Portland Plan Inspiring Communities Series: How to Plan for People & Environment, Simultaneously

Craig Beebe, 1000 Friends Communications Intern

A large crowd packed into the Billy Frank conference room at Portland's Ecotrust Building Wednesday evening to learn about planning for human and environmental needs simultaneously, using examples from Vancouver as well as the experience of local experts.

The penultimate event in the Portland Plan's Inspiring Communities Series, the message from speakers and panelists was clear: planning for humans and the environment are not two separate tasks to be carried out in separate spheres. Instead, they can and must be integrated so that each community can thrive together. The evening's featured speakers, Professors Ronald Kellet and Cynthia Girling of the University of British Columbia School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, began the event by describing recent research and case studies into integrated human/environment planning in Vancouver. As the Portland Streetcar glided by on NW 10th Avenue, the standing-room-only audience learned about some truly extraordinary possibilities for intelligent planning that is both sustainable and livable.

Kellett argued that urban form should be shaped by natural patterns such as flows of water and wildlife. Doing so, he said, isn’t as difficult as it may seem; for example, a busy tree-lined street may have several layers of habitat and activity for people, birds, and other animals. The challenge is to plan in three dimensions, and realize the longevity of different aspects of the urban environment. The longest-lasting elements of all are the natural patterns that underlie everything, he said; these remain for far longer than many other features of cities, including vehicles and buildings.

Girling presented three inspiring case studies from the Vancouver metropolitan area, each with an admirable integration of human and environmental functions and a high degree of livability. East Fraserlands, built on a former sawmill site along the Fraser River, combines extensive waterfront restoration with a vibrant public realm organized along a High Street commercial district. Univercity, adjacent to Simon Fraser University atop Burnaby Mountain, is a high-density development that nonetheless provides very livable spaces while minimizing runoff and protecting a large conservation areas that surrounds the neighborhood. And Southeast False Creek, part of which served as the 2010 Olympic Village, contains an impressive amount of public space integrated with environmental services, such as an extensive park and playground that share space with a stormwater-absorbing wetland. These Vancouver examples, Girling said, show that we can plan for a compact community and “lay on top a rich and diverse public realm for people users and wildlife users.”

Following Kellet’s and Girling’s presentations, an impressive panel of local experts shared their thoughts, responding to questions from City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Director Susan Anderson and from the audience. Mike Houck, director of the nonprofit Urban Greenspaces Institute, argued that it was as important to plan for quality of life and sustainability within the urban growth boundary as it is to protect farmland and natural spaces outside it. “It’s impossible to consider the needs of people without those of nature,” he said, pointing out the City’s progress with a Watershed Management Plan and the Grey to Green stormwater management initiative.

Carol Mayer-Reed, a landscape architect and partner at Mayer/Reed, described how the City’s underutilized spaces and “ambiguous places” present a real opportunity to show that the supposed dichotomy between nature and people can and should be overcome.

However, panelists described some key challenges to achieving this, among them communication to all the City’s residents, and the problem of staying aware of the big picture amid incremental changes and policies. Chris Smith, a Planning Commissioner and publisher of the PortlandTransport.com blog said that city leaders should not forget to integrate economic systems with environmental ones, a point seconded by Mike Houck, who argued that environmentally friendly planning is almost always much cheaper than conventional projects, in the long run. Mike Abbate, Director of Urban Design and Planning for the City of Gresham, highlighted the importance of communication with residents of East Portland and suburban areas of the metropolitan region, as well.

What would success in planning for community and environment look like? The panelists generally agreed that it would mean that all Portland’s residents, regardless of age, income, neighborhood, or even species, would be able to achieve good health and mobility in a diversity of environments. The examples cited from Vancouver indicate that some places are already achieving such a balance, and as Portland begins its next round of the Portland Plan process in March, such goals will undoubtedly be prominent in the minds of planners and residents.

The final is event in the Portland Plan Inspiring Communities Series, on Economic Development, will be held on Monday, January 17, 7-9 pm, at the Mercy Corps Action Center, 128 SW First Street in Downtown Portland. The evening’s featured guest will be Robert Weissbourd, of RW Ventures LLC, “an economic development firm specializing in market-based neighborhood and regional development,” according to the series website. For more information, click here.