Sunday, September 19, 2010

The devil is in the details - grass walls and bus stops

Green walls are eco-friendly, attractive, and deter graffiti

Oregon's famous urban growth boundary experiment in regional planning has detractors and cheerleaders. There is, however, little doubt that limiting suburb size and preserving farmland has created one of the most successful city's in the nation. I am not being Pollyannaish. It has dreary and rainy winter weather. It still has a homeless problem and crime. But overall, it's hard to argue about the success of Portland.

This is largely a function of zoning, something I've been discussing of late.

It came to mind this week during a business trip to Portland. I mentioned Portland's successes last year during a visit. The list of laurels is long but it among them is a very low (and declining) city crime rate. All this is in spite of a nasty higher-than-normal unemployment rate.

My walks last year were in the residential neighborhoods. This time I stayed downtown where there are lively and safe downtown streets at night. There are safe public areas, parks and well-used transit. There is a wide mix of pedestrian traffic and though one-way streets dominate, unlike other cities I've visited lately, in Portland they tend to be narrower with a dense proportion of shopping variety. As in Philadelphia's South Street, shops here cater also to local residents (grocery stores).

Does regional zoning explain this success? In Portland's case the zoning style tends to the traditional form, though the urban growth boundary concept was revolutionary for its time. By law all Oregon cities must establish urban growth boundary beyond which urban development is prohibited.

An urban growth boundary limits sprawling suburbs like those elsewhere. That, more than other cities I've seen, results in intense attention to urban amenities (free public transit downtown) and a preponderance of grassroots local action (such as the local City Repair movement).

Portland's simple bus stop designs with no-ad clear glass and safety intercoms

It also results in far more interesting urban forms than I've seen elsewhere (streetscaping and architecture) which makes downtown walking fun, activity-rich, and culturally interesting. For example, street lighting does not replace decorative sidewalk lighting. Parking lots were uniformly well lit, clean, with good sightlines. Grass walls deterred graffiti. It had well designed bus stops with CCTV and without unsightly billboard ads. All these little details added to the safety mix downtown.

This week Portland reminded me that the style of zoning, though important, isn't enough to create a safe place. It's the little details of the urban fabric that matter too. In safety, we do sweat the small stuff.

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