I recently had the pleasure of traveling back to the East Coast and exploring a few major cities I had not visited since becoming an urban enthusiast. Being a public space aficionado, I of course made it a point to investigate as many public spaces as possible. Starting in Pittsburgh, I made my way by train to New York City and Philadelphia, before embarking on a cross-country train ride back to Portland (with a quick stop in Chicago). I visited some spaces new and old, and was delighted to see such infamous improvements for myself.
This is the third 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.
This Park Portrait is admittedly not about a permanent park, but a parklett that I helped create for a single day in downtown Portland. On September 20th, we took part in the PARK(ing) Day event with hundreds of other public space enthusiasts around the world. On an entire block of Southwest Stark Street we converted ten parking spaces into a greyspace plaza for a day.
There’s something brewing in Portland, and it’s probably not what you’d expect. As we speak, planners and stakeholders are currently working on arguably the most important planning document since 1988: the Central City Plan 2035. Technically open to the public, the planning process has been comparatively quiet. After the charrette process, it has now transitioned into monthly meetings with primarily stakeholder involvement. The process itself is fairly standard: the floor is open to public comment (limited to two minutes), there is a summary of the progress thus far, presentations for the topic at hand, followed by stakeholder debate. At the moment, there’s also voting on several nearly finalized “layers” of the plan, specifically for the West Quadrant (Downtown, Southwest, Old Town, the Pearl, and the uber-cool West End, where we recently held our PARK(ing) Day event).
I’ll sing it until I’m blue in the face, but public space is one of the most crucial components of an urban environment. Not only is it a huge percentage of any city, but more importantly it’s public. And that includes the sidewalks, parks, plazas, and streets – all (or most) technically belonging to the people. While it’s true that you can’t just camp out in the middle of the highway (not that you’d want to), it’s only manufactured policies that now dictate our streets are for automobiles instead of people.
But what if it was different?
There is a competition mentality that plagues our conversations about cities year after year, here and abroad, that can be both the source of joy or scourge for mayors and citizens alike. What is the best city to start a business in? Where should I move to for a great nightlife? Which one tops the list for raising a family? The list goes on and on. Find your preferred publication and pick your flavor of competition. But are these really so important? A lot of time and money goes into attempting to top these lists, not to mention gathering the data to create them. And some people seem obsessed by the notion that one city would be more popular than another when clearly, this underdog city deserves more attention (and new residents). So why the popularity contest? Or more specifically, why the recent emphasis on the battle between Pittsburgh and Portland?
This article was originally published on International Making Cities Livable.
The suburban history of the last century in the United States can actually be said to be relatively short. It wasn’t until after the second World War that automobiles were more widely available and the suburbs became the standard for the “American Dream”. Since then, several developments have appeared which have worked to shape this dominant paradigm on how we live and work; Whereas once a great exodus left city centers abandoned from otherwise urban corporate headquarters, there is now a return of companies and people alike to these more walkable, livable downtowns. Indeed, I would argue that there is a newfound desire towards this sense of diversity and multiculturalism that a city brings.
I call myself an urbanist, but what does that really mean? Being an urbanist is not something that requires a rigidly defined body of knowledge. There is no degree for urbanism, no certificate or qualifying test. Urbanists come from a myriad of disciplines: sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, economists, city planners (and other such “-ists” and “-ers” I’m sure I’ve missed). While these degrees are good for other things of course, they are by no means necessary to be an urbanist. It seems then the people who decide to call themselves urbanists are simply those that are united by a passion for urban environments and have some sort of urban-related knowledge – which therefore could technically be anyone. In a world where more than half of all people now live in cities, and with no degree for it, I wonder – where are all the urbanists?
2013 seems to be shaping up as the Year of Bicycle Share across the U.S., with New York City getting its Citibike and Chicago’s Divvy launching just a few weeks later. Portland (and Seattle as well) would be joining the party this year, too, if it weren’t for delays in its launch. And this got me thinking – Portland is hailed as the bicycle capital of the United States, so you’d think that we’d have a bike share system long before a city like New York. While Portland has a history of progressive bicycle treatments (bike lanes, boxes, and signals, to name a few) there is definitely a stall in truly groundbreaking developments. A bike lane may be widened or finally there’s a stretch of separated bicycle lanes near downtown, but where is the Indianapolis-like wow-factor? Where is the buffered corridor that provides a safe connection downtown? Where is our bicycle share?
We in the so-called Western World, and the U.S. especially, have a tendency to think of the (so-called) modern world as originating with the Roman Empire. After all, democracy was created within the great Greco-Roman society of old and their cities were modern wonders, still influencing the architecture we have today (you can check your local civic structure for those iconic columns, for example). This kind of thinking however, is misguided and completely inaccurate. Cities have existed around the globe for a lot longer than just the fabled Rome, and in many ways actually embodied the idea of “civilization” far earlier than Pax Romana. At the same time, by not looking back at the ways that even Rome did things, we miss a lot of extremely valuable information that can affect our cities today.
From economics to urbanism, I believe every contemporary topic can be looked at through the lens of human history (which is why I prefer to retain the “Anthropologist” part of my urban title). After all, what better way to start discussing human systems (i.e. cities) than with humans? While anthropology is the study of man, it must include our origins – namely our evolution from our fellow members of the animal kingdom. In fact it is often crucial that we remember most importantly, when it really comes down to it, we are animals. As much as we’d like to ignore this fact sometimes, it is indeed our reality, and has significant implications for the way we create our built environment.