Bryant Park in NYC, after Whyte's alterations (via

Urban Green Space: Past, Present, and Future

Turkey’s ongoing developments in Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul could not be more pertinent to my personal research, but also have important ramifications for all of us and the future of urban design. Two years after the Arab Spring events we are witnessing another similar uprising in a large urban plaza filled with protestors of varying backgrounds seeking potentially disparate outcomes but gathering in the same place nonetheless. The difference with this situation, however, is the root cause of the demonstrations: a top-down redesign of one of the most important green spaces in the city. Politics of Turkey aside, the privatization of this park was clearly enough for not only an environmental occupation but also the massive gatherings we are still currently witnessing regarding what has been called totalitarian oversight of their daily lives. The fact that a park was the last straw for number of different groups has sparked a discussion once again on what public space (in this case green space) means for the people as an area for refuge and as an agent for change.

Photo of original Gezi protests in Istanbul - Look familiar? (Source here)

Photo of original Gezi protests in Istanbul – Look familiar? (Source here)


While green spaces are heralded as the mark of a successful city, grassy retreats within the urban boundaries were basically nonexistent in the earliest cities, and even some areas of the world today. One of the earliest known cities excavated so far – Çatalhöyük – is actually in the heart of Turkey, beautifully preserved (comparatively speaking) from around 7500 BCE. This city was more of a compound than anything with no open spaces whatsoever – just a mass of buildings huddled together on a hill. The 5,000 – 10,000 inhabitants moved through the city via the tops of the buildings made accessible by ladders and stairs through holes in the ceilings creating a complex maze of rooms and passageways.

Perhaps the earliest city, Catal Hoyuk (During & Marciniak 2006:177)

Archaeological diagram of Çatalhöyük (During & Marciniak 2006:177)


Interestingly, for the most part traditional Islamic cities deviated only somewhat from this original design. Green space within these cities is typically sparse and the emphasis is instead on the streets (they eventually added) as the catch-all public space. Walled compounds surround distinct neighborhood units that were even closed off at night isolating their individual urban alleys (like more verticle and compact cul-du-sacs). Mediterranean cities, too, opted for an emphasis on streets but add the Italian staple, the piazza, to its public space repertoire – spaces still otherwise devoid of green space.

Typical neighborhood in Fez

Typical neighborhood in Fez (Bianco, 2000)

Fast forward a bit, and eventually green spaces emerge around the globe in the form of private and semi-private gardens, foraging and grazing grounds in England, or in the form of hunting lands (massive areas reserved for the leader’s sport). But the stereotypical “park” which we have all come to enjoy was really still an anomaly until around the Victorian era. What began as “promenades” to meander among the social elite in sometimes very strange (read: gender bending) ways, eventually became a desirable space for the common man. Cities like New York preserved semi-natural areas inside their borders like Central Park and the Olmsted era of fresh air really kicked off the park-frenzy, especially in the U.S.

Since that time, the role of green space in cities has seen its ups and downs in various ways. In the case of public housing, a simple green square within the otherwise crowded complex of apartments was believed to increase the health and wellbeing of the poor population. Advocates of this social improvement through design claimed that providing this amenity would decrease crime and provide a space for children to play and avoid the otherwise dangerous inner city environment. The fact that this did not work (generally speaking) is important to consider – it is clear that a park does not a safe space make. In reality, it may be the case that green space without very strict maintenance and even possibly programming, can create a more negative environment. Whyte spoke of this when he helped redesign Bryant park changing it from one of the most crime-ridden green spaces in NYC to one of the most celebrated today – through better design of the space.

Bryant Park in NYC, after Whyte's alterations (via

Bryant Park in NYC, after Whyte’s alterations (via


So, in general, design seems to be win-some and lose-some depending on the situation (as is always the case). But for some people the creation and accessibility of green spaces was not only done to increase livability on a local scale but to improve their entire country’s population. In the 1930s, during a time of extremely low birth rates in Sweden, planners, led by a husband/wife duo consisting of a child psychologist and economist, created what is now known as the “Swedish Model”. Not only did they provide social welfare on a massive scale, but they also prioritized adding parks to their cities and encouraged adults to spend time outdoors and increase their leisure time (maybe have a few kids…you know…). A similar change also happened in Denmark whereas what was once considered a culture that would never eat at cafes outside or stroll down a pedestrian street is now infamous for their Strøget and street life. For decades these Nordic countries carried the highest levels of happiness, starting at a young age with excellent childcare, maternity leaves, and an emphasis on hobbies and free time with their budding next generation.

Ah, Stroget. (via

Ah, Strøget. (via


Right before the uprising in Turkey, however, Sweden also had its own series of riots spurring from the immigrant neighborhoods that otherwise have a really nice assortment of green spaces to spend (a little too much?) leisure time in.  Articles on this odd event for the happy country have picked up on this issue of green space design and its lack of positive effect on disgruntled youth. Is this an issue of design not having the desired effect on social welfare (like our own public housing in the 60s)? The overall state of the global economy is still reeling from the recession, and indeed Scandinavia generally has not been exempt from this. It could also be an issue of culture and indeed the immigrants there (as elsewhere) have expressed their difficulties with merging with an otherwise fairly homogenous culture (though 15% of Sweden’s population are immigrants, mostly refugees increasingly from Syria).

The intersection between what is a protest in Turkey against top-down regulations, and a top-down creation of green space creating a happier culture in Sweden lies in the dichotomy of the outcomes, I think. Sweden may be experiencing a lack of contentment on the part of recent immigrants despite the benefits they receive, including the green space they have nearby, and they are doing so via riots. But also, Turkey may be experiencing a cultural revolution born out of the attempt of their government to create a more “modernized” public space without the consent of their people. What Sweden did in the ‘30’s was essentially social engineering for a positive cause – a sweeping alteration of the culture purposefully done to improve the wellbeing of Swedes with success. Turkey’s recent attempt at altering the built environment has instead been met with massive bottom-up resistance as the people themselves want to take the design of their city – and their culture – into their own hands in order to better their own lives. Both involve top-down initiatives in different time periods surrounding public green space, but while one has potentially succeeded and recently failed (or is being criticized) decades later, the other may not even get to experiment at all if the people have anything to do with it.

What we may be witnessing is the birth of a new era – a contemporary culture that wants to take control of their environment, which will no longer allow a government to redesign the city – their city – without their consent. The Right to the City was heralded in the Occupy Movement for their use of public space to protest their grievances and evictions were seen as stifling the right to gather as such. However, The Right to the Entire City may actually be more important to urban design in the future; if you want to design something, you might want to talk to the People first.


For more on these topics:

On green space globally: Gardens, City Life, and Culture: A World Tour (2008)

Within the same book: “Swedish Mid-Century Utopia: Park Design as a Tool for Social Improvements”, T. Andersson

On public housing: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth – a documentary on public housing of the same name in St. Louis

An Occupied Anniversary: Public Space One Year Later

September 20th recently brought the first year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zucotti Park, New York City. This time last year brought the Occupy movement to Portland’s doorstep in the form of a massive march through downtown, numbering over 10,000 strong, and filling Pioneer Courthouse Square before ending at Chapman and Lownsdale Square Parks in the evening. At that point, I was beginning the first term of my second (and final) year in graduate school studying Urban Studies at Portland State University. The eager urbanist in me celebrated the use of public space in this way – the posters advertising the date, the start of the march on the waterfront, and the overflowing “living room” of Portland’s downtown. I marched, as did some of my classmates (as well as the mayor), and I readied myself for what was sure to be a wave of academic discussion on the urban implications of such a camping-protest. Unsatisfied with the level of coverage in the classroom (like the news stations), I set out to gather as much information as possible on this historic event.

Occupy Portland at Pioneer Courthouse Square (photo: creative commons, Wikipedia)

Occupy Portland at Pioneer Courthouse Square (photo: creative commons, Wikipedia)

Like a dream, the occupation ended nearly a month later, much longer than some other occupations across the country. After I finished conducting my research and said a bittersweet goodbye to this perfect example of our first amendment, I once again readied myself for the hopeful discussions to come regarding the use of public space for free speech in the United Space. What did the movement change regarding the public-private conundrum? In various cities across the country it seemed to be arbitrary – while others allowed for no camping whatsoever, or used violent force, Portland was relatively uneventful from an enforcement perspective. It seemed to be determined by the opinions of the Mayor involved. Mayor Adams has supported free speech as has the city in general in recent history. These specific public space in Portland in particular have seen numerous demonstrations over the years as well, dating back to the Bonus Army protests in 1932. It seems as though the spacial components may also influence the success, or at least ease, of occupying as well. New York City showed that there is a fine line between what is considered public, or semi-public, as was the case at Zucotti Park – a privately owned public space (POPS). How public is public space? While it may be public enough to pass through, you may actually need a permit to hold an assembly if there are any structures or just too many people.


Protest Sign at Occupy Portland (photo by author)

Richard Sennett, a professor at New York University and the London School of Economics, writes recently in The Nation about just such a thought process. For the potential protestor, the Occupy movement raised serious concerns about how and where one is able to assemble without much harassment (not to mention the legal technicalities regarding terms like “open flame” and “camping”). For the designer and urbanist, however, the movement could have bigger implications for how we create and use public space. Rather than planning for this activity here or that activity there, how can we create vibrant Jane Jacobs-esque places that allow for a multitude of activities including protesting? One of the biggest complaints in Portland was that occupiers were denying the public to use parks that provided space for leisurely lunch breaks. While typically these spaces may not be filled to capacity with protestors, it may still be possible to design places that are, as Sennett puts it, “equally family-friendly and protestor-friendly”.

In this city, as in many vibrant cities, the combination of Jacobs’ diversity and density can create a sense of chaos. Most city-dwellers will tell you that this sort of activity is what makes them live downtown – not only do you get parks and pigeons and cafes, but also street performers and protestors. Sennett, following Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte, and Jan Gehl (and many others) are taking this movement to heart when discussing urban design. Rather than pushing away the skateboarder or homeless person, we should be embracing the “porosity” of public space in order to truly make cities for all people, including protestors.

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, 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?”


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


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


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.



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.


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:








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.



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.


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.


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.


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.

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 – 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 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.”


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.


Time to Think


A research based non-profit that connects academic research to urban design practice through a number of means, including expertise, scholarship, interventions, publications, and consultation with professionals.

potential activities

  • Update and re-evaluate seminal urban research (jacobs, whyte, lynch – the list is endless)
  • Keep the pulse of current research/scholarship in key areas
  • Produce publications, web/print/scholarly (mainstream to academic)
  • Events – for information dissemination, advocacy, salons/discussions
  • Conduit for specific research projects – self-directed ideas – ideas from others.
  • Consultation on local projects (expertise in key areas) – added to project teams
  • Place for student expansion of scholarship – bring students from around the globe