Portland is widely acknowledged as an urban renewal success story. So much so that it has become somewhat of a mecca for planners and others interested in urban redevelopment, visiting the city for inspiration and understanding. In part, such was the motivation of this author, doubling as an anniversary get-a-way. Its not urban renewal of the New York City or Chicago variety, in which the exodus to suburbia failed to dislodge the city’s role as a regional center for major institutions, nor involved infrastructure removal such as streetcar-ectomies. Rather its urban renewal of the second-tier U.S. cities variety, i.e., where cities have had to start nearly from scratch. Such cities typically were rendered into mere warehouse and red light districts after suburban flight. All these cities instituted urban renewal programs of varying types and they have experienced varying levels of progress. In order to sustain these efforts, municipalities loudly extoll their own successes. Often such pride centers around a new professional sports complex, a shopping complex, or a downtrodden commercial area converted into dining and entertainment, all touted as catalyst for redevelopment. Less often have these cities accomplished a complete urban environment, and new development is typically offset by demolition of urban fabric and removal of industrial, commercial, and lower income housing uses, replaced only by parking or vacant lots.
Upon visiting Portland, this author was not disappointed. Portland’ has come close to re-establising a complete urban eco-system. Another UrbDeZine author, Paul McNeil, offered his thoughts in a succinct and insightful 2010 article, 5 Things that make Portland Work… The following observations are of the end-result rather than the policies, politics, or history that led to downtown Portland’s current condition. They are through the eyes of a visitor with his own city’s redevelopment efforts as a basis for comparison.
1) Portland puts street level before skyline. Portland’s skyline is unimpressive. This is due to its small downtown blocks and strict height limits. As a result, the skyline is defined by squat mid-rise office buildings. In fact, while around Portland, one typically doesn’t even see a city “skyline.” In contrast, at street level, Portland seems more an urban environment than its bigger West Coast brethren. Its streets are chock full of restaurants, retail, parks, transit, and most importantly people. Surface parking, while not non-existent tends to occupy smaller lots and is more hidden. With Portland added to the list of short vs tall cities, it made this author believe that: “cities which focus on their skylines tend to lose sight of their streetscape.”
2) Tolerance. The sign in the photo to the right embodies the attitude. While signs in other cities speak of banning skateboarding and other activities in various locations, Portland appears more ready to embrace, or at least tolerate, all segments of its population. The tolerance extends to the homeless population, for which there appear to more amenities than some other cities. Of course, this is the home of the Portland Loo, the modular public toilet The Portland Loo is made for all members of the public, not simply the downtrodden public. Nevertheless, the absence of public restroom facilities often seems one of the cruelest insults some cities direct at their homeless populations. In my own city, bad karma makes for unpleasant sidewalk surprises. Many newly-redeveloping cities seem to take a suburban Home Owners’ Association approach to dealing with irritants and outcasts, i.e. eliminate their presence. In contrast, Portland and mature cities, seem to have learned tolerance and co-existence.
3) Preservation and adaptive reuse. Upon visiting Portland, I immediately felt I was in a mature city with fine grain urban fabric transitioning from downtown to the surrounding residential communities. This is especially true of the west side of the Willamette River where downtown proper is located. One can see green shoots and hip pocket-hoods on the east side of the river but whether the fine grain redevelopment will continue there one can only hope. Overall, the city appears to have not simply preserved “landmark” buildings, but preserved neighborhood and urban fabric as well.
5) Grid relief. New World cities, especially Western North American cities, are laid out in relatively uniform grid patterns (the Hippodamus Grid). Some of these cities implemented especially small blocks. These small block cities sought to facilitate two things: 1) more corner lots (which the city founders / developers could sell for higher prices), and 2) the elimination of mid-block alleys (while useful for providing access to back-of-the-house functions such as deliveries and trash, they came to be associated with iniquity and human detritus). At 200 feet by 200 feet, Portland has the smallest blocks of any major U.S. city (San Diego is close at 200′ by 300′). While these small uniform blocks have both staunch urbanist defenders and detractors, they undoubtedly create a lot automobile space, interrupted walking (stopping or turning every 200′), and the monotonous uniformity of the block pattern. Portland appears to have done an admirable job blunting the disadvantages of small uniform alleyless blocks. Among other things, Portland has embraced its few existing alleys (and by appearance, created some new ones) by making them small linear parks, retail arcades, or outdoor patios. As for its small blocks, several have been used as pocket parks with different themes and uses.
6) Parks. Portland was seventh on a recent ranking of best and worst cities for parks. My city was only two spots below. Not that being anywhere in the top ten is bad but I’d venture that if the ranking was limited to downtowns, Portland would fare even better and some of the other cities in the top ten wouldn’t be there. The City’s small blocks create opportunities for making small parks with different themes, as can be seen to the right with the new Tanner Springs and Jamison parks in the heavily residential northern Pearl District. In contrast to these latter parks, the North Park Blocks further south in a less residential part of the Pearl District appear still to be struggling. Overall though, the City has done an admirable job in creating park for its residents.
7) Trees. Portland, thanks to its abundance of rainy days, is very green. This green extends right into its downtown. Not just little plants and trees but big shade trees. These trees soften downtown’s hardscape and create a park-like feeling in most of downtown. Additionally, trees have positive environmental benefits such as reducing the heat island effect and converting CO2 into oxygen, i.e., reducing greenhouse gasses. However, rain isn’t the reason other cities don’t plant shade trees in their downtowns. In fact, some cities, e.g., Sacramento, with much less rain also have an abundance of substantial downtown trees. More often the excuse for not planting large trees is maintenance in terms of shedding leaves and fruit, and root intrusion/extrusion. As a result, these latter cities either have few trees or rely on an assortment of small ornamental exotics (which always appear sickly and dirty) and palms, which provide little shade nor do much to green the hard urban landscape. See the best cities and worst cities for “urban forests.”
Thank you to Lisa Stidd Silver for hospitality and great insider suggestions.
The Variety of American Grids – Illustration by Daniel Naim, May 2010 – CC – Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution