Urban Growth Boundaries: An important lesson for India

Portland’s transformation into one of the greenest regions/cities in the US has been a slow and steady process over the past four decades. In addition to micro-level influences such as strong community involvement, visionary and realistic planning, and substantial activism for active transportation, a significant macro-level influence that enabled this transformation was the state-wide planning system introduced in 1973. A direct result of this visionary set of laws instituted by the State of Oregon was the implementation of the innovative concept of urban growth boundaries (UGBs) in all major metropolitan areas of Oregon including Portland. The utility of this concept has in fact led to its implementation across other states in the US such as California, Washington and Tennessee as well.

Portland metropolitan region's urban growth boundary from Google Earth (T)


The workings and implementation of UGBs is an important lesson to learn from Portland for Indian cities that are currently struggling with urban sprawl. By keeping urban development contained in a compact boundary, UGBs promote more efficient land-use planning along with an assurance for businesses and local governments about where to place basic infrastructure necessary for future development. Moreover, limited resources can be invested on making existing infrastructure more efficient rather than constantly building new capacity for an ever-expanding urban area. Besides this, UGBs are important for another significant reason, explained below.

Urban development patterns in India over the last two decades suggest that often new cities emerge over traditionally agricultural land when escalating property prices create incentives for real estate developers to acquire such land (Gurgaon in the National Capital Region being a case in point). In addition, rural appendages to ad-hoc urban developments have been extensively used as dumping grounds for the urban waste (such as the rural areas around Chennai) while rural inhabitants migrate into urban agglomerations due to lack of lucrative opportunities in the rural areas. Clearly, urbanization in India has not just been sprawled in terms of land-use, it has also been predatory as far as rural areas and their economy is concerned.

The concept of UGBs is essentially the antithesis of this ad-hoc and predatory form of urbanisation seen in India. The boundary controls urban expansion onto fertile farmland and precious forest cover. The concept of UGBs embodies respect for urban and rural areas and their economies alike, allowing them to coexist in an inter-dependent way. As will be evident below, this was the primary realisation and motivation that led Oregon to initiate the State-Wide Land-Use Planning programme, incorporating UGBs into state legislation.


Governor Tom McCall and his allies (a coalition of farmers and environmentalists) convinced the Oregon state legislature to create UGBs as part of the state-wide land-use planning programme in the early 1970s because he was extremely concerned about the adverse impact that uncontrolled and unplanned urbanization would have on the state’s two primary industries – agriculture and timber. In addition, there was a focus on the need for retaining the state’s natural beauty and easy access to nature.

The Columbia Region Association of Governments, which was one of the predecessors of Metro, undertook extensive planning to propose a UGB for their region (comprising six counties). In 1978, the proposed UGB was approved by the Land Conservation and Development Commission as consistent with statewide planning goals. Metro inherited the responsibility of managing the Portland metropolitan region’s UGB when it was constituted in 1979.

In adopting the regional UGB, Metro coordinated between regional and local comprehensive plans, consistent with state-wide planning goals. Hence, the process of defining the UGB involved more than drawing a line on the map. The boundary was based on a projection of the need for urban land based on the plans and growth projections of the three counties (Washington, Multnomah, and Clackamas) along with 24 cities and 60 special service districts under Metro. The land development plans of individual property owners were also taken into account.


The Portland metropolitan region is required by law to have a UGB that contains at least 20,000 acres (81 sq km) of vacant land, in addition to maintaining restrictions on the development of farmland. For instance, the minimum land-parcel required for a single unit outside the UGB is much higher than within the UGB to facilitate farmland development. While land outside the boundary allows protection of forests and farmland, the land-use within the boundary supports urban services including roadways, water supply and sewerage systems, and other utilities that are conducive to compact and livable urban communities.

The state-wide planning law is pragmatic and realistic in the sense that it requires Metro to maintain a 20-year supply of land for future residential development inside the boundary. The Metro Council went a step ahead in 2002, asking technical staff to also determine the requirement to maintain 20-year land supply for new jobs, thus allowing for sustainable economic expansion of the urban areas as well.

All this requires the Metro Council to conduct a review every five years of the existing land supply to prepare an urban growth report, that analyses both residential and employment needs of the region. The employment section describes a 20-year projection of the number and types of jobs expected to come in the region and the type of buildings and land-use it might require. The residential section projects how many new households are expected over the 20-year range and the public investment and housing needs to accommodate the new households.

If the urban growth report indicates that the existing UGB provides sufficient capacity to accommodate growth forecasted over the next 20 years, then it is left unaltered. Only if the report indicates that the existing UGB does not have sufficient land availability to accommodate the 20-year growth forecast, does the Metro Council take necessary steps. Even in such a situation, however, expanding the boundary is considered only as the final alternative after considering other possibilities with local governments to increase the efficiency of land use within the existing boundary to accommodate more growth. These steps may include upzoning, increased investments in public transportation infrastructure, and redevelopment of brownfields.

The Metro Council has up to two years after the completion of an urban growth report to consider a possible expansion of the UGB. The unique feature of the process is the scope for a regional conversation that requires coordination and consensus between Metro, the county governments and all other jurisdictions concerned.

In addition, the Council also has powers to, under special circumstances, expand the UGB to meet immediate needs to provide lands for specific purposes that cannot be accommodated and cannot wait till the next urban growth report. However, these special powers are rarely used. The process requires local governments to petition the Metro Council to consider expanding the UGB outside the five-year review cycle. Such a petition cannot be made in a year in which an urban growth report is required to be completed. Moreover, the petitioners must address extensive criteria and provide complete justification for requesting such a narrowly targeted expansion outside the normal review cycle.

Aerial snapshot of the Portland metropolitan region

Past expansions

Since the boundary was first drawn, it has been moved quite a few times, although most of those moves were less than 20 acres. Substantial additions have been authorised very few times, as follows:

  • 1998: About 3,500 acres were added to make room for approximately 23,000 housing units and 14,000 jobs.
  • 1999: 380 acres were added based on the concept of “subregional need” (such as a situation where a community needs land to balance the number of homes with the number of jobs available in that area).
  • 2002: A huge addition of 18,867 acres was made to provide 38,657 housing units and 2,671 acres for additional jobs. This action also created important regional policies to support neighborhoods, protect industrial areas and enhance regional and town centers. Nonetheless, these expansions represented an increase of only about 9 percent, whereas population increased by about 17 percent since 1990.
  • 2004: 1,956 acres were added to address the need for industrial lands identified as part of the 2002 planning process.
  • 2005: 345 acres of land was added for industrial purposes, completing the 2002 planning process.

The current UGB encompasses approximately 400 sq miles (about 256,360 acres). As of February 2000, about 1.3 million people lived within the boundary.

New system for additions to UGB

Prior to 2007, the five-year review system created some strife amidst landowners and citizens who remained uncertain of areas for urban expansion. Additions to the UGB were authorised according to criteria determined by state law, according to which high priority lands must be added before lower priority lands can be added. However, this criteria only dictated which land to exclude for certain (based on fertility) without necessarily assisting in the decision of which land to include, in case of additions, to create vibrant urban communities.

This uncertainty especially affected landowners at the edge of the UGB, while also adversely affecting investment decisions in the region. Hence, based on suggestions from the region’s leaders, the Oregon state legislature adopted the Senate Bill 1011 in 2007, enabling the region to clearly identify and earmark areas outside the UGB as urban or rural reserves as well as working farms and forests for the next 50 years. Hence, the region now has a formal method to consider what makes a good site for a city and remark such sites as urban reserves.

In order of priority, the classification of land reserves that can be added to the UGB are as follows:

  • Urban reserve land: Areas outside the current UGB that are designated as lands that could be brought inside the boundary over the next 50 years to accommodate growth are called urban reserves, as opposed to rural reserves (areas outside the boundary where future urban development cannot occur for a period of up to 50 years). Various factors are considered to designate land as urban reserves such as potential for dense urban development through efficient land-use and provision of basic infrastructure, capacity to support a healthy economy, preservation of natural ecological systems, and minimising conflicts with farms, forests and nearby natural areas.
  • Exception land (non-resource land): This is the land just outside the UGB that is not farm or forest land but is not designated as urban or rural reserve.
  • Marginal land: This is a class of exception land outside of designated urban and rural reserves that allows dwelling units on exclusive farm use land.
  • Farm or forest land: Within this category, further prioritisation is done on the basis of soil class or forest productivity, such that higher priority is given to areas of lower productivity.

Under the new system, instead of starting from scratch after every five-year review to decide whether and how to expand the UGB, the region has an identified stock of reserves to consider for additions. Hence, the reserves process provides greater certainty for local governments, businesses and rural landowners.

The Metro Council took formal action in June 2010 to designate urban reserves in the Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties. The process required counties to conduct extensive suitability analyses in their respective lands outside the current UGB limits, covering an overall area of 400,000 acres, to decide which areas should be considered urban and rural reserves. The decisions have been based on a set of prescribed factors that were set out in the legislation that created the reserves process.

No UGB expansions will be considered until all reserves are acknowledged by the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission. While two counties have already completed the identification process and received acknowledgment from the commission, the Washington County was required to redefine the proposed reserves list. The county arrived at a consensus with Metro Council in March 2011 and the redefined proposal has been submitted to the commission. Acknowledgment is expected later in 2011. Overall, over 28,000 acres of urban reserves and 267,0000 acres of rural reserves are expected to be added across the three counties.

Future amendments

The most recent urban growth report accepted by the Metro Council was in December 2009, and the Council is currently in the process of considering whether or not the boundary will be expanded. The 2009 report indicated a need for additional capacity within the UGB for new housing units and industrial sites that are 50 acres or larger.

At least half of the housing needs identified within the report will be met through the provision of additional capacity within the existing UGB according to the capacity ordinance adopted by the Metro Council in December 2010 as part of its Making the Greatest Place initiative. The capacity ordinance were adopted after considering comments from members of the public, local governments and the Metro Policy Advisory Committee. The adopted capacity ordinance (Metro Ordinance no. 10-1244B) is a set of policy amendments that would strengthen protection of industrial land and increase focus on public investments geared towards growth in town and regional centres, employment areas and transportation corridors.


The concept of UGBs has come under criticism and scrutiny over the past decade and is considered controversial by some. This is because of the substantial rise in housing prices, especially on the West Coast of the US in this period. According to critics, limiting the supply of developable land through UGBs puts an upward pressure on the price of existing developable and already-developed land, leading to higher housing prices. However, supporters of the concept counter this critique by pointing out that housing prices have increased similarly across the country and according to economic analysis, farmland appreciated similarly to the other land. Moreover, evidence suggests that Portland’s housing market is still more affordable than other West Coast cities.


The implementation of UGBs is a unique learning experience from Portland. The approach is of interest for more than one reasons. Firstly, there is a dual focus on protecting rural farmland and forests as well as vitalising urban areas through town centers and suitable infrastructure investments. A trip to the edge of the UGB is enough evidence to prove that this dual approach works as one observes a drastic transformation from densely developed urban areas with residential and commercial establishments to large parcels of farmland and scenic forests and wetlands.

UGB along Hillsboro

Quoting the Metro website (www.oregonmetro.gov), “it isn’t hard to figure out why we love the Portland metro region. Through shrewd planning and a love of place we’ve kept nature close to home and country close to city”.

UGB along Ross Island

Secondly, the region has retained an interdependence between urban areas within the UGB and rural reserves outside through activities such as farmer’s markets that allow farmers to directly sell their produce in cities without much transportation cost. This also promotes the sustainable concept of ‘locavorism’ which hinges on consuming local agricultural produce to reduce shipping and use of chemicals, preservatives etc.

Finally, the process for implementing and revising the UGB involves a regional dialogue amongst all stakeholders including local and county governments, public organisations, citizens, businesses and farmers. This unique collaborative process of identifying reserves for the next 50 years displays both vision and inter-agency cooperation.

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About the Author

Ishani Mehta Ishani Mehta is The Urban Vision's Fellow at The Young Urban Leader Program. Ishani is working in Portland as part of the program. The program is aimed at facilitating knowledge transfer between cities known for their progressive planning policies and rapidly urbanizing India. The YUL Portland Fellowship is supported by Portland State University and Portland Metro. The Program in Portland was made possible due to the support of Nancy Chase , Independent Planning Professional in Portland and Architect Hafeez Contractor in India. Ishani has been working in New Delhi as an urban infrastructure analyst for the past three years. She has experience in writing articles, papers, reports and newsletters on urban infrastructure developments in India. Her areas of professional interest include urban transport, development policy and planning, civic infrastructure and basic services, and infrastructure financing. By background, she holds a Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics, prior to which she graduated in Economics from the University of Delhi in 2006. Ishani has held various positions of leadership during her academic life. She was the Co-President (Campus) for ShARE-Global, a students' organisation spanning over 20 campuses across the world. During undergraduation, she was the Council Member and Treasurer of the college Economics Scoiety.