Portland’s Remarkable Model of Modern Walkable Urbanism
It’s a truism – but easily confirmed with observation – that we’ve made a mess of cities around the world in the last century. We’ve fragmented them with freeways, abandoned them for the suburbs, sucked the life out of them with redlining and misguided urban renewal. That’s especially true in the US, but the same model (which was invented in Europe, as it happens) has been rolled out across the globe.
A lot of people have their own new models of what should be done to remedy the situation. As noted in this blog earlier, Landscape Urbanists tend to say, let’s just take the derelict and abandoned land and make nice parks out of it. (At a time, mind you, that around the world, cities themselves are still growing prodigiously – but mostly at their peripheries.) But obviously that doesn’t do much to actually repair the urbanism itself – which is why I have to question whether “landscape urbanism” is really urbanism at all.
Some people, myself included, look at old cities – pre-automobile streetcar cities especially – and marvel at their order and functionality. We wonder if we can learn a thing or two about this structure, and moreover, about the process(es) that generated it. Ad we wonder if we can begin to recover these characteristics, while maintaining all the requirements of a modern city: higher populations, greater mobility, and so on.
I for one conclude that the answer is yes. That’s because we have many examples of these old cities that have been adapted very successfully to modernity — and in many cases, these places are major engines of modern economic activity. (London, for example, or Paris.) Yes, they have new additions — Canary Wharf, La Defense — but often these places work no better than the old ones, and often they are not the most desirable. And often the worst-performing parts of the old cities are the badly-done new additions of fast-moving arterials.
This question of fast-moving arterials is currently a sore point among some New Urbanists. Our friend Andres Duany tends to think we have to settle or pockets of walkable urbanity, cut off from each other by these fast-moving, unwalkable arterials. Our other friend Paul Murrain suggests that there is no reason to accept this as an assumed condition. It may be required as a compromise strategy (perhaps as part of a successional plan) but this is not the same thing as accepting it as inevitable. Curiously, Andres is closer to the Landscape Urbanists and other post-structuralists who accept the postmodern condition as a mere source material for artistic expression, instead of engaging its structure so as to transform it.
(That’s another entire subject: the extent to which we have a professional responsibility more like doctors, entrusted with the care of our patent, the city and its inhabitants; or whether we are specialists in the fine arts, who have to accept what is, and simply make as artistic an expression of it as possible. (More on this in another post, but suffice it to say I’m with the former camp.)
So do we have to live with fast-moving arterials, as a kind of “corral” around what our friend Rick Hall has dubbed “pedestrian petting zoos?” Or is it possible to have a more continuous walkable fabric, with the arterials integrated into the fabric somehow?
The answer can be found in empirical observation in a number of places, including the city that many point to as a comeback for urbanism: Portland, Oregon. The illustrations attached show what we mean.
If we are going to have continuous walkable urbanism, we need to span several levels of progressively more challenging streets – let us call them, Levels A-E.
Level A, we might say, is the neighborhood street, which can be made remarkably safe for pedestrians. (See Illustration One below.) This street does not need to be a through street, if it is reasonably close to another through street (probably within 200m). A good example of this (and the “sanctuary neighborhood” that contains it, about 400m wide) can be found in Ladd’s Addition in Portland.
Level B is the through street, which is still very walkable, but also provides moderate vehicular mobility. (Also in Illustration One.) The spacing between them is no more than 400m (to provide good direct connectivity to adjacent areas, for both pedestrians and vehicles).
Level C is the neighborhood arterial – represented well here with Hawthorne Boulevard (Illustration Two). In this case it’s four-lane, reasonable high mobility, but still narrow enough to be highly walkable. (And the design is made to be walkable, with buildings on the edges, wide sidewalks, etc.) These streets typically had streetcars and, in Portland’s case, they are being restored. Their spacing is about 800m.
Level D is the multi-way boulevard – represented here by Willamette Boulevard. (Illustration Three.) The mobility is much higher because of the central travel lanes — and yet because of the refuges and slip lanes, the whole thing remains highly walkable. It also supports strong transit.
Level E is where Portland really gets inspired (Illustration Four). It’s the freeway corridor, or the railway corridor, or the ecological corridor – and sometimes, a combination. And the walkable streets (and streetcars) continue overhead. In this case the spacing is only about 250 feet (70 m) but we suggest a spacing up to about 400 meters should work.
Lots of historic cities do the same thing, often as a retrofit strategy – London with its tube lines and freeways, Oslo with its new harbor tunnel, etc. Yes, it’s expensive as a retrofit (especially when boring is required) but as a cut and cover strategy at the outset it’s fairly reasonable as a percentage of project cost. And then there’s the captured developable land, tax base, reduced infrastructure cost, protected ecosystems, etc.
One last observation about Portland: it even shows great examples of integrated districts (Illustration Five). So often it’s assumed that these have to go to “campuses” at the suburban fringe. These are sprawl generators. But Portland shows that universities (PSU), hospitals (Good Samaritan), shopping malls (Pioneer Place), even (especially) industrial districts (Pearl, Northwest) — can and should integrate with walkable, small-block urbanism. It shows that connectivity even with small blocks (e.g. Portland’s 266′ ones) can be achieved with tunnels, bridges etc. And that can maintain security, privacy, functionality — all the things people claim as rationalizations for suburban fringe development.
The last illustration is a diagram of such a scheme with all the elements in place (but rather abstract and unreal – not the street widths are exaggerated for clarity). At the top is a very rectilinear plan – not unlike Portland’s – and at the bottom is an illustration of the variety of geometries that are possible while still following the essential 400m incremental rule. This is not unlike the urbanism to be found in the Frogner neighborhood of Oslo, or many other cities.
Portland (and indeed, a lot of other cities) show clearly that this approach works, still functions in the “modern” world of mobility and commerce. It’s there for us to re-apply, if we choose. We have only our assumptions, and our old failing operating system, to stand in our way.