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Better Block PDX will team with PSU to create annual street demos around town

Posted by on January 21st, 2016 at 9:46 am

Better Naito demo

Fun on a better Naito, 2015.
(Photo: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

One of Portland’s most interesting annual traditions just got a little more official.

After three years of doing short-term demos themselves, the volunteer-led street reinvention group Better Block PDX has struck a formal partnership with Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning. With the help of PSU planning and engineering students, this new partnership means Better Block will constantly churn out a pipeline of projects that temporarily re-envision public spaces around Portland.

The new agreement will create one of the only academic programs in the country to integrate hands-on uses of “tactical urbanism,” as these lightweight, flexible projects are often called, directly into a student curriculum.

Better Naito pilot project-3.jpg

Better Naito turned an excess traffic lane into a multi-use path last summer.

The partnership began as a concept by former Better Block organizer Boris Kaganovich and has been embraced by Better Block’s current acting chair, Ryan Hashagen.

“It’s clear to me that tactical urbanism is going to be more and more a standard part of what planners do.”
— Nick Falbo, Alta Planning and Design

“The vision that Ryan has, and the one that I’ve sort of grabbed onto, is that we can institutionalize tactical urbanism to a degree that’s never really been seen before,” said Nick Falbo, a senior planner for the local firm Alta Planning and Design who co-teaches PSU’s annual two-credit, ten-week lab focusing on bike and pedestrian planning. “It’s clear to me that tactical urbanism is going to be more and more a standard part of what planners do.”

The PSU lab Falbo co-leads is an optional companion to the Toulan school’s winter class on bike and pedestrian planning. Students pursuing a master’s degree in urban and regional planning take it; so do undergraduates pursuing any course of study.

“Historically we’ve done a variety of different — what do I call it? They’re not fake plans, they’re like planning exercises,” Falbo said Wednesday.

The new partnership will make the students’ work less theoretical and more concrete.

Better Block

People swamped a three-day plaza in the travel and parking lanes of 3rd Avenue in 2014.
(Photo: Greg Raisman)

Here’s the vision for how it’ll work: each spring and summer, Better Block will collect proposals from neighborhood and community organizations who want to temporarily rework street space into space for walking, sitting or playing — much as Better Block has done in past years on blocks of Southwest Stark, Southeast Clinton and Southwest 3rd.

Each fall, Better Block will pass ideas to students in the PSU planning lab. They’ll break into teams of four or five, each of which will be assigned a project to develop. Then in the winter, the planning students will hand some of those projects over to a separate lab of engineering students, who will fill in technical details like stripes and traffic signals.


After that the projects will return to Better Block, which will recruit volunteers to put plans into action each spring and summer — at which point the cycle will begin again.

3rd Avenue Better Block PDX

Ryan Hashagen helps set up the 3rd Avenue project, 2014.
(Photo: Greg Raisman)

The first run-through is already half finished. Falbo and his co-instructor Mike Rose just wrapped up the first term of the planning lab.

Hashagen said Better Block has chosen four of the projects students worked on in the fall lab and is planning to unveil them at a Feb. 18 general meeting at the Oregon Walks office, 1805 NE 2nd Ave.

“We’re really trying to make the February meeting a big deal,” Hashagen said. “We want to bring out a lot of folks.”

Hashagen credited various PSU instructors and faculty with being open to the new partnership, including Drusilla Van Hengel, Jennifer Dill, Chris Monsere, Evan Kristof, Rose and Falbo.

Falbo said he thinks that Better Block style projects are likely to become a common part of cities’ outreach and engagement process.

Parking Day-2

Nick Falbo, left, relaxes in a temporary parklet created on Grand Avenue in 2013 by Alta Planning + Design.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

“Just helping people get over that hump of ‘this place can be different’ — I think it’s incredible for that, really,” Falbo said. “You often hear about projects that get put on the ground, they get funded and they get built, and then suddenly community members are surprised. … I don’t think there’s any better way for people to be aware, ‘Oh, changes are coming.’ Because they see it on the ground. Instead of encountering it in its unchangeable state, they’re encountering it in the completely flexible design state where their ideas and feedback can be incorporated into the final design.”

Falbo only mentioned one downside of the plan: the amount of time it tends to demand of students who sign up.

“I feel bad when I think about how much time they probably put into getting these projects done,” Falbo said.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 –

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Correction 3 pm: A photo caption in an earlier version of this post misstated the location of the parklet in the final picture.

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  • Anne Hawley
    Anne Hawley January 21, 2016 at 10:01 am

    The new partnership will make the students’ work less theoretical and more concrete.

    Nice one. I hope this steady new stream of small, temporary projects will result in more “concrete” from the City.

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    Ryan Hashagen January 21, 2016 at 10:14 am

    Another key player in this partnership is PSU graduate Gwen Shaw. She pioneered this path by participating in the Bike Ped Planning courses, then completing her Engineering Capstone project as the Student Engineering Lead for #BetterNaito.

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    EmilyG January 21, 2016 at 10:27 am

    Yay! This is fantastic. Way to go Better Block and PSU!

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  • Adam H.
    Adam H. January 21, 2016 at 10:50 am

    This is awesome! Can’t wait to see what they come up with!

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    maccoinnich January 21, 2016 at 10:52 am

    Will Better Naito be making a comeback this year during the festival season? Or better yet, on a permanent basis?

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    Hopeful January 21, 2016 at 11:09 am

    Let’s build a Better Block at NE Dekum at NE Durham (Where the Woodlawn Farmer’s market gathers in the spring/ summer/ fall

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    yashardonnay January 21, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    Is that Feb 18 meeting open to the public or only paid members of Oregon Walks?

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      Gwenevere January 21, 2016 at 5:18 pm

      It is definitely open to everyone! Keep an eye on the Better Block PDX facebook page (and an email if you’re on the mailing list) that will be announcing more details soon.

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  • Jessica Roberts
    Jessica Roberts January 21, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    Lovely article, lovely idea. Can’t wait to see what happens. One note, though: the last photo is not from the SW Stark Better Block installation but rather from an Alta Planning + Design Park(ing) Day installation (can’t remember which year). Similar idea, but you might want to find one from Stark as it’s a better fit for this article.

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    Todd Boulanger January 21, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    Sweet! (I wish I was a student again…to be allowed to legally “play” in the streets AND get school credit for it too.)

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    Steve B. January 22, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Better Block PDX FTW!!

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    was carless January 22, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    The PSU architecture department designed and fabricated the new parklet along 4th avenue next to the food carts. That project was championed by professor B.D. Wortham-Galvin.

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    Dru van Hengel January 29, 2016 at 9:22 am

    Thanks for a great article MIchael. It was a great experience to team with Better Blocks to make the bike ped planning class more hands and informative to the overall bicycle and pedestrian planning practice.

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