PDXplore – Designing Portland
NOTE: Amber Case, who sat beside me in the panel, tirelessly typed every word that came out of the speaker’s mouth, thus producing an excellent recap.
When: Tuesday, July 8, 2008, 6:00 – 9:00 PM
What It’s About: PDXplore is a sixteen-month long project between five architects, designers, urban planners and artists that aimed to explore the way Portland can and should be developed for the future. Topics that were discussed ranged from the city’s DNA, its uneasy relationship with the Willamette River, designing using the Collage method, liberation of public spaces, and, perhaps most importantly, a call to shift the way we view urban development, as our host (he never introduced himself) said:
Let’s think about a city in a way that we think about a forest. Not in terms of 5, 10, 20, or even 50-year plan. What things we can plan now that we’ll be able to enjoy much, much later?
*** BEGIN EVENT NOTATION ***
5 Presenter in order of presentation:
- Carol Mayer-Reed
Landscape Architect and Urban Designer at Mayer Reed. The firm designed the Nike World Headquarters and Eastbank Esplanade.
- Rudy Barton
Urban Designer who have designed architectures in Portland, Barcelona and Jerusalem. He architected Portland’s original Downtown plan.
- Mike McCulloch
Designer and artist. He recently completed a decade of service for Portland Design Commission.
- William Tripp
Designer, Architect and Artist. He studied the architecture of Alto and Finland and Theater Set Design.
- Richard Potestio
An urban architect who explores successful areas of PDX with potentials. He studied density, open spaces and rich micropattern that can be applied for every city.
After years of designing buildings and architecture, I decided to step back from my projects and compare Portland to other places in the region. I specifically want to find Portland’s DNA. Why do people live here? Why do they want to move here?
So I compared it to 3 different cities: San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, BC. I call this project Left Coast – Right Brain, because in order to succeed, we have to use our right brains to plan our future.
There are several notable difference. First of all, Portland is less international than the above cities. A magazine wrote that Portland is more about small discoveries than spectacular landmarks.
Lately, I saw that Portland has an emerging sense of itself. It’s not just the “stepsister” anymore. Now I think that Portland have enough self esteem to step forward and encourage comparison to other cities.
I also noticed that many people moved here from other cities. I found that there are a lot of similarities between them. Yes, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco may rank closely in talent, creativity, public transit use and “weirdness.”
But we also have 21% growth. So why do we choose to live here—or lived here, moved away and came back?
There are seven basic reasons:
- Collective shared value and sensibility
Portland has a high tolerance for various lifestyles. With this tolerance, comes creativity. We transform street to community spaces. We have block parties and Farmer’s Markets. We close bridges for bike rides. Food carts colonize our parking lot. But can we retain this as we grow?
- Affinity for the environment
We have constant reminder of scenic beauty. Our landscape envelops us like a bowl. Our river both separates and joins us. Can we build truly vibrant and green waterfronts for both rivers? How do we protect this as we grow?
We believe that our city is green, but are we really as green as we are? Or do we simply take that idea from the scenery that surround us? We’re still a long way from European cities, by the way.
- Access to outdoor recreation
Thank God for Measure 49. You don’t have to leave town to go to recreation. Public shared spaces. We need more of these.
- Livable scale
My time almost ran out [Editor’s Note: every speaker was given 8 minute talk time], but I want you to really get this. We have integrity. We redesign ourselves without necessarily reinventing didn’t necessarily reinvent ourselves. Many people have described Portland not by its cutting edge architectures or flashy buildings, but by words like “understated elegance, “authenticity” and “quietness.”
- Optimistic notion that one person can make a difference.
Portland tops San Francisco and Seattle in not only the percentage of freelance workers, but also voters and public involvement.
My point is this: let’s not wait for crisis to have a dialogue. Let’s talk about our future now.
I have a confession to make: I have an affair with cities. My wife and kids can attest to this. It’s longstanding. It’s promiscuous. Cities excite me. Great cities really excite me.
Portland has this potential. I love to watch them [cities] wake up, go about their day and sleep at night.
My work tonight focuses on Willamette River. River is inseparable to the city, especially one like Portland. And come to think of it, it’s pretty hard to make a list of great cities that aren’t, in some ways, connected to a river.
One connection that’s common and inescapable is, of course, the tension between nature and man. The rise and fall of the tide. The rise and fall of economic development. My point is: our connection to the river is very important.
Time for a pop quiz. I need a little honesty here, so raise your hand if:
- You saw the Willamette River today? [everybody raises]
- You touched the River today? [nobody raises]
As I suspected.
It’s really hard to touch the river. This has got to change. We need to reconceptualize the role of the river in our city.
We can always take the easy path and have a monocular view of “looking but not touching” the river. This is what we have right now.
But I think that it’s better to confront our anxiety and deal with this friction point. Because it’s possible to see natural and man-made structures coexist.
As you may know, the Oregonian took a boat ride to Willamette recently. The paper concluded that Ross Island should not be touched by man.
Just because it lacks development, doesn’t mean that it should be isolated. We don’t view the Forest Park and Mount Tabor this way, so why Ross Island?
I think that Ross Island offers the perfect opportunity for us to confront our anxiety about dealing with the natural and man-made world. I believe we can create an intersection to blend these two elements. We must not forget how truly important the Willamette River is to Portland.
Three things happened to me. As a designer who have been practicing for 40 years, I looked for a lot of materials and stimulation. Here they are:
- First, I met with Jaime Lerner, mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. He decided that his city needed a lot of changes, so he put a transit system together in 6 month. And he came to Portland because he had the idea that we, too, can make changes.
- Second, I attended an architecture exhibit in Vienna [or Venice?] and I saw virtually every major city in the world rethinking itself. All these different cultures cared for their cities. You see, It’s not just an American notion. Everyone is rethinking it.
- Third, I spent 10 years on the city’s Design Commision. We’re trying to get all the best possible projects into our Portland. And while all these things are coming together, I think that it’s time to create something new. It’s time to design something.
Really, what you have to do is: you have to understand your city and how it is organized. I tried to make a diagram to arrange the city in a way that you would understand.
Because unless you understand it, you can’t protect it.
And make sure you design. Make some things. Do some things. Make some mistakes. Always make interventions.
This group [of five designers, architects, artists and urban planner] met for almost 16 months to talk about these things.
We want to list out Portland’s DNA. Why are we here? How are we different from other cities? Only then we can design something. If you’re a designer, it’s like asking “Who are we designing for?”
There are three different elements:
- The rivers.
- The ravines that the rivers have carved.
- The ring – the urban growth boundary that holds it all together.
A designer said to me then: but what about the fourth element? What about the room that’s created by all these?
Our goal is to make a diagram that we can give to our kids, that they all can carry with for the future development of Portland.
But how do you deal with city that’s so complex?
You collage. You add and capitalize on what’s already there. Don’t bulldoze. You have to very carefully insert new dimensions to the existing infrastructure.
And don’t move away from Portland. Stay here and design it so you can keep it the way you want.
For example, Central Eastside can develop a density that the Westside have developed by approaching the river.
I’m hoping that all of you can stay here and not move to Montana. All developers I know is very, very creative. Don’t let Jaime Lerner down. Make sure it’s as good as you can make it.
So, Portland has been in a kind of turning point. Obviously, it has to do with density, with people moving in.
But there’s another one: it also has to do with the change from a city that came about as a center of commerce, where people would visit, go about their businesses and leave, to city that people live in and one that becomes their homes.
So we have to understand: what makes a great city a meaningful place to live? How do we do that?
Great cities are not defined by collection of great buildings. Great cities are communities of great people.
And what do people need to build and sustain communities? They need an open, public space.
But Portland has a shortage of these public outdoor rooms. And we don’t just need more, we need them to be arranged in more meaningful ways.
Like a ritual space. Think Rose Parade or Cinco De Mayo. Those events all take place in special kinds of spaces.
One of the challenge is to see a city not as a grid to be developed, but as a network of public community space that all of us live in together.
What I’d like you to do is this: we need to get this idea of “space” across. Because, at the largest scale, we live in this giant outdoor space. As you go about the city, look for community and public spaces. What are spaces that you particularly like? Are there spaces that you feel are missing?
I want to touch on the difference between a designer, urban planner and traffic engineer.
Design is an intuitive artistic and creative act. Sure, it encompasses analysis, research and all that. But at the end of the day, you have to make a mark on a piece of paper.
The reason that design is so important, as opposed to planning or engineering, is that design is a tool that we can use to integrate opposing forces (i.e. man vs. nature, private spaces vs. public spaces.) To make these “spaces,” we need to design it.
And this activity is not just restricted to designers. Everybody does it. If you make choices about what to plant on your garden, for instance, you are designing.
So what I would like you to take away from this exhibit is a new awareness. Let’s not think of our city as a collection of private houses, but as a collection of unifying community spaces that we use to call this “space-called-Portland”: home.
I’d like to frame this discussion. What’s at stake here? What are the opportunities that we have in front of us?
1-2 million people are going to moving here in the next 5–10–20 years. We know it’s going to happen. But we need to not look at this as problem to solve or question to answer, but as opportunity to embrace.
More people moving means more investments are being made. And we have the choice to decide how these investments can be directed. Can we be more self-sustainable?
I’m confident that we’re going to make a great city, but if we’re surrounded by that things that we’re possibly going to do, it’s for naught.
I lived at Council Crest. And I used to climb it and looked at this wonderful landscape as a kid. As I grew up and learnt to ride bike further and further away, I explored the region. The more I go out, the more I discovered how unique our city is.
What I learned is that cities tend to be located at the optimum point: where river, forest, farm, and all these things are bunched together. Our pioneers chose to put our cities in the sweet spot.
As I grew up, I see more lights in the valley, cars in the highway, pollution in the city.
We have some of the most spectacular lands that every region in the US envies. It’s like Eden.
I think that this Eden is what’s at stake. This is why me and my team tried to understand things that we’ve used to frame this issues.
Issues like density. Issues like quality of life.
I think that it’s more of a story problem here, because it’s not just about density or quality of life. We need to understand what will we chose for our future? What will we allow? We need to understand things that we may not be able to necessarily prove, but ones that we can see around us. Ones that we can intuitively feel.
Can we fit 1.5 million people in the city by not cutting a tree down but by bringing these new buildings, towers and structure and cluster it around parks, schools, forests and The Esplanade? Can we intensify and capitalize on these opportunities? Can we find a way to build stronger communities and new technology? Recycling, composting, community garden, solar energy—things that make our city “sustainable” like we think it is today.
Our time is now. She [Mother Nature] who watches our city really wonders what will we do at this time.
Quotes and notions from the discussion session:
We’re trying to move the design away from a specific building to the spaces between the building.
You know, when the community is in danger, they always lock up the school? Well, when you want to make your community better, you better open up your school, not lock them. That way, people that don’t belong there will stick out, and you’ll get safety that way.
Sure, school could be the center of the community. The reason why it’s not a center? Today, school is comprised of flat concrete and iron-linked fences. These certainly don’t give people any reason to make it a community center—much less to gather around it.
Why give your kids a backyard, when you can give your kids the entire city?
We have a history of designing for cars. We need to design for people. And we need to become familiar with this concept soon.
– William Tripp
Designing a city is like pruning a tree. If you don’t prune a fruit tree—hey, it will still grow. But if you prune it carefully, it grows beautifully.
– William Tripp
Instead of just bashing our politicians, we need to listen and allow people who we elect do their job.
– Richard Potestio
*** END EVENT NOTATION ***
Technicality: ☝ ☝ ☝
Translation: Twice as comprehensible and half as obscure as the (pardon the shameless self-promotion) Hazelnut Tech Talk.
Interestingness: ☝ ☝ ☝ ☝ ☝
Translation: Under a caveat that you pay full attention to the subject at hand, the panel presented some very compelling thoughts and viewpoints—which in turn left my mind too blown away to come up with any sort of cleverly crafted conclusion than the ones that they already presented in the panel.
Bonus: A Collective Leadership Session on the same subject, featuring mayor-elect Sam Adams, is due on July 22nd.
What I Learned From The Event In Six Words:
Growing a city = growing a forest.
Walking about GoogleMaps floor installation FTW.