Over the next twenty years, estimates are showing that Portland, Oregon could grow by approximately 42%, meaning about 260,000 new residents in an already populous city. Much of this new growth is going to be concentrated in the Central City, an area that has been densely developed. Space is scarce, and the influx of new residents will no doubt increase road congestion. The City of Portland is faced with a dilemma. How can they accommodate a major increase in population while maintaining, or even improving livability? Enter the Green Loop, a six-mile multi-modal active transportation loop connecting all the major areas of the Central City.
The initial idea for the Green Loop was born five years ago during the drafting of the Central City 2035 plan. Mark Raggett, Senior Planner with the Urban Design Studio in Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, led a subcommittee that created the initial idea for a loop going through the Central City in order to address the changes they see coming in the next twenty years. What this loop would eventually represent, however, was still a mystery. Portland's Central City is already incredibly dense, and there is no room to build new roads or widen existing ones. "One thing we can do is reconfigure existing space to be more efficient, offer more alternatives, and be more intentional," says Raggett. "Where can we be intentional about a linear park ... with an active transportation part to it?" The idea began with just a circle that connected all six areas of the Central City; Downtown, the Pearl District, The South Waterfront, OMSI, the Central Eastside and the Lloyd District. It grew into a movement to create a linear park by reconfiguring existing streets to promote active transportation and placemaking.
Once the concept of the loop became publicly known, people began to ask questions. Neighborhood groups wanted to know what the circle represented and design firms were queuing up in order to be the ones to answer this question. After the idea bounced around a few conferences and public events, Design Week Portland and the University of Oregon approached the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability with the idea of hosting a design competition for the Loop in 2016. LoopPDX would help answer the question as to what the circle would represent and gave the project the direction and propulsion to bring the concept into the realm of reality. The City of Portland partnered with Design Week Portland, the University of Oregon's John Yeon Center for Architecture and the Landscape and several donors, including local NBA team the Portland Trailblazers, in order to bankroll the winning prize of $20,000. There were forty entries from eight different countries. Among the extensive list of accomplished international firms, the winners were a group of fresh young Oregon-based architects calling themselves Untitled Studios. Their idea was to give the public a major stake in the final design by having the overall look and feel of each section reflect whichever neighborhood that section is placed. Untitled Studios used the prize money to set up a series of events and workshops meant to engage the public and integrate their feedback into the design of the Green Loop. During Design Week Portland 2017, Untitled Studios hosted a week-long exhibition entitled Assembling the Mosaic. The exhibition’s aim was to allow participants to help identify the overall identity and character of the project.
In an interview with The Global Grid, Raggett stated that the current stage of the project is determining the trade-offs. Again, Central City Portland is dense. The alignment of the Loop has already been carefully decided based on a number of different factors; including street width, traffic function, and proximity to existing parks and open space. Many of these streets will be radically transformed to accommodate the Loop. If a street has two lanes and street parking, either a driving lane or parking spaces will be removed to make space. Taking away space for automobiles is always a tough sell, even in a bike-friendly city like Portland. Demolishing existing buildings is not part of the strategy; purchasing buildings is far too costly and one of the primary functions of the design is to organize and encourage development around the Loop. Much of the alignment was decided on areas that have massive potential for new residential and commercial development. The hope is for the Loop to become an attraction itself. Many conversations focus on how space can be "activated," either by activities, artistic installations or events. For example, six miles is roughly 10 kilometers, (9.6) so the idea for a 10k run has been a popular one.
The project is in the final stages of coalition building. Following April's exhibition, the Central City 2035 plan will be put to a city council vote to happen sometime later in 2017. The Loop is one of the main features of the plan and will be a massive undertaking consisting of several individual project stages. In addition to the Loop, there are numerous major capital improvement projects surrounding the Central City coming down the pipeline. These are mainly a series of bridges and transit projects which will all be connected by the Loop. It is a massive transformational project that will require the efforts and cooperation of several city bureaus, private businesses, and Portland residents. A dedicated 501(c)(3) will be needed to coordinate the different projects and generate additional revenue. Locating funding and promoting inter-agency cooperation will be some of the challenges ahead for the overall implementation. Raggett estimates that the project will eventually cost $100 million, a high price tag but drastically lower than other transit projects.
How does your city handle increasing congestion? Do you think it works better to increase automobile mobility or encourage alternative and active transportation? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.
Credit: Images by Kevin Gooley. Quotes from an interview with Mark Raggett. Data linked to sources.