Most close watchers of the Portland transportation world have heard of Better Block PDX. They’re the scrappy group of tactical urbanism activists who burst onto the scene by creating a public plaza in auto parking spaces along a block of SW Harvey Milk Street in 2013. They went on to lead successful projects on SW 3rd Avenue and Naito Parkway that led to permanent changes in our streetscape.
What you might not realize is the reason they’ve been quiet for the past few years isn’t because they’ve gone away. It’s because, instead of classic tactical urbanism that often involves rogue actions like human-protected bike lanes and the unsanctioned deployment of traffic cones to slow drivers down, they’ve been working behind-the-scenes.
“The Pathway program is an amazing opportunity in applied learning for PSU students… they get to bring ambitious ideas to life.”
— Jihane Nami PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions
The success of Better Naito unlocked a key realization for Better Block. During that project they strengthened partnerships with graduate students in Portland State University’s Masters of Urban and Regional Planning program. The aspiring engineers and planners developed detailed traffic plans and crunched data before, during, and after the project. When the City of Portland’s Bureau of Transportation realized the value of this work, and began to trust it, something powerful happened: Everyone involved realized the power of collaboration.
When former PBOT Commissioner Steve Novick literally jumped up-and-down with praise for Better Block’s work on Naito at its launch in 2016, it was a tangible validation of the group’s trajectory.
Better Block has spent the past three years working with PSU students to develop plans for a host of other transportation projects submitted to them by the community via their annual request for proposals. The relationship has matured into the PSU Project Pathway, a program that integrates tactical urbanism into the academic curriculum.
For the past two years, this collaboration has been supported by PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS). In addition to managing the Pathway program, ISS has funded a Better Block intern. Private engineering firms such as Nelson Nygaard and David Evans and Associates, Inc. have also played a major role.
Drusilla van Hengel is a PSU instructor and principal at Nelson Nygaard who’s been heavily involved in the Pathway program. “I offered my class as a way to move other community inspirations through preliminary planning stages to prepare them for successful PBOT review and approval,” she shared with us via email. “In a typical term we frame up the engagement plan, some preliminary concepts and do initial public space and activity assessments.”
ISS Project Manager Jihane Nami says the program is, “An amazing opportunity in applied learning for PSU students: not only do they wrestle with real-life planning, communication and engineering issues; they also get the opportunity to work alongside professionals across the city to bring ambitious ideas to life.”
A total of nine projects have gone through the Pathway since 2014, including four of the projects that will be built in the first phase of the City of Portland’s Central City in Motion plan.
Due to start construction this summer with a $25 million budget, the CCIM plan bears an indelible imprint of Better Block’s Pathway program.
Jason Nolin, a Master of Urban and Regional Planning student who worked on one of the projects, sang Better Block’s praises in a statement shared by the group. “Our team studied how to improve the pedestrian environment along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and SE Grand Ave — a challenging knot to untangle with the freight traffic, the businesses, the streetcar, the car-centric urban form, and the sheer volume of cars pushing through,” Nolin said. “Better Block’s awareness of the city and understanding of technical restraints — and opportunities! — encouraged us to come up with really clever ideas.”
Better Block volunteer Ryan Hashagen recently contacted us to share a rundown of each project and explain how the students were involved:
Project #1 – Better Burnside Bridge
During the 2016 academic year Master of Urban and Regional Planning students created a transportation plan with alternative designs for a protected bike plan and dedicated bus lane on the Burnside bridge.
Project #3 – Grand/MLK Pedestrian Project
As part of the 2018-19 Project Pathway, Planning students created a community engagement, design alternative, and an evaluation criteria plan for pedestrian, bicycle, and transit improvements along the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Grand Street couplet.
Project #5 – Better Madison Bus Lane Project
During the 2017-2018 academic year Planning and Civil Engineering students created a traffic control plan and designed street alternatives to decrease congestion on SW Madison Street between SW 5th Ave and SW 1st Ave.
Project #17 – Better Naito
During the 2015 academic year Civil Engineering students created an alternative analysis and facility design plan for a more bicycle, pedestrian, and community friendly Naito Parkway. This project was seasonally implemented during the summer of 2016 through 2018 and is being considered as a permanent project in Central City in Motion plan.
This is Portland at its finest. Where activists collaborate with academics and city staff to make real and lasting changes to our city.
And there’s a role for you to play too: If you have an idea for how to re-imagine the public right-of-way, make sure your submit a proposal to Better Block. Their current RFP closes March 8th. Who knows, maybe your project will be the next one to get built.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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Knowing that “tactical urbanism” is far more than just demo projects, I’m impressed that Better Block is developing tactics of trying to change the education and training of city planners to encompass tactical urbanist techniques of bottom-up community-driven design and community-building.
The East Portland Action Plan, under the leadership for nearly 10 years of the recently retired Lore Wintergreen, is another good example of Portland tactical urbanism at its best.
I have truly enjoyed being in partnership with BBPDX over the past few years at PSU. In a typical term we frame up the engagement plan, some preliminary concepts and do initial public space and activity assessments. Looking forward to seeing what comes to us for this Spring’s class. BBPDX is an amazing partner.