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, 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.

Citibike in New York City, accompanied by street improvements (image source here)

Bicycle Share (or a lack thereof) in the Bike Capital of the U.S.

2013 seems to be shaping up as the Year of Bicycle Share across the U.S., with New York City getting its Citibike and Chicago’s Divvy launching just a few weeks later. Portland (and Seattle as well) would be joining the party this year, too, if it weren’t for delays in its launch. And this got me thinking – Portland is hailed as the bicycle capital of the United States, so you’d think that we’d have a bike share system long before a city like New York. While Portland has a history of progressive bicycle treatments (bike lanes, boxes, and signals, to name a few) there is definitely a stall in truly groundbreaking developments. A bike lane may be widened or finally there’s a stretch of separated bicycle lanes near downtown, but where is the Indianapolis-like wow-factor? Where is the buffered corridor that provides a safe connection downtown? Where is our bicycle share?

Citibike in New York City, accompanied by street improvements (image source here)

Citibike in New York City, accompanied by street improvements (image source here)

I recently brought this up to a group of friends and colleagues (over beers, of course), individuals experienced with urban studies, many of whom ride a bicycle regularly and are passionate about alternative transportation and walkable/livable cities. I was shocked to find that almost immediately the conversation turned to a backlash of conflict towards the idea of bicycle share, especially here in Portland. Their issue came down to a few main points – For starters, they already have bikes. They don’t need bicycle share. And who would it serve anyway? Would tourists actually use it at all? Would it just be wasting money when it could be put into bike lanes instead? And a major concern, would it reach to the areas of the city which are in most need of this kind of transportation, or would they even use it?

Coming from progressive cycle-friendly young people in Portland, I was shocked. But it’s important to remember that Portland is the home of the urban homesteader – it is incredibly progressive but in a (dare I say) Tea Party-like way it is also home to a lot of people who want to do things in an independent way via Maker-driven artisan businesses or raising chickens in their backyards (and the like). One of the most notable quotes about Portland that I recall from my early days here fresh in graduate school comes from a local historian and professor Carl Abbott: “Portland isn’t Seattle, nor do we want it to be”. What that quote really means could indicate the difference between a town and a world-class city. Is there something to being a Portlander that dislikes a more formal bicycle share? I’d like to go through each of these points in turn in an effort to think this through.

Bike share costs money that could be put elsewhere

The money argument we know to be false – Bicycle share is coordinated most often by a private company or at the very least has private sponsors that carry a lot of the cost. Not to mention that the cost of bicycle share systems is much less than something like a giant highway or the fact that for instance, NYC residents did not pay for Citibike at all. And do I even have to bring up the jobs created and the income generated that goes back to the city?

Bicycle share is for tourists

When the point was raised that all of the world-class tourist destinations of Europe have bicycle share, some in NYC shouted that they didn’t want the city to be like Paris – It’s New York; it’s meant to be filled with honking yellow cabs, grey sidewalks, and people yelling out of their windows. The nay-sayers claimed that people would either die left and right on the streets because of New York’s character, or tourists wouldn’t know how to ride a bike in the city. While NYC is of course a world-class city, the perception of it as always being like it is now, and having a unique niche in the world of metropolises (read: gritty?), was a prime concern for people when those “invasive” blue bicycles appeared on the street.

During the discussion with my friends, one of them brought up the bicycle share in Berlin and how it is dilapidated, unused, and totally unnecessary. One could say the same about cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen where so many people ride bicycles (about half in both cases, depending on the trip type and location), what is the need for a public bicycle service? Portland is of course not even close to these numbers, sitting at a pitiful 7% on a good day (though some neighborhoods do trend higher, again depending on trip type and so on). So while maybe mostly tourists use the bicycle shares in many European cities, I should think that Portland could use the leg up in any way possible, bicycle share being a component of the larger picture.

I already own a bike, I don’t need bike share

In line with the previous argument, the fact that you would rather have your own bike is apparently a point of dissent regarding bike share, regardless of the fact that others might not own a bike yet. However, I think this is one of the easier points to counter. Some people simply may not want to ride a bicycle every day and therefore may not want to spend the money on owning a bicycle (including upkeep and so on) as it may be more economically efficient to instead use the bicycle share system. Further, for people living downtown in apartments or just smaller living spaces, having a bicycle takes up space, or is constantly at risk of being stolen if stored outside. Bicycle share for some can free up the worry of loss, maintenance, initial cost, and storage, depending on the individual (much like the argument for car sharing).

Bicycle share also provides something else crucial for people who don’t own a bike – the ability to try out riding a bicycle in a city, especially if they’ve never done it before. Maybe they don’t want to go through the commitment of buying a bike only to find that they don’t actually feel comfortable riding one. It is possible that through bikeshare they will eventually go on to buy their own bicycle once they’ve decided that yes, this is something that they will do enough to warrant the purchase.

And of course, even people who own bicycles can take advantage of bicycle share. One of the great stories to come out of the NYC bike share was the professional who works downtown and rides to work, but didn’t like taking his bicycle out of his office just for a lunch meeting. It is much easier for him to just hop on a Citibike for those short trips on the fly, and then ride his regular bicycle at the end of the day to get home.

Bicycle share only serves the wealthy

Whenever people bring up the argument that bikes aren’t good for underserved populations, I’m stunned. Bicycles were the dominant mode of transportation for the masses in many countries up until recently and even here in the United States (until the advent of automobiles, of course). In many places where cars are simply not practical, bicycles still reign supreme, not to mention the European examples where bicycles are used more often by the entire population as the great equalizer – exactly what we should all be shooting for in the U.S. The fact of the matter is bikes are much less expensive than cars ever will be. If we can make it more accessible, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods, we can give everyone the choice to have a more affordable method of transportation.

With regards to bicycle share, I think this is just a matter of baby steps, especially here in the U.S. where it’s not commonplace yet. When starting bicycle share in a city, it has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is going to be the place with the most visibility and potential for use. This means placing stations near transit stops, the business district, and popular tourist destinations like museums and major parks (typically downtown). Only after its initial stages can it then spread to places that express a desire for access. Chicago’s bike share for example currently has 75 stations, but a whopping 400 are officially planned (that’s 750 bikes now, and 4,000 in the future!). It takes time, and hopefully it will be done with a sense of equality to spread to the neighborhoods that could really use access to alternative transportation.

Portland isn’t the place for bike share

To consider a city static and without change is total folly. We know what livability looks like. We know that providing choices to people is the key to increasing the number of people using alternative transportation and we know that’s what makes healthier people as well as cities more generally. Bicycle share can also be a significant indicator of the current state of a city – whereas for bicycle share to work, the facilities need to be in place for people to use it. I think it’s notable that NYC has recently gone through major changes in its public space and protected bicycle lanes followed by the ability to actually experience these changes in accessibility and safety (not to mention livability).

The question then is this: why is Portland so behind on bicycle share, especially when we’re the home of the company that has made bicycle share in all these other cities? Interestingly enough Portland did have a (admittedly weird) bottom-up bicycle share years ago. Certain bikes were painted yellow and spread throughout the city with the expectation that those bikes could be used by anyone and dropped off anywhere (no stations required). As I’m sure you’ve already guessed it was apparently a complete failure. The bikes were frequently stolen or vandalized, and the “system” eventually died out.

In a beautiful case study, I think this exemplifies Portland in many ways – rather than wanting a top-down government-created project Portlanders are more willing to buy their own bike or take the lane even when lanes are provided. The can-do grassroots and artisan attitude is admirable – no mistaking that. But when it comes to something like a bicycle share system, much like car sharing, it’s best to deliver it with a good degree of technology and coordination – something which can only be achieved through a predominantly top-down approach. But more importantly, when it comes to accessibility, choice in transportation, and livability, I believe that bicycle share systems are a crucial part of this equation, regardless of whether you yourself will use it or not. And maybe Portland hasn’t had a bicycle share before this because of peoples’ attitudes, or the existing infrastructure, but my hopes are that when it does come, it will bring with it an increase in ridership, but also a sense of pride, even if we don’t want to be like Seattle.

Or if you don’t believe me, you can always listen to this guy:


The Future of Public Space

The Urban Center Plaza at Portland State University, topic of my thesis research. Photo credit: Doug Macy of Walker Macy (used with permission)

The Urban Center Plaza at Portland State University, topic of my thesis research. Photo credit: Doug Macy of Walker Macy (used with permission)

Public space isn’t something typically on everyone’s mind on a daily basis, though of course it dictates much about how we live our lives – Where do you cross the street? Do you have sidewalks? Where’s your nearest public park or plaza? For those without private open space (apartment/condo dwellers, houseless individuals) public space is the only space they have to travel, walk their dog, have a picnic, or just plain experience the rest of their society (myself included). Considering that urban environments now contain over 50% of the world’s inhabitants, and that this is only going to increase, I believe that an emphasis on public space is necessary for the future of cities.

Public Space and Protest

I am a public space aficionado, for lack of a better term. So much so, in fact, that I created an entire custom focus in my master’s program to support my ideal thesis work – a William H. Whyte influenced research project on a local plaza. However, in my second year at graduate school a far more important opportunity arose here in Portland, as in elsewhere, when the Occupy Wall Street movement set up camp in two downtown parks. Politics aside, I jumped (marched?) at the opportunity to take advantage of this potentially once in a lifetime situation. Direct observation of bottom-up processes of urban development demonstrating the right to the city in an urban public space? Yes, please!

Occupy Portland at Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland's "Living Room" (photo: creative commons, Wikipedia)

Occupy Portland at Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland’s “Living Room” (photo: creative commons, Wikipedia)

As an anthropologist by trade I decided the best approach to gathering the most information at the camps would be to conduct a short ethnography of place. Due to the unexpectedness of the movement and encampment (and my already existing class schedule) I was unable to stay overnight. Instead, I visited the camps for 3-10 hours every day that I was able to (about 5 days per week) between October 22nd and November 12th. Aside from mingling and observing with the occupiers, I also volunteered at the Information Tent – basically the heart of the camps where one could ask questions, get directions, drop off donations, or request supplies. Here, I was also able to gather a sample of surveys from occupiers and non-occupiers alike, looking to get more information on why they were here, who they were, and how they were involved in the movement. In general, however, the interactions and observations at the camps were more enlightening than the surveys, which turned out to be very similar to other surveys conducted at the main Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.

Tent spacing, early occupation period. (photo by author)

Tent spacing, early occupation period. (photo by author)

It may not look like it to us (as it seldom does to the persons experiencing it) but culture is going through a rather dramatic shift, not just nationally but on a very global scale as well. And much like previous cultural shifts it is predominately being altered by our technological advancements. One of the most interesting things about the Occupy protests was the balance between technology and the physical occupation of space in real time. Much like in Tahrir Square, updates via social media allowed for a rapid response regarding marches and police actions; though the value was dependent upon more than just “likes” or digital signatures, but boots-on-the-ground (so to speak) in order to assert the movement’s agenda.

If the Occupy movement was simply an online petition, it wouldn’t have had nearly as much of an impact on awareness, not to mention individual lives. The intimate experience of personally meeting affected individuals of the recession and discussing the state of affairs in the United States, absolutely has a more lasting impression due to this connection. On the other hand, while I spent time physically in the company of these passionate individuals, I also spent a great deal of time watching live video streams from citizen journalists in New York City documenting arrests and march developments. I recall the sense of horror while I witnessed from helicopter feed dozens of tents filled with personal belongings being heaped unceremoniously into dumpsters at the Boston Occupation or the overwhelming thrill of victory when they took the Brooklyn Bridge chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!”. The “taking back” of public space in this movement was a critical component for visibility as well as demonstrating the democratic use of public space (for more on this, I suggest Marcuse’s blog on the Right to the City).

Public Space and Technology

My thought process here lies in the fascinating dichotomy that we currently experience in our now-mostly-urban lives and how it relates to prior notions of public space. We are tied more than ever to our electronic devices while also spending more time walking and bicycling. Public life and the spaces that conduct it have become more important to us in recent years, not less, like the brutalism architecture of the 60s would have led us to believe. In what ways the combination of technology and the livable city will manifest is only beginning to surface though with interesting recent developments…

A still from Whyte's Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1988)

A still from Whyte’s Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1988)

While some despair as usual for the future of a “disconnected” society reliant upon technology, we know that this is more of an overblown hyperbolic statement than anything. Texting will not, as has been claimed, destroy our use of proper grammar, nor will video games create a new generation of dirt-hating couch potatoes. However, there are some serious concerns, as Evgeny Morozov wrote in a recent piece at Slate about the new Google Maps (The Atlantic Cities also has a recap and thought experiment here.) Morozov describes the concept of missing public space as the customized maps focus instead on the destinations described in your social media and search criteria. “In Google’s world, public space is just something that stands between your house and the well-reviewed restaurant that you are dying to get to. Since no one formally reviews public space or mentions it in their emails, it might as well disappear from Google’s highly personalized maps.” (Then again, as someone who clearly mentions public space a lot, I wonder how Google Maps would alter my content?)

One of the contentious issues of public space has been the privatization of public space for a myriad of reasons. The very definition of public means that the public technically owns it and therefore can use it without rigid control and restrictions (within reason, of course). If it is private it can be altered and individuals and/or activities can be prohibited at the whim of the owner. According to most public space specialists these privately own public spaces (or POPS) are things to be feared if the Right to the City is to be upheld. Is the new Google Maps the future of public space as it is at least digitally conceived? Have we arrived at a point of worrying about privately owned digital representation of physical public space? (also known as PODRPPS? Hm. Maybe not…)

In another recent news story on this physical/technological dichotomy, Deeplocal, a private innovation/design studio in Pittsburgh, has taken this in a similar, but also very unique direction. Using a combination of crowdfunding in the form of a monthly fee and their own private resources, they’re outfitting an otherwise vacant grassy lot with salvaged furniture and amenities for the ultimate shared outdoor space. Rather than petitioning the city or independently moving to houses with larger yards for personal use (the suburbs, anyone?), the team has decided to take matters into their own hands and create the space that the neighborhood needs and that they themselves desire.

Deeplocal’s vacant lot, soon to be “Bayardstown”

This of course does raise a few eyebrows for us public space people in the sense that with a privately owned semi-public space comes restrictions, as is also the case with this example via age limits, a cap on accepted members, email requirements, and that monthly fee. It’s a great idea – something I’d be tempted to create myself if I were in their situation – but can we truly call it public space? Definitely not. Could it be the future of “public” space in the physical sense? Quite possibly so. What with city budget cuts and the crowdsourcing craze, I’m sure the idea of a small member fee for such a neat outdoor space will take off in no time. What’s more, the emerging culture is that of this maker mentality – not only stereotypically in places like Portland, but also Pittsburgh, and others, manifesting itself in ways like Deeplocal’s team of “creatives”. When compared to Google’s approach, I think I would also prefer this kind of POPS – a somewhat more bottom-up approach that at least gives you the option of using a space you otherwise might not have, rather than altering your perception without your consent.

What does this mean for the future of public space?

It’s my opinion that the city of the future, as a whole, is going to be a fascinating hybrid of this physical/digital dichotomy we seem to be experiencing the beginnings of lately. More than just civic aps, objects like Google Glass are blurring the lines between the two realities while digitally printed three-dimensional physical objects are quickly entering the realm of everyday reality. This generation is driving less while also becoming more urban. New York City’s recent launch of Citi Bike (a highly technical fleet of a human-powered and intimately interactive form of alternative transportation) has thus far been a huge success, and is only going to grow with other major cities in the U.S. jumping on the bike share boat this summer. While the research of Whyte on public spaces in the 70s was almost entirely concentrated on the physical aspects, the future of public space and urban life more generally will have to consider a more comprehensive look at what “reality” really is.

Pedal-power on the lower east side (photo credit Forbes article)

Post-disaster Transportation

Imagine your city in crisis. For some of us, that might not be far removed from a recent painful natural or man made disaster. For others, like us here in Portland, it could be the near future when, not if, the overdue earthquake hits. In New York City, millions of people are still without power and in this very situation. If this were to happen to you tomorrow, how would you get to services and supplies? What if a friend or loved one across town needed your support? Without public transportation and accessible roads, immediate travel will likely not involve a personal automobile, but instead be on foot or by bike. Even after roads are cleared there may be shortages of gasoline leading to long lines, rationing, and even fights as people compete for filling their generators and status quo for getting to work.

Thousands of citizens commuting by food and bike post-Sandy (Via Project for Public Spaces Facebook page)

Thousands of citizens commuting by food and bike post-Sandy (Via Project for Public Spaces Facebook page)

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy numerous reports have come out depicting a surge of people on bicycles and foot travelling in great waves across the city. While cars in certain areas are required to have three or more passengers to pass, even then the long lines of automobiles form an impractical way of getting around right now. In a way this is the ultimate test of recent active transportation progress in New York City headed by Mayor Bloomberg and Janette Sadik-Khan. It’s also a testimony to the community in New York City that neighbors can come together to help distribute supplies (again, often by bike). Even the Occupy Movement is coming up again utilizing their bike-powered generators from the original protest camps to recharge neighbors’ electronic devices, complete with a barbecue. We here at Think.urban are excited to see this sort of community action and hope that everyone is safe after this historical disaster. In the meantime, we’ll be using this as a reminder to prepare for whatever disaster might befall us in the near future. Is your bike ready?

Pedal-power on the lower east side (photo credit Forbes article)

Pedal-power on the lower east side (photo credit Forbes article)

Bicycle Commuter Stats Maps

[Originally written by Allison Duncan]

A simple graduated symbol map from Governing.com shows the range of commuter rates for cities – with a roll-over for specific cities to show more detail. The map for Bike Commuters shows a comparison of commuters to total workers – so each is proportional.   The high margin of error in the data (which in the notes is attributed to 2006 and 2011 American Community Survey – ACS) means, as with all maps and data, one must take it with a grain of salt.

To compare, another map on the site shows total people who Bike to Work - which could be construed as the same thing, and obviously there would be some correlation – but is a specific question and not a comparison of bike commuters to overall workers, as shown above, so does make for a slightly different spread – for instance Eugene, Oregon – which is larger on the above map – is significantly smaller on the map below – because the plot is based on total riders – so obviously Portland would be bigger due to larger population.

It would be interesting to dig into some of the ACS data and see what the specific questions are, and hopefully the survey will still be around in future years (more on this to come) for future longitudinal studies.

It's All About Choice

Here’s a lovely write-up and video about Portland’s transportation options in USA Today. It’s always nice to see people like Professor Dill of Portland State University and Rob Sadowsky of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance featured in this editorial. While “cars vs. bikes” is brought up, it’s fairly accurate in representing the situation here without adding to the hype. Potentially one of the only somewhat misconstrued items listed is the cycle track situation as it makes it sound like they are commonplace here when the reality is far from it. Otherwise, a lovely article overall and a nice plug for Portland. Enjoy.

The Visitor’s Perspective

There’s a lot of talk lately about parking, whether it’s new no-parking developments on SE Division St. as we mentioned recently, occupying parking spaces with the newly debuted “street seats”, or claims that the car is the “most dangerous invention in the world”. Whatever your personal opinion it is a fact that we have to deal with cars, either inside or around them, on a daily basis. As someone who doesn’t drive, my perspective is mostly on a pedestrian level and only occasionally as a passenger. In my neighborhood in Portland I can walk to whatever services I need, several bus stops that can take me downtown and over the river, a MAX station, and even the streetcar which will soon be servicing the east side of town. Most of the time my experience inside cars involves an exciting trip to Ikea on the outskirts of town when there are larger items to retrieve, or in a taxi late at night after public transportation services have ended. It came as some surprise to me then to view the city, and my neighborhood in particular, from the perspective of an out-of-town visitor during my wedding a month ago.

Leading up to the event I advised my guests that Portland is difficult to drive in downtown (where the wedding would be) and that it is in fact a rather small downtown area that can be easily traversed via foot, streetcar, or taxi. I advised against renting a vehicle aiming for lower costs and convenience, though some (by necessity or choice) did drive in the city. Unbeknownst to me, this would become the takeaway first impression for most of the visitors: Portland hates cars. I will admit that I am very fond of this city and made it my goal to have a very Portland wedding that would show my family and friends this lovely city that I am making my life in. Having lived here on a car-lite lifestyle and studying livable urbanism for the past two years, it almost came as a kind of reverse culture-shock to hear family exclaiming their frustration at a lack of parking. Even with the delight of the celebration, their opinion of Portland will forever be peppered with the negative views they had simply because they attempted to traverse it by car.

“But that’s good urban planning!”, you may cry, as I did. Making parking less convenient does seem to have an effect, even on my newly-transplanted friends from Phoenix who refuse to drive unnecessarily if it means having to spend 20 minutes looking for a parking space when they return (unscientific, but a good example). Young people are driving less, and Portland in particular has the highest bicycle mode share split in the country (somewhere between 5-7%) with plans to increase this number. We know now, as many speculated, that building more roads or expanding highways does not decrease congestion but actually makes things worse. Why then, with all of these trends forecasted towards decidedly less car-reliant futures for urban areas (and environmental, economic, sustainability, and safety related reasons in tow), would we continue with outdated auto-centric urbanism such as increasing on-street parking or lots or widening roads all in the name of assisting an out-of-state tourist who decided to rent a car (no offense, Grandmom)?

When faced with being called “anti-car” or that there is a “war on cars”, it can seem disheartening, especially when I myself do not physically drive. There are many, many others, however, who share these same progressive planning feelings who do drive and know people who drive and are not bent on “waging a war” against something that we know will probably never go away. This blog post recently reposted on Planetizen sums it up nicely: “Cutting dependence on cars isn’t anti-car, it’s common sense”. As they mention in the article, it just makes more sense to be equitable and allow for that celebrated, and for some necessary, walkability. Sometimes I feel as though these principles are so solid, so common sense in my academic and personal circles, that I forget how difficult it can be to communicate all of this data to the public. So what does this mean for the image of a city? Even with all of the progressive planning and walkability, it’s entirely likely that some members of my family will think of Portland in a fairly negative light whether mentioning it in conversations or when choosing where to live. It’s true that you can’t please them all, but it’s clear a first impression can make or break a city, especially for those who don’t have the time or inclination to give it a second chance.

To Park or Not to Park

[Originally written by Jason King]

One of those age-old dilemmas of urban infill development is coming to bear on a particular area of Portland, which has always seemed immune to the inane “development must have parking” issues. Guess not, as there has been a multitude of backlash related to a series of projects along SE Division Street.  Some of these projects include parking, while others are going the way of no parking, which is not required as part of the development. The fundamental question becomes whether the requirements of minimum parking, maximum parking, or in these cases no parking, provide a balance between space for livability, or do they degrade the quality of the neighborhood for existing residents. Parking is never free, for residents or developers, and space is at a premium in cities, so every square foot counts.


Ghost Parking Lot – James Wines (1978)

As the Willamette Week mentions:  “Some Southeast Portland neighbors are asking the city to freeze construction along Division Street, hoping to halt the boom in apartment buildings without on-site parking. Their latest objection? A four-story, 81-unit apartment complex at Southeast 37th Avenue and Division Street, already permitted on the former site of the Egyptian Club. Neighborhood advocates all over the east side are complaining about infill apartments and the parking headaches that follow. “Our neighborhood will be a congestion nightmare next summer and never the same after that,” Richmond neighborhood resident and novelist Richard Melo wrote Aug. 2 to City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the Bureau of Development Services, adding that the current course is turning the area into “a national case study for unchecked urban development.” Saltzman’s office declined to comment.”

Portland Architecture picked up the thread in a post that discusses the idea of parking in the urban realm, author Brian Libby referencing the WW story, and an email from mayoral hopeful Charlie Hales, both discussing the need to study the connection between parking requirements. From the Hales memo, quoted in Portland Architecture:

“In our desire to support urban living and non-auto transportation, have we gone too far? When we first started trying to fit new mixed-use development into streets like Belmont, Division and Alberta, parking was a challenge, but in a very different way than today. Our struggle then was to get developers and banks to accept less parking than would be typical in suburbia. Now, the world has changed. Banks are today willing to lend on apartment projects with no parking provided. While this has resulted in affordable projects for those without cars, there are other unintended consequences impacting neighborhoods in ways that need to be carefully assessed.”

I expect to hear more on this, and it’s a bit disheartening to see this becoming even an issue, much less a talking point. Aren’t there better things to deal with in Portland than adding more parking? Libby concludes with what we all have experienced, the interplay of desirability of destinations and the role of parking. Neighborhoods where great restaurants or destinations exist make it worth a few trips around the block – and I’d say even make it worth it if you live there. As mentioned, the issue is most present in Northwest 23rd, the hotbed of trendy eateries and shops, and horrible parking issues.

I think of the trolling we all do when we go to Northwest 23rd. But 23rd is ultimately getting a parking garage – not an eyesore of multistory concrete, but one thoughtfully tucked away. I think that’s a better solution than restricting apartment and condominium projects because they’ll add neighborhood congestion or requiring new developments to build their own parking, as we once did. Nobody likes parking, but it’s a bit of a Catch-22 situation here: the more you build parking, the less likely it is to be a place where people want to go – and park, and spend money, and contribute to a vibrant local economy. Portland has long since committed itself to density over sprawl, and we can’t have it both ways. And I’d rather we be more Zurich than, say, Houston or Toledo.”

One interesting link from Portland Architecture is to an article about Zurich from Atlantic Cities, which struggled with and eventually came to a compromise on minimum and maximum parking allowances that significantly reduced wasted space to parking in the city center. The authors of the study, from University of Connecticut, also find an interesting correlation between density and parking availability in US cities, finding:

“…that cities with higher levels of automobile use generally supply more parking, perhaps as would be expected. But what is unexpected is the degree to which these cities also have a much lower density of what matters in cities, residents and jobs (see the figure below). American cities in our study with small numbers of parking spaces have two to four times more people per square mile. This seems to have a lot to do with the amount of space that is needed for parking. In other words, space used for parking is simply not available for more productive uses.”

Some developers have looked at alternatives, such as the development at 20th and Hawthorne, which implemented a car stacking ‘matrix’ that provides additional off-street parking for residents – as seen on the video below.

These systems have a higher up-front cost, and that is passed along to residents, who pay a premium for off-street parking. Maybe it’s worth it, but it also leads to less affordability of housing, as those costs are borne by renters, not by neighbors. Back on Division, a parking lot rehab next to the Bella Institute at 22nd and Division offers a potential solution. The school operates during the day, and parking is used for their students and faculty. In the evening, where demand for parking is more at a premium, the lot offers a pay-to-park option, which gives additional capacity. Plus, the new pavement is all permeable paving. I’m not a fan of surface lots, but some inventive parking shared options for facilities like daytime office, churches, etc. might gap some of the more significant impacts. It’s not a site-by-site issue, but rather looking at the big picture.

On the Division and other streets coming soon, and related topic to be explored further here at THINK.urban, the City of Portland is starting it’s new program, Street Seats, which is liberally borrowed from San Francisco’s program of Parklets. From PBOTs website, the Street Seats allow adjacent owners to “build a temporary platform in the on-street parking lane. The platform is the same height as the curb and extends the sidewalk space in order to add additional outdoor seating along the street.”  I think the ideas are great, but they do result in lest parking, much like other measures such as street bulb-outs, green street swales, bike corrals, and other elements all competing for space in the ROW.

Street seat at Wafu on SE Division

Street seat at Wafu on SE Division

In the end, the question of dense urbanity and room for people, cars, quiet, and access is going to continue to be an issue. Right now it’s a developer decision to include parking or not, and it should stay that way, if someone is interested in providing that amenity. Or heck, go ahead and require the parking, it will just result in more inventive ‘jams’ for the the system – creating inventive methods of co-opting parking spaces, such as using the spots for urban camping – I guess a form of subsidized housing.  Parking?  Sure, let’s just make it parking day, every day.


A Hybrid Solution to Unpaved Streets?

[Originally written by Allison Duncan]

Those whom get alerts from Portland’s Mayor Sam Adams received a strange email last week, with the following text:  “Live on a gravel or dirt street?  Portland’s new Out of the Mud (and Dust) initiative aims to help. Your feedback is wanted.”    There are over 65 miles of gravel or unimproved roads in Portland, and as highlighted in the Willamette Week last year, the Mayor promised to fix them.  I guess the time has come, and the solution is intriguing.


Typical unimproved street – NE 66th in the Cully Neighborhood (via Willamette Week)

Instead of following the rhetoric that immediately says pavement = civilization and equates gravel roads with third world conditions, the response from City of Portland is a bit more nuanced to provide for a bit of both.  The proposal provides hybrid improvement strategies that don’t restore a full curb to gutter impervious surface, but do provide the basic transportation needs and reduce maintenance.  The aim is not to require residents to spend less while making the streets require less maintenance, and include walkways and other options like amenities – for approximately $60/month – much less than a full street build costs in a Local Improvement District (LID) – estimated at $300/month.

As mentioned:  “Building full, top-of-the-line streets in place of gravel or dirt streets costs property owners a lot of money. In looking at ways to reduce the miles of unpaved streets, I and the Transportation Bureau explored city standards and came up with new ideas so residents can get affordable streets done quickly. ”  The base street option include paving the center street area with gravel shoulders, as shown below, along with some options.



This seems like an interesting compromise for an issue that is as much about equity as it is about paving, as many feel the burden of improvement in these areas lying with the homeowners is somewhat onerous.  I for one think paving these streets in a traditional way misses an opportunity for creative solutions that integrate many options beyond just more infrastructure and impervious surfacing.  New methods of pedestrian safety, stormwater management, narrow roadways, and use of the public ROW are opportunities for Portland to lead with innovative urban strategies.  We experiment, and maybe come up with a solution that others eventually emulate.  Maybe depaving some streets becomes an option?

Sidebar:  Annexation & Paved Streets in Portland

An interesting sidebar noted is the connection to annexation and unpaved streets in Portland., as pointed out in the email:

“Many of the City of Portland’s gravel streets are in neighborhoods that once belonged to Multnomah County. Those neighborhoods were annexed to the City after the houses were built. Unlike the City of Portland, Multnomah County did not require street improvements of homebuilders. Similar houses on similar streets but in different parts of town either paid a fee to help fund the cost of their streets or waived their rights to object to any future streets fees due to Portland’s requirements.”

There are links to two maps as well, included below, showing the visual connection between annexation and unpaved streets with those last to be included in the annexation having the majority of unimproved roads.



The other part of that, back to issues of equity.  Residents of outlying areas see inner neighborhood streets built with green street swales, while they live with gravel streets and potholes.  Others like the ‘natural’ character and semi-private nature of their unimproved streets to reduce pass-through traffic.  It isn’t an easy solution – but it might be a unique Portland problem, in need of an equally creative solution.

Annotated Bibliography – 07.30.12

[Originally written by Jason King]

There a lot of information out there related to aspects of urbanism in its many facets, so in the spirit of academia, a feature here at THINK.urban will be to regularly compile and summarize some recent articles, posts, and other resources.   These are brief elements that don’t get their own post, but are interesting reading and worth sharing.  And, if you find something of interest, feel free to send us an email and we will include it in upcoming posts.

SimCity and new realism in simulation

SimCity and new realism in simulation

Following up a recent post on exurbs, suburbs, and growth, more on the state of the suburbs:

Community Types by Population and Number of Municipalities...

Community Types by Population and Number of Municipalities…

Some Portland specific links, because we love our local urban laboratory!

Terwilliger Parkway

Terwilliger Parkway