The urban nerd's version of a conference souvenir

Four Lessons from the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference

 

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference here in Portland, Oregon. This year’s theme was, “reshaping suburbia into healthy communities”, a rather hot topic these days and one which has finally become a focus for more places than I had previously expected. Many cities have up until recently famously emphasized the revitalization of their downtowns, a point of contention for those concerned with the exurban regions. Where once the urban core was the dangerous home of (so-called) ghettos and the suburbs were the epitome of the (again, so-called) American Dream, the reverse is quickly becoming reality. It’s a startling trend – housing prices are rising in downtown regions whereas suburbs are in the decline, increasingly occupied by the disadvantaged populations previously living in the now-popular urban apartment blocks.

A session at the first IMCL Conference in Venice, attended by William H. Whyte and Fred Kent, no less! (Image from livablecities.org)

A session at the first IMCL Conference in Venice, attended by William H. Whyte and Fred Kent, no less! (Image from livablecities.org)

This conference, started in 1985 by Dr. Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard and Dr. Henry L. Lennard, aims to bring together a host of multidisciplinary professionals worldwide in order to exchange ideas surrounding livability in the urban realm (and was one of the first to do so!). Fifty conferences later it is still a far-reaching influential event bringing together mayors, policy makers, planners, architects, social scientists, and even lawyers. Though my mind is still reeling from five days packed with inspirational speakers, informative presentations, and the buzz of a few hundred professionals from around the world, the following are my top four highlights from the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference.

1.) The Suburbs Can Change

I’m always skeptical of the suburbs (suburban skepticism?) in regards to them ever truly turning a new leaf towards walkability in a livable sense. Apparently, not only suburbs, but smaller sized towns and cities around the globe are putting an emphasis on revitalizing (or creating, for that matter) their downtown areas, in many cases emphasizing their historic heritage and creating local pride for their spot on the map. Where I live in Portland, Oregon, I’ll admit to having never ventured out to the suburban edge city of Hillsboro. It is accessible by train, but for a city-dweller like myself has never been an interesting destination. I was surprised then when Collin Cooper, the Assistant Planning Director of Hillsboro, illustrated what is possible when public space and a human scale is applied to an otherwise suburban city center. Another major speaker, Ellen Dunham-Jones (of New Urbanism fame), also presented a suite of examples of shopping mall retrofits in suburban neighborhoods, many of which are continuing to increase in density today. This and many other examples from small towns blew away my expectations of increasing density and creating urban cores where none existed before.

Hillsboro Civic Center and Plaza where many events are held (Public Domain via Wikipedia)

Hillsboro Civic Center and Plaza where many events are held (Public Domain via Wikipedia)

2.) Look at the Alternatives (transportation, that is)

One example of development in a small town did a great job of bouncing back after a natural disaster, but also integrated some unexpected elements into the space. After a major flood, the city of Yorkton, Canada, decided to turn what was once a street severely affected by the flooding into a mixed-use path with a retention basin and skatepark. That’s right – a skatepark! Gord Shaw explained that they took this opportunity to provide a safe, well-lit, and accessible place for youth to interact and get exercise. Rather than pushing skateboarders out of public spaces without a place for them to go to, they decided to take advantage of the new swath of land and encourage the healthy activity in a populated places. While some issues of cleanliness and drug use did arise early on, the community took ownership of this place and it is now a maintained destination for young families and the elderly community located nearby. I thought this was an excellent example of alternative transportation taken to its height – not only emphasizing the usual modes of bicycles and public transportation – but an all-inclusive alternative transportation policy.

The Greenville, South Carolina Swamp Rabbit Trail, another great example of a hugely successful suburban trail presented at the conference (From greenvillerec.com)

The Greenville, South Carolina Swamp Rabbit Trail, another great example of a hugely successful suburban trail presented at the conference (From greenvillerec.com)

5.) Even Portland has its Problems

The conference was in Portland, as is the main office for the IMCL Council, because it is known as exemplifying the livable cities concept in its walkability, public space, and urban life. The conference of course had many speakers from Portland and nearby, including the recently elected Mayor Hales, Metro President Tom Hughes, and the always enthusiastic Michael Mehaffy. But more important than what Hillsboro is doing or the tours around the parks in the Pearl District is what Susan Anderson, Director of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, had to say about our “dirty little secret”. Much like suburbs outside the reaches of the city, accessible only by car and filled with cul-de-sacs (and so on), there are regions within cities which also contain all the ills associated with what this conference was all about. Portland has a very small, accessible downtown region and even the areas across the river have their own economic corridors and concentrated centers – to a point. That point for us is east of 82nd Street. In a city famous for its walkability, as Susan stated in her presentation, this is literally the point in Portland where the sidewalk ends. And that’s not okay. Even as a city famous for exemplifying livability concepts, there is always more to do to reshape the city towards a more inclusive livability standard.

Image from Susan's talk on where the sidewalk literally ends at 136th Ave. (Image from www.friends.org)

Image from Susan’s talk on where the sidewalk literally ends at 136th Ave. (Image from http://www.friends.org)

4.) The Focus is our Future

Looking toward the future (as I am apt to do), there is another thread of livability which should be emphasized in the suburbs (and elsewhere) as perhaps the biggest issue we need to resolve – the health of our children. Dr. Crowhurst Lennard has put considerable time into this cause (via books and her website) and focused on children during her talks at the conference. Like the notably livable Scandinavian countries, we need to realize that an emphasis on children is an emphasis on everyone. Regardless of whether or not you have children yourself, we can all benefit from the impact that designing for children brings (slower streets for example). Another key speaker, Dr. Richard J. Jackson (author of Designing Healthy Communities and famous for the PBS series of the same name), also focuses heavily on children’s relationship to the built environment and the psychological issues that come with issues of suburban development and isolation. As a doctor, he links this to the rising obesity rates in children as well as the overprescription of antidepressants. The link between the built environment and health is stronger than once thought, and if we are to create a better future, we need to start by building better cities.

 

The urban nerd's version of a conference souvenir

The urban nerd’s version of a conference souvenir

 

Overall, the conference provided a bit of everything – some inspirational motivation, some harsh realities, and some real examples of what can be done when cities (and suburbs) really put their priorities on livability for all. As this was admittedly my first conference, I can safely say that I’m hooked. Give me interdisciplinary collaboration and communication anytime! I think I speak for everyone there when I say the experience was invaluable for education and connectivity, and I look forward to seeing the progress in the suburbs and continuing the conversation at the next one. 

GOOD Video: Building a Bike Highway

Check it out!  The video is now live at GOOD Ideas for Cities, with a nice intro from Alissa Walker:

“Portland is famous for its vibrant biking culture, but the city’s infrastructure hasn’t caught up with the number of bikers on the streets. How do we create bikeways that will not only protect current cyclists, but also encourage more people to ride? As part of GOOD Ideas for Cities Portland, a team from THINK.urban presented its idea for creating a system of bike highways that run throughout the city. Instead of relegating cyclists to side streets and bike paths, the new bikeways would take over major Portland thoroughfares, making bikes more visible and creating more direct routes that would shorten ride times. Witnessing the shift from streets of mostly cars to mostly bikes will also start to create a sense that riders are prized and protected as a major transportation solution, not forced to stay in painted lanes.”

Challenge: Portland is known worldwide as a bike town; yet we have stalled when it comes to infrastructure. How might we create a major new bikeway that helps make bicycling as visible, safe, convenient, and pleasant for as many people as possible?

Bike Portland: Jonathan Maus, Founder

THINK.urban: Jason King, Allison Duncan, Katrina Johnston

Comments welcome.  Enjoy!

GOOD Ideas for Cities event a blast!

We’ve been busy at work on the submittal for the GOOD Ideas for cities proposal for bike infrastructure.

Scout Books created custom notebooks for the event

Scout Books created custom notebooks for the event

The event was a great success – and the conversation for new bike concepts in Portland and beyond, mixed with some luck and political will, has the potential to elevate the conversation and adopt some new infrastructure changes to make Portland not just a great bike city, but one that can truly hold the distinction as being ‘World Class’.  Thanks again to Jonathan Maus from Bikeportland.org – our urban leader who posed our question.   The event, which took place at ZIBA Design’s slick new office space, was sold-out and the crowd got into the proposals (including Weiden + Kennedy, Ziba, Sincerely Interested, THINK.urban, ADX, and the Official Manufacturing Company), kicked off by Alissa Walker from GOOD

The event was captured my Sarah Mirk of the Portland Mercury, who documented the proposals and snapped the following pic of our slide-show, along with a brief summary:

“CHALLENGE (from BikePortland.org editor Jonathan Maus): How can we create a major new bikeway that helps make bicycling as visible, safe, convenient, and pleasant for as many people as possible?
IDEAS (from PSU grad student nonprofit THINK.Urban):  “Take a cue from Europe and build two-way cycletracks on Portland’s biggest streets. The two-way lanes would be separated from cars on streets like Sandy, Broadway, and Hawthorne, by a grassy median. “Prioritize bikes on the same level as cars. People are tired of looking at Europe. We want to see these things here now.”

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Posting has lagged a bit, but that should change now that we’re moving on to some new things.  Stay tuned as we will post some of the ideas from the proposal, along with the PDF of the presentation, during the next week or so.

GOOD5

Very GOOD news!

The results are in, and the THINK.urban team of Jason King, Allison Duncan and Katrina Johnston is one of the groups that will be presenting as part of the GOOD Ideas for Cities event in Portland, being held on February 16th at Ziba and hosted by Portland State University Graphic Design Department.

From the GOOD site, here’s the all-star list of creative teams who will be presenting that night.

Wieden + Kennedy:  Nick Barham, Eugenie Frerichs, Bernadette Spear, Seth Weisfield, Igor Clark, Patrick Nistler, Jamie Ostrov, Joseph Limauro, Matt Brown

Official Mfg. Co.:  Mathew Foster, Jeremy Pelley, Fritz Mesenbrink

Ideas for Cities from Ziba:  Carl Alviani, Ryan Coulter, Steve Lee

Team ADX:  Building a Community of Thinkers and Makers: Eric Black, Kelley Roy, Greg Simons, Sean Barrow, Simon Yuen, Sarah Thilman, Tyesha Snow, Iain Thatcher, Max Miller

THINK.urban: Jason King, Allison Duncan, Katrina Johnston

New Approaches to Public Space:  Nicole Lavelle, Sarah Baugh, Justin Flood

It’s an honor to be in such esteemed company, and we’re excited to find out the specific issue we will be tackling for the event.  We will be getting the problem early in 2012, and will have 6 weeks to generate ideas for the February presentation.  Stay tuned for more on this.