Friday, July 10, 2009

Safety with a Potluck - Transforming Space into Place

Portland's Intersection Repair program

Imagine: When the fog of traffic congestion clogs our streets (and our minds), imagine a safe place near your home with quiet beauty and solace. Imagine neighbors putting out daily coffee and tea for passers-by in mini-street cafes. Imagine bulletin-boards, cobblestones and artistic murals, flowers and gardens on your street. Imagine it can all start with a potluck.

I recently spent time exploring Portland, Oregon. Some equate Portland with rain and overcast winters. But other records matter more - Portland's outdoor street life for example. Portland is one of the world's greenest cities, the fittest and most eco-friendly city in the US, the best US city for biking to work, renown for land use planning and light rail, and a top ten city for architecture and design.

Portland's not perfect. While it has about the same ethnic and income mix as cities of similar size, it does have the country's second highest unemployment rate. It has problems with car thefts and burglary. Yet of the 75 largest cities, Portland's murder rate is consistently in the bottom 10 and robbery in the bottom 20. It has one of the lowest violent crime rates of any city in the country.

One wonders about the obvious; Do the things that make it vibrant account for the things that make it safe? Residents describe it as one of the safest places in the country with the highest high quality of life.


Portland's neighborhoods are alive. Interest in civic affairs is alive. In the neighborhoods (away from the clogged Interstate) cars seem secondary, people and bikes first.
Nowhere is this exemplified better than with Portland's City Repair movement, now in dozens of cities across the country.

Pioneered a decade ago, innovator and architect Mark Lakeman is a leading proponent. He told me local residents decide for themselves what they want their streets to look like and how their intersections should function. Some want community interaction or seasonal celebrations. Others want slower traffic or beautiful public art.

City Repair creates artistic and ecologically-oriented placemaking through neighborhood projects. They began by tackling the urban grid. They convert residential street intersections into public squares. They use paint, plants, and permaculture. They construct non-toxic solutions from the local environment. They combine public art with benches, lampposts, play areas for kids, and gardens alongside public streets. It is remarkable to see this in person.

If you can, go there and see for yourself. Nowhere have I seen intersections transformed so creatively by local action.

This is citizen government and a positive example of direct action.When we talk of placemaking in SafeGrowth, City Repair is exemplary. It yields great promise and optimism.

People are drawn to see beautiful art or sculptures in formerly boring grid intersections throughout the city. I watched cars slow to safer speeds where there were no stop signs. Well designed street art is a natural traffic calmer.
Resident-designed intersections in Portland - eventually the city came on board
I heard of doomsday pundits who said it was impossible (until it was done by others). I heard of traffic engineers predicting chicken-little (then shown how to build creative and functional intersections).

Mark says, we are engaging people where they live and they are building new relationships. They are creating physical artifacts that encourage them to gather after the fact. They see these artifacts and they interrelate with them and the stories broaden and deepen.

That is placemaking at it's best.

Check it out.