Many of Portland’s problems can be seen in our streets. And it’s the same place we should look for solutions.
This morning I read a tweet from Lakayana Drury, founder and executive director of Word is Bond, a Portland-based nonprofit that helps young Black men reach their full potential (you might recall our story about the group’s walking tours):
I agree with Drury. Every day it seems there is more bad news about our city. And every day it becomes more clear that so far, no one who works in City Hall is willing and/or able to lead us out of the darkness. So it’s up to leaders like Drury and folks like you and I to come up with ideas, and pressure our leaders to help us implement them.
I try to be very aware of how bias creeps into my initial reactions to things I read and how it informs my opinions and hunches. And I realize to many folks this might seem like just the “BikePortland guy” pushing his agenda again. But when I read Drury’s tweet this morning, all I could think of is: The problem is in the streets, and the answer is in the streets.
Our streets are the city’s largest public space. Portland has 4,842 lane miles of public right-of-way. Unfortunately, right now this vast resource is the cause of much of the inequity, violence, suffering, stress, and divisiveness that plagues our city: Many of the deadly shootings originate from people driving cars on our streets; Many of the assaults that go viral in the media happen in the streets; Many of the crimes and behaviors (street racing, car and bike thefts, dangerous driving, road rage, etc…) that erode the social fabric of our city, start on the streets; And the most visible form of despair that has hurt Portlanders for far long — people living in makeshift encampments under tents and tarps — happens on the street.
But what happens on our streets isn’t a force of nature. We choose to be bystanders, but we can choose to take control of them.
The City of Portland has all the tools to defend and renew our streets. We have permit programs for neighborhood block parties, public plazas, dining in the streets, painting intersections, and more. We have already shown we can do this, we have just been way too timid.
Consider just a few examples:
- Faced with concerns of car-based gun violence in the Mt. Scott-Arleta neighborhood, the Portland transportation, police, and parks bureaus formed an alliance and created interventions in the street. That effort could use more permanent traffic diverters and less flimsy, wooden signs and plastic cones.
- Our transportation bureau has done great work lowering speed limits throughout city; but without enforcement and stronger street designs, it has only limited impacts.
- After George Floyd was murdered, Portlanders took to the streets by the thousands. We joined arms, built communities that supported each other, and demonstrated the true potential of how streets can help us heal.
- When there were shootings and dangerous driving outside a high school in north Portland, the transportation bureau responded with basic traffic calming measures.
- Eager to give kids a healthier way to get to school, Sam Balto formed a “bike bus” which has ballooned in popularity and now there are nine of them across Portland. Now he and others want more funding to grow and solidify the movement.
- In 2008, with inspiration from Bogotá, Colombia, we launched the open streets event Sunday Parkways. The event has been a massive success, but has failed to grow to its full potential because the City of Portland has been unwilling to adequately fund and grow it. 15 years after it began, this program that has widespread political and public enthusiasm, yet for some reason it is now smaller than it used to be.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can empower Portlanders to take to the streets — and they will do it — but only when the streets are safer, more accessible, and more fun. And while it certainly would help, we don’t need expensive infrastructure projects or even permission from City Hall to create these safer, more accessible, and more fun streets.
One of Drury’s main programs is simply meeting in the street and letting young men tell stories about their neighborhoods. Another nonprofit in town, Talk a Mile, pairs young Black leaders with local police trainees so they can walk together and learn each other’s perspectives. Portland’s amazing cycling community has also done a tremendous amount in leading on this front. Saturday’s Ladds 500 was just one recent display of how events can bring people from all walks of life together to share joy together in our public streets and spaces.
Streets aren’t just for driving, they aren’t just for biking, they aren’t just for transportation. They are places to connect, where community organizing can happen, where neighbors can meet, and where locals intersect with folks just passing through. These interactions are more important now than ever. They form bonds. And these bonds act as our community’s defense against all the bad things many of us are anxious about.
Our “new narrative that inspires hope and creativity” can begin in our streets. Streets have always galvanized us. They can be a direct reflection of our values. We just need to stop acting like bystanders and take control of what happens on them. When we defend our streets, we defend our city.
So let’s not despair, let’s get out there!
Can’t wait to talk more about this and whatever else is on your mind at our weekly Bike Happy Hour this Wednesday, 3-6 pm on SE Ankeny and 28th.