People belong in the street. For generations, the through-ways between urban structures were the gathering places of society. Streets were where we shopped, conversed, laughed, watched one another. When we did use the street for travel, it was slowly – by foot, by horse, by bicycle, by streetcar. Then came the automobile, and the social fabric of street life was all but abolished.
It was with this desire to reclaim the urban commons that PARK(ing) Day was created a decade ago. Originally launched by the San Francisco studio Rebar, PARK(ing) Day saw spaces normally dominated by stagnant motor vehicles repurposed as a miniature park, now commonly referred to as a parklet.
Last September, a group of street-loving Portland activists got together to build a parklet the length of an entire city block. This installation proved so popular that the group decided to build on their success and form Better Block PDX, based on the open-source model of the original Texas-based organization.
Having spent the winter and spring planning for where next to set up, the group (of which I am a member) chose quiet SE 26th & Clinton as their next target. While being a charming mix of bars, coffee shops, restaurants, music and video stores, and a cinema, this intersection has unusually wide spans that pedestrians must cross. Logically, no neighborhood street should have turn lanes, as they only encourage motorists to drive faster while blowing through stop signs. Forcing people to needlessly cross extra lanes of traffic puts them at greater risk.
Initially, we had planned two pop-up plazas on both turn lanes. In front of the Clinton Street Theater, our smaller plaza didn’t impede right-turning traffic in the least. Even an off-duty Tri-Met bus made the tighter turn with no problem. However, as the day progressed, it seemed the plaza itself was getting little use. The decision was made to merge the two plazas into one, filling up the larger space a bit more densely.
Over the course of the weekend, people came and went. Musicians stopped by, as did all manner of people on bikes, often with kids in tow. While we certainly didn’t have the hundreds of patrons that our downtown installation drew (between two streetcar lines in front of Ace Hotel), there were many dozens of people who visited and explored the space over the weekend.
Some were invited friends coming to the plaza as a destination, but most were neighbors strolling by. All were interested how a turning lane could be better purposed as street seating for stopping to talk, playing some board games, reading, pointing out the most interesting cargo bikes. One neighbor spent hours roller-skating up and down Clinton street, stopping at the plaza during each run.
A nearby business owner who had previously voiced skepticism dropped by, and was impressed. Now, he said, he could see how easily the plaza worked, how narrowing the intersection helped calm traffic without impeding it. Still, by my own observation, less than one car turned right here every five minutes.
Being Portland, it rained, and rained good. Despite the periodic deluges, people gathered under the large green umbrellas to stay dry. The trees lining 26th ave offered a fair level of protection as well. Everyone kept right on playing games, chatting, and enjoying the music.
One of our goals was to show that good public spaces need to be weather-proof: that is, people will still use them in crummy weather. Portland’s a wet town. If communities or the city are going to make such installations permanent, it’s important to show how people still value them even when it’s not sunny, warm, or dry.
All in all, it was a successful street intervention. We definitely learned a few things, and with this ongoing process, Better Block PDX hopes to continue developing pop-up plazas throughout the city. Check out the short video I threw together below for a more dynamic view of our plaza, and how people interacted within the space.
See you in the streets~!
All images copyright Hart Noecker.