales had a sense of what was in store for Oregon's largest city. "Portland is about to grow," he told voters. "And how we grow is very important." That year, Portland's population was about 450,000.

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Hales won the election, and two more. He went on to bcome a champion of expanding the city's light rail, developing a streetcar and creating safe routes for bicyclists. Hales is also credited with helping build or renovate more than 100 Portland parks. When he left public service in 2002 to work on mass transit projects for a private sector engineering firm, Portland's population was about 540,000.

Another 10 years later, in 2012, Hales was back on the campaign trail, this time to run for mayor of Portland, a city of nearly 610,000. "Decades ago, Portland became an exception in the urban equation, demonstrating that cities could be livable and that urbanism didn't have to succumb to suburbia," said Hales.

In 2006, when the World Health Organization (WHO) launched its Global Age-Friendly Cities Project, Portland was the only U.S. city (among 33 cities in 22 counties) invited to join. Four years later, Portland was one of the original nine cities accepted for membership in WHO's Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities. In 2012, when the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities debuted, Portland was an inaugural member.

The following interview with Mayor Hales was conducted by AARP Oregon volunteer Elaine Friesen-Strang for the AARP "Livable Oregon" blog. — Melissa Stanton, AARP Livable Communities

1. In June 2010, Portland became one of the first American cities to join the World Health Organization's Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities. Why is this important for the city?

Of course we're among the first American cities to join! The building blocks, literally, for it goes back to the founding of downtown Portland, with its very short street blocks and parks within easy walking distance. Portland has been a walkable city for well over a century. Add to that the land-use decisions of the 20th century, such as an urban growth boundary that limits our ability to expand outward. (That's true for all of Oregon, not just Portland.) Plus we've embraced public transit with buses, light rail trains and streetcars. And we have such a vibrant parks and recreation system. So being an age-friendly city is in our DNA.

2. As the mayor of Portland, what do you hope to accomplish with the city's Age-Friendly Plan?

I have long believed fairness has to be the North Star that guides our policies. We love so many things about Portland, but we feel they should be available for everyone in Portland, not just for some. The things we love about this town, we want everyone to share. And that includes our older residents.

3. According to the National Conference of State Legislators and the AARP Public Policy Institute, nine out of 10 people over the age of 65 want to stay in their homes as long as possible. What are the challenges in creating a city where people can age in place, and what conditions could improve this possibility?

One way to make that a more likely scenario is by embracing "complete neighborhoods." A complete neighborhood is one in which you can easily get to your job or your local school, to the park or at least a walkway, to the grocery store and other shopping. Complete neighborhoods have well-maintained streets and sidewalks. Complete neighborhoods feel safe.

I talk a lot about "placemaking," and complete neighborhoods is what I mean. When asked about Portland being a world-class city, my response is: I want world-class neighborhoods.

But that shouldn't be true only for a few neighborhoods. Our goal is for every Portlander to share in the things we love about Portland. So we're focusing on the neighborhoods that need attention: Martin Luther King Jr., Old Town Chinatown, Lents, Gateway. Again, it's about fairness and equity.

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