Park Portrait: The Urban Center Plaza


This is the first in a series originally published on Parksify of brief spatial ethnographies intended to provide a snapshot of one public space, for one day, in Portland, Oregon. Armed with a camera and a watchful eye, I observe the social behavior in relation to the built environment. The profiles are based on research methods used in my masters thesis in Urban Studies and are inspired by the works of William H. Whyte, Setha Low, and Jan Gehl.  What better place to start than with my first real observational project: The Urban Center Plaza. Located on Portland State University’s urban campus, it is a combination of green and grey space that intersects major destinations for students and members of the neighborhood. It is technically a privately owned public space as it was made by the University. However, the goal of the space was to be a community space where the local residents could relax, eat lunch, and interact with the student population.

I’m happy to report that there is no sign of stated rules, so-called “permitted” behavior. The only stated rule is a small sign imbedded in the bricks “no skateboarding” (a common request). The seasonal differences of the space are obvious — without students, will the space hold up? With the good weather though, I just know that Portlanders won’t disappoint.

And I wasn’t wrong.


Early mornings on the plaza feel like a true new day. Mornings in Portland can be chilly and the bricks and concrete reflect this coolness. Classes aren’t in session, but the campus isn’t dead. Students still taking advantage of summer courses make their way to the Student Rec Center as early morning dog walkers take advantage of the trees on the edges. Due to the grade change two ramps provide a convenient pass-through for cycling commuters heading to work.

Once the sunlight starts streaming into the plaza, the pace quickens and more people decide to stay a little longer on the stepped seating area on the eastern side. The light rail stop nearby starts spitting out passengers on a regular basis, complimenting the whir of the more gentle streetcar passing through the plaza. People pause, meet with others, grab a cup of coffee and head off to their destinations.

Of course lunch is where it’s at. The line to the bento shop is quickly out the door and the pizza place is packed. Outdoor seating spreads across the lower part of the plaza and is fully taken advantage of in the shady corners during the noon hour. It’s definitely the busiest time of the day when people have the time to take a decent break from course work (or course planning).


This is where the space gets interesting. With people sitting on the terraced area, weaving through numerous sets of stairs, and various forms of wheeled transport passing through (including the occasional skateboard), the near misses become more frequent. The flow of people from the train through the plaza goes directly up the seating area, despite the height of the terrace. However, as is usually the case I never see an official collision and more often than not see people waiting patiently for the pathway to clear before taking their turn.

I think in all honesty the evening is my favorite time on the Urban Center Plaza. Once the people working nearby head home and the light becomes diffused, the neighborhood takes back their public space. Families enjoy time together outside and friends kick a ball back and forth in the wide upper area. I even saw some boys on skateboards learning the ins and outs of teenage social cues while practicing tricks on the steps.

Aside from a drunken group of college kids passing through on a Friday night, the plaza is deserted

With no bars or formal restaurants nearby the plaza sees very little activity after dark. Aside from a drunken group of college kids passing through on a Friday night, the plaza is deserted. The overhead lights cast long shadows near the street and the Rec Center windows warmly illuminate the southern side. Though, even with the lack of activity, nothing suspicious seems to happen in the space either. It could also be the specialized use that prevents it from being problematic. It always has activity during the day due to transit and enough sight lines so as to not create dark corners.

Overall, the design is great. There are places to sit, you feel sheltered enough to be comfortable, and the transit provides a steady stream of people to populate the plaza for people watching. Because of its location downtown and its proximity to the university, it actually has a good mix of students, residents, and people working nearby. If only there was a set of stairs to accommodate the desire lines and a bit wider ramps, the plaza would be in perfect harmony.