By Elaine Friesen-Strang
Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish is passionate about civic engagement and he thinks you should be too. He also understands the necessity of age-friendly policies and planning to help older adults remain active in their communities.
With a rich family history of public service, after graduating from Harvard, Commissioner Fish first worked as a legislative aide in Massachusetts. Then with a Northeastern University law degree, he spent ten years representing health care workers in New York. A teaching job at Portland State University for his wife Patricia brought the Fish-Schechter family to Portland.
Commissioner Fish was elected to the Portland City Council in a special election in 2008, then was re-elected to successive four-year terms in 2010 and 2014. The range of his responsibilities have included the Housing Bureau, Portland Parks and Recreation, Environmental Services, and the Portland Water Bureau. He currently serves as the Liaison to Elders in Action, Age-Friendly Cities, Regional Arts and Culture Council, Venture Portland, and the Governor’s Regional Solutions Advisory Council.
A father of two, Commissioner Fish enjoys attending his son’s soccer games, along with rooting for the Pilots and the Thorns. You can spot him roaming independent bookstores, visiting art galleries, attending film festivals, and listening to jazz: you could say the Commissioner is a typical resident of the city he represents. AARP’s Livable Oregon Blog series is pleased he took time to answer the following questions.
On behalf of AARP, I want to thank you for championing Portland's Age Friendly designation and your advocacy in developing and adapting the Action Plan. What gains have been made in making our city more age friendly? What priorities would you like to see in helping Portland be a great place for people of all ages and abilities?
It is an honor to serve as a champion for older adults, and to work closely with my friends at Age-Friendly Portland, Elders in Action, and AARP. Our shared vision is a community that is welcoming to people of all ages and abilities.
We are very proud of our designation as an Age-Friendly City. And of the collaboration with AARP and other trusted community partners that lead to the Age-Friendly Portland Action Plan.
The Plan has helped change the conversation about the value of older adults. Whether it’s making homes and parks more accessible, reducing the burden of utility services, or expanding community gardens, the Plan is focusing our attention on the unique needs of older adults.
This year, we are prioritizing housing affordability, and how we can protect our most vulnerable residents. Recently, the City Council declared a state of emergency. With rising rents and home prices, and declining vacancy rates, older adults are getting squeezed out of Portland. That’s why we need to increase the supply of affordable homes, expand renter protections, and enforce our Fair Housing laws.
Portland is a rapidly growing city--both in terms of its population and reputation. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing our city today?
Portland is experiencing significant growing pains. We used to be known as the “last affordable City on the West Coast.” No longer. If we do not manage growth sensibly, we risk losing our identity, pricing out middle class families, and becoming a city of the rich and the poor.
Here is what I think we need to do to protect what makes Portland special. Boost public and private investment in permanently affordable housing. Focus density where we can accommodate it, while protecting our single family neighborhoods. Ensure that everyone has access to parks, trails, and active recreation. Expand transportation choices. Make our sidewalks and streets safer. Champion accessible arts and culture. These are the cornerstones of a great, livable city.
At a recent New Partners for Smart Growth Conference, held here in Portland, Ron Sims, the Former Deputy Secretary of the US Housing and Urban Development, said successful neighborhoods produce successful residents. Zip codes should not be health determinants. What are the key features needed by every community to help its residents lead healthy, engaged, productive lives?
The formula for healthy and successful neighborhoods is the same regardless of age, income, or ability.
I believe strongly in the vision of a “20-minute community,” where everything you need exists within 20 minutes by foot, bike, transit or car. It’s why I am supportive of many of the policies in the draft Comprehensive Plan.
As Parks Commissioner, one of my priorities was to improve community health. Some examples: expanding community gardens, kicking the junk food out of our recreation centers, and protecting senior recreation programs from budget cuts.
Moving forward, by combating climate change, focusing on sustainability, and supporting inclusive, diverse neighborhoods, we will ensure that everyone has a healthier future.
You come from a family that has a long history of being civically engaged. At the Vital Aging PDX Conference in December, you issued a call to older adults to play an active role in their communities and in local government. Why is this important for older adults? What suggestions do you have for individuals who are hesitant, or not sure what steps to take to getting involved?
I am proud of my family’s tradition of public service.
My grandfather, who lived to the ripe old age of 102, served in Congress. He stood up for African- American soldiers during WWI, and sponsored the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
My father also served in Congress and co-sponsored the Americans with Disabilities Act; my mother was a nurse. They taught all four of their children the value of service to others.
I have had wonderful role models and mentors outside of my family. They include former Congressman Barney Frank, a champion for older adults who gave me my first job out of college, and my dear friend Governor Barbara Roberts, who inspires me every day.
One thing I have learned: whether we serve in elected office, or volunteer in our community, we all have something to contribute. The key is to be engaged. As the old saying goes, “Decisions are made by those who show up.”
That’s why I encourage everyone, young and old, to get involved. Join your neighborhood association. Volunteer in your local school. Seek an appointment to a commission or a board. Mentor a young person or a small business owner. Attend a City Council hearing and hold us accountable. Run for office. Vote!
You have a good understanding of the city’s needs and after years of civic leadership, you know there are no easy answers. There must come certain stresses with your job. What brings you the most satisfaction? When do you feel greatest accomplishment?
Yes, my job is very demanding. But it is also a privilege to hold public office, and to work with so many talented and dedicated people.
The most rewarding part of my job is nurturing community partnerships. Here are two examples.
Working with public health, garden and equity leaders on “1000 Gardens,” we doubled the number of community gardens in our city.
And working with nonprofit, faith and government partners on the “11 x 13” preservation campaign, we saved 11 at-risk buildings, home to a 1000 older adults and people with disabilities.
I have learned that through creative partnerships, we can bring people together to solve tough problems, leverage limited public resources, and build social capital.
Bonus question: If you had not chosen the path of politics, what would have been your alternative profession?
In 2008, at the age of 49, I was elected to the Portland City Council. Before that, I practiced law for over twenty years, served as a volunteer on the boards of community nonprofits, and (briefly) hosted a public affairs show on television.
Public service is my passion, and my current position on the Portland City Council is a dream job.
Welcome to Livable Oregon.
What makes a community livable? What do neighborhoods need to help people of all ages live active, engaged lives? Livable Oregon explores the features of age-friendly communities, the people who help create them, and what we can do to make our neighborhoods in Oregon a great place for everyone.
This blog takes its lead from the AARP Livable Communities Initiative which seeks to improve the quality of life for older adults by promoting the development of safe, accessible, and vibrant environments. AARP Livable Communities policies address issues such as land use, housing, and transportation which are vital to developing communities that facilitate aging in place.
About our lead blogger:
My name is Elaine Friesen-Strang. I understand the need for lifelong, livable communities as a mother who raised two children, a daughter who helped care for her father, a professional guardian who served adults with developmental disabilities, and a woman who is experiencing the mixed blessings of aging. Volunteering for AARP empowers me to help make my neighborhood and city a more livable, sustainable place for people of all ages.