Archives for posts with tag: portland

Negotiating a new place comes with inevitable comparisons to places you are familiar with. This is an inescapable quality of being human: we integrate new knowledge by embedding it within the systems of knowledge we’ve already constructed. When you visit a new city, it really is difficult to accept it as a place in-and-of itself, and comparisons to London, New York, Toronto, Venice are almost inescapable…

Along these lines, I’ve detected a specific comparison mechanism I’ve employed in my negotiations of Amsterdam: comparing the scale of the built environment. This allows for comparison of two cities not by specific architectural styles, but the size of the elements of the cityscape. My analysis of scale falls along an axis with “cozy, human scale” on one end and “car-oriented hell” on the other, with lots of variation in between.

Here are two fun “scalar equivalencies”, or “synonymous scales” that I’ve encountered and thought-up while exploring Amsterdam. I am sharing them because they stood out as quite stark to me, and allowed me to meaningfully understand these parts of Amsterdam without a constraining comparison. Comparing places by scale allows the places to “be themselves”, while allowing a meaningful understanding of the potential uses of these spaces outside my direct experience of them.

Amsterdam’s IJburg <————> Montreal’s Plateau

IJburg Montreal

Amsterdam’s newest neighbourghood, IJburg, is built in the scale of early 20th century North American urbanism, much like Montreal’s central Plateau neighbourhood. Cozy and compact, walkable and diverse, this landscape is not hostile to car use or ownership. There is density, but there is also space.

Noord Amsterdam <————> Portland, Oregon

Noord AmsterdamPortland

Portland is interesting because it is defined by a sort of “walkable suburbanism“. The streetscapes are dominated by cars, parking lots and strip malls, but wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and lots of interesting businesses and organizations make for an easily navigable city by foot or bike. Amsterdam Noord has a similar feel: in amongst the huge roads, parking lots and car repair shops are nice, human scale restaurants and shops, bike lanes and generally well-scaled streets for non-car exploration.

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walkable suburbanism1

Beyond Portland’s downtown, and mostly, in my experience, across the river on the city’s east side, I experienced a very pleasant form of suburbanism.

The cityscape in these parts is characterized by the archetypal suburban elements:  wide streets, stand alone retail plazas, and single family homes with lots of yard space.

The streets, however, were incredibly walkable, and due to Portland’s progressive approach to urban planning, accommodating to cyclists.

As I explored, it became evident that east-Portland is home to a unique urban form: walkable Suburbanism. Yes, the streets were wide, and cars quickly zoomed through them. Cars are not, however, the dominant form of transportation, the standard unit of planning. Ample room is given to pedestrian space, bicycle lanes are omnipresent, and on some streets, light rail takes up a portion of the roadway.

The archetypal suburban architecture also had a walkable spin: retail plazas and restaurants, usually found set back several hundred feet behind immense fields of parking, were rather directly fronted to the sidewalk. Parking, if present, was limited to a small strips in front of stores.

The neighbourhoods were characterized by detached homes, but the area retained its urban feel, with shops and parks nearby.

As developers become more constrained by the cost of goods and transportation and construction, let’s hope they finally heed to the calls of sustainably-minded urbanists. Grey-field sites, such as already developed suburban land, should increasingly becoming the focus of development.

This is the new frontier of urban planning: the densification of the suburbs. Suburbs are already serviced by water, electricity, and transportation, and can easily accomodate more people. Cities, as they are, have vast tracts of land that can support increases of population: we no longer need do to develop farms and forests on a city’s fringes.

Portland’s walkable suburbanism provides a good model for the densification of the suburbs, the real need being in suburbs that have been developed in the last 20 years.

As most of Portland was probably built in the 1950s, an era of suburban city-building that still had an ounce of dignity, its neighbourhoods are well connected, located in walking distance to commerce, and the streets, though wide, are certainly inhabitable. Portland, along with cities like Winnipeg, and inner-suburban Toronto, is lucky to inherit this built form. It is a great mix of the urban and suburban: it heeds to the desires of those who feel they need fresh air and space, but can also be serviced efficiently, is walkable and bike-able, and certainly fosters social relationships amongst neighbourhood fixtures and passersby.

As we densify the suburbs, let’s look to east-Portland for inspiration. Due to history and good conscience, the future is already there, and its thriving.

City Repair’s grid-dissolving, community building philosophy has found its way across the continent, to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Portland organization focuses on re-purposing urban space through design to facilitate “neighbourliness” and a community-directed sense of place. Painting an intersection is a revolutionizing activity that transforms an intersection from a place to pass people linearly, to a place to gather, meet and make connections.

Mark Lakeman, of City Repair and Communitecture provides a lovely accompanying narrative to explain an intersection painting. He describes the history of the humanuty as the slow spread of imperialism over a world characterized by formerly village lifestyles. Left to our own devices, our former villager-selves would design our living space with dwellings organized around a series of gathering spaces; clusters of shelter with plenty of paths weaving through public places. As imperial power concentrated in centres such as Rome, it spread its authoritarianism, and imposed the Roman Grid over the village life-style. The grid is a major tool of imperialism — it organizes space efficiently, allows for accountability and ease of censuses, it provides good and efficient circulation for the transportation of goods, people, and military services, and it lacks in its design places where people can gather, make connections, and plot to overthrow the imperial power that runs the course of its life.

This is especially true in North America, where over seemingly “blank” landscapes, imperial French, British, Spanish and Dutch powers imposed grids often without provisions for public space.

Lakeman proposes that we return to our village lifestyle, find our inner-villagers, and “dissolve” the ubiquitous grid at every opportunity we can get. Instead of passing each other at an intersection, let’s instead make it a place to meet.

Halifax’s first painted intersection is truly exciting. In a lecture describing his efforts with City Repair, Lakeman references the fact that after the first intersection painting, other Portland neighbourhoods were inspired, and intersection paintings popped up around the city, independently. The movement is now international, and, with the advent of communications technology, good ideas such as these can easily spread across continents to other coasts and other contexts.

I’m excited to experience my first intersection painting. It won’t solve all the problems associated with anonymity and social isolation in cities — but it’s a positive step, and an incredible advance toward bottom up, community-based urban planning: toward an urban sustainability that incorporates the social and environmental, a new city culture that embraces local connections.

Plus — I’ll be selling delicious date-almond smoothies there with my mom — for only $3 a glass.

See you there. 

Inspired by Mark Lakeman’s Chronology of City Repair, I have embarked on a continuous project of finding moments where the all encompassing grid has started to dissolve.

The grid is imposed on messy nature-culture. It is a rational, simplistic, controlling structure stemming from power. It is not what a city wants to be and, if it weren’t for constant maintenance, would inevitably dissolve.

So go out, and explore, find the moments where the grid is dissolving! Streets that are closed to traffic permanently. Large planters and outward-jutting sidewalks that break the linear flow of vehicular traffic. Come back and see some examples I’ve found too.