This post was originally submitted as a Subscriber Post by long-time BP reader and supporter Chris Anderson.
Portland is full of unpaved and unimproved or deteriorating roadways. While a nuisance and a sign of disrespect from City Hall to some, many of us feel these streets are an element of our city’s character to be celebrated. But at the same time, a lack of clear policy about how we can make them better leaves these spaces feeling neglected. Neighbors who want to improve their block have to be trailblazers willing to pave their own way.
That’s what I did (without the paving). Here’s my story…
When Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat said streets should be a “place to play,” in a speech in 2014, I was inspired. We have an unimproved street right outside our house in northeast Portland and there are many small kids in the neighborhood.
So, over the course of a year or so (I finished the project back in January), I worked with PBOT, my immediate neighbors and the Concordia Neighborhood Association Land Use and Livability committee to come up with a design that people liked and that the city could permit.
In my case, I drafted a design the neighbors loved but the city couldn’t permit, and then I got feedback from PBOT staff about what type of design they’d support. After a few rounds of design review with the city, I had a drawing ready for neighbor signatures and land use committee approval.
If you embark on a project like this, there are a few key things to keep in mind (based on my many conversations with PBOT):
- You need the buy-in of 75 percent of the adjacent neighbors and/or the neighborhood association. You’ll need to be flexible with the design drawings, so it’s probably more effective to keep the process informal at first.
- You must provide a minimum 18-foot wide automobile pathway (plus one foot of buffer on each side, so it’s really 20 feet.)
- The city policy that supports my project applies to regular paved roads as well.
- A meandering roadway encourages slower driving, so consider making your auto path switch sides of the available space mid-block (see our drawing).
- The logs, planters, and other landscape features you use to delineate the auto pathway need to be shorter than 8-10 feet long (because more massive things are too unforgiving when a drunk person hits them). Speaking of which, you’ll need to indicate reflectors and signage on your drawing.
- Include public space features like tables or gardens.
- The neighborhood association also wanted to make sure pedestrians had easy refuge in the case of reckless drivers in the narrower shared space, so make sure to consider foot paths and bike desire lines as well as play areas.
My project cost about $1,200. We could have gotten the price down considerably if we used donated materials.
Here are a few more photos:
Overall, the process had frustrating stops and starts; but it was well worth it in the end. After everything I went through, PBOT invited me to a meeting with DIY urbanism legends Ridhi D’Cruz from City Repair and Ryan Hashagen of Better Block PDX. The idea of getting us together was to help the City establish a smoother process for other people who want to do similar “place-making” projects in the future.
By the time you read this, it should be much easier to build a play street in your neighborhood. I hope other people give this try! With a few community meetings and a small budget, you can turn a muddy blight into a place where it’s safe for the neighborhood kids to play.
Check out the City of Portland’s Livable Streets program if you want to get started.
— Chris Anderson