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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.

But what made this day so unique? Portland has parks and plazas, public spaces that have seating options and other forms of programming. But our city doesn’t have small parks like those cropping up in cities everywhere. The location we chose is one of these places in the city that could use a chair-filled public space. The food carts are nearby, but no seating area exists aside from O’Bryant Park – a space with design issues and a lack of movable chairs.

Portland has a ‘street seats’ program, which can also be used for these types of parklets, much like the program in San Francisco that came about from the original PARK(ing) Day experiment. As of now, the program has only produced private seating areas for restaurants – an excellent solution to “sidewalk creep” to be sure, but not a public space. It’s also very unfortunate that the City caved to the Portland Business Alliance and decided to not allow any street seats in the main urban core. But that shouldn’t stop us from moving forward!

Parking Day-5

Streets are for people, not for cars.

Before plotting a course for future action, I wanted find out what Portlanders really think. First and foremost I’m a researcher – when not working on reports at a local research firm, I’m conducting mini ethnographic observations at public spaces and blogging about the results. I had done intercept surveys before, and I immediately recognized that this would be a great opportunity to gauge opinions of a public space like this based on not only a hypothetical drawing, but a real life example.

So what do Portlanders want?

If the survey has anything to do with the answer, they want more public spaces! In all, we got an astounding 142 completed surveys (only two people turned me down – you know who you are!) providing a wealth of data and many insightful comments.

The vast majority of respondents had been to the neighborhood before and thought that it had improved with the PARK(ing) Day use of space. They loved the increase in people, street furniture, fewer cars and safer speeds, increased bike infrastructure, and general sense of community. They also wanted to see more of things like this and thought that the city should take more parking spaces downtown and turn them into public spaces rather than increase parking spaces downtown. Respondents from out of town were inspired, wished they had it where they lived, or even mentioned liking Portland more because of it. Read the entire report here (PDF).

Whether by looking at the survey or simply witnessing the event itself, what that day showed was that by a simple intervention of movable chairs, a bit of programming (ping pong), and community support, a lively place can be created. What’s more, these interventions, or even permanent places, can be created fairly inexpensively and are wanted in our city. These kinds of temporary interventions can provide a tangible example of what our cities can be like and also give real time feedback in an effort to make them permanent improvements to our city.

And we’d like to do more.

This project was downtown, but there are so many other places in the city that can use this kind of improvement, these projects have unlimited potential. In other places, organizations exist that do these sorts of projects. One such open-source organization, Better Block, has successfully helped create better streets across the U.S. I’m happy to be a part of making the Portland version and keep the conversation going. Please visit our website http://betterblockpdx.wordpress.com and if you’re in Portland – we’d love to hear from you! Send us an email: betterblockpdx [at] gmail.com. Stay tuned for more updates!

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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?

The original PARK(ing) Day by Rebar

The original PARK(ing) Day by Rebar Group (Image here)

That’s what the Rebar Group thought in San Francisco when they started the PARK(ing) Day event in 2005. Technically an art experiment, this design studio simply paid the parking meter as usual, and then set up a temporary parklet. It’s so simple, you can’t believe it hadn’t been done before. And why not? You pay for it. Do you really have to only put a car there? Needless to say, the event went viral and quickly became an international event. There are nearly one thousand PARK(ing) Day events around the world every year on September 20th. As Rebar says:

“In addition to being quite a bit of fun, PARK(ing) Day has effectively re-valued the metered parking space as an important part of the commons – a site for generosity, cultural expression, socializing and play. And although the project is temporary, we hope PARK(ing) Day inspires you to participate in the civic processes that permanently alter the urban landscape.”

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

A group of fellow urbanists here in Portland recently came up with a crazy idea. Architects, engineers, anthropologists, what unites us is more livable streets for everyone and we decided to put on what could be the largest PARK(ing) Day event in Portland thus far. This year we are transforming about 15 parking spaces on an entire block of SW Stark between 10th and 11th downtown. With its painted bicycle lane, cafes, and newly opened Union Way shops, we are set to create a lively mixed-use street for people. And who knows? Maybe it will permanently alter the urban landscape.

This can be better! (Photo by author)

This can be better! SW Stark by the Ace Hotel. (Photo by author)

So if you’re in Portland and you’re looking for a demonstration in lively public space, stop by! There will be places to relax, chat with your friends over coffee, and play ping-pong. Trimet will have a demonstration in public transportation and StreetFilms will play at our family room inspired PARK(ing) Space. Afterwards, you’re all invited to The Cleaners for another great event (and cash bar). Special thanks go to the Ace Hotel, the new Union Way alley, and all nearby businesses. Spread the word, or better yet, start your own! See you on the street!

Spread the word! Reclaim the street!

Spread the word! Reclaim the street!

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. As part of a generation that was criticized for potentially being stuck behind a smartphone, we still want to be face-to-face. More than ever before we want the European experience – an urban lifestyle filled with ground-floor shops, sidewalk cafes, public parks and plazas, compact living with excitement and variety – everything the most livable cities exemplify. As the trends stop being trends and begin showing serious signs of normalization, I can’t help but wonder if what we are beginning to experience now is a true paradigm shift. Much like the suburban dream of the 1950s and all it did for the landscape of the United States, I believe this is instead the real beginnings of a normalization of livable cities.

Copenhagen

Copenhagen, Monocle’s most livable city, 2013 (Photo by Olga Itenberg)

I currently live in Portland and by now I’m sure most people are at least familiar with the show Portlandia. Love it or hate it (most likely the latter if you’re a Portlander, it seems), you can at least recognize the types of people the show presents in this “weird” city. According to the stereotypes, there are groups of people who are very interested in urban farming and horticulture, pickling (everything), getting more information on the origins of food and eating healthier, riding bicycles as a form of transportation, and other quirky alternative lifestyle habits (tattoos, piercings, died hair, and so on). What I find interesting though, is not the poor timing of the show in relation to Portland’s hip-ness (a topic of debate by some people) but also it’s poor timing for the Portland-ness of these so-called weird behavior types. More and more it seems, you can find these types of people across the U.S. They are commonplace in major cities such as NYC, Chicago, and Philadelphia, but also in mid-sized cities rebuilding in the rust-belt like Pittsburgh and Detroit. Even in suburban cities like Missoula, MT and mid-sized cities like Indianapolis, where no one would have thought to ride a bicycle before, these alternative lifestyles are in demand. (I’ve even heard there are separated cycle tracks in Phoenix. Phoenix!)

I know what you’re thinking. This could just be a generational thing, you say. It’s the economy, you cry. But I disagree. If we take a look at related data on the subject we can see these trends in quantitative form. An excellent example of this is the consistent decline in VMT, or vehicle miles travelled, and the decrease in young people buying cars and getting their licenses. It’s being shown that this is clearly not just a product of the recession – we are driving less and desiring to drive less. I’ll admit outright that I don’t have a driver’s license. While I learned to drive a car and planned to eventually get one (still late compared to most), I quickly realized that it makes more economic sense to not have to deal with ownership of a car. With a license, I may fall back on it as a crutch, and especially once I became more experienced in livable cities and what automobiles did to the urban landscape I decided that I simply don’t want to be a part of that. I may still be an outlier but I’m not the only one, and apparently I’m part of a quickly growing part of the population. For those living in cities – most of us by this point – it just makes more sense to choose an alternative mode of transportation to get around (be it by foot, bicycle, streetcar, bus, train, or skateboard – unicycles, even!). It’s more social. It’s more healthy. It’s less costly. Whatever your reason, quite frankly it’s just nicer. And more importantly, it’s becoming more normal.

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

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

And it’s not just my generation that sees this kind of shift. In cities everywhere the push in development is towards mid-sized, mixed-use, small-sized apartments downtown. We don’t want single-family houses and our “piece of land” per se. We thrive in small spaces, shared spaces, and social spaces – many of which are public spaces. Despite the fears of technologically-induced isolation, we’re moving back towards wanting places of face-to-face interaction in all aspects of our lives. You can find this normalization in books touting the trend and advertisements that cater to bike-friendly twenty-somethings. A new book was just highlighted on The Colbert Report titled “Homeward Bound” by Emily Matcher and details the rise in stereotypically homemaking activities like canning and knitting. The 2014 Ikea catalogue features a video with a Park(ing) Day set up as the normalization of insurgent public space. This concept of being able to impact your environment and enjoy the city with friends in this way is just one example of how this is manifesting itself in portrayals of the “average” person in the media.

And in this way we are shaping the way cities are designed.

My neighborhood in Portland is currently home to a large redevelopment site which will eventually be transformed into a dense, walkable area with a public square and park. Part of the incentive for the site’s owners, Con-way, is to create an area where their employees would also like to live and work – in a downtown area rather than a suburban office park. This in and of itself is also a trend based on the culture of those they would like to attract. And more importantly – this is not just a class of creative people anymore – this is, I believe, quickly becoming the dominant ideology of current and incoming generations. I can speak for myself and say that I would be eager to move to a neighborhood which hosted a public square with outdoor cafes and plenty of social engagement. I want buildings short enough that they provide residents the opportunity to recognize people passing by on the sidewalk below. And I would also want to work for a company that was close to my home, one which allows and even encourages spending time in these livable spaces and commuting in a non-traditional way. I would base my location decisions upon these extremely important quality of life components.

And I think this is what people are coming to expect now. We don’t want to be in a windowless office with a forty-five minute lunch, nine to five, Monday through Friday. We want the ability to take a break, play some ping-pong, have a meeting on the park outside or at a cafe. Arrive by bike? No problem. My office would have showers and a culture where coming in to work with panniers and a helmet isn’t taboo (or close enough that I wouldn’t even need to shower). And on Friday, I think I’ll work from home – or maybe my home is my office, for that matter. Portland already has this kind of stereotypical “alternative” culture, and in some ways this was encouraged by a top-down approach (the Urban Growth Boundary, for instance) but also this incredibly strong bottom-up, neighborhood and community focused population of “weird” people. I’m happy that Portland has this kind of reputation and livability, but I’m even happier to see it becoming less weird. Wherever you are, I think it is clear that more and more people are going to live in cities like Portland and they are going to want and deserve, these kinds of walkable, livable city centers. And while I can’t say for sure that this is a paradigm shift in its true form, I think we can all say that the trends are clear. Walkable cities are the future. Alternative transportation is the future. We are the future, and the future is livable.

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?

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

Urban play in action: two girls passing the time covering a toy horse with dirt and stones (Photo by author)

One of the most well-known urbanists was Jane Jacobs, a woman who exemplified this passion for cities, but did not otherwise have any formal training. She was criticized for not having a degree in planning, especially since her writing and advocacy work explicitly criticized city planning of her time. What made Jacobs different I think, as a pioneer of urbanism, was not only her ability to organize and communicate effectively, but also her ability to observe the urban environment. But again, is that so strange? Watching people is what people do best. While Jacobs displays exquisite skill in her prose and introduces brilliant terminology used to this day (“eyes on the street” being a personal favorite of mine), the act of public participation and urban observation can, and I argue should, be done by everyone.

I think of this concept as Everyday Urbanism – if you live in an urban environment, you have the full ability to observe the world around you. Those who live in a neighborhood know more than anyone the goings-on of their street – the early commuters, the dog-walkers, shops’ opening and closing routines. Like Jacobs on her street in Greenwich Village, all it takes is a sense of joy and ownership as an active participant in your surroundings. If you are passionate about your neighborhood, there’s no reason you too can’t impact the planning process simply because of your involvement in the street-ballet.

The park that Jacobs saved: Washington Square Park in NYC (Photo by Joe Mabel)

The park that Jacobs saved: Washington Square Park in NYC (Photo by Joe Mabel)

I’ve done this kind of research for the sake of science (and one of those “-ist” degree of course), but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the case that researchers and the like are the only ones gathering data on the city. My title of choice stems from the combination of my degrees, urban studies and anthropology. Both of which include highly specialized bodies of knowledge, but I think theoretically can be done by anybody. Anthropology is one of those funny things – it’s technically the study of humans through a variety of means. I’ve specialized in cultural anthropology and conducted ethnographies, which are technically done in a very specific way in order to be recognized in the scientific community. But as humans, surrounded by humans, I think we’ve all completed step number one for being an anthropologist – being human. And with more than half of all humans now living in cities, I think the same can be said about being an urbanist as well.

Aside from formal research, I have also spent time living on lively streets observing the daily routines in an everyday way as a member of a community. This is how a location truly becomes a place. When one can recognize the telltale squeal of the yellow Beetle next door, or the precise timing of the young man on a bicycle as you round the corner on the way to work, you really feel as though you have a sense of that place. It’s that feeling when you have the same bus driver every day or get coffee from the same barista. We all experience the city in similar ways. I think we are all urbanists – we all have the ability to watch and participate, and many of us do this without realizing it already.

The chair master of Jamison Square in Portland, Oregon (Photo by author)

The chair master of Jamison Square in Portland, Oregon (Photo by author)

Urbanism to me is the inability to hold back a smile as you walk through your city. With all there is in an urban environment to observe, explore, and interact with, this to me is the ultimate achievement in livability. If we all strive for this goal by celebrating our part as urbanists, our inherent places in our respective spaces, we too can save a park or contribute to the great urban ethnography we all currently live in. As idealistic as it may sound, it has become so much easier to capture these moments and share them with others (or even engage in a little insurgent urbanism while we’re at it). In your everyday lives, I urge you to take some time – observe the urban environment around you and soak in the city. We are all urbanists. We all have the opportunity to observe and affect our urban environments.

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. 

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.”

The-Game-of-Urban-Renewal

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.

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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.