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pdXPLORE In The Round – Collective Leadership: An Event Review

pdXPLORE #2 In The Round – Collective Leadership

NOTE: As usual, my partner in crime Amber Case used her anthropology observation skills to great effect, thus capturing every important word that was spoken about by the panel.

When: Tuesday, July 22, 2008, 6:00 PM – 9:00 PM

Where: PNCA

What It’s About: The five architects and urban planners who envisioned Portland’s future on the first round of pdXPLORE sat down with civic leaders to explore the viability of the projects and ask hard questions—most of them answered very indirectly.


Please note that, if the person who was speaking is unclear, her position will be designated with a bracket. Also note that, while this notation strived to be verbatim, it skipped a lot of parts that were not spoken clearly.

Moderator – Thom Walters of Corragio Group:
I have spent quite a bit of time in my career moderating. What I can tell you about leadership is the presence of unreasonable thinking. This is what we have to explore tonight. Caveat: do it with integrity, humanity, clarity and respect.

As you all know, Portland has a very compelling growth projection. More than 1 million people are moving (or going to move) to this region. This is a discussion about the design, planning and process around this vision. And this discussion will be an exploration into how design thinking could enter into the process.

I will allot one hour for the discussion. Each designers [there were 6 of them] will pose to our civic leaders.

At the end of this, we’ll open the floor to the audience.

Carol Meyer Reed (designer):
My question will be in three parts. Both residence and visitors really understood the value of the quality of life in PDX. So as we grow:

  • What are your concerns and specific solutions for maintaining and enhancing these qualities?
  • Are there any specific ideas that you see coming from the design perspective?
  • Can growth be good? And how can growth be good for us?

(Civic Leader):
I will answer your last question first.

Absolutely—if we harness the people, and human capital. But it can also be a nightmare—if it doesn’t pay its own weight. The answer to the third question is: that depends. Yes, we have to accomodate those million people. But, by the way, they’re not a million people all coming here. Some are born here.

I think that it will depend most on what we invest in, and on how we understand—in a more sophisticated way—how public capital relate to private cpital. The influx of people moving here looked random, but it’s a predictable product of energy pricing and policies. During the 60’s, there was a real bias toward how investment was made. There were also regulatory zoning and energy pricing.

The challenge now is to figure out what else do we put in the pot? What’s the investment strategy to accomodate these people in a different way? Gas, tax, federal subsidies and public sewers system—those are ways of the past. We need new ways.

To answer your first question: first, one thing we need to do is inverse the system. Let’s state very clearly that we are enhancing urbanities. A lot of times, there’s ambivalence about this. Oregon’s system is about protecting farmlands rather than enhancing urbanities. The former strategy is passive–reactive. What I’m advocating is a more positive, aggressive strategy that asks “this is what we want to achieve as a city. Now what do we need to do to achieve it?”

One part of the solution is systemic. For example: building a structured parking lots. Putting your money into something like that creates different retail and housing areas around it. The other part is these signature pieces throughout the region that is unique the area. Because, keep in mind, this is not just about the city of Portland. There are some real challenges on a lot of areas in the suburbs.

To answer your second question – “What are some ideas that we can bring into reality?”:

  • The first is development of infrastructure and finance tools. Recognize and enhance them. Finance them.
  • Parks, to me, are an essential part of great urbanity. We talk about big ideas. We have the biggest environment protection measure on the country, but it was focused on nature reserves. We have yet to see this with urban areas.
  • Development of trails network of ppl who commute around the region. Transportation network.

So my final answer [to the growth question] is: it depends, you have to invest in the right things.

Carol Meyer-Reed:
One thing that we talked about amongst the five designers was: who do we want to talk to? A lot of times, we preached to the choir. This is great for making ourselves feel good, but how do you deal with people who aren’t the choir?

(Civic Leader):
Two-thirds of our region lives in urban areas. A lot of the development pattern of the last 50 years were very oriented to private realm. I think that the demographic is changing. We are becoming both more urban and urbane.

Also recognize that our region is not very dense. [To facilitate more people moving in] you really don’t have to change the construct very much. You just have to focus them in the right areas to fill. I don’t think that there needs to be very radical changes.

And, certainly, standing still is not an alternative.

Studies have shown that developing new communities at the edge of the town/urban growth boundaries cost twice as much than developing one in the area that we already have.

Rick Potestio (designer):
I have a question to David and Sam. I think Portland is in its defining moment of finding its identity. Our project provides a mean to looking at that. In particular, we looked at how the city itself can not only be the most populous, but also the most dense. We propose a way of reconfiguring our neighborhoods to embody these qualities.

My question is: what changes do you propose to our current system that can maintain our leadership as a city, both nationally and in the world?

Sam Adams:
It all starts with planning for human beings and neighborhoods. And being humble in the fact that ppl are only going to live in neighborhoods that are going to feed their needs and are affordable to their means. Portland has proven that the mixed-use model, combined with density and lots of amenities with robust transit system works.

Our biggest problem is complacency. Emerging analysis says that we can fit our portion of required 20/40 [year plan] density. There are very few changes that we need to made to achieve this, but that wouldn’t necessarily produce the kind of neighborhoods that we sought after. So your projects in putting focus around neighborhoods (mixed use zoning) is a good idea. Being an entrepreneur is key part of this. We have to recognize and use land use zoning and transportation planning. But on this table, there also needs to be people in social planning.

Portland is becoming an older and younger city at the same time. And we’re not used to that. Our plan 30 years ago, for example, didn’t include a school in every district. So when we complain that our schools were closed, jurisdictions can’t do anything about it—because it wasn’t in their plans.

Rick Potestio (designer):
From our study, we learnt that the most dense neighborhood tend to also be the greenest. There are a lot of truly great benefits from having a great mix.

But when we talk to institution like PDC, we see a barrier. Because we saw that there’s no real mechanism in the financial that to enable this. Can you propose to enable this?

Sam Adams:
We don’t start out by talking to a neighborhood about densifying them, we talk to them about what they want. “If you want a Whole Foods or a New Seasons, this is what your traffic will be.” We just went through this last week, planning an upzoning. In some neighborhoods, there’s excitement at what additional customer base will bring to them (we plan to bring 10 story buildings.)

Rudy Barton (designer):
Question for Gil: Portland’s 1972 downtown plan was internationally recognized for its achievement. Vision trumped regulation. What I would like to know is how much will our planning efforts in the next 4 year going to be determined by old methods, and how much of it by new tools?

Gil Kelley (civic leader):
I’m very optimistic about future of our city, because you find an enormous willingness to shape the future in a positive way. I found this fact to be almost universal in Portland. I think that we have everything we can to grow, but we also have to acknowledge where we are.

Portland, for the first time in generations, is looking at its comprehensive plan. For example, Metro is revisiting its 20/40 plan and the state is revisiting its land use plan. There’s a sweet spot here to ask these big question:

  • Where are we going? Where do we want to go? What kind of community do we want in 20–50 years? Who do we want to take with us? Schools, hospitals, partners. What is the roles of neighborhoods in this?
  • How do we get there?
  • How do we know if we’ve gotten there?

This plan has to posit some measurement method. I think we’re doing pretty well. So I just want to say that there’s some big picture planning going on, and part of that is revisiting our design toolbar and coalescing around our big ideas. When I observe the work in this room, a thought emerged: in many ways, you have to realize and design around the natural land forms and weather. And you also have to ask generational questions. We’ve gotten kind of fragmented when it comes to city building. We’ve got an engineering bureaucracy, and have a real struggle even remembering what the land form was. What an interesting idea to think of “what if we retrofit the cities for the next 100 years?” And then you kind of have to think about the building, because there’s a lot of creativity in that. We have to look at building as a design toolkit, and then moving to articulating “what do we care about the public realm?”

Thom Walters (moderator):
What might your thinking be conceptually?

Gil Kelley:
The power of ideas is how this will get traction. The concept of 20-minute neighborhood is one of them. But I think that it can’t just be a conversation between the planning committee. It can’t simply be “we will write our policies, then the world will conform.” We have to make real choices.

Sam Adams:
Innovation to a lot of Portlanders is giving them opportunities and provide for their basic needs. If we want to remain diverse in our income, we need to be accountable in every part of the city’s prosperity, health and happiness. As we look at global warming, we need to ask ourselves first: are we producing enough food/energy for ourselves to be self sustainable? Design has to be built around that.

One of the issues is this: as the cities are changing, what are our planning and design tools?

The creation of public space always happens as a byproduct of negotiation with large big companies. But as designers, we believe that public space is an outdoor living rooms for the communities.

What we’d like to see is that the creation of the design should drive zoning, rather than the other way around.

The current toolbox doesn’t allow this to happen. There’s a recognition about how this public space is crucial to the community. We find that the city, more than simply becoming a place to visit, is becoming a space to live.

Back to the question: do you have any ideas about what mechanisms are needed to do this, and how do we get this and share it to the community? One of our task is to show ppl that dense neighborhood can be be beneficial.

Sam Adams:
We have Conway, Rose Quarter, the Main Post Ofice Site, etc. Keeping those outdoor living room is important. The hard task is to figure out how to have public squares in existing neighborhoods. As a mayor, I would pursue having green space in every community/nieghborhood. We’ve been talking about how the city could acquire the right mix of property.

It’s very tricky, because one person’s green space is another person’s residence.

How do we work ourselves out of this box, to the point that the value of public space/realm is pushed forward?

(Civic Leader):
Economically, it could be proven. It’s just that there has been this ambivalence in Portland history. For example, when the city chose to purchase Mt. Tabor, there was criticism. Just 8 years ago, when Chinese Garden cost $12 million, there was also criticism.

And let me touch on the rest of region again. The city of Milwaukee is rediscovering the Willamette River again. Lake O just opened up street with access to the lake. Tigard wants to build community around Fennel Creek. Fact is, communities across the region are discovering this.

Michael McCulloch (Designer):
Directed to Robert, Alice and Tom: One of our collective agreements was, when we zoomed up to 30,000 feet, we saw a lot of room here. When you look at the map, again, there’s plenty of room. Our agreement is that. So, our question is:

  • Whether or not you can support that?
  • The constituent parts of the plan that has this outline community—can they commit to increase, say, to accomodate 75,000 more people in Gresham, and another 75,000 in Hillsboro, can they hold their urban growth boundary?

Robert Liberty (Civil Leader):
We have physical, environmental and moral obligations. Six reasons:

  1. Policy making and protecting future generations.
  2. Vast majority of growth is not going to the edge. In the first 7 years of the millenium, a total of 200 homes were permanent in that 20,000 acres. A strategy is to recognize what’s already happening.
  3. It costs twice as much to built around the edge. This is not an interesting plan. We need a strategy—a lower cost strategy.
  4. Equity issues. In the 1990’s, we’re pulverized by income. This is happening again today. I’m sure my parents would despair that I was able to buy a house between Division and Powell. We have a lot of poverty increasing in East Portland and West Gresham, we need a strategy.
  5. In our region, the biggest single source of greenhouse gas is driving. What if money that will be paying for gas can be used to make denser neighborhood so people drive less?
  6. We’re running low of freshwater, land to grow food and biodiversity. We have world class land right next to our door. To sacrifice that, I think, is a failure, for our region, the nation and the planet. We talked about amenities in public spaces. This common shared space. We need to spend less resource and money building private space. Any strategy that makes a virtue out of leisure is a strategy that works.

Alice Rouyere:
I love “living on the edge.” You have great access to right rail. I’m a proponent of balance to growth:

  • In-field
    Adapt use of land to growth. We have to come up with creative approaches. One of the things that I think is important is to create adaptable environment. Sure, we’re thinking about design, but we also have to think about the future. We have to create as many connections as possible. For example, this expensive shopping center near Gresham created a wall between the community. On the other hand, I was surprised when plans on some Metro-owned properties were unveiled. It showed 8 story towers built in our neighborhood, and I heard a lot of interest in moving “up high.” As gas prices increase, people are going to spend more time in the neighborhood. How can we draw interest from landmarks like the Johnson Creek?
  • Green space
    As we adopt our design for future generations, we need to think what they can afford. We actually need more product that’s for sale that people can afford. On the trees and green space side of things: we’ve done a great job and made very innovative plans. The challenge now is to come up with cost saving approaches. For example, we’d like to get people to accommodate more jobs in the Springwater Area.

Tom Hughes (Civic Leader):
I work with the city of Hillsboro, so I’ll focus my remarks on what we’re doing in Downtown Hillboro. Our demographics are changing. I think there’s a growing desire for authentic urbanity. I’ve only worked with the city for 3 years, and are struck with how people are drawn to the downtown. We don’t have a limitless budget, but we have made strategic investments that are great draws. Our most recent investment: the Old Town Theater. It was just brought back to life a month ago.

The neat thing is, suburbia is monochromatic and boring, but downtown Hillsboro is interesting. So I guess the point is: make investments that make downtown more appealing. Can we create enough of a sense of place and identity that developers are going to take the risk of purchasing a condo? The other thing that I want to say is that, I think that Hillsboro community is supportive of nuanced densification. I don’t think we can get 75,000 more people to Hillsboro right now. This is a losing battle, because I don’t think the community will agree. But more and more people grasp that if you want that authentic urbanity back, you need more rooftops.

Does the planning process include the target of x number of additional people, and are you designing the city to accomodate this?

Tom Hughes:
The key thing is market demand. We don’t have a precise number. It’s one thing to have this paper exercise that says that we can accomodate. And it doesn’t have to be highrise, either.

Thom Walters (Moderator):
As a last question, I’ll ask our Civic Leaders to either share a specific insight or opportunity that had started to percolate in the community.

Sam Adams:
It’s great to get the designers together to explore these concepts without politics. I hope that this kind of effort continues, and your work continues. There are only so much money that flows to the region. You ask to see how to do it? Our urban growth boundary should be kept the way it is today. Hold the line. We need to make density be as positive of a force as possible.

Thom Walters:
Designers, is there anything you’d like to share?

A lot of times, “parks” are tightly defined as spaces occupied with soccer moms, kids, dogs—that kind of thing. This is fine, but social interaction in the future is going to occur in places of intersection: like grocery stores—places you don’t expect. It’s a challenge to design those places, and design for a community of people. These places are the stages where these conversations can take place.

Rick Potestio:
I want to point out that design, really, is not just about the numbers, but about quality. And sometimes the quality solutions ares going to be highly unconventional. For example: on the 13th St. we have a plan where we have pedestrians walk in the middle of the street. Hitting the same numbers doesn’t mean that we’re in the place we want to be. I think we need to think about the quality of the design.

We used to have a definition of home as our house and our yard. For many of us today, home may include the city, the corner coffee shop, the tiny little pocket park and the little plaza. These are the spaces that, for those to work, we need quality. Without quality, those rooms won’t get used. We have to design it. You can’t leave it to private developers to design that, because it is a public room.

Thom Walters:
Now we’re going to open the mic to the audience.

I work in the design realm. We, designers and artists, are asked more and more. to design on the “space between the buildings”—this kind of leftover, junk spaces that has often been overlooked. Often, we’ll be asked by stakeholders to “contribute to the vision.” But the reality? The control is on ODOT or PDOT’s hand. Do we really need transportation engineers to control the project? Is there some other method that we can go to?

Sam Adams:


Technicality: ☝ ½
Translation: Complete understanding of The Timeless Way Of Building not required.

Interestingness: ☝ ☝ ½
Translation: Thanks to indirect answers (to legitimately complex questions), the panel quickly devolved into trite policy-speak. Don’t let this stop you to from appreciating the thoughts and ideas behind this exhibit, though.

What I Learned From The Event In Six Words:
I can has just the facts?