“First life, then spaces, then buildings: the other way around never works.”
On my recent visit to Portland, Oregon, these words from acclaimed urban design specialist and architect Jan Gehl, came to life as I gained first-hand experience of one of the world’s emerging eco cities.
Visiting the city for the Portland EcoDistricts Summit, I had the chance to learn from a range of leaders operating in the sustainable neighbourhoods, precincts and communities space, and showcase the unique work that we’ve undertaken in Australia, particularly around the Green Star – Communities rating tool, which the GBCA launched at Parliament House in Canberra in mid-2012.
My expectations of Portland were high; the city has been a regular case study cited in urban planning and sustainability conversations for some years, and has previously been named America’s most liveable city by Forbes magazine.
It took just 14 minutes to jump off the plane and onto Portland’s light rail system, the Max. What’s more, it cost just $2.50 for the fare and Portland’s reputation for great public transport was on show immediately. My visit coincided with the release of the Australian Government’s active travel discussion paper. Portland has set some high benchmarks for alternative transport solutions – benchmarks to which Australian cities should aspire. During my 11-day visit, I never once used a car and it seems that in Portland, the bicycle is king – even in the rain.
When I was visiting, the bike racks at the airport were full, as were the bike hangers on the light rail. At Portland State University, students can sign up to the Bike Hub for US$30 a year and benefit from bike servicing, education and social networking. In some streets, the bright green bike lanes are wider than the lanes for cars. This is not just about accommodating cycling, it is about prioritising it.
An ongoing conversation
While I was visiting, one of Portland’s newspapers, The Oregonian, published a three-part front page series on the evolution of city living. This appeared to be part of an ongoing conversation, and each day I’d engage in discussions with people about the importance of city planning and its role in creating prosperity and promoting liveability. It was clear that the people of Portland were committed to meaningful dialogue about their city, in which urban living is embraced and a love for the city is expressed.
How to build better cities is an issue I’ve been grappling with for three years as I’ve led the development of the Green Star – Communities rating tool. In Australia, our sustainability sights have been firmly set on buildings, with how our buildings work in the context of our cities a secondary concern. Yet urban design can influence the economic success and socio-economic makeup of a locality. It can affect the physical scale, space and ambience of the urban environment, and it can change how people interact with each other and engage with a place. When it works, urban design places people front and centre.
While Australia has taken steps on the road to city-level sustainability, from the establishment of the Major Cities Unit and development of the Australian Urban Design Protocol to the Property Council of Australia launching the Make My City Work campaign, the benchmarks set by cities such as Portland are very high.
One of the many districts within the Portland central city area is the Pearl District, a major redevelopment of the former warehousing, light industrial and rail yards precinct. After years of urban decay, the crusty warehouses were reinvented as galleries, cafes and artists’ lofts, representing the pearls within the oysters.
Touring this neighbourhood at night, I initially felt like a lost stranger in the bad end of town. Alighting the tram, the lack of people and low levels of light didn’t bode well. Moments later, I hit the southeast corner of the redevelopment and was immediately struck by the difference. An abundance of street trees and lights, and short block lengths, immediately reinforced an element of safety. While building setbacks were short, the buildings were in harmony with a human scale, reaching just four to six storeys in height.
The short block lengths encourage walkability in a way I’d never before experienced. Many urban planners, myself included, promote walkability with little understanding of how you actually create it. Shorter blocks mean more intersections, which leads to more shops, which in turn leads to more diversity. When streets are diverse, interesting and engaging, walking becomes secondary. In fact, walkability becomes an economic stimulant. As one city planner said to me, “walkability is the key driver of economic growth in our city.”
Ironically, a local developer revealed that, while the Portland grid was planned, it wasn’t planned to seek walkability outcomes. Instead, it was about creating as many corner blocks as possible, as these are the most valuable pieces of land.
A number of energy centres around Portland house co- and tri-generation systems that power inner city neighbourhoods and precincts, and this is the invisible infrastructure that often contributes to the ‘greenness’ of a building or precinct. The Brewery District has an energy centre on the rooftop of the local telephone exchange that powers seven buildings. Down at the South Waterfront community, a tri-generation system connects all buildings. At the Portland State University, a district heating system services a large proportion of the campus.
This invisible infrastructure, while expensive, plays a major part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and is a key strategy adopted by many EcoDistricts in the area. While Australia still explores the possibilities, Portland has embraced the opportunities. The next step is to encourage better community understanding and engagement with this invisible infrastructure so that we can understand how it works and how to make better, more sustainable decisions about our energy use. The role of urban informatics may provide a solution to help make the invisible visible. In Portland, free public WIFI enables urban informatics, while in Australia, open access communications networks for high-speed broadband and telephone services, such as the National Broadband Network, hold the key.
Beyond the centre
While my stay in Portland was restricted to the centre, I acknowledge that large-scale change will only occur when we expand our field of vision beyond the central business district. The physical footprint of our suburbs far exceeds that of our CBDs, and I suspect the social footprint of the suburbs is even more significant.
I was inspired to see how Portland’s EcoDistrict model is accelerating neighbourhood-level sustainability and creating vibrant, connected, engaged communities. In the words of the Portland Sustainability Institute’s Rob Bennett, who will be a keynote speaker at Green Cities in March, “this level of sustainability seems right; small enough to innovate quickly and big enough to have a meaningful impact.”