July 4, 2013 What I learned in Portland
The conference began with a visit to Orenco Station, a transit-oriented development near a light rail stop in Hillsboro (a suburb of Portland). As I rode the light rail system, I noticed lots of undeveloped land near stops. This reflects one reason why, despite Oregon’s urban growth boundary system, Portland is less expensive than many other cities- the boundary isn’t that restrictive, since even within the boundary there is still undeveloped land in desirable places. (In fact, someone told me that the boundary extends 20 miles out in any direction, which I think is pretty far out by the standards of a city Portland’s size).
When I visited Orenco Station, I was very impressed. The mixed-use and commercial blocks looked very nice; the residential streets were narrow enough to be walkable, and hanging plants and similar decorations created a nice level of beauty. In the homeowner blocks, the single-family homes were awfully close together- but the strategic use of windows (or maybe I should say, omission of windows) avoided privacy problems.
I did notice one flaw in Orenco: no schools nearby. Having schools within walking distance may not be a big deal in center cities (where schools are generally perceived as a disamenity rather than as a positive amenity) or in sprawl suburbs (where few children, if any, walk to school) – but in a suburb designed for walkability it should matter more. (PS All my Portland photos, including Orenco, are here).
Ellen Dunham-Jones of Georgia Tech spoke about retrofitting suburbs to make them more walkable. Big box stores could be turned into all kinds of facilities, or be surrounded with walkways, a street grid, and other buildings to increase walkability. A more modest improvement would be to add an outdoor porch. Another alternative is “regreening” – turning abandoned strip malls or office parks into wetlands. Hiro Hata of SUNY/Buffalo spoke of combining these techniques by putting a park in the middle of a strip mall and shops etc. on the outside (since the shops need to be noticed from the street to get traffic).
Mayor Brainard of Carmel, Indiana talked about retrofitting city streets to make traffic less scary. He endorsed roundabouts instead of traffic lights and speed limits; roundabouts aren’t dependent on a driver’s willingness to follow the law, because any driver who sees a big circle in the middle will instinctively slow down. (All 3 major Pacific NW cities I visited- Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, were pretty liberal with roundabouts in residential areas, but less so in commercial areas). He also mentioned medians, which can (if large enough and green enough) both calm traffic and beautify a city.
City planner Jessica Atwater spoke about Portland’s attempts to combat climate change. She noted that vehicle miles traveled had been reduced from 20 miles per household to 17 since 1994. One thing I liked about Portland: you could buy a all-day transit pass on a bus for only $5 (as opposed to $9 in Atlanta, and all-day passes weren’t even an option in Seattle and Vancouver!)
Toronto’s David McKeown spoke about public health and urban planning. To the extent his talk focused on today, it mostly told me what I already know (i.e. walkabiity is good). What really grabbed my attention, though, was a background point showing changes in death by various infectious diseases. One might think that the vaccines developed in the 1950s were what caused polio, diptheria, cholera etc to decline- but in fact most of the decline in death rates happened long before the vaccines, in the first half of the century. Lesson: public sanitation really matters.
Mika Moran of the Technion spoke about parks, comparing two in an Israeli city- one in a basically urban area, another in a more suburban one (though still higher-density than American suburbs). The suburban area had more parks, yet children played outside more in the urban one, indicating that parks don’t make up for the inherent walkability of urban places. Interviews with children revealed that the suburban parks were actually perceived as unsafe because they are sterile and underpopulated (much like the parks I saw in Jacksonville when I lived there).