De-Paving Our Way Back to Workable Cities

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

In June 2008, a derelict parking lot at the corner of N. Williams and Fargo here in Portland was de-paved to make way for what will soon be a public park of fruit trees and native plants.  This project especially stands out to me not only because I pass it every day on my bus ride into work, and the fact that it’s also only 3 blocks from our building…but also because of the neighborhood the site is located in.  One block up from a very recent makeshift memorial to a slain neighborhood resident, and two blocks down the other way from an abandoned industrial building with multiple bullet holes in the street-facing windows.  

This is one of the few neighborhoods in Portland I’d say qualifies as a food desert, and probably the only one in our inner city core that would qualify as same.  The only food stores within walking distance are two corner markets which sell almost exclusively snacks, soda and beer…and a gas station c-store 6 blocks over on MLK which sells the same.  The largest food retailer in the area?  The “Hostess / Wonder Bread Factory Warehouse Store” on N. Vancouver, one block up and over from the Fargo Garden site.  And of course, the sole reason for that place’s existence is to sell nutritionally bankrupt ‘food’ items like white bread and Twinkies.  Would it surprise you to also find out that this neighborhood has historically been one of Portland’s very few majority African-American neighborhoods?

Below the fold, more words and a look at other successful examples of reworking cities to the advantage of people over machines…

We seem to have forgotten somewhere along the way that cities (and towns, and villages…) work best when designed for people, not for cars.  A sidewalk cafe culture brightens up the street and attracts people; eyes on the street improve neighborhood safety and build community.  When you know your neighbors and their children, you’re much less likely to allow open-air drug markets to establish themselves on corners and in service alleyways between buildings.  Surface parking lots interrupt the flow of the urban street, and create environments that are decidely unfriendly to humans.  The older and most successful inner urban neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Boston and New York are uninterrupted by drive-through fast “food” establishments, gas stations and 7-11s.  The ideal city street is a living room – the connected faces of attractive buildings serve as the walls, benches along the sidewalk are our resting places, and liveliness is provided by the people-watching and commerce happening there.  Introducing a parking lot or a drive-thru creates a gaping hole in that living room wall, and brings about a dead zone completely devoid of classical urban life.

The exception, however, are green spaces like Fargo Garden and the already existing Trillium Charter School community garden roughly six blocks south of this site in the same neighborhood, also on N. Willliams Avenue.  Human-scale green spaces like these can be woven effortlessly into the existing urban fabric, and serve the purpose of fulfilling our instinctual desire to reconnect with nature in a meaningful way.

An undeniable effect of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was to open up the former agricultural lands around our cities, towns and villages to large-scale sprawling residential development.  It also created the physical infrastructure that made it possible and economically feasible for us to build a national food system increasingly dependent upon massive industrial agricultural operations concentrated wherever those places can (very temporarily, while there’s still water or etc…) most cheaply produce any given crop or animal product.  This system only (arguably) ‘worked’ when there were also abundant supplies of cheap oil to keep the whole thing running, though – and that applies not only to cars and trucks; but also to industrial fertilizers, the asphalt itself and repaving, etc…

I’d say we can only solve our current problems by thinking ‘unconventionally’, because ‘convention’ has gotten us to where we are right now.  It’s well past time to think about doing things another way.  One great place to start is with re-greening our cities, and making them more inviting places to live.  By working nature back into cities in very basic ways, we’re taking the first step towards once again making them complete human habitats.  Permanently removing the old high-volume fossil fuel dependent infrastructure of our past is more than just a symbolic gesture; it can also lead us to rapidly step up our efforts to develop new ways and systems in which to sustain ourselves.

Portland was the first city in America to tear down a freeway and not replace it with another.  Today, Tom McCall Waterfront Park stretches along the West Bank of the Willamette River, as one of the many jewels of Downtown Portland…where only 3 decades ago a hideous freeway once stood, closing off all public access to the waterfront from Downtown.

A decade and a half later, San Francisco followed Portland’s lead in removing the Embarcadero Freeway after the damage done to same by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.  Today, people can once again stroll along the waterfront there…and amongst many other things, also visit the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and the Ferry Building Marketplace the rest of the week.

In 2002, Milwaukee, WI removed the Park East Freeway; Trenton, NJ is considering replacing the 29 Freeway with a tree-lined boulevard to reconnect the rest of the city with the Delaware River waterfront; Toronto is becoming an even more beautiful and livable city by removing the last remaining vestiges of its own elevated highway system…

These are great places from which to begin, and the same basic principles and theories can be used to turn other underutilized (or misutilized) properties originally designed for another place in another time into key components of sustainable cities – including parks and community gardens, public markets, buildings and land for local distributors and etc…

The tragedy of a city like Newark (amongst many others…) is that they once tried to cure their urban ills by building “cities in parks” Le Corb-style, in the form of clusters of 6 or 7 18-story human filing cabinets strewn about a few acres totally disconnected from the urban street grid.  This only served to concentrate those problems in places where the old self regulatory and public safety functions of the working urban street no longer applied.  Fortunately today, those same places in Newark are being, or have been, torn down…and replaced with townhouse-style public housing more connected to the old urban grid.  Some of these developments are now even being planned to have their own community vegetable gardens in places on the property.  

Our old ‘friend’ Le Corb had it backwards – cities don’t grow in parks…rather, parks (and gardens) grow in cities.


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  1. Is it really Friday already?  A long and interesting week here.

    Just might end up being “JayinDenver” by next Spring.  Have a few months to think about it, but at least the name has a nice ring to it, I think…

    • pfiore8 on September 19, 2008 at 18:45

    turned out to be tough for those who landed in cities.

    many of those immigrants,  as poor as they were back home, could at least grow vegetables. but many found themselves stuck away in tenements without light or heat. and of course, no running water. and surrounded by sidewalks and roads… and no place to plant.

    of course cities offer benefits, if you make enough to eat… proximity being the first. culture. opportunity. and, if you’re in NYC, you have access to the first people’s park, Central Park, one of my favorite places on the planet.

    loved ur essay. but have to say, i miss the hardhat. . .

  2. I live in the SE Hawthorne district. Nice to read you here. Community is going to be the best antidote for our crumbling economy and environment. In my neighbor hood I’m seeing not streets coming out but lawns. Vegetable gardens are replacing lawns. I am also amazed at the number of bikes on the streets commuter bikers on some streets out number the cars.

    On the other side of the coin, I crossed the river the other day and went to the much touted Pearl district and it was like I was in another city. It looked like Huston or any really nasty cement structure nightmare. It’s not like this is an area that is relieving housing as the people who live here pay upwards to 500$ a square foot to purchase these warren hutches called trendy lofts. They often pay 30,000$ dollars for a parking spot.

    My wonderful neighborhood is now in the developers and pols sights. While I firmly believe in developing sustainable cities and urban living it is disheartening to see the city commissioners,pols and the developers use this for their own version of hell, and call it progress and inevitable.        

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