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Framing the Question of Place in Portland

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Visits to other cities can easily create "grass is always greener responses," which are hardly complete analyses of a place and its problems.

Yet these human, spontaneous gestalts are worth noting, because they say something about the immediate look and feel of a location, and can constitute authentic perceptions of the best of urbanism.

My role in Portland, Oregon last Friday was to present the results of my recent, co-authored study on transit-oriented and urban center development to a meeting of the American Bar Association's State and Local Government Law Section -- and then to co-lead a bus tour on specific, local examples -- from the Lloyd District to the Pearl District and beyond.

In keeping with the spirit of gestalt, something very human happened along the way.

For the past few years, Portland has inspired urbanist writers because of an advanced transportation system (including light rail, streetcar and bicycle), a highly walkable downtown and development practices which have captured the imagination of a new generation of city-oriented populists.

In particular, two of the best urbanist articles about Portland, William Fulton's summary of why Portland works and Dan Bertolet's comparison with Seattle, led me to my own gloss.

From a fundamental, "read the city" perspective, downtown Portland and its close-in neighborhoods capture the best of an urban experience. The scale, street surfaces and sidewalk furnishings occur amid integrated, yet appropriately separated transportation modes and supportive green spaces. Innovative business and community groups have leveraged proximity to transit and managed parking through successful development strategies.

All lead to irresistible memories of examples from elsewhere, and a universal question:

How can we capture this experience in my city?

Perhaps such a fundamental human response is the best metric of all, and the key to achieving a livable place.

All images of Portland, Oregon, and composed by the author. Click on each image for more detail.

Cross-posted from myurbanist.

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