With Naito transformed, Better Block launches its biggest summer yet

Naito bike traffic observations-6.jpg
You should start getting used to streets that look like this.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Is there a more Portland story than a group of “tactical urbanists” who go from putting up chairs and tables in parking spaces to partnering with the City of Portland on several major projects in less than three years? That’s the story of Better Block PDX, the all-volunteer group of aspiring engineers, transportation activists and urban planners who today kicked off the what they’re calling “the largest temporary street transformation in America.”

And that’s just one-third of their summer workload.

“The design is temporary, but the concept is permanent.”
— Gwen Shaw, Better Block PDX

After a very successful run last year the “Better Naito” project has returned. Working hand-in-hand with the Portland Bureau of Transportation and with a full endorsement from Commissioner Steve Novick’s office, Better Block has coned off the two eastern-most lanes of northbound Naito Parkway to create a temporary sidewalk and two-way bikeway. The new configuration will run through the end of July and it stretches nearly a mile from the Hawthorne Bridge to NW Davis. To help with ambience, the City announced today that this stretch of Naito now also has a 20 mph speed limit.

Lower speeds and more space to walk and bike makes a lot of sense for the organizations who put on large festivals inside Waterfront Park. 15,000 people per day attend the festivals during peak season. Rich Jarvis with the Rose Festival showed his support for the project at this morning’s press conference: “Just like nature abhors a vacuum, festivals abhor empty spaces,” he said. The same could be said for vibrant cities.

Not only is Better Naito building on momentum from last year but the concept got an unexpected boost when Portland Mayor Charlie Hales announced his budget yesterday. Making good on promises he’s made for two years now, Hales wants to spend $1.46 million for the “Naito Parkway Improvement Project.” Details still need to be ironed out but it’s generally accepted that the project will make Better Naito permanent. The funding is far from assured, but at least Mayor Hales has put a name and a dollar amount on the table.

Better Block gave PBOT Commissioner Steve Novick this sign because he’s been such an ardent supporter of these projects.
“Portland in the Streets” is a new initiative from PBOT. And look how the banner art imitates life…


Portland in the streets indeed.
Gwen Shaw worked on Better Naito last year as a Portland State University urban planning student. Now she works at Lancaster Engineering and remains a volunteer. In her speech she noted how projects like Better Naito bring new voices into the planning conversation and have a lasting impact on policy. “The design is temporary,” she said, “but the concept is permanent.”

Even though their work on Better Naito helped create the political space for Hales’ proposal, Novick’s staff and leaders of Better Block are keeping their distance for now. When I asked Better Block’s Ryan Hashagen about how Hales’ budget announcement impacts Better Naito he said only that, “Better Block’s role is to start a conversation about the best use of our public space.” And Commissioner Novick’s Chief of Staff Chris Warner said, “We just found out about his proposal on Friday. I think there’s still a lot of figuring out left to do.”

And there’s still a lot of work for Better Block to do. With two other projects this summer they don’t have time to play politics. Next Monday they’ll launch “Better Broadway” — a one-week demonstration of a fully-protected bikeway and new crossing treatments on inner northeast Broadway. Then in late June they’ll switch to Better Burnside to show how the bridge will work with a dedicated bikeway and bus lane. (Find out how you can help make these events happen at their website.)

It’s a very big bite from the apple for an all-volunteer organization with much bigger ideas than budgets — but that’s often how great things happen in Portland.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 –

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