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Summer 2008

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URISA logo "Managing GIS"
A column from Members of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association

The Virtual Key to Portland's Growth Management Success

Metro's Regional Land Information System

By Richard C. Bolen, Urban Research Program Director, Metro Regional Government, Portland, Oregon

For the past 20 years, GIS has played a unique role in the Portland, Oregon, region, providing the information base for the regional government (Metro) urban planning systems.

Portland has perhaps the best-known growth management program in the world. Policy makers from Europe; Asia; Latin America; and, of course, North America annually trek to Portland to learn about its regional form of government, its urban growth boundary, and its light rail transit system. Meanwhile, scholars and journalists of all persuasions fill books, journals, and newspapers with criticism and praise for Portland's style of growth management. Though the debate has raged for nearly three decades, one element of Portland's growth management system has been conspicuously overlooked: that is, Portland's development and use of an advanced regional land information system (RLIS). Since RLIS was developed in the late 1980s, it has played a critical role in the development of every significant plan, the evaluation of every key policy, and the formulation of every major development model. Though the relative success of each of those plans, policies, and models has been widely discussed, the critical role of RLIS has gone largely unnoticed.

  click to enlarge
This shows the Portland metropolitan area with the urban growth boundary (UGB) highlighted.

Perhaps the raison d'Ítre of RLIS, and much of the data development and forecasting efforts at Metro, is managing growth using an urban growth boundary. Development of the RLIS at Metro occurred at an important time, not just for the evolution of automated geographic information systems but for the evolution of thinking about and the practice of planning metropolitan regions. Simply stated, RLIS created conditions that enabled a sophisticated and now much-studied approach to metropolitan growth management to emerge. The passage of statewide planning legislation, and the requirement for an urban growth boundary around all incorporated places and unincorporated urban development in Oregon, created the conditions for the successful implementation of the urban growth boundary concept.

Metro began developing RLIS in 1988; it was designed to be an urban planner's GIS, incorporating data essential for urban planning and growth management. Designing RLIS was a collaborative effort, involving regional, county, and city planners. The objective was to identify the data and functional requirements of a GIS supporting community and regional planning. Its regionwide usage for planning and environmental management was to provide consistent land information across jurisdictional boundaries for GIS programs in government and business, enabling data exchange and sharing of maintenance responsibilities.

Following digital conversion of the core RLIS layers, cooperative agreements were developed with local governments for development of ancillary layers and the ongoing maintenance of all layers. These agreements emerged from RLIS user gatherings, where the principle was developed that the agency bearing the greatest risk from errors in a particular layer should have responsibility for its maintenance and accuracy. For example, the property tax assessor is the logical maintainer of cadastral information and the planning department of property zoning.

A responsibility matrix was negotiated and has become an informal contract, establishing each jurisdiction's role and responsibility for RLIS. For each layer, RLIS members are indicated as developers, maintainers, or users. Of course, a member can be included in all three categories, Metro being the primary example.

The Tax Lot Layer

The multijurisdictional committee stressed the need for tax lots to serve as the base for the polygon layer. At the time, this insistence by local jurisdictions seemed daunting and expensive to Metro staff, but financial contributions were contingent upon a cadastral base polygon layer.

The Vacant Land Layer

Because a primary purpose for RLIS is monitoring land development and future growth capacity, measurement of available land is tantamount to success. Given the persistent controversy over land supplies, the accuracy and detail of the vacant land layer are critical. For this reason, aerial photography and building permits are the primary source for identifying where development has occupied previously vacant land. Each year, Metro leads a consortium of governments for purchase of aerial photography for the region.

Policy Analysis

Though RLIS was developed primarily to support planning and decision making at Metro, it has been used by a variety of consultants and scholars for policy analysis and research. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the research based on data from RLIS has been conducted by Metro staff, Metro contractors, and scholars associated with Oregon universities. The RLIS-supported research on these topics has not only helped shape land-use policy in Oregon but also has made major contributions to the scholarly literature on urban planning and policy analysis.

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A responsibility matrix was negotiated and has become an informal contract, establishing each jurisdiction's role and responsibility for RLIS.

RLIS has moved beyond its original purpose and has gained a broader user base in the community. Local governments and real estate developers are the two largest user groups. Cities and counties have incorporated the data into their planning information database, and developers use the vacant lands inventory to find land available for construction. Other users include environmental groups, neighborhood associations, and sundry organizations that benefit from vacant land information.

A product known as RLIS Lite has been developed for community users, and one of the interesting by-products has been the rise of the "citizen cartographer," as data, software, and computing power have become more widely available and affordable. RLIS Lite is distributed quarterly on DVD to a subscriber base of 170. An annual subscription is $895, and the price is reduced by 50 percent for governments and nonprofits and 95 percent for educational institutions.

In addition to providing GIS data, standard and custom map products are available, as are research consulting services. Sale of products and services generates between $400,000 and $500,000 a year. The RLIS Lite subscription is the single largest revenue producer, averaging $120,000 per year. Funds generated by the sale of products and services are dedicated to data maintenance.

The development and effective use of a comprehensive information system, such as RLIS, requires a long-term commitment. As valuable as RLIS is to any one project, the costs of data and system development are uneconomical unless spread over many different projects. The diffusion of costs and enlargement of benefits are enhanced by the involvement of many departments and local jurisdictions. Finally, in the rapidly evolving field of GIS, standing still is not an option. As the quality of data, operating systems, and computer platforms continues to advance, Metro strives to keep RLIS at the forefront of GIS technology.

Migrating to More Accurate GIS Data

Metro has moved from being the sole maintainer of the region's GIS to an integrator of updated and improved data received from other governments. As local governments have developed GIS programs, they have taken over maintenance of their specific data. For example, shifting tax lot maintenance from Metro to the counties has been especially valuable. However, it has been discovered that migrating the data into an integrated regional system is a challenge but is facilitated by virtue of all jurisdictions using the same data model instituted for the region by Metro.

A primary benefit of this integration strategy is incorporating investments made in GIS accuracy by local governments into RLIS. For example, the positional accuracy of the tax lot and street basemaps is being systematically improved by local governments as digital spatial data becomes more integrated into their business operations. This integration is greatest in public works, tax assessment, and planning departments.

RLIS has proved to be a successful and highly useful resource. Its envisioned purpose as a regionwide information system for planning and growth management has been met and exceeded, providing capabilities not originally contemplated. In 1997, the system was privileged to be selected from a national and international field of candidates to receive Esri's exemplary GIS award.

Some project success factors include

  • The emergence of robust GIS software in the 1980s (Esri's ArcInfo)
  • Availability of digital tax lot lines from the region's electric utility, Portland General Electric (PGE)
  • Regionwide GIS standards, established early on and subsequently adopted by local jurisdictions and other RLIS users
  • Cooperative data sharing with local governments from the beginning
  • Metro's role as a regional government to coordinate development of regionally consistent land information and transportation modeling
  • State-mandated local government funding for Metro's growth management program until 1993
  • State-mandated regulatory responsibilities, requiring comprehensive land information and mapping capabilities
  • A suburban/urban political partnership addressing growth management and transportation planning
  • Passage of state legislation allowing market pricing for RLIS products to partially offset maintenance costs

About the Author

Richard Bolen is retiring from his position as Urban Research Program director for Metro, the Portland metropolitan area's regional government. His 17-member multidisciplinary group conducts urban research and forecasting, relying on its GIS-based regional land information system and land development forecasting model, MetroScope.

More Information

For more information, contact Richard C. Bolen, Urban Research Program director, Metro Regional Government, Portland, Oregon (e-mail:, tel.: 503-797-1582).

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