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LoopPDX: Phase One

Dispatches from the Design Process

Untitled Studio

On the 13th of February, 2016, we entered a proposal for the Loop PDX Competition, a collaboration between the UO John Yeon Center and Design Week Portland. The competition featured the Portland Green Loop, an “urban promenade” for pedestrians and cyclists in a six-mile ring around the city center, spanning both sides of the Willamette. The route was tentatively established by the City: its southern border the landmark, multi-modal Tilikum Crossing, its northern edge the bascule span of the Broadway Bridge. It will run along the park blocks in the west, and 6th or 7th avenues in the east. The competition asked not where the Green Loop should go, but how should it look and feel? How would it fit into, describe, exemplify, enhance the way Portlanders experience their city?

Our proposal, delivered within an hour of the deadline in a gentle wave of relief, was one of 37 other proposals from across the Pacific Northwest, from across the country, from across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. (And how exactly does one deliver a proposal? Ours was stowed aboard the NAND flash memory chip of a black plastic thumb drive, purchased that morning at the Hawthorne Fred Meyer, while others in the group fought to compress the file size to the requisite 30 megabytes.) We had hoped to be selected as one of five finalists, but were completely surprised when late in April we were announced as winners of the competition.

This surprise was owing, in part, to our relative freshness on the professional scene. Untitled Studio—named to reflect the fluidity of team makeup, and the desire for a cooperative, egalitarian work process—was a new label for a longstanding collaboration between friends, tracing its way back to the University of Oregon’s Architecture school, where most of the team studied together. Currently, we work as urban planners, architectural project designers, craftspeople, freelance writers, and cutters of meat.

In approaching the competition, we first considered our own limitations. We would be individual designers, proposing the outcome of a project that would transform the Central City for decades. Our team is Portland-based and includes life-long residents, Oregon natives new to the city, and recent enthusiastic transplants from the Midwest, but how could this team of five young people adequately realize the desires of a whole city? We decided to propose a framework that would, at its core, directly engage those questions of who the Green Loop was for, and to whom it belonged. We wanted an approach that took the opportunity of Green Loop, brought it to the people, and manifested their voices into something physical, cooperative, interactive, and community-driven. From these considerations were born the central idea of the proposal: the Rings of Ownership.

The four Rings we proposed represent the four levels through which Portlanders identify themselves and experience their city. The first ring represents central Portland as a single entity. The second ring represents the four districts through which the Green Loop runs: Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Program, Southwest Neighbors Incorporated, and Neighbors West-Northwest. (If you’re like us, you probably just stick to the intercardinals.) The third ring represents the 12 official neighborhoods intersected by the Green Loop. The fourth and final ring represents the smaller communities existing within the neighborhoods, those subjective and free-flowing spaces determined by residents and local businesses, that are defined more by human connections and aesthetic experience than they are by markings on a map.

There are, of course, the lanes for walking and bicycling. But on either side, protecting the travelers from traffic and enhancing their experience, are the literal Rings of Ownership. As you can see above, we imagine the City Ring as a barrier between the traffic lane and the Green Loop traveler, while the District, Neighborhood, and Community rings work together to turn the sidewalk into a publicly activated green space. We have elsewhere described this setting as a “linear mosaic,” or perhaps more pragmatically, as a “linear park.”

And while the images above provide examples of what each Ring might contain, the key idea here is that the content of each lane is chosen by the very people that ring represents. The City of Portland owns the City Ring, and chooses one consistent feature to occupy that ring in its entirety. (We chose to portray this as the Madrone tree.) The District Ring is split in four and owned by the districts, and so on for the neighborhoods. The community ring we imagine as being owned by local businesses and residents, for example as outdoor seating for nearby cafes, or water features for admiration and interaction in the warmer months, or as sculptures for the attraction of and appreciation by travelers.

The effect we envision is one in which each segment of the Green Loop has its own unique feel, reflecting the tastes of the surrounding community, and immediately cuing both the traveler and the passerby into their particular location along the Loop.

The importance of separate and protected bike lanes is difficult to overstate. Recent studies have shown that some 60% of the Portland population would classify itself as “Interested but Concerned” about bicycling in the city. For these potential riders, separated bike facilities could mean the difference between hopping on a bike or not riding at all. This suggests tens of thousands of riders who might choose the Green Loop over driving, which means less traffic, fewer emissions, more physical activity, and better health for the city. It also means more thriving businesses and more active public spaces in the central city.

It is paramount for us to emphasize here that we use the word “ownership” not in the private, exclusionary sense, but in the sense of collective, public, inclusive ownership. Ownership as a source of pride, responsibility, and engagement. We envision a Green Loop that is useful and welcoming to all Portlanders: the professionals and students, the recreational runners and cyclists, the dayworkers and the houseless, the tourists and the life-long residents. Our desire is not to reinvent the Central City, but rather to offer a working model for development that is in constant conversation with the surrounding community. Specifically, we see the participatory design “language” of the Rings of Ownership extending to bike routes throughout Portland. More generally, in light of our rapidly growing city, we are advocating for a development process that encourages engagement with public concerns like affordability, sustainability, and the maintenance of a unique Portland culture. (One that, we hope, does not rely on branding and commodification.)

These are lofty concerns. What matters now is that the Green Loop is truly achievable. The Tilikum Crossing is completed, and Sullivan’s Crossing, a planned bike and pedestrian bridge over I-84 on the 7th Avenue alignment, is mostly funded. It may well be that these bridges become the foundation of the project; all that’s left is to fill in the Rings.

So now we need your help. For the past few months, we’ve been working alongside the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s Urban Design Studio and the Portland Bureau of Transportation, as well as our new allies at Better Block PDX, to develop effective means of early public engagement. On Saturday, August 20th, Better Block and Oregon Walks are teaming up to Connect the Park Blocks in order to envision, briefly yet lovingly, an active downtown Portland plaza freed from car traffic. We have already installed signage advertising the park blocks as part of the Green Loop alignment, with the aim of spreading awareness, generating excitement, and encouraging feedback on our project website.

Yet the true purpose for our presence at Connect the Park Blocks is the unveiling of our interactive pop-up exhibition.

This custom-built chest contains a series of tools designed to engage with the Green Loop and our Rings of Ownership. The latter is explored through an eighth inch scale model of an intersection along the loop. We provide a series of pre-designed acrylic inserts, representing possibilities for flora and inorganic structures, which simulate the contents of the different Rings (though there will also be blank inserts for those who wish to design their own Rings).

We’re also hungry for ideas on the overall alignment of the Green Loop. To this end, we’ve constructed a large map depicting the Loop in its entirety, within the context of Portland’s Central City. Using comment cards, pins, and tags, we will be prompting participants to pinpoint their ideas and concerns. We want it all: delineations of neighborhoods and communities, concerns for potential traffic problems, suggestions for alternate routes, and opportunities for the openings of new public spaces. We will, of course, be saving all comments, recording our interactions, and photographing the different permutations achieved by the model and the map.

August 20th is only our first public appearance. Ultimately, we intend to bring our pop-up exhibition to events in every quadrant, if not every neighborhood, to involve more voices from different backgrounds. We’re building toward something bigger, something looming just over the horizon. Our promise upon winning the LoopPDX competition was to put on an exhibition, a culmination and celebration of all these ideas, pushed forward by input from the public. With this event, we will be able to cultivate our proposed framework with, as Pentagram’s Paula Scher put it, the “both magical and achievable” possibilities of what the Green Loop could someday be.

Until then, we’ll see you on the Park Blocks, or in another community near you. Keep an eye out for new developments. But don’t worry: we’ll keep you in the loop.