Recent Protests in Public Space: It’s All About Equity

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Thousands of protestors march in the streets of New York City | Image via PPS Instagram, regram via @Helenshirley

#ericgarner
#Icantbreathe
#whyblacklivesmatter
#crimingwhilewhite

All of these have topped the Twitter trending charts in recent days, and for good reason.

The reactions in the last two weeks over the grand jury decisions on the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson have started both online campaigns and important conversations about equity under the law. But it also brought people outside in ongoing protests to express outrage against these rulings – at times, shutting down streets and entire highways in the process. Read More

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

The Normalization of Livable Cities

This article was originally published on International Making Cities Livable

The suburban history of the last century in the United States can actually be said to be relatively short. It wasn’t until after the second World War that automobiles were more widely available and the suburbs became the standard for the “American Dream”. Since then, several developments have appeared which have worked to shape this dominant paradigm on how we live and work; Whereas once a great exodus left city centers abandoned from otherwise urban corporate headquarters, there is now a return of companies and people alike to these more walkable, livable downtowns. Indeed, I would argue that there is a newfound desire towards this sense of diversity and multiculturalism that a city brings.

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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?

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

SharedStreet1

BaseNHstreetDiagram

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.

annexation

unpaved_streets

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.