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After the Park: The Future of Portland’s Public Space

This post was originally published in part on BikePortland.org

This year’s PARK(ing) Day has come and gone, but to those who had a hand in the event or just took advantage of the day-long parklet on SW Stark, it was a happy memory and an example of what a public space can truly be in Portland. It was a day filled with friendly conversations, strangers uniting over a game of ping-pong, and citizens enjoying a place to work or eat their lunch. For me, I consider it a great accomplishment, and passing the street today seems bleak by comparison.

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Spread the word! Reclaim the street!

Public Space and PARK(ing) Day

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?

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Walkable and weird Portland, Oregon (Photo by Mike Davis)

The Normalization of Livable Cities

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.

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A recent urban observation of mine: two girls passing the time making a dirt mound over a toy horse.

Everyday Urbanism: Why We are All Urbanists

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?

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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.

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The Game of Urban Renewal

[Originally written by Jason King]

On Architizer, a post caught my attention – the The Game of Urban Renewal was developed by Toronto artist Flavio Trevisan created what I assume is an earnest social statement with this simple board game, “…which can go on infinitely with any number of players, simulates the fate of Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood, an intense locus of the city’s urban renewal efforts since 1947.  “In the game, players can assume one of the following roles: City Councilor, Developer, Community Activist, City Planning Employee, Man-On-The-Street, Academic Urban Theorist, Resident of Existing Development to be Demolished, Mayor, Random Federal Politician, Skyscraper Enthusiast, or Garbage Man. They take turns spinning the ‘Decision Engine Wheel’ which gives them license to place various types of development (condominium, office, commercial, park, etc.) on the board. Sometimes, players are given the option to bulldoze development, in which case they can use the ‘Tabula Rasa Rake’ to sweep any amount of placed development from the board. As all of this happens, the city evolves.”

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Sadly, many in the era of Urban Renewal of the 1950s, 60s and 70s  treated the lives of many urban residents much like a game, and the results are still being dealt with to this day.  The dynamics of urban renewal, and its mechanism are still a day to day phenomenon that impacts our lives, and, like much in the urban realm, it isn’t a simple answer of it being blatantly bad or good.   There were complete failures and other successes.  Does playing a game about this bring some of the issues and problems closer to our attention, particularly the bulldozer option to clear the slate, or does it over-simplify and diminish what were realm and lasting impacts to people’s lives, places, and cities.  Let’s spin the wheel and find out.

Square Pegs & Round Holes

[Originally written by Allison Duncan]

A conversation that permeates any discipline involved in the social sciences is how to evaluate the rigor of research as ‘science’.  There’s a ton of baggage related to this, particularly when compared to ‘hard’ sciences and the traditional  theory > hypothesis > testing  mode of  deductive reasoning.     A recent short article, “Overcoming ‘Physics Envy'” from April 1 in the NY Times tackles this issue in the social sciences by deconstructing the science implied in scientific reasoning.

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Authored by two political science instructors from University of Rochester, the article discusses the inherent bias in scientific communities, such as the National Science Foundation as well as peer-reviewed journals in only accepting and disseminating research that fits the hypothetico-deductive model.  They disagree with the focus on this as the only valid scientific method, saying that:

“…we believe that this way of thinking is badly mistaken and detrimental to social research. For the sake of everyone who stands to gain from a better knowledge of politics, economics and society, the social sciences need to overcome their inferiority complex, reject hypothetico-deductivism and embrace the fact that they are mature disciplines with no need to emulate other sciences.”

There are countless examples of the sort of apologist writing in social science literature – with caveats on the lack of repeatability – specifically in the qualitative vs. quantitative debate – and the methods employed to imbue social research with testable, statistics based methods that give the illusion of hard science, or more annoyingly, prefacing research with long explanations of the need and validity of the qualitative methods.

There is a need for untested theoretical models in science, to shift thinking and to open up new avenues of dialogue, even in the absence of testability.  These give some pointers on how we may get to a solution, not the actual method, but the theory that guides us.  From the article:  “To borrow a metaphor from the philosopher of science Ronald Giere, theories are like maps: the test of a map lies not in arbitrarily checking random points but in whether people find it useful to get somewhere.”

The authors conclude that the overall hyper-focus on testing, rather than theorizing, limits the scope of research and our ability to understand issues.  Social science is difficult, due to myriad variables and actors interacting in tandem, to fit into a traditional hypothetico-deductive model of science, and to limit research to only that form of science limits our ability to tackle large issues.   What we need right now is the ability to do just that, not to regress into the purity of science – further distancing academia from the actual world it aims to study.  As the authors conclude:

“Unfortunately, the belief that every theory must have its empirical support (and vice versa) now constrains the kinds of social science projects that are undertaken, alters the trajectory of academic careers and drives graduate training. Rather than attempt to imitate the hard sciences, social scientists would be better off doing what they do best: thinking deeply about what prompts human beings to behave the way they do.”

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 Portland: Cycling Infrastructure

[Originally written by Jason King, Allison Duncan and Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman]

THINK.urban, recently completed the presentation of our various concepts for GOOD Ideas for Cities Portland. The team was one of six, which included Wieden+Kennedy, Ziba, Sincerely Interested, OMFGco, and ADXPortland, all tackling tough ideas.  The THINK.urban concepts were developed alongside working alongside our urban leader, BikePortland.org founder Jonathan Maus, who presented the challenge:

“Now it’s time to do the big projects that present a challenge to politicians and the status quo, but that also present an exciting opportunity for the health of our city. But what we’re missing is a a truly game-changing bikeway that connects a Portland neighborhood to the city center. How might we create a major new bikeway that helps make bicycling as visible, safe, convenient, and pleasant for as many people as possible?”

THE CONTEXT

Portland is a great city for cycling – and has a lot of great infrastructure and programs to support and grow ridership.

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This gives us a ridership of almost 7% of commuters, which makes Portland the top large city in North America for ridership – (sorry Minneapolis)

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The statistics are a bit different when compared to other cities around the globe, where Portland is way down on the list.  Using some comparative metrics, we set the bar for ‘World Class’ at 30%, meaning if Portland is to truly become a world-class bicycling city, we need to expand significantly beyond our current level.

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THE TARGET:  INTERESTED BUT CONCERNED

For Portland to become ‘World Class’ we cannot keep doing the same things, but need to re-envision the infrastructure that make’s bicycle a choice that is on-par with other modes of transportation.  As seen in a much published graphic, we’ve already captured the ‘Strong and Fearless’ and have no worries about the ‘Enthused and Confident’.  What we need to target is the 60% of people who are interested in cycling, but concerned about safety, wayfinding, and other issues.

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Looking at the research, we found there are three elements that are necessary to capture the 60% that are interested but concerned.  A system has to have three elements, which are:

SAFE:

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CONNECTED:

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LEGIBLE:

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THE SYSTEM:  PDX LINK

To make a system that is Safe, Connected, and Legible – we looked at a variety of factors.  One aspect of the system design included branding and system graphics, which were envisioned as a chain which evoked the idea of links – the system became a noun and a verb – PDX LINK – seen with the ‘green’ paint inside as well, which reflected the plans for the concept to increase wayfinding of bike routes.

Another aspect was to incorporate the existing quadrant system, each acting as a link in the chain of PDX LINK. The radiating graphic below depicts the 5 quadrants, a play on geography that makes Portland a unique place to live. Each quad, including North, gets a unique color scheme, along with a simple 2 letter designation that is also incorporated into signage and other graphics.

There was a conceptual mapping component as well including our proposal for two-way cycletracks on main routes, connected by the wayfinding based on quadrants – which is seen above. Each of these ‘highways’ would be located within 1 miles of all residents and businesses, and fed by a system of local streets.

Using Portland Streets as examples, we determined a specific typology of streets in a hierarchy, starting with the highways, and including the boulevards, corridors, and greenways as a complete system.  A couple of examples of before and after sections show the change, and inclusion of a two-way, separated cycletrack that ‘Takes the Lane’ and creates a safe, connected, and legible system.

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Starting with these major roadways, the further development of a hierarchy of bike routes, from major Highways and Boulevards, to less traveled Corridors and Greenways – nested inside one another for a complete system. A snapshot of a portion of downtown shows these designations.

The final piece was conceptual sketches – simple before and after graphics to showcase the new idea, on the street. We did a number of them connecting the Cully Neighborhood in Northeast Portland to the Downtown core, using no ‘back street solutions’.   The first starts on NE 57th, with a heavily vegetated buffer providing necessary separation from the traffic to ensure safety for riders.

Before

The second is located along East Burnside – where we are recoupling the one-way to include a two way bike route connected across to downtown.

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Another option is downtown, along SW Broadway, where the existing cycle-track was expanded near Portland State University. Note wayfinding and access to multiple modes of transportation throughout.

Before

We did many more graphics, which will get shared down the line. A few more ‘after’ shots include Sandy Boulevard and the Burnside Bridge. The opportunity to make ‘cycling an everyday thing’ offers the ability to go for a ride with your favorite dog, or stop by for some roadside bike-powered gelato, and take the whole family for a ride to the Saturday Market. A safe, connected and legible system can make Portland a world-class bike city.

Hopefully these images help in that effort.

> Check out a PDF of our presentation here, and stay tuned for the video to be posted at GOOD Ideas for Cities shortly.