Public Space in Portland

From the People Who Make It Happen

Edited by Amanda Schurr

Throughout these pages we consider public space from the perspectives of those who live in it, work in it, use it, write about it, and shape it on a national level. But what about the local authorities for whom public space is a daily conversation? The following is a de facto roundtable of thoughts and insights—a discussion assembled from individual interviews with designers, planners, and facilitators we collaborated with throughout the 2015-16 academic year. 

Greg Raisman, Portland Bureau of Transportation, City Repair: Portland has such a long history of being a city for people. It’s why we have such good farmers markets and the Saturday Market and all these types of things that have really long traditions that I don’t know if we really think about as a Portland institution and what it’s meant for our conversation.

Allan Schmidt, Portland Parks and Recreation: It’s complicated. Different public spaces have different jobs in our systems. When you squint at it, it’s very successful. We’re very beloved, people love their parks, we’re getting consistent revenue, the economic development is happening in the city and is projected to continue. I don’t see that changing. 

Susan Anderson, Director, Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability: So much of our time outdoors is not in traditional public spaces, like plazas and parks. Instead we spend hours strolling local streets and avenues—shopping, visiting restaurants, seeking new places for coffee or beer, or merely traveling from work to home or friends. 


Raisman: Like most transportation agencies, the Portland Bureau of Transportation manages the largest amount of space in the city—about a quarter of the land mass of the city of Portland and in the central business district about 40 percent, so within that space it’s really important that we get a lot more out of it than just moving around. These are the places where we can interact with friends and neighbors and have really meaningful and definitive experiences about how we engage with each other and the city.

Schmidt: When it comes to the creation of public space downtown, it’s not just for downtown people, it’s a regional park—this is a place that everyone gets to use regardless of who you are. Public open spaces help provide individuals with the very human experiences not always provided by the built or urban environment. They are places to exercise, breathe, gather, protest, see and be seen. Our ancestors lived at the edge of the forest and the field and you could walk out in the field but still feel the protection of the forest; it’s the openness and the closure, the structure. Especially this time of year and really all summer long, it is amazing how many people get out and use their public spaces, wherever they are.

Raisman: This year I’m processing like 13 street paintings. It comes in a snowball effect where there’s almost a little satellite site with a street painting and a lot of people in the area, they might have wandered by while that painting was happening, or just seen it and love it and then they want to do it where they are.

Schmidt: You let the public define public space, but then you have to take it home as a professional and figure out how to provide it at some level that makes sense. Once you get people to a place where you develop a public process that makes sense enough and you talk to people enough, they usually come around. Everyone comes to the table and is like, “Let’s do this,” then get into the weeds. It’s difficult, people have different opinions, and at the end of it you come back around to like, “Okay, I can live with that.” And then it gets built and everyone loves it. But the process is challenging.

Raisman: The whole point here is bringing people together—let them express themselves where they live, let them own their place. America’s the richest country in the world with the least amount of public space, so allowing people to create their own space—all of a sudden it’s something that attracts their attention and they inadvertently start noticing the positive things that happen there more often. That can change your perception of the place. It makes you feel better about where you live. That kind of experience starts a shift, what we think about in terms of creating a comfortable system, something where people feel welcome to take a walk or a bicycle ride, they feel like their local business is supported because we can bring them customers and these kind of things, so that placemaking element becomes really important for having successful streets. And then Better Block is building on that. 

Ryan Hashagen, Better Block PDX: Right now so much of this valuable space is often times abandoned to users that have dominated for over half a century. Janette [Sadik-Khan, former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation] was speaking recently about how we live in the culture of updating technology. Apps are updated on a regular basis yet we don’t update the applications of the largest shared property and shared resource that our communities have, which is our public roadways and public right-of-ways, so what Better Block tries to do is invigorate that conversation of how we build these public commons, and what’s the most effective, equitable use of that space to make it welcoming to all communities. Better Block tries to bring the conversation out of the open houses and onto the streets, get people to feel, touch, enjoy, critique, reimagine the spaces and how they exist currently, and how they could exist.

Schmidt: You have to have a sense of humor about the work, just the sheer range of what you hear. You could write a book about it—they made a TV show about it, and some of this stuff is true. One thing that I would’ve never guessed coming into this job as a designer was just the sheer complexities when it comes to how you engage the public, the diversity of public interest in their space. It zooms back out to how to translate all of those wants, needs, aspirations, goals into a system-planning approach—you look at the map from 10,000 feet.

Lora Lillard, Urban Design Studio: Often public spaces are under a lot of pressure to provide space for people as well as space for multiple, sometimes competing functions, such as cars, buses, bikes, nature, signage, solar access, shade, stormwater, habitat, noise, retail, etc. Within a city of finite resources and land area, too many competing desires and needs can result in places that are unintentionally compromised because they try to address too many issues. Though each public space should each be considered within its own context, one goal that we at the Urban Design Studio strive to achieve is “a city designed for people.”  

Schmidt: It’s really the people. We’re this kind of mash-up between the park view of the natural world and giving the people of this community opportunities to recreate and enjoy nature. It’s the mixing of the blood of the human pulse of this culture and society with the green of Mother Nature’s interest. I think the next big challenges are adjusting the system to face a changing climate and understanding what that is, how that changes the landscape, and providing an equitable distribution of the city’s resources for the community. How do you shift and develop a system that is nimble as the population around it but doesn’t change it?

Lillard: Portland is growing. Visible, tangible change is happening now within many communities throughout the city, and in many cases the change is hard to live through.  At the same time, we are tasked with thinking not just about the next 5 years, but the next 25, or even 50 years. So we need to ensure that we are not making decisions that will negatively impact or short-change future generations of growth and the city’s necessary evolution. Are our public spaces adequate to accommodate the amount of growth we expect in the future?

Hashagen: As the city grows, public spaces will become more and more important to each and every resident, worker, and visitor to our region. Better Block’s goals are to create and expand replicable models that can be implemented by communities throughout our region and beyond so that we can develop a toolset and share the lessons learned so that other communities can experiment with their own spaces, their own public spaces, and not have to reinvent the wheel.

Raisman: Tap into the human capital that we’re going to receive, because that density of people is actually an enormous opportunity for the public realm. It creates an opening for a lot of vibrancy and a lot of depth of experience by having more people that can be there activating the realm or contributing to it or just observing it, so our role will continue to grow. The more that we can make these kind of community-based actions feel supported and understood and heard and well communicated with, the more likely we are to invite people to continue to try new ideas and make our city better.