Is it past time for West Burnside to go on a “road diet”?

Paradoxically, sometimes reducing lanes means better traffic flow — AND better livability and more transportation choices

A successful “road diet” on La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego.

Portland planners like to show off the city’s many progressive achievements.  But one place they don’t show off is West Burnside, especially the segment west of I405.  We’ve heard some folks refer to this stretch of dirty, dangerous, ugly road as an “open car sewer.”  That seems about right.

Ironically, this stretch is not even particularly efficient at handling traffic through movement.  That’s because periodic left turns at unsignalized intersections obstruct through movement in the left-hand lanes, and frequent bus stops obstruct through movement in the right-hand lanes, causing significant congestion.   Pedestrians also have the right of way at the many unsignalized intersections, stopping traffic in all lanes — and putting the pedestrians in considerable danger from careless motorists.

West Burnside today. It’s dirty, dangerous and ugly — but at least the traffic doesn’t flow well anyway.

West Burnside handles a fair amount of traffic, but not as much as one might think.   The City’s own traffic counts show about 7,000 cars during the morning and afternoon peak periods.  (The City doesn’t have an average daily total volume for West Burnside on its website, for some reason. See https://pdx.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=7ce8d1f5053141f1bc0f5bd7905351e6)

The issue has been considered before.  Over a decade ago, the City studied alternatives and developed a plan for a “couplet” system.  West Burnside would become a one-way eastbound street, and West Couch would take the remaining westbound traffic (similar to what happens now just east of the river).  Because of the tendency of traffic to move fast on these one-ways, the plan also included a new streetcar line on both streets.

But that plan is now on indefinite hold.  And in any case, the couplet was never intended to extend west of 16th Avenue, so the stretch in the photos above would remain more or less the same.  (You can read the 2006 report here.)

So what else can be done, then?  We can certainly take a lesson from other cities that have adopted progressive reforms.  One street that seems to have around the same traffic as Burnside (22,000 cars per day) is La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego.  A project there known as a “road diet” kept the same capacity of vehicles, but cut down crashes by 90 percent, and did other very good things.

Before and after at La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego.

It sounded a lot like the problems we have on West Burnside today:

The project was designed to transform a wide, automobile-oriented thoroughfare to a pedestrian-friendly, neighborhood center…. [There was a] lack of comfortable public spaces, and financial stagnation of area businesses, notes restreets.org. “The wide, heavily trafficked road functioned as a barrier that divided the neighborhood physically and psychologically’…

So the plan was actually to remove lanes, and make the remaining lanes work just as well or better — as well as providing more attractive sidewalks and public spaces, and better ability to handle walking, biking, buses, and other ways of getting around:

The traffic count remained approximately the same (23,000 vehicles per day before, 22,000 after), but walking, bicycling, transit use, on-street parking and retail sales all climbed to much higher levels, the city reports. Retail sales rose 30 percent and noise levels dropped 77 percent…

That all sounds good — but how is it possible that removing lanes won’t result is massive traffic delays?  Our friend Dan Burden, consultant on the project, explains:

“Motorists,” Burden reported in The San Diego Union- Tribune in February 2017, “understandably dreaded this change before it was made. But they found that instead of waiting 24 seconds for a pedestrian to cross 70 feet of road, they now only wait 3–4 seconds, or don’t have to wait at all. Businesses that feared the loss of customers arriving in cars actually improved their trade. … Today motorists are getting to their destinations in less time, because they aren’t stopping.”

Read the full story:

https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2018/01/10/road-diet-bridges-barrier-boosts-safety

 

ONI is changing its name… (ONO!)

Some fear that Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement may be preparing to take the final symbolic step in eviscerating its pioneering system of geographic representation by neighborhoods

The announcement  that came from the Office of Neighborhood Involvement  earlier this week seemed innocent – a harmless bit of re-branding, perhaps.  But given the troubled history of that city agency — a scathing audit that found a “trifecta” of problems, and the Mayor’s declaration last year that ONI was “most in need of reform”  — the new message seemed oddly cosmetic.

“ONI’s name is changing to better reflect our work and the people and place we serve now and for subsequent generations. We’d like you to participate in the renaming! ONI, like Portland, has changed and grown over the years…”

Portland has indeed grown — and so have its challenges, of course.

But a half-century ago, the city also saw many of the same kinds of challenges.  Today, as then, the city is seeing pressures of rapid in-migration and  population growth, demolition of historic fabric, lack of equitable opportunity for many residents,  disruptive new development,  and treatment of some neighborhoods as “expendable” — creating shocking patterns of displacement in favor of “urban renewal” to make way for an influx of often wealthier new residents.

In those days it was the grass-roots neighborhood activists who championed a better path for the city — preserving and building on our urban heritage, limiting destructive new development, protecting and revitalizing existing neighborhoods, modulating (but not stopping) growth, and preserving and revitalizing the existing affordable homes and small businesses.  Those efforts helped usher in a remarkable urban renaissance, making Portland the envy of many other cities.  We all enjoy the legacy of that era today.

That spirit of purpose and unity needs to be rekindled.

For today, an ugly new tone of divisiveness has entered the city — and neighborhoods and their associations are increasingly attacked, not as allies and defenders of Portland’s best urban qualities, but as old, rich, NIMBY, and worse.  That’s far from fair — or wise.

Of course everyone in the city must do more to right the injustices of the past, and every neighborhood association should do more to be more inclusive, representative and transparent.  But it appears to this observer that the City wants to go far beyond that. It wants to throw neighborhoods under the bus.

In fact, this re-branding campaign may be revealing something even deeper and more disturbing — that the City has outgrown its support of the neighborhood involvement system itself.  It has allowed well-meaning but muddled thinking to cripple its “nationally recognized neighborhood involvement system,” as the City’s website proudly refers to it.

Perhaps the pride is not so great any more.  As we wrote on this blog last May, the City seems to have decided that it’s time to marginalize neighborhood associations, rather than to improve and strengthen them.

Allan Classen, publisher of the Northwest Examiner newspaper, has been closely following the developments at ONI, and he isn’t reassured by the new proposals:
“ONI is creating its own ‘shadow structure’ that replaces or diminishes the role of neighborhood associations. Because ONI controls funding, they can give their designated ‘inclusionary’ entities as much power as they choose. Any neighborhood association that squawks can be labeled racist or selfish.  The best defense is to identify this subterfuge for what it is, and get that message out so broadly that neighborhood associations across the city will grasp what’s happening to them.”

The principal tool of marginalization is called a “non-geographic community.”  As we wrote, under ONI’s new approach,

…“non-geographic communities” [will] be placed into competition with the neighborhood associations, in a heavy-handed attempt to create a more inclusive system. The trouble is, who gets representation, and how much? Who selects these “non-geographic communities”? The City, of course. But it is far too easy to put one’s fingers on the scale, perhaps without realizing it, and allow a subtle form of corruption to influence the results – biased towards a favored group, or maybe even a favored industry….

At the same time, the City needs to ask itself a basic question: does it believe in local grass-roots democracy at all?  In the fundamental concept of geographic representation at all?

We suggest that citizens ask the new director, Suk Rhee, to carefully consider  the following four points before going ahead with any plans for changes — to names, or to missions:

  1. Portland’s geographic-based neighborhood association system is pioneering and important within our city culture, and needs to be strengthened and streamlined, not weakened and marginalized. But this is what has happened, and still seems to be happening.  What can be done to reverse this trend?
  2. We appreciate Suk Rhee’s efforts effort to put ONI’s affairs in order. However, given an audit that revealed systemic problems, we always have to ask ourselves if we’re “re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic.”  Is ONI a dysfunctional bureau that is still failing to serve and empower neighborhoods?  What deeper reforms are still needed?
  3. We certainly agree with the goal of more inclusion and diversity — but not parallel to (and competing with) geographic representation by neighborhoods. This would be tokenism, and that would be bad for those communities — and bad for neighborhoods. Instead, inclusion and empowerment must happen at the neighborhood level.
  4. How can we strengthen the principle of “subsidiarity”?  Under that principle, the city is supposed to be subsidiary to its constituents, including the neighborhoods — not the other way around. But today the City acts too much like a supervisor of the neighborhoods, using the coalition system as a kind of leash.  How can this inversion of the subsidiarity principle be fixed?

In the interest of offering constructive alternatives, I’d like to suggest a new model.  Perhaps it’s time now to consider a binary system of two entirely separate City entities.

One entity might be an office of citizen involvement, commissioned to perform outreach and participation from the widest possible constituency of citizens.  It would be charged with empowerment — not just tokenistic representation — for formerly excluded people, and challenging policies that perpetrate the injustices of the City’s shameful past. (And sometimes, present.)

The other entity might be a “council of neighborhoods” that has a more formal voice in city affairs. Its members, the neighborhood associations, could be directly funded through participatory budgeting, with support services chosen by the neighborhoods from a pool of city-vetted contractors.  There are good international models for this kind of “subsidiarity” in action, and Portland could draw from them — and once again assert its own leadership in this area.

One thing is for sure — more than a name change is needed.  Yet the name change may be revealing of the true nature of the problem.  Not many people remember now that ONI’s first name was the “Office of Neighborhood Associations,” or ONA.  Then it became the “Office of Neighborhood Involvement,” reflecting a more diluted relationship with the associations.  We will soon see whether the word “neighborhood” is dropped altogether.

Without deeper reforms, it might be more accurate to simply re-name the agency “ONO” — short for the “Office of Neighborhood Oblivion.”

Five Key Messages for Portland in the New Year

Our takeaways after a challenging year – with more challenges ahead

It’s been a very intense year for the City of Portland, and for the Livable Portland blog.  In the last year, we’ve discussed many difficult issues:   sustainability,  equity,  affordability,  gentrification,  homelessness,   growth management,  development quality, and of course, the broader issue of livability – the focus of the blog as a whole.  Seeking to be constructively challenging, we’ve critiqued a number of aspects of current approaches, including the Central City 2035 plan (in both outcome and process), the atrophy of the neighborhood involvement system, the lack of protection (or even valuation, it would appear) of our built heritage, the growing uglification of architecture, and other (interrelated) issues.

We’ve also pointed to resources that are available, including new tools and approaches that are emerging in other cities, and we’ve encouraged the city to work harder to identify, develop and share these lessons, using a more progressive, evidence-based, peer-to-peer approach.  But these recommendations can be lost amid the criticisms, and the sometimes defensive and heated reactions they invoke.  So to begin the New Year on a constructive note, we summarize recommendations  to the City in five “key messages:”

  1. Think more polycentrically.  Stop over-concentrating on the city core, which is already over-heated and in danger of being “killed with kindness”. Recognize that most of the people in the Portland region – and therefore, most of the human and ecological needs – are in the vast majority of the area outside the central city core.  Most of these people do not live in the core and never will.  Instead of imagining that social justice demands that we jam anyone who wants to come into the core, re-focus on making the other parts of the region equally high-quality, sustainable, livable, and just — along with the core.  Revitalize the multi-modal “centers and corridors” approach throughout the region – not just in the central city. (I immodestly point to our project of Orenco Station as a partially successful transformation of that kind offering very useful lessons – but much more is needed.)
  2. Develop and apply more aggressive economic and regulatory tools. At the same time, recognize that better tools are needed to keep people in their existing neighborhoods if they choose to remain, to make better-quality development more economically feasible, and to promote diversity and equity across all parts of the city. There is certainly a place for subsidized affordable housing (as we have at Orenco Station, by two different developers).   There is also a place for supply to meet demand in more affordable locations.  But to avoid sprawl, we need to identify and implement a new generation of better economic and regulatory tools.  We need to improve the incentives for more livable, compact growth, and remove the significant barriers that remain – what we might think of as the “operating system for growth” that currently rewards sprawl.  In the past year this blog has discussed land value tax, regulatory streamlining and fast-tracking, other changes to tax policies, and other approaches.
  3. Build on past successes. Portland does offer remarkably positive examples for livable neighborhoods and cities – including the beautiful livable streetcar neighborhoods of the early 20th Century, and the urban renaissance of the late 20th   The city needs to build on these successes (as it did in the late 20th Century renaissance).  It needs to show a healthier skepticism to the siren songs of current fashionable (and profitable, for some) thinking, including “build baby build,” “voodoo urbanism,” and other follies.  Recognize too, that as important as green technologies are, the most important “green” aspect of cities is the inherent sustainability of a walkable, livable, beautiful, enduring neighborhood.
  4. Resist “silver bullets.” This is a dangerous time for urban development, and Portland is far from immune to the dangers.  Enormous economic pressures, including increasingly global real estate capital, are causing over-heating of our city cores, resulting in terrible problems of gentrification, loss of affordability, displacement, growing inequality, and loss of diversity.  This trend is especially shameful for Portland, with its overtly racist history.  At the same time, we need to resist “silver bullet” solutions that produce only tokenistic benefits, while exacerbating the underlying dynamics.  One of the worst is the self-serving mythology that has arisen around tall buildings – the ultimate silver bullets, or “silver skyscrapers.”  This is in spite of what the evidence actually shows, and what thoughtful observers like the ULI’s Ed McMahon have told us.  There is no replacement for a well-connected, accessible, polycentric city.
  5. Be more transparent, accountable, peer-to-peer, and evidence-based. Over the last year we’ve covered many disturbing stories about less than transparent and accountable government activities, including apparent conflicts of interest, insider dealings, and what can only be described as a complacent, defensive culture of self-congratulation.  This is far from a sound position from which to successfully meet our growing urban challenges.  At the same time, a “divide-and-conquer” mentality has overtaken the city, with growing divisions between different constituencies with different “identity politics”.  In this environment, it’s crucial that the City work in a cooperative, peer-to-peer mode, sharing evidence and working together to identify “win-win” strategies to address problems.  There is much to learn from other cities around the US and the world, and much to share with them too about our successes and failures.  (And the “New Urban Agenda” offers an enormous opportunity for improvement of urban quality, with significant opportunities for Portland to lead and to learn.) We need to embrace a healthier culture of self-challenge, learning and growth.

Over the last year we’ve seen disturbing signs that Portland may be “losing the plot,” as the expression goes.  We’re losing our commitment to grass-roots energy and activism, to building on our urban heritage, to protecting the fundamental framework of a livable, open, accessible city – the things that have made us successful in the past.  We may be losing the entire neighborhood involvement system, or any effective version of it — re-branded and re-named into oblivion.

We’re becoming much too credulous about simplistic, tokenistic and self-serving approaches that demonize and divide residents, while empowering those whose interests are not those of the city as a whole.  We’re letting ourselves be lulled into believing professionally dubious ideas that have more to do with the early 20th Century than the early 21st.  But they are profitable, and therein lies the danger – as always, money is a potentially corrupting motivation.

The best thing we can do in the New Year, I suggest, is to re-connect with our strengths, with our urban heritage and our legacy of grassroots activism.  Resist fads, “flavors of the month,” siren songs that take us in the wrong direction.  Recognize the enormous asset that we do have, in our urban pattern, our mixed use fabric, our increasingly diverse transportation choices, and our splendid built legacy.  With these assets and the new generation of tools and resources that are now emerging, we have what we need to build a better city.

What role can Portland play in the historic “New Urban Agenda”?

One year later, we assess the road to implementation of this watershed agreement, and our own challenges and opportunities ahead.

The “New Urban Agenda” is approved in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016, and two months later adopted by consensus by 193 countries at the General Assembly in New York.

On December 23, we will pass the one-year anniversary of the historic passage — adopted by acclamation by 193 countries — of the “New Urban Agenda,” the outcome document of the global Habitat III conference last year. This agreement was a major watershed in international urban development policy — placing human life, health, equity and well-being at the top of urban priorities, and establishing a “new paradigm,” in the words of Secretary-General Joan Clos, in our ways of thinking about, and acting on, cities, towns, and other settlements, for the benefit of all.

A central emphasis in the New Urban Agenda is on livability and quality of life — goals that Portland has been pursuing for many years.  Like Portland, the NUA places great emphasis on a well-connected polycentric region; on great walkable streets and public spaces; on transportation choice, including walking, biking, transit and yes, the car (though eliminating car dependency); on sustainable use of energy and resources; on leveraging heritage to build on the beauty of the city, and add to its livability; and on equitable access and expansion of life opportunities for all.

This is what great cities do best — as Jane Jacobs described, it is what a city like New York can do by taking penniless immigrants from Italy or Poland or Ireland, and turning many of them into prosperous middle-class shopkeepers and entrepreneurs and professionals, or, perhaps later, great scientists or artists.

Now, however, we are all aware of the failures of cities — for at least some of their residents, and as the evidence shows, ultimately for all of their residents — to provide equitable opportunity for advancement and enjoyment of the city’s multiple benefits.   This is a threat for all, because as Luis Bettencourt and others have demonstrated, cities are economic and social networks that get their strength from the number of connections; the more “plugged in” everyone is, the better.  But conversely, the more some people and parts of the city are excluded, fragmented, degraded, then the more the city as a whole is dragged down, ultimately spiraling into a  condition of economic stagnation and decline — a “dark age ahead” as Jane Jacobs put it.

Portland is struggling with these lessons as much as any city.  As we have written about frequently on this blog, there are strategies that can reverse this kind of decline, and catalyze in cities what Jane Jacobs called “the seeds of their own regeneration.”   At the same time, there are many dangers in our recent ways of thinking and acting too — as we have also written about — that focus too much on simplistic,”silver bullet” solutions and self-interested “supply-side” thinking.

Yet Portland is clearly a leader in some important areas of the New Urban Agenda, at least by US standards — in coordinated regional planning, integrated transportation and “mixed-modes”, walkable human scale, preserving and building on our own history, and — more an accident of history, perhaps — exhibiting an excellent example of well-connected, walkable urban forms and types.

In that sense, Portland can be an important “test bed” for the New Urban Agenda, as all eyes turn to implementation.   How can we share our lessons with other cities, and learn from them as they learn from us?  What are our mistakes, and what can we learn from them? What are the tools and strategies that show promise, what have we learned from them, and how can we share them?  How can we manage the corrosive forces of global economics and the urban “tragedy of the commons”?

Here is where the biggest challenges remain. How can we change “business as usual” — destructive patterns of inequality, fragmentation, and unsustainable development? How can we create new feedback loops, as Jane Jacobs also advised, to factor in “externalities” like ecological destruction and social exclusion, and provide more financial incentives for creating and sustaining good-quality settlements?  How can we reform the current failing “operating system for growth,” by reforming the codes, models, laws, standards, financial incentives and disincentives, and all the other elements that make up our urbanization systems?

And especially, how can we use, and share, our existing knowledge base to do so?

Portland is already operating one of the most helpful laboratories in meeting these global challenges — especially so since practices in the United States are, for better or worse, frequently copied in other parts of the world. We should surely continue to act locally, as we think, and share, more globally. The more connected we are with the efforts of others, the more we can help, and be helped.

See also:

https://unhabitat.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Key-Messages-from-the-Future-of-Places.pdf

The author’s video address at the Habitat III plenary:

ULI Senior Fellow Ed McMahon on “Density Without High Rises”

The distinguished planner and educator argues that skyscrapers are not necessary for density, affordability or sustainability, and better alternatives ARE available.

Ed McMahon giving a talk on “the power of uniqueness” in 2015.

Ed McMahon the is Charles E. Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and Environmental Policy at the Urban Land Institute.  He recently spoke in Portland on the dangers of current fashionable thinking in planning, especially the growing mania for tall buildings.   This article originally ran on CitiWire and was later discussed — and praised — by urbanist Richard Florida on the CityLab website.  

By Ed McMahon

When it comes to land development, Americans famously dislike two things: too much sprawl and too much density. Over the past 50 years, the pendulum swung sharply in the direction of spread-out, single use, drive everywhere for everything, low density development.

Now the pendulum is swinging back. High energy prices, smart growth,
transit oriented development, new urbanism, infill development,
sustainability concerns: are all coalescing to foster more compact, walkable, mixed use and higher density development.

The pendulum swing is both necessary and long overdue. Additionally, there is a growing demand for higher density housing because of demographic and lifestyle preference changes among boomers and young adults. The problem is that many developers and urban planners have decided that density requires high rises: the taller, the better. To oppose a high-rise building is to run the risk of being labeled a NIMBY, a dumb growth advocate, a Luddite — or worse.

Buildings 20, 40, 60 even 100 stories tall are being proposed and built in low and mid-rise neighborhoods all over the world. All of these projects are justified with the explanation that if density is good, even more density is better. Washington, D.C. is just the latest low- or mid-rise city to face demands for taller buildings.

Yet Washington is one of the world’s most singularly beautiful cities for several big reasons: first, the abundance of parks and open spaces, second, the relative lack of outdoor advertising (which has over commercialized so many other cities), and third a limit on the height of new buildings.

I will acknowledge that the “Buck Rogers”-like skylines of cities like Shanghai and Dubai can be thrilling — at a distance. But at street level they are often dreadful. The glass and steel towers may be functional, but they seldom move the soul or the traffic as well as more human scale, fine-grained neighborhoods.

Yes, we do need more compact, walkable higher density communities. But no, we do not need to build thousands of look-a-like glass and steel skyscrapers to accomplish the goals of smart growth or sustainable development.

In truth, many of America’s finest and most valuable neighborhoods achieve density without high rises. Georgetown in Washington, Park Slope in Brooklyn, the Fan in Richmond, and the French Quarter in New Orleans are all compact, walkable, charming — and low rise. Yet, they are also dense: the French Quarter has a net density of 38 units per acre, Georgetown 22 units per acre.

Julie Campoli and Alex MacLean’s book Visualizing Density vividly illustrates that we can achieve tremendous density without high-rises. They point out that before elevators were invented, two- to four- story “walk-ups” were common in cities and towns throughout America. Constructing a block of these type of buildings could achieve a density of anywhere from 20 to 80 units an acre.

Mid-rise buildings ranging from 5 to 12 stories can create even higher density neighborhoods in urban settings, where buildings cover most of the block. Campoli and McLean point to Seattle where mid-rise buildings achieve densities ranging from 50 to 100 units per acre, extraordinarily high by U.S. standards.

Today, density is being pursued as an end in itself, rather than as one means to building better cities. According to research by the Preservation Green Lab, fine grained urban fabric -– for example of a type found on Washington’s Capitol Hill, the U Street Corridor, NOMA and similar neighborhoods — is much more likely to foster local entrepreneurship and the creative economy than monolithic office blocks and apartment towers. Perhaps cities like Washington, should consider measuring density differently. Instead of looking at just the quantity of space, they should also consider the 24/7 intensity of use. By this measure, one block of an older neighborhood might include a community theatre, a coffee shop, an art gallery, two restaurants, a bicycle shop, 10 music rehearsal studios, a church, 20 apartments and a couple of bars, and all with much more 24/7 activity and intensity of use than one block of (much taller) office buildings on K Street.

In addition to Washington, St Petersburg, Russia; Basel, Switzerland; Edinburgh, Scotland and Paris, France are just a few of the hundreds of cities around the world where giant out-of-scale skyscrapers have been recently proposed in formerly low or mid-rise historic settings.

The issue of tall buildings in historic cities is not a small one. City after city has seen fights between those who want to preserve neighborhood integrity and those who want Trump towers and “starchitect” skyscrapers. Prince Charles, for example recently criticized the “high-rise free for all” in London which he said has left the city with a “pockmarked skyline and a degraded public realm.” Today, skyscrapers called the “Shard” and the “Gherkin” loom over the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and other famous landmarks.

Whatever one thinks of Prince Charles, there’s no question that he has raised some important issues about the future of the built environment. These include:

  1. Does density always require high rises?
  2. Are historic neighborhoods adequately protected from incompatible new construction?
  3. What is more important — the ability of tall buildings to make an architectural statement, or the need for new buildings to fit into existing neighborhoods?
  4. Should new development shape the character of our cities — or should the character of our cities shape the new development?

I love the skylines of New York, Chicago and many other high-rise cities. But I also love the skylines of Washington, Charleston, Savannah, Prague, Edinburgh, Rome and other historic mid- and low-rise cities. It would be a tragedy to turn all of these remarkable places into tower cities. Density does not always demand high-rises. Skyscrapers are a dime a dozen in today’s world. Once a low rise city or town succumbs to high-rise mania, many more towers will follow, until the city becomes a carbon-copy of every other city in a “geography of nowhere.”

 

Does Portland really want “Trump Urbanism”?

Another cautionary tale about tall buildings, vertical gated communities, foreign capital, and oligarchs, from Portland’s over-envied big-sister city of Vancouver, B.C. 

Trump Tower Vancouver – a harbinger of things to come for Portland?

A recent post on this site noted a new proposal for two towers in Portland, one of which would be almost 1,000 feet tall.  What would that look like? One comparison is to the current second-tallest building in Vancouver, at “only” 616 feet — the  Trump International Hotel and Tower, containing 217 apartments and 147 hotel rooms.

Some civic-minded architects, planners and land use activists in Portland believe that tall buildings might be an effective strategy to add units, increase supply, improve affordable housing, and conserve farmland.

Following this logic, the City has agreed that taller is better, and the Central City 2035 Plan does raise heights significantly in a number of places in the core.  (The site of the proposed 1,000 foot tower is currently zoned for 75 feet, but that will change to 400 feet under CC 2035 — or perhaps 1,000 feet, if the latest proposal is approved.)

All of this will surely help with accommodating housing demand, conserving farmland, and  improving affordability, right?

On the evidence from Vancouver — and other places too — we’d better think again.

As we pointed out in an earlier blog post, even the irrationally exuberant expectations of the biggest tall-building proponents fall far short of what the region’s actual demand for housing is likely to be.  That leaves the majority of the problem where it has always been — in the suburban jurisdictions, where over 73% of the region’s residents live.   It’s a more urgent priority, from a regional policy perspective, to focus on more sustainable (and affordable) urbanization there.  Secondarily we can concentrate on the suburban areas within the city, where another large portion of the region increasingly lives (often displaced there by higher costs in the core).

From a sustainability perspective, the core is already relatively urbanized — although it can certainly benefit from what our friend Patrick Condon has called “gentle densification.”  (We could point to a number of new well-designed low-rise and mid-rise apartment buildings as examples, as we discussed in a previous blog post. On the other hand, we could also unfortunately point to very incompatible, disruptive projects too… and ham-handed, foolishly divisive efforts to cram inappropriate new buildings down the throats of historic neighborhoods, as we have also written about.)

What about affordability?  There are two problems: cost of construction, and market dynamics.  Tall buildings are inherently much more expensive to construct, which means that they will likely sell (or rent) for considerably more than older existing buildings.  (Evidence shows this is almost always the case.)  We can set aside affordable units and use other kinds of “inclusionary zoning” — but that means the “market-rate” housing is going to be even more expensive, fueling even more extreme inequality.

What about market dynamics?  There are a number of tools and strategies we can use, as we have written about before — and adding taller buildings is not one of them. To see why, we’ll let Donald Trump Jr. have the last word, speaking in a recent Canadian publication:

“We’ve done it time and time again — when you combine a great location with incredible architecture and incredible amenities … it’s sort of a formula for success.”

He was speaking of the eye-popping sales prices for the 214 luxury units in Trump Tower Vancouver, which sold at an average $1,610 per sq. ft. — the highest rate in Vancouver, or for that matter, all of Canada.  One single unit sold for over $6 million.

Word to the wise, Portland?

 

 

Essentials of a neighborhood square: Learning from our own mistakes, and others’ successes

The disappointing results of “Slabtown Square” should prompt a reconsideration of what truly makes a square.  Livable Portland’s Suzanne Lennard reminds us of of the basics. 

“Slabtown Square” is better described as “a courtyard for a private apartment complex”

Dr. Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

Original post courtesy of Western Planner, https://www.westernplanner.org/urban-design-articles/2017/11/21/planning-a-neighborhood-square?rq=neighborhood%20squares

Unlike a city’s main square that, from time to time, brings together representatives from all over the city for major festivals, concerts, and special events, a neighborhood square has certain unique social functions: it is frequented every day of the year by those who live in the neighborhood; it helps to strengthen social networks; and it builds community. Designing a neighborhood square to fulfill these social functions is not so simple. One of the biggest challenges is to get the proportions of the square right.

Unique social functions of a neighborhood square

For those of us concerned with how the built environment influences community, well-being, and public health, public places – streets and plazas – are of immense importance [1]. A hospitable European-style neighborhood square is the holy grail. [2]

PHOTO: NEIGHBORHOOD SQUARE, CAMPO SAN GIACOMO DALL’ORIO, VENICE.

While many Western U.S. cities founded by the Spanish still have a viable plaza at their heart, many of these are used only sporadically by the local population for special events, or they serve primarily the tourist population.

In Portland, our main Pioneer Courthouse square comes alive weekly with programmed concerts, festivals, and markets but does not support residents’ everyday social life. I live within a few blocks but I would not expect to see anyone I know there. Portland’s neighborhoods are rich in parks, but lack squares. Even the beloved Jamison Square in the Pearl District, fondly called by many locals a “squark” (square/park) functions primarily as a bosky water playground for kids from all over the city, rather than as a neighborhood square.

PHOTO: JAMISON SQUARE, PORTLAND

With a mix of local stores and cafes surmounted by apartments that provide “eyes on the square”, shade trees and places to sit, some locally significant artwork and water features for kids to play, a traffic-free European-style neighborhood square can be the heart of a community, the place people come to shop, meet, pass through, where elders and parents keep an eye on children playing. It is the place where everyone belongs, where you meet friends, and develop a sense of community.

Daily face-to-face interaction with a variety of other people – friends, neighbors, and familiars – is crucial to individual well-being [3]. Physical health is dependent on mental health. If you have a strong social network, researchers find that you also have a strong “social immune system:” you are less likely to become sick, if you are sick it is less serious, and you live to a riper old age. [4]

Community, well-being, and public health are strong arguments for creating neighborhood squares.

Designing a neighborhood square is not so simple

Portland, attracts many new residents because of its reputation as a livable, walkable, compact, human scale city, with a strong community spirit. These characteristics are epitomized in Portland’s North West District, where residents are deeply involved in planning and livability issues. This neighborhood also has the city’s highest density in a mix of historic family homes and four to five story apartments. Twelve years ago, the transportation company Conway, which owned a 25-acre site on the northern edge of the NW District, decided to sell most of the acreage for a new urban neighborhood.

NW residents immediately became involved, donating thousands of hours to work in meetings with the owners and the City to create a Master Plan [5] that would ensure walkability, human scale, mixed use, and that would connect well to the existing historic district. Conway was delighted by the challenge of creating a truly urban complete “10-minute neighborhood” where you could live within a 10-minute walk to shops, schools, services, parks, work, and public transit. Conway believed these characteristics would attract the brightest minds to live within close walking distance of their employment at Caltrans.

All parties emphasized that the public realm must be given the highest priority. For neighborhood residents, the most important element in the Master Plan was a European-style neighborhood square.

Through innumerable meetings over several years, the neighborhood partnered with Conway (the land owner) and the City to develop the Conway Master Plan to guide future development. Largely thanks to this intense community involvement, the Plan’s fundamental standards were clearly articulated. The square must be “for everyday use, a variety of neighborhood activities, a farmer’s market and programmed events in all seasons… such as fairs, art shows, and small musical performances, etc.“ [6]

The space was envisioned in the Master Plan as approximately 135 x 135 feet (i.e. 18,225 square feet). The Master Plan standards require “a square that has no dimension less than 100 feet and shall be at least 16,000 square feet in size.” Adjacent maximum building heights are set at 45 feet on the west, 75 feet on the north and east. The site’s parcel is the regular Portland 200 feet by 200 feet city block. The overall floor area ratio (FAR) for the 25 acres was set at 3:1, with the assumption that FAR would be transferred away from the square to blocks further north. There is no minimum FAR around the square in order to encourage a human scale.

Many elements must come together to achieve a successful square – mix of uses, human scale, a suitable architectural frame, entrances on all sides, seating, shade, etc. [7] It was decided early on that traffic poses a danger for playing children; traffic noise and air quality detract from a square’s hospitality for all; and in order to enliven the square, it needs to be bounded by diverse stores, cafes, restaurants, and civic facilities.

AN EXAMPLE OF SITTE’S “TURBINE ARMS” – STREETS DO NOT RUN STRAIGHT THROUGH THE SQUARE

In the early phases of the square’s development it was clearly understood that a neighborhood square must be accessible from every direction, ideally in a variation of Sitte’s “turbine arms,” [8] so that as you enter from one side, you are not immediately pulled out the other side. Social networks are strengthened when residents from all surrounding blocks are able to cut across the square because this enhances the possibility of serendipitously bumping into a friend or familiar. A square does not function well in bringing the community together if it is a “dead end” that you can only enter from one or two sides.

In an early design phase, YBA Architects developed an interesting ground floor plan, with entries on all four corners, but this was an unsatisfactory solution for a number of reasons: the square was too small, buildings on the east projected 30 feet into the pedestrian way, and the buildings on all four sides cantilevered over the square so that the dimensions of the square above the ground floor was only 119 x 92 feet (11,000 square feet).

Portland experiences many months of grey skies, making sunlight a highly valued amenity, especially in spring and fall. The east-west dimension of the square and height of buildings on the east and west are therefore of particular importance in optimizing solar exposure, especially for children’s play and for an evening drink or supper on the square.

As time went on, it became clear that architects experienced in designing buildings-as-objects do not have expertise in designing squares, the places between buildings. As Edmund Bacon observed in his seminal book, Design of Cities, many designers are “space blind.” [9]

Even the meaning of the word “square” is poorly understood, despite five centuries of literature on squares, from Leon Battista Alberti, to Camillo Sitte, to Jan Gehl, in which squares are defined as “gathering places under the open sky” [10].  A courtyard is not a square, neither is an area beneath a building. An arcade or colonnade is an arcade or colonnade, not a square.

Getting the proportions right

Judging from Portland’s experience, the most difficult challenge may be in achieving appropriate proportions – the relationship between the width of a square, and the height of surrounding buildings. A square that is too narrow, with buildings that are too high will feel claustrophobic, and will not attract the everyday social life needed to make the square “self-programming”.

According to Alberti’s treatise On the Art of Building, “A proper height for buildings about a square is one third of the breadth of the open area, or one sixth at the least.” [11] This results in a calm square with gracious proportions. The buildings do not press in on you, but step back as if to give you space. The sky is a vaulted ceiling above the square, ensuring light and sun access. Indeed, Kidder Smith, [12] Edmund Bacon, Michael Webb[13] and many others have observed that beloved piazzas and squares feel like a well-proportioned room, theater, or a grand hall open to the sky.

Jan Gehl emphasizes that building heights framing public places should be human scale, relating to how we experience our environment. His angle of vision theory[14] explained in Cities for People is rooted in human physiology. Our angle of vision is 50-55 degrees above the horizontal.


DIAGRAM: ANGLE OF VISION. WITHIN A SHORT DISTANCE FROM THE BUILDING THERE IS NO VIEW OF THE SKY ABOVE BUILDINGS.

This angle creates a golden rule for estimating optimal building heights around a square to avoid feeling oppressed and overwhelmed[15] . Humans feel more comfortable when they can glimpse sky above the buildings within their angle of vision. A hospitable square must have a substantial area near the center of the square where a group of people may gather, face and talk with one another, and where each person sees a little sky above the building they are facing. In a 100 x 100 feet square a “sky-view island” should be approximately 30 x 30 feet; in a 100 x 200 feet square, the “sky-view island” would be 30 x 60 feet.

DIAGRAM: APPROPRIATE PROPORTIONS OF SQUARE WIDTH AND BUILDING HEIGHTS

If buildings along the side of a square are of different heights, some buildings may be higher than this. We have a wide horizontal field of vision (210 degrees). We are not so discomfited by one tall building providing we can still see sky on either side of it without turning our head.

PHOTO: PLAÇA DEL RASPALI

There are numerous examples of well-functioning neighborhood squares that illustrate these principles. Venice has six major neighborhood squares (campi) and innumerable smaller squares (campielli) that, until the tourist industry ballooned in the 1990s, provided the ideal setting for community social life, for children and elders, for shopping, vegetable and fish markets, and for community festivals. Some still do.

The Gracia neighborhood in Barcelona boasts ten neighborhood squares (plaças). Each has its own character, and is slightly different in size, though all dimensions are from a minimum width of 80 feet to a maximum length of 220 feet. Some are lively, favorite spots where people congregate throughout the year. Others are very quiet, playing a modest role in supporting community social life. While many factors have influenced each square’s success, one important factor is their proportions.

Plaça del Raspali feels hemmed in by its surrounding buildings, even though five streets lead into it. The square is only 80 x 90 feet, but the buildings on two sides are four to six stories high (50 – 60 feet). The buildings contain some essential resources – a bakery, barbershop, pharmacy, and a bar/restaurant, and the square has hosted occasional neighborhood festivals and pop concerts, but on a daily basis, it is very quiet. The population around the square is largely Romani, which suggests this may be a more affordable neighborhood than those around the larger, more hospitable neighborhood squares.

DIAGRAM ABOVE: PLAÇA DEL RASPALI, ILLUSTRATING THE DEGREE TO WHICH THE SQUARE FEELS CONSTRAINED. THERE IS ALMOST NO AREA WHERE YOU CAN SEE THE SKY, SO THE BUILDINGS ON ALL SIDES SEEM TO OVERWHELM THE SQUARE.
PHOTO: PLAÇA DEL DIAMANT

Plaça del Diamant is a little larger at 19,200 square feet (120 x 160 feet) than the square proposed for Portland, and it has six streets leading into it. Each side consists of four buildings, from two to six stories. Only two small buildings are six stories so from the large area in the center of the square (approx. 50 x 120 feet) there is always a view of the sky within one’s field of vision.

DIAGRAM ABOVE: PLAÇA DEL DIAMANT ILLUSTRATING THE AREA FROM WHICH YOU CAN SEE THE SKY IN ALL DIRECTIONS.
PHOTO: PLAÇA DE JOHN LENNON

Plaça de John Lennon measures almost exactly the minimum required size of Portland’s neighborhood square – 16,100 square feet (115 x 140 feet). Four streets lead into it at the corners. Despite its small size it does not feel claustrophobic. On one side, the buildings are two and three stories high. On the other three sides the buildings are four stories. One side has two additional floors tucked into a pitched roof, with stepped-back terraces that achieve a six-story building without impeding the angle of vision. The square has a substantial area (40 x 80 feet) within which you can see the sky in all directions.

There are continuous stores and businesses around the square that seem to be flourishing (café, computer stores, print shop, computer repair store, ice cream, and patisserie, etc.). With a secondary school at one corner, the square becomes jam-packed when school lets out as kids zoom around on scooters and roller blades, play football and tag around adults’ legs, chatter in building niches, and adults sit at the café.

DIAGRAM: PLAÇA DE JOHN LENNON ILLUSTRATING THE AREA FROM WHICH YOU CAN SEE THE SKY

To create a hospitable neighborhood square is a real challenge for any American city. But Portlanders have led the way in city livability before. In the 1970s, citizens demanded that a proposed 12-story parking garage at the heart of the city should instead be a public square. After a design competition, the beautiful arena-like Pioneer Courthouse Square was built, now proudly called “Portland’s Living Room.” [16]

I would have thought that if any American city can create a neighborhood square, Portland would be the first to do it. But perhaps the process needs the input of form-based urban designers. Unless they are uniquely visionary, and dedicated to public well-being, building developers whose primary concern is to maximize returns may not be the best people for the job. Holly Whyte ran across this problem back in the 1970s in New York when he argued for creating pocket parks in exchange for increased heights. He was sorely disappointed by the poor quality of public plazas that resulted.

Portland is proud of its heritage of robust civic engagement in planning decisions. At the opening session of the 2013 International Making Cities Livable Conference in Portland, then-Mayor Charlie Hales said: “People who live [here] have a right and expectation to be involved with the future of their own community; it’s not just what planners or developers want.” [17]

And Elaine Cogan, who was instrumental in setting up Portland’s public involvement system, always emphasized, “Genuine engagement with the public requires commitment, perseverance, time and money.” [18]

In creating the public realm – the part of the city that belongs to the people – it is the responsibility of elected representatives, their staff and commissioners to represent the public interest, and prevent a developer from cramming through a public space that violates the Master Plan and fails to support its intended social functions.

In the final analysis, if the city does not represent the people’s well-being, and protect the intent, Standards and Guidelines specified in a Master Plan, then no amount of community engagement will succeed in ensuring a neighborhood square that supports social life and community.

In Portland, the community, planning staff, city representatives, architect and developer of the square block are still struggling to achieve what is required in the Master Plan,  “a hospitable neighborhood square… a significant, iconic urban place.” [19]


Resources:


Endnotes

  1. [1] Crowhurst Lennard, Suzanne. (in press) Public Places, Community, and the Physical and Mental Health of Children and Elders, in Stafford, Philip (Editor) The Global Age-friendly Community Movement. Berghahn
  2. [2] Crowhurst Lennard, Suzanne, and Lennard, Henry L. (2008) Genius of the European Square. Gondolier Press.
  3. [3] Mouratidis, Konstantinos, (In press) Built environment and social well-being: How does urban form affect social life and personal relationships? https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2017.10.020
  4. [4] http://www.livablecities.org/blog/why-we-need-neighborhood-squares-part-5-sociability-and-health
  5. [5] http://www.northwestdistrictassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/12-0423-Con-way-Master-Plan.pdf
  6. [6] http://www.northwestdistrictassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/12-0423-Con-way-Master-Plan.pdf
  7. [7] http://www.livablecities.org/blog/principles-designing-successful-neighborhood-squares
  8. [8] Sitte, Camillo. (Translated by Charles T. Stewart) 1945. The Art of Building Cities. New York, Reinhold Pub. Corp.  P. 21
  9. [9] Bacon, Edmund. (1967) Design of Cities. Viking Penguin. P. 15
  10. [10] Sitte, Camillo. Op cit. P.2
  11. [11] Alberti, quoted in Kostof, Spiro. (1992) The City Assembled. Boston, Little, Brown & Company. P. 137
  12. [12] Kidder Smith, G.E. (1955) Italy Builds. London, Architectural Press
  13. [13] Webb, Michael.(1990) The City Square. London, Thames and Hudson
  14. [14] Gehl, op. cit. p. 39
  15. [15] http://www.livablecities.org/blog/designing-successful-neighborhood-squares-part-6-surrounding-building-heightsproportions
  16. [16] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_Courthouse_Square
  17. [17] http://plannersweb.com/2013/08/reflections-on-portland-part/
  18. [18] http://plannersweb.com/2013/08/reflections-on-portland-part/
  19. [19] http://www.northwestdistrictassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/12-0423-Con-way-Master-Plan.pdf  10.A

International Making Cities Livable

The International Making Cities Livable Council is an interdisciplinary, international network of individuals and cities dedicated to making our cities and communities more livable. IMCL Council members are active in organizing and participating in the International Making Cities Livable Conferences held twice a year, once in North America and once in Europe; in publishing books, consulting, teaching, and improving the livability of their own cities. The principles of the IMCL Conferences, initiated in 1985, have become part of a national US agenda, and are being applied by many cities in Europe and other parts of the world. The IMCL Conferences bring together city officials, practitioners and scholars in architecture, urban design, planning and urban affairs, health and social sciences and the arts, from around the world to share experience and ideas. Together with other urban conferences, the IMCL Conferences share a concern with issues ranging from balanced transportation planning to community participation, from historic preservation to new ecological housing and development plans. However, the IMCL Conferences are unique in their holistic vision of the city, their emphasis on the interrelationship between the built urban environment and citizens’ well-being, and their explicit concern with values in urban decision making that enrich the quality of everyday life of the city’s inhabitants, especially children. At the IMCL Conferences special attention is paid to the indispensable role of public spaces for connecting the city’s inhabitants and developing community. Guiding these Conferences is the conviction that we must make our cities not only ecologically sound, but also socially sustainable. Visit http://livablecities.org


Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Ph.D.(Arch.), is Founder (1985) and Director of the International Making Cities Livable Conferences, and Consultant to cities in the U.S. and Europe. Dr. Crowhurst Lennard has held academic posts at the University of California, Berkeley, and Brookes University, Oxford, England. She has been Visiting Professor at Harvard University, and City University New York, and Guest Lecturer in Architecture and Planning Departments in the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, Austria and Italy. She has received awards from the NEA, NYSCA, RIBA, and the Graham Foundation.

Portland architects: We want to build two towers almost 1,000 feet tall

The Portland architecture firm’s proposal would dwarf US Bancorp Tower, currently the tallest at 536 feet

This simulated montage (from the Broadway Bridge) shows the approximate scale of the proposal in relation to the 42-story US Bancorp Tower, which at 536 feet is some 144 feet lower than the skybridge between the two proposed towers.  The taller of the two buildings could accommodate approx. 74 stories. Photo: Cord Rodefeld, Wikimedia Commons. Rendering by William Kaven Architecture via The Oregonian.  Simulation montage by Michael Mehaffy.

A recent article in the Oregonian provided evidence for the growing perception that much of the pressure for taller buildings in Portland comes from boosterish members of its architecture community.  A local architecture firm  is proposing twin towers almost 1,000 feet tall for the old US Post Office site adjoining Union Station.

Currently the site has zoning to allow a maximum height of 75 feet.  The Central City 2035 plan would deregulate that restriction and allow 400 feet.   However, architect Daniel Kaven was quoted in the article saying that there should be no height limit for the site. His firm has proposed two blocky buildings reminiscent of the original 1,368 foot World Trade Center buildings in New York.

From the article:

William Kaven Architecture wants to design the tallest building in the Pacific Northwest. And it wants to put it on Portland’s Pearl District Post Office blocks, the site the city offered to Amazon for its second headquarters.

The concept, released by the Portland firm on Monday, proposed two skyscrapers, one of which would rise 970 feet. Together, the highrises would provide about 5 million square feet for retail, office, hotel rooms, apartments or condos. Accord ing to the announcement, the two buildings would be linked by “a glass-enclosed botanical bridge spanning 236 feet across the North Park Blocks some 680 feet in the air, providing dramatic aerial views of the entire city.”

The proposal would also be able to accommodate a transportation hub for highspeed rail or a Hyperloop, the news release said.

But proposed height limits for the site would allow buildings as tall as 400 feet.

In an email, Daniel Kaven, a partner with the architecture firm, acknowledged the constraints of the height limits. But he said the city, which is considering zoning changes in its Central City 2035 plan, should think big.

“City Council is able to amend this if needed/ desired,” he wrote. “It is our belief that there should not be a limit on the height and that vertical development on this scale is necessary.”

In the firm’s announcement, it said its proposed towers would be large enough to serve as a headquarters for a Fortune 100 company like Amazon. In early September, the e-commerce giant announced it was in the market for a second company headquarters, one that could accommodate 50,000 employees, and that it was prepared to invest $5 billion in construction alone.

But Portland, so close to the company’s Seattle headquarters, is viewed a long shot. Last week, Prosper Portland, the city’s urban renewal agency, called on developers to submit applications to craft a master plan for the Post Office site and the surrounding blocks, dubbed the “Broadway Corridor.”

William Kaven intends to submit a formal proposal to Prosper Portland early next year.

Read the full article at http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2017/11/portland_architecture_firm_pro.html

Ed McMahon of Urban Land Institute: “Density does not demand high rises”

Speaking at the University of Oregon, the ULI Senior Resident Fellow took Oregon leaders to task for characterizing historic preservation as the enemy of affordability: “Portland can grow without losing the things you love.”

Ed McMahon of the ULI speaking at the University of Oregon

The University of Oregon, Restore Oregon, Preservation Resource Center and the Northwest Examiner hosted a talk on October 3 by Ed McMahon, ULI Senior Resident Fellow for Sustainable Development, on “Density, Design and Preservation: Working Together to Promote Livability and Affordability”.  The full talk is now available on YouTube:

The event was also later covered by the Daily Journal of Commerce.  Excerpts:

New towers often come with higher prices and lower density, McMahon said.

A study by the Preservation Green Lab in Seattle, he added, found that such buildings fall short in comparison to many smaller, refurbished buildings for housing people per unit. That same comparison held true for office buildings as well.

“Smaller, older buildings had more jobs per square foot,” he said. “They also had more locally owned businesses, more non-chain stores and more women- and minority-owned businesses. These are places that are worth preserving because they do outperform, on a square-foot basis, some of these larger, newer buildings.”

Nevertheless, across the country more affordable units are being torn down than built new. A National Housing Trust study, McMahon said, found that for every affordable housing unit built, two are lost due to abandonment, deterioration or conversion to more expensive housing.

“Preserving rather than building new has proven to be the most financially sustainable method of reversing the trend of one step forward and two steps back,” he said.

“Good design makes you forget about the whole concept of density,” McMahon said. “You just like being in that place.”

“Increasing housing supplies does not ensure affordability if developers build oversized and overpriced luxury homes,” said Laurence Qamar, owner of Qamar Architecture + Town Planning and another speaker at the event.

“Our tiny blocks increasingly yield massive buildings that rise straight up from sidewalks with little of subtlety and form,” he said.

Marshall Runkel, chief of staff for Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, encouraged event attendees to stay involved as proposals such as the 2035 Comprehensive Plan and the Residential Infill Project come before the City Council.

“Over the course of the next year, there should be dramatic regulatory changes that will have influences on all of the subjects discussed tonight,” he said.

Full article:

Urban planning experts advocate for smaller, smarter development

 

Saskia Sassen on “Who owns our cities – and why this urban takeover should concern us all”

The Dutch sociologist paints a disturbing picture of what the current surge of international capital is doing to cities — and who benefits

From mid-2013 to mid-2014, writes Saskia Sassen, corporate purchases of existing properties exceeded $600 billion in the top 100 cities, and $1 trillion a year later – and this figure includes only major acquisitions. She describes a major surge of capital coming into real estate from corporate investors:

I want to examine the details of this large corporate investment surge, and why it matters. Cities are the spaces where those without power get to make a history and a culture, thereby making their powerlessness complex. If the current large-scale buying continues, we will lose this type of making that has given our cities their cosmopolitanism.

Indeed, at the current scale of acquisitions, we are seeing a systemic transformation in the pattern of land ownership in cities: one that alters the historic meaning of the city. Such a transformation has deep and significant implications for equity, democracy and rights.

A city is a complex but incomplete system: in this mix lies the capacity of cities across histories and geographies to outlive far more powerful, but fully formalised, systems – from large corporations to national governments. London, Beijing, Cairo, New York, Johannesburg and Bangkok – to name but a few – have all outlived multiple types of rulers and of businesses.

In this mix of complexity and incompleteness lies the possibility for those without power to assert “we are here” and “this is also our city”. Or, as the legendary statement by the fighting poor in Latin American cities puts it, “Estamos presentes”: we are present, we are not asking for money, we are just letting you know that this is also our city.

It is in cities to a large extent where the powerless have left their imprint – cultural, economic, social: mostly in their own neighbourhoods, but eventually these can spread to a vaster urban zone as “ethnic” food, music, therapies and more.

All of this cannot happen in a business park, regardless of its density – they are privately controlled spaces where low-wage workers can work, but not “make”. Nor can this happen in the world’s increasingly militarised plantations and mines. It is only in cities where that possibility of gaining complexity in one’s powerlessness can happen – because nothing can fully control such a diversity of people and engagements.

Those with power to some extent do not want to be bothered by the poor, so the model is often to abandon them to their own devices. In some cities there is extreme violence by police. Yet this can often become a public issue, which is perhaps a first step in the longer trajectories of gaining at least some rights. It is in cities where so many of the struggles for vindications have taken place, and have, in the long run, partly succeeded.

But it is this possibility – the capacity to make a history, a culture and so much more – that is today threatened by the surge in large-scale corporate re-development of cities.

Read the full article:

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/nov/24/who-owns-our-cities-and-why-this-urban-takeover-should-concern-us-all