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Hello again, we’re Untitled Studio, the team who put together Assembling a Mosaic — A Vision for the Portland Green Loop, the exhibition at the heart of this year’s Design Week Portland Headquarters. It was a massive undertaking, which only came about through the considerable labor and passion of dozens of talented humans. If you were unable to attend, we hope this guide provides you with all the information you missed. If you did attend, thank you! The purpose of this new dispatch is to recap the highlights of the exhibition, explore some of the lessons learned and conclusions drawn from our experiences, and ultimately, invite you to engage with the Green Loop in your own way!
A year has passed since we first checked in with the Design Week Journal. At the time, we were the excited young winners of the LoopPDX design competition, refining our design concept for the proposed Portland Green Loop and preparing to bring that concept to the public. At the core of our proposal was a concept we then called the “Rings of Ownership,” a framework that would subdivide the Green Loop’s park space into four lanes representing City, District, Neighborhood, and Block. We envisioned the Green Loop as a dynamic, pluralistic “linear mosaic” whose uses and aesthetics would be chosen not by individual designers, architects, or planners, but by the very people each lane would represent.
Soon after that dispatch, we recognized that “Rings of Ownership” sounded a bit too high fantasy, so we scrapped the phrase. We wanted something a little catchier, that might more faithfully convey the sense of a large project constructed through the efforts and inputs of countless Portlanders from across the city. The core concept of our proposal became known as The Portland Mosaic.
While the Portland Mosaic began as a framework specifically for the development of the Green Loop, it evolved over time into a widely applicable “urban process.” We were concerned that the Green Loop’s central location would make it exclusive or inaccessible to Portlanders living in the outer neighborhoods — many of whom have been pushed to the outskirts by rising prices and property values in the urban core. Our solution was twofold: to make the Green Loop collectively owned by everyone in the city by encouraging engagement on multiple scales, and to see the Green Loop as simply the first link in a future chain of transit infrastructure, which would in turn be developed by that same multi-scaled community engagement.
For those desiring a more complete understanding of the Portland Mosaic, we recommend checking out this booklet we created in collaboration with Scout Books.
Around this time last year, we were preparing to bring this Portland Mosaic vision to an event called Connect The Park Blocks, and had our eyes on the horizon toward the true culmination of our efforts: on an open and engaging large-scale exhibition to be held in April of 2017 — a full year after the LoopPDX competition.
A year has passed. That exhibition has come and gone. We’re now just a month away from Portland City Council’s hearings on the Green Loop, which will take place on September 7th and 14th. As Untitled Studio, we will be testifying at those hearings, speaking from two years spent designing, debating, presenting, and engaging others with our Green Loop proposal. This most likely marks the end of our direct commitment to the project. After this, we’ll simply be active, invested, vocal Portland residents — just like you.
On August 20th, 2016, we arrived on the corner of southwest Park and Washington with a palette of sod and a truck bed full of rented plants. We were setting up a temporary green street just off of O’Bryant Square Park as part of Connect the Park Blocks, a collaboration between Oregon Walks, Better Block PDX, and many others to showcase the proposed Green Loop route and the historic Portland Park Blocks. From 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., this event closed 20 consecutive blocks of downtown streets to car traffic, envisioning an active pedestrian mall uniting the central city’s robust chain of parks.
In addition to the greenery, we brought a “pop-up exhibition” with us — a handcrafted, extremely dense wooden box containing a map of the Green Loop and a 3-dimensional scale model of a Portland street. Both pieces were interactive: the map invited visitors to comment on the ways the Green Loop would intersect with their lives, and to mark areas of particular concern or interest. While the model was a tool to show off the Portland Mosaic, with interchangeable, painted acrylic sheets depicting various ways the loop could be designed, with sheets for trees, art, play, or unique furnishings and blank sheets for kids and creative folks to draw up their own. We wanted to know how people saw the Green Loop affecting them personally. We wanted to know how, or if, people felt the Green Loop could make their lives better. What did they want in their community, their neighborhood, their district?
This was our first chance to bring the Portland Mosaic to the public, but it was also the first time many people were hearing about the Green Loop itself. We soon realized that we were advocating two interconnected but ultimately separate ideas. First, the Green Loop as proposed by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, a 6-mile linear park in Portland’s Central City featuring new green space and protected bike and pedestrian lanes. Secondly, our particular concept, the Portland Mosaic, which defined a unique process for designing the Loop through public participation and engagement —a level of specificity not defined in the original Green Loop concept. This distinction, between the City’s general Green Loop concept and our team’s particular design for the Loop, was difficult to convey to folks encountering both concepts simultaneously and for the first time. This became one of our key design considerations in the months leading up to the exhibition: how to visually and rhetorically distinguish the City’s proposed Green Loop and our vision for it, while still advocating for both.
The Presidential election of November 2016 played a heavy role in affecting our narrative and the language we used to construct it. Like many others, we became aware of the limits of voting as a political act, and were inspired by those who lived their lives as active members of their communities, in service to their neighbors and their neighborhoods. We met with activists, community organizers, municipal government workers, and neighborhood coalitions, and were excited by the prospect of the city as the perfect sphere not simply for resistance, but for all kinds of active political life.
We wondered whether our Portland Mosaic framework could have applications beyond being merely a vision for the Green Loop, and could additionally be a model for civic engagement. We experienced, and anticipated from others, concerns about gentrification and displacement resulting from Green Loop development. We wondered how this project could be designed to benefit everyone, improving the experiences of residents and visitors alike. These were just a few of the concerns that stuck with us as we built the structures, rendered the images, crafted the models, and drafted the language that would make up the bulk of the exhibition.
Along the way, the size of our team swelled. We gained a graphic designer, a three-person film team, an event planner, several furniture builders and craftsmen, and all the friends and family who helped us paint, paste, and cart freight when it came down to the crunch. Untitled Studio membership was always meant to be inclusive and fluid, and we were happy to live up to that goal.
On the night of Saturday, April 22nd, the overhead loading doors of the Redd sprung open, signaling the opening of Design Week Portland 2017. Owned by Ecotrust, this high-ceilinged structure at 9th and Salmon, once an industrial ironworks, had been converted into a charming-if-drafty event space and exhibition hall. Over the next eight days, several thousand visitors would pass through those doors to attend Design Week’s parties, panels, letterpress fairs, and workshops. They also came to learn about, engage with, and leave feedback on our proposal for the Portland Green Loop.
We’ll take a moment to present an inventory of the content we presented as part of the exhibition, beginning with the boards which provided the bulk of the information.
As mentioned above, one problem we encountered early on was the desire to present the Portland Mosaic as a framework designed for, but ultimately distinct from, the Green Loop. We resolved to make this distinction visually and spatially, by keeping the official high-level project information separate, on 4-sided 8’x40” panels. These panels, 12 in total, provided the basic background on the Green Loop: the history of the project, its current status, potential sources of funding, and potential next steps on its road to completion.
The bulk of the content, however, was presented on a series of 8’x8’ panels, which collectively tell the story of the Portland Mosaic. The opening series of panels lay out the origins and inspirations of the Mosaic concept, and explain the process by which various levels organize to decide for themselves the qualities of the loop.
The next series of panels depicts a wide array of possible lane types: 3 for the city lane, 6 for the district lane, 12 for the neighborhood lane, and 18 for the block lane.
The purpose of these panels was to inspire visitors to imagine all the possible permutations of a fully activated Green Loop, and ask them to imagine what qualities they would most like to see in the section of the Green Loop that corresponds to their block, neighborhood, or district. To assist this imaginative process, we built a series of three-dimensional models to bring these lane types to life.
Once the visitor had chosen favorites from the axonometric diagrams or their 3-dimensional counterparts, we invited them to engage with an interactive map of the central city. Made from corkboard and laser-cut steel, this map overlaid the projected route of the Green Loop onto Portland’s streets.
We also supplied flags symbolizing each of the 39 lane types, and invited visitors to place the flags where they wanted to see those lanes along the alignment. It was a useful hands-on tool for educating folks on the Portland Mosaic, but it also allowed us to track what people wanted, and where. We recorded over 1,000 points of data, which we’ll discuss a little later on.
We also built a comments board for the collection of visitor feedback. Each card had ample space for writings or drawings, and asked the contributor about the nature of their comment: did it pertain to Activities and Uses of the Green Loop, Equity and Access, Design and Aesthetics, Safety, The Portland Mosaic as a concept, or something else? We collected more than 400 of these cards, which we’ll also discuss further on.
The final series of panels provided several perspectives on a completed Green Loop. One, on street level, depicted a scene vibrant with human life and activity. Another, from an axonometric perspective, depicted a more realistic example of how the lanes might manifest. The last was an aerial image of our city at dusk, with the future Green Loop described in shimmering light.
Lastly, we presented a short documentary on the Green Loop which — through interviews with bike advocates, planners, commissioners, and even the Mayor — placed the development in the context of Portland’s history, and explored its potential to improve life for everyone in the city.
As we designed and rolled out the exhibition, we were motivated by the consideration that different people understand, engage and participate in different ways. With that in mind, we tried to create a wide range of ways to engage with the project. It started in the street, with a half-block demonstration project where we literally built a colorful prototype of the Green Loop configured with our Portland Mosaic concept. It featured a protected bike lane, 15’ tall trees, a Biketown Bikeshare station, and custom seating and lighting.
In addition to the exhibition space, the Redd was equipped with a workroom for charrettes, a stage, a bar (with a special Hopworks Green Loop IPA), a lounge area, a pop-up shop with custom-built tables, with food trucks outside. We tried to have something for everyone, from the person who comes pen-in-hand ready to engage, and to the person who wants to listen and read more about the project.
Here’s a snippet:
At the end of something like this, the impulse is to measure impact in numbers — how many people showed up, how many people wrote a comment — and we’ll get to that. There are other experiences that are less tangible, but perhaps far more powerful. We didn’t count how many people rode through the bike lane on Salmon Street on their commute to work and became curious about that brightly colored streetscape they rode through; we didn’t count how many people now know about the Green Loop because they came to grab a beer and hang out with their friends; and we couldn’t quite measure whether the exhibition gave people a greater sense of agency to understand and contribute in the long-term in the design of the Green Loop. But to us, the immeasurable benefits outweigh the measurable for many reasons. Data gathering notwithstanding, the conversations we had with people, the high quality of dialogue and engagement during panel discussions, and the excitement that filled the week has left us feeling humbled and impressed by our curious and thoughtful fellow Portlanders.
We tried to approach the issue of access and accessibility through a variety of means. We reached out to neighborhood associations, purposely chosen to market events that would attract a wide audience, we had food and drinks and free roundtrip Biketown passes to the exhibition; we also didn't charge for the exhibition and made sure to have flexible hours. With more resources, we would have pursued multilingual content, hosted more content online, and partnered with more community groups to find ways speak to the concerns of their communities. However, we believe we set a precedent for manifesting the urban design process as a public celebration, and look forward to seeing how others build on that momentum, especially as part of future Design Weeks.
One of the stickiest questions about the Green Loop’s route is where, exactly, it should pass through Southeast Portland. In the historically industrial area of inner Southeast, stakeholders have expressed concerns about how bike and pedestrian infrastructure would interact with freight, and about how a project like the Green Loop might affect an already changing neighborhood’s character. Over the past few years, BPS and PBOT have worked to narrow the route down to 6th or 7th Avenues. On April 24th, stakeholders in the Central Eastside Industrial District attended a charrette hosted by the two city departments to begin deciding a solution that would benefit all parties. A full summary of the charette, containing a complex look at the competing priorities of freight and commuter traffic, can be read here. But the general consensus appears to be that 7th is unfit for the Green Loop. 6th Avenue is a much more likely candidate, and could be closed to car traffic much more easily.
Our own map data is far less intensive, but received quite a massive level of visitor interaction. In all, we logged 1,025 pieces of data. 155 flags signalled 1 of 3 city lane conditions, 178 flags marked 1 of 6 district lane conditions, 315 flags marked 1 of 12 neighborhood lane conditions, and the remaining 377 flags marked 1 of 18 block lane conditions. More of a tool for interaction than a method for gathering solid data, these findings are by no means scientific. But we can use them to discern some trends. For example, 41.3% of city lane flags supported the “Sustainability” lane type, while the 35.5% chose the admittedly similar “Ecology” type, leaving only 21.2% asking for a “Culture” focus. Which suggests that people really are interested in the “green” aspect of the Green Loop.
One of the more intriguing trends in the map data is that people often chose site-appropriate lane types. For example, Downtown, Old Town/ Chinatown, and the Pearl were overwhelmingly dotted with calls for art galleries and music spaces, which fits well with the west side’s status as a center of arts and culture. Similarly, there were many calls to see Technology implemented near the OMSI campus. Such trends, we believe, point at a desire to see the Green Loop reflect the character of its surrounding context. On the other hand, certain areas, like Eastside Industrial District, were rich with calls to develop more social, green, or livable spaces.
The most popular lane type by far was the Block lane representing a German-style “Beer Garden.” Everyone wanted a Beer Garden. We kept running out of Beer Garden flags. Never enough Beer Gardens. (Investors, are you listening?)
The comment cards made up the real meat of our feedback. We received 415 comments. 106 were marked for Activities + Uses, 87 for Equity + Access, 66 for Design + Aesthetics, 42 for Safety, and just 19 for the Portland Mosaic concept. 67 were marked as Other, while 144 were left uncategorized by the respondent.
It’s true that, as one might expect from open and anonymous responses, some of the cards were quite irreverent and arguably less-than-useful.
And yet some of that creative energy was channeled into imaginative, inspired, and often constructive suggestions.
But the excitement was tempered by a wide range of concerns. Many wanted to know not simply who would pay for the construction of the Green Loop, but whose lives would be affected by its development? Would people be priced out of their homes? Would the city actually listen to the needs of Portland residents?
One series of cards spoke clearly to some of the heaviest concerns we had about the project:
Perhaps the most sobering card was this one, which speaks to an overwhelming anxiety among Portlanders today: the more our city becomes “livable” and desirable, the more it becomes unaffordable.
And yet many of the cards were also extremely positive and supportive. The sense one gets from reading these responses in concert is that Portlanders are excited about the possibility of the Green Loop, but are deeply concerned about the manner in which it is carried out. This is the case we will make to city council, that we will support the Green Loop wholeheartedly, but only if measures are taken to include voices from across the city, and to consider the impacts of the Green Loop on those who work and live — whether in a house or on the street — along its alignment. We don’t have all the answers, but we are confident that with proper leadership, the Green Loop can be developed thoughtfully, deliberately, and with a respect for all Portlanders.
Throughout the exhibition, we found that people truly were attracted to the idea of choosing the elements of the Green Loop for themselves, on a localized scale. But despite the boards, models, and maps, visitors still occasionally had a difficult time envisioning 4 separate lanes running simultaneously, each representing a separate community scale. Though we still feel strongly about the power of organizing residents simultaneously by block, neighborhood, district, and city, we recognize that this level of complexity isn’t a requirement. The beating heart of the Portland Mosaic, which we stand behind, is the insistence on public infrastructure built democratically, by and for the people, in a way that both unifies the city and builds intimate community networks.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of the exhibition was realizing the potential of seeing civic engagement as inclusive, welcoming, fun, and celebratory. It was a great honor to be able to bring together City bureaus, students, scholars, activists, designers, policy dorks, and all other kinds of Portland residents, in a space where people could engage directly with the way their city is growing and developing. We know the exhibition was imperfect. That’s why we’re so thrilled to see others build similar events in the future. We can do so much more to make Portlanders feel in control of their city. This was just one attempt! What comes next?
The Green Loop Going Forward
We can’t answer that question in full, but we can tell you how to stay on top of the Green Loop as it develops.
First, keep your eye on the Sullivan’s Crossing Pedestrian and Bicycle Bridge, which will span I-84 at NE 7th Avenue. Already mostly funded, this project will promote safer freeway crossing in inner Northeast, and looks to be the next cornerstone in Green Loop developments. Next, make sure you sign up to become a Friend of the Portland Green Loop, and keep informed as the project moves forward.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this dispatch, city council hearings on the Green Loop will be carried out next month. On September 7 at 2:00 pm, the council will kick off the beginning of the formal City Council adoption process for the Central City 2035 planning process. This is the overarching development plan of which the Green Loop is a key feature. This is a critical point for public feedback and testimony on the Green Loop and other aspects of the CC2035 plan, and we encourage you to head to City Hall and actively participate in the process. For those of you who can’t make it in person, consider writing or emailing City Council. Our own involvement in this particular project is nearing its end. Thank you for joining us on this wild ride.