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What Above Portland Shows Us about Planning the City

In choosing a colleague to write about planning for the book Above Portland, I was faced with a difficult choice. Portland is blessed (some would say cursed!) with scores of good planners — professional and amateur. But I chose Don Stastny because of his 40 years of experience in helping set the direction we have taken our city, especially our downtown. Don is an architect, urban designer, and planner who brings an artist's eye and a historian's sense of time and place to the practice of urban planning. If you want to know why the central city looks and feels and works the way it does, Don can tell you, in detail.

Individual entrepreneurs and the independent nature of the early settlers and developers had a strong impact on the young city. Their legendarily fierce independence led to a culture where the voices of citizens are prime determinants in the growth of the city. Portland has experienced a number of "Grand Plans" by noted planners, and while remnants of these plans lie throughout the city, Portland today is a reflection of the vision of the citizensPortland today is a reflection of the vision of the citizens. From early development to support trade, the city's evolution into the commercial center of Oregon, through the Downtown Plan of 1972, to the Central City Plan of the 1980s and ongoing neighborhood plans, planning has always originated with citizens. And while there never was a Grand Plan, there always was a "noble diagram" as defined by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham: "Make no small plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die."

The Portland citizenry's reliance on a "vision" empowered neighborhoods to build upon the historic base of a streetcar city. While the streetcar (integrated into the grid pattern of our streets) determined the original neighborhoods, the city has continued on the quest of utilizing public transit as the foundation for "place-making" throughout the city.

Portland is realized by increments — some as singular as a storefront and some encompassing more than one block. The 200 x 200-foot block structure supports this type of development. Designers working in the city must come to terms with the realization that their work contributes to a larger vision and won't be an individual iconic statement of design. In Portland, iconic buildings usually signify a public institution, while retail and commercial buildings contribute to a contextual fabric where historic and contemporary buildings meld comfortably together.

The design guidelines of the city design review process reinforce the importance of the increment and the case-by-case situation in which each piece is considered as development and redevelopment occurs. The guidelines describe how a building or structure should "perform" within its context, what will add to the life and vitality of the street, and how it will relate to the public realm.

"Making" the city has not come through planning alone, but through creating the tools to achieve success. Initial pioneering with public-private partnerships, promoting "good design means greater value," and leveraging investment in the public realm to promote private design and development initiatives have created a city that is an urban laboratory of policies, actions, and implementation reflecting the values of its citizens. Portlanders care about the natural environment in their state and their city — but they also care deeply about the built environment. And they view the city as a lasting legacy they will pass on to future generations.

÷ ÷ ÷

Chet Orloff served as the executive director of the Oregon Historical Society from 1991 to 2001 and now teaches at Portland State University and the University of Oregon.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Above Portland Used Hardcover $8.95

Chet Orloff is the author of Above Portland

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