Friday, July 21, 2017

Stepping into Sustainability in Portland's Pearl, the Neighborhood Redefining the American City

     Sustainability is the definitive ethic of our time.  Its measure of humanity cuts across the shibboleths of identity politics and corporate citizenship by forcing a moral response to an existential demand.  Sustainability, as put forth in the Brutland Commission’s landmark report, Our Common Future (1987), imposes “limits to growth” to ensure development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Given that over 50 percent of the world’s population live in cities (3.9 billion), a figure expected to grow 60 percent by 2050, sustainability is grounded in planning green pedestrian scaled cities where ecological relations match consumer desires. “We need…to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late,” Pope Francis declared in, Our Common Home (2015). “We know how unsustainable is the behavior of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity.”      
     The first full-fledged agenda to build cities premised on sustainability appeared in Lewis Mumford’s The Culture of Cities (1938).  The nonpareil work secured the author a choice consulting commission with the Northwest Regional Council and his report, Regional Planning in the Pacific Northwest (1939), was a blueprint to make Portland a green, sustainable city.  After foundering for a generation, Portland became, critic James Kunstler writes, “the one American city where Lewis Mumford’s dream came true.”
      For a Lewis Mumford scholar and a trained city planner, Portland is a place of pilgrimage.  Blessed by vision and luck, citizens transformed this remote industrial metropolis into a top tier sustainable city.  Most important, at a time when government planning is decried, Portland is a prototype for melding environmental protection and a thriving high tech economy.  In 2013, I served on the Orlando Sustainability Task Force.  At the first meeting, Mayor Buddy Dyer announced, “Our goal is to make Orlando the Portland of the Southeast.”  The Task Force crafted a Greenworks Plan and “livability,” a concept Portland pioneered, was one of its six cornerstones.  Livability is also the antidote to the autocentric development pattern that has burdened metropolitan Orlando with the nation’s highest per capita pedestrian death rate and the nation’s lowest ranking for economic equity. It requires, the Greenworks Plan states, “establishing a compact, dense, development pattern that efficiently uses land while providing opportunities for residents to live near schools, employment centers and public transit links.” After the City Council approved the plan in 2014, Jonathan Ippel, the sustainability director, took his staff to Portland to examine an innovative milieu where walkable urbanism—as opposed to drivable suburbanism—centers public policy.  A year later, I did the same. 
Philip Langdon's new book documents the sustainable lines of the Pearl District 
      A decade before, I had invested in a long held dream to live without a car in Portland. I purchased a pre-construction condo next to Jamison Square, a popular park, and near a streetcar stop in the Pearl District, an acclaimed urban redevelopment project. Sited on a former rail yard, the building was in a mostly vacant area with a raw unkempt look. Nevertheless, I expected to be priced out in the near future. The pedestrian scaled Pearl District prioritized transit and mixed-use development (residential, commercial, office) and, with its intricate open space system, I was convinced the neighborhood would become an exemplar of good urbanism. Marking my time, I rented the condo until I secured a grant to fund a year sabbatical to take up “the less acquisitive” and “machine driven” lifestyle Lewis Mumford advocated, and, other than not having a second child, this was the single most effective individual decision I could make to mitigate climate change.
evening light illuminates the wildflowers in a model urban landscape

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Portland’s Racist Dystopia, Its Academic

University of Oregon environmental historian Steven Beda’s Oregonian editorial, “Northwest Secession and Ecotopia’s Troubled Racist Past,” exemplifies why academic is often a pejorative term. In a city where $20 million is allocated to house people of color who risk being displaced, he contends Portland is a “racist dystopia.” "Many environmental policies that Portlanders are proud of continue to perpetuate racial inequities." Interestingly, right wing zealots say the same in their desire to deregulate the green city and develop the protected lands outside the urban growth boundary.

Beda, however, is not interested in procuring profits, he wants to purify thoughts. "An enlightened view of diversity,” he claims, will rectify Portland’s ills. Filtering history's complexity through the academic lens of "race, class, and gender," Beda's rote ideology parallels Trump's view that environmentalism impedes economic growth and eviscerates communities. Sadly, virtue--the sacrifices citizens make for the public good--is foreign to the simplistic maxims of the academic left and the laissez-faire right. Virtue is also foreign to demagogues, and the presidential election exposed the nation's poverty of values.

Portland's experiment in creating a green, "ecotopian" city is predicated on a “moral political culture,” historian Carl Abbott contends.  Virtue is the essential ingredient in a land use system that stresses the public good over individual interests, and the results are virtuous--i
nvesting in sustainability has a high correlation with social equity.  Portland, like all American cities, has a history of racism.  Yet the nation's "whitest city" is hardly a racist dystopia.  In 2012, whites voted for Barack Obama at close to twice the rate of their cohort across the nation. More important, investments are rectifying historic injustice and the city's new comprehensive city plan envisions an “Ecotopia” that marries equity and resilience in sustainable form.

Stephen Beda is blind to these facts.  His reading of Earnest Callenbach’s cult classic, Ecotopia, is also impaired, having all the verity of the political commissars in Dr. Zhivago who sought “to cure people…of the habit of judging and thinking, and force them to see the non-existent and prove what was contrary to evidence.” Beda's claim that, “People of color did not live in Callenbach's imagined world,” distorts what the author actually wrote: “There are surprisingly few dark-skinned faces.”  This fudging of the truth is magnified by Beda's failure to address Callenbach's solution to the scourge of racism.

In Ecotopia, a nation that renounces consumerism and builds a society predicated on ecological principles, the majority of African-Americans live in Soul City, an independent city-state where consumerism still thrives. Incomes and work hours are higher, luxury goods are more prevalent, and cars (banned in Ecotopia) dot the streets. As a resident states, “We’re still making up for lost time.”

Callenbach forces the reader to confront racism's impact on environmentalism. Sustainability demands living within limits to ensure adaptation and survival. Yet it is one thing to down size, and quite another to exist on the edge of society. Long denied access to the gilded consumerism corporate America insistently sells, Callenbach thinks it is only logical that African-Americans would imbibe in a lifestyle that confers status.

For Callenbach, consumerism is akin to adolescence; it is something one grows out of. In Portland consumerism is questioned and sustainability championed. This act stands academic dogma on its head by begging the question: Is it possible for Americans to embrace sustainability regardless of race, class, or gender? 

For many Americans, Portland is a good-natured joke. The pinioning wit of Portlandia depicts a blithely naive people of good intentions in a nation of gilded towers and exploitative excess. Marshall Berman, the author of The Coming Dark Age, sees little humor in Portland’s special mesh of nature and urbanism. “It just may take racial homogeneity for an American city to work,” he writes, “not a happy conclusion.”

In an increasingly urban world, Portland’s Ecotopian vision is essential. Americans will never consume their way to social justice or sustainability, and the city’s judicious use of land and resources demands study. Portland remains a test case for determining if the “good life” Aristotle attributed to cities can match the goods life that infuses the 21st century. Writing off Portland as a racist dystopia may play in the safe spaces on college campuses, but it dishonors the thousands of citizens dedicated to building a city that is just and sustaining.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Violence Mars Portland's Essential Blueprint

Thursday night, the rush of noise funneling down Lovejoy Avenue sounded like the gusts of a hurricane’s outer bands. The crescendo built as voices harmonized with the storm of feet moving past my residence. The melodic chant stirred me, raising my hopes and emotions after a dismal 48 hours.

Stepping out to my balcony, I was reminded of the scene from Dr. Zhivago where the physician/poet is uplifted by a protest against the Czar—until a troop of Cossacks attack. Violence broke my reverie as well when a brick crashed through a store window across the street. The jangle of shattering glass cut through the protestors’ chant like a knife. I was dumbstruck as windows and glass doors were smashed. A new chant broke out, “Peaceful Protest, Peaceful Protest,” but the damage was done.
Coming down to the street, I heard a neighbor cry out, “Shame, Shame.” Her instinctual response not only described the loss of property, it marked the loss of a heralded message. In a place designed for human movement, the ideal setting to make a glorious statement of a free people, miscreants with bricks and bats fueled Donald Trump’s incendiary charge that our “inner cities are in crisis.”
Four decades ago, Oregonians invested in the novel idea that the judicious use of land could create a sustaining mix of private capital and civic enterprise in their cities. This investment has generated a considerable return and the Pearl District is the jewel, a prototype for the nation’s urban renaissance.

Once an abandoned section of the city, the eminently walkable neighborhood’s crafted mix of shops, parks, and apartments could be could be mistaken for sections of Oslo or Helsinki. Yet it is far from affluent. Thirty percent of residents live in subsidized housing and the median income is less than the city average. If the challenge of affordable housing is to be met, the Pearl District is the blueprint. Moreover, it might hold the key to unifying the urban-rural divide that split Oregon and the nation last Tuesday.

Plans were recently approved for the Framework, a 12-story building set to be the tallest wood structure in the United States. Since it is sited next to a streetcar stop on Glisan Avenue, the developer was not required to provide off street parking. This cost savings made it feasible to provide affordable housing.

The Framework is ultra efficient as well. It will sequester more carbon than conventional buildings and its wood will be sourced from Oregon forests and processed in depressed rural communities that supported Trump. Given that the president elect must replace rhetoric with policy, Portland’s innovation is a “huge” calling card.

On Tuesday, the city moved ahead on the housing front when voters approved a $258 million bond for affordable housing. Citizens should take to the streets and demand that the first estate developer president follow their lead. However, civility, common sense, and the rule of law must reign, otherwise Donald Trump will reign over a benighted republic.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Valuing Nature in the City: Equity and Investment in Portland's Parks

Portland has 209 parks totaling 3,445 acres and another 7,800 acres of natural land. Bike trails and greenways link the system, but the distribution of parks is weighted towards the city’s established neighborhoods. Efforts are underway to shore up underserved areas, especially those with low-income residents that lie more than one-half mile from parks or natural areas.  Metro, Portland’s regional based government, is working on similar lines. Since 2013, its Nature in Neighborhood program has spent $7.5 million involving underserved neighborhoods in park programs and conservation work on acquired natural lands. At the same time, plans for the Central City, where population growth is the most intense, is pursuing a series of options to procure an adequate supply of greenspace in the future.

In the Pearl District, additional parks are needed to serve the long-term needs of a diverse poulation that is expected to increase by 50 percent by 2035. Of special concern is the growing contingent of families with children. There are playgrounds at Fields Park and the North Park Blocks, and the Central City 2035 Plan envisions a new public park and and open space facilities as part of the redevelopment of Centennial Mills. The Portland Development Commission’s current plan, however, devotes public space to housing the Mounted Horse Patrol not parks.

Envisioned greening of Centennial Mills site
The Pearl District Neighborhood Association has contested this decision, but the political will to establish the open space long envisioned for site is lacking. Funds are scarce, and investing in underserved areas is the priority. At the same time, the Central City 2035 Plan contains a series of innovative ideas that just might keep future population from overwhelming existing parks.

With land at a premium, existing parks could be repurposed and outmoded properties recyled for recreation. The redevelopment of the Post Office property is poised to add a new green to the North Park Blocks and embrace the riverfront. Changes are also envisioned for Tom McCall Park, the city’s “outdoor living room.” The linear greenway fronting the Willamette River hosts numerous events from concerts to beer festivals, but in the future it will also be a destination for river-based recreation and accessed by the Green Loop. The opportunity also exists for the new bike-ped route to tie into vacant industrial land repurposed to provide the large-scale recreational uses that are in heavy demand, such as soccer fields.
The extension of North Park Blocks is key to the redevelopment of the Post Office property 
Parks are public space, but it takes advocates and private investment to turn government plans into reality. For a generation, non-profits such as the 40-Mile Loop Trust have underwritten the expansion of Portland’s park system. Established in 1981, the Trust assisted in acquiring lands and conservation and recreation easements along the 40-Mile loop corridor identified by the Olmsted Brothers in 1903. Its investment set the foundation for the larger metropolitan greenspace system, which integrates 150 miles of trails and 15,000 acres of parks and natural areas. The Intertwine Alliance, a non-profit that represents 150 organizations, is the champion of this system. The partner local governments desperately need, its mission is to instill equity, education, and enjoyment into the nature experience. 

If Portland is to become the diverse and sustainable city its plans portend, parks must infuse the Central City and underserved neighborhoods. Private and pubic funding is essential.  At the same time, citizens must take ownership.  Parks offer more than connections to nature, they connect people as well. The Portland Parks Department relies on 500,000 volunteer hours per year to manage it holdings.  Caring for a special place creates bonds that strengthen neighborhoods. Taking time to improve one’s surrounding is a not a duty “specifically compulsory according to law,” John Charles Olmsted noted in the 1903 Portland Parks Plan. It is an expectation in the effort “to make the city more beautiful and more agreeable to live in and work in.”
Volunteers in Forest Park

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Obama Administration Rallies for Urbanism, the Pearl District Delivers

The Obama Administration’s call for reforming land regulations to deliver more affordable housing is welcome news to sustainability advocates and developers. Not surprisingly, the 23-page “tool kit” the Administration issued for building pedestrian scaled, transit-friendly places mimics the Portland 2035 City Plan. The recommendations include:
· Eliminating off-street parking requirements
· Establishing density bonuses
· Employing inclusionary zoning
· Establishing development tax or value capture
· Using property tax abatements
· Increasing density near transit stops

The problem in Portland and across the country is that increasing density sparks conflict, even in neighborhoods such as the Pearl District where zoning codes allow for density bonuses. In 2014 a Nimby coalition, Preserve the Pearl, contested the construction of a 15-story tower that utilized a package of density bonuses. Drawing on the grievances of nearby residents whose views would be compromised, Preserve the Pearl was formed after the Pearl District Planning and Transportation Committee (PDPTC) approved the project.

The PDPTC’s determination rested on the fact the developers met the Pearl District Development Plan’s guidelines for density transfers and bonuses. In addition, nearby buildings were built to a similar height and bulk. “The Pearl District is designed to embrace dense urban development,” Patricia Gardner, the PDPTC chair, noted. Moreover, in a city with an urban growth boundary accommodating urbanism in the Pearl District is an essential tradeoff to suburban sprawl.

Preserve the Pearl challenged the decision before the City Council. The group claimed the proposed height increase was not “harmonious ‘as a whole,’ or ‘on balance’” with the existing code. The City Council ruled against them, and Preserve the Pearl took their grievance to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals. Again the claim was denied, as it was ruled that the project met the Portland City Code. (Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, Case #2015-046) 

The action of Preserve the Pearl set a new tone for the Pearl District. Historically, the PDPTC worked with developers to shape buildings to conform to established guidelines. There were disagreements, but there was also a can-do, pioneering spirit. The developers were from Portland and the citizens overseeing the planning process realized the acknowledged desire on the part of all parties to create a vibrant urban neighborhood. After long and often spirited meetings, compromise and win-win solutions were usually found. Preserve the Pearl, however, upset this state of affairs. 

The Pearl District is a maturing neighborhood, and it is not surprising that self-interest has come into conflict with communal ideals. Affluent people use money to buy privacy, which often puts them at odds with local governing bodies that want to accommodate a range of incomes and lifestyles. Moreover, if their privacy is diminished they are apt to contest government action that they see as imperiling their investment. This dynamic was in full view this August when a team of Pearl District citizens opposed the plans for the Framework, a 12-story building set to be the tallest wood structure in the United States.

The PDPTC had approved the project in February, but this failed to deter the chic, well-coiffed band from asking the committee to recant its vote. Given that the planning process holds to the constitutional directive of due process, the demand was a non sequitur. Yet the group’s entitled air seemed to inoculate them from the law of the land. The Committee Chair was more than gracious and gave them the floor. A half-hour diatribe ensued, which faulted the building’s aesthetics, height, and lack of structured parking. In the give and take with the committee, the parking issue clarified the citizens’ angst. 

The Framework is sited next to a streetcar stop, a manifest item in the Obama Administration tool kit. The project meets a second Administration objective--not providing off street parking--that makes it financially feasible for the developer to allocate 5 floors for affordable housing. With easy access to transit in a neighborhood with a 98 walk score, the Framework is a text book case for supplying affordable housing, which Portland desperately needs. Thus, the rationale of the self-styled landed gentry (the root word of gentrification’s negative resonance) that waltzed into a meeting to squash a project approved months before was apparent. They wanted to prevent people of a lower income from living in their midst.

The PDPTC did not rescind its vote, and the contesting entourage was advised to take their case to the Portland Design Commission. This body also approved the plans for the Framework. Since then, the project has passed a series of tests that have drawn wide attention.
Lever Architecture, the firm that designed the Framework, won a national competition, the U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize, to construct a prototype structure using Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT). This new process enhances structural capacity by congealing timber under layers of fire-resistant board. Although high-rise CLT structures have been built in Australia, Europe, and Canada, The Framework will be the first in the United States. Lever Architecture used its $1.5 million prize money to determine the feasibility of using locally sourced Oregon timber and to see if a CLT structure could withstand fire. The Framework passed a major hurdle when CLT withstood a two-hour fire and did not lose structural integrity. At the same time, the Lever architects secured wood for the project from Oregon managed forests within 50 miles of Portland. 

The Framework marks a new step in sustainability. Besides providing work force housing, it will utilize materials sourced and improved in the region and it will sequester more carbon than conventional buildings. The question, of course, is this enough to mitigate the self-interested desires of its neighbors.
The Framework's Sustainability Model

Too often the nation's on-going urban renaissance is stymied by push back from aggrieved parties. The Obama Administration has stepped into the breech, placing the federal government and urban municipalities on the same page. “The White House jawboning is welcome news to many others, including mayors and builders increasingly foiled by community opposition to development,” Politico reports.

In the Pearl District the beat goes on. New models of living draw investors, resistance, and praise. Given the human condition, it cannot be any other way. Fortunately, our republican system of government is designed for rational thought to trump passionate obstinacy. In this urban neighborhood, at least, it works more often than not.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Urban Schools: Lessons for Sustainability and Civic Engagement

Baby Boomers and Millennials are fueling the renaissance of the American city. While Boomers are downsizing, young people, especially recent college graduates, are delaying buying homes and, perhaps, rejecting the suburban lifestyle altogether. Cities are rife with advantages for children: interaction with a diverse demographic and easy access to parks, schools, neighbors, and cultural institutions. At the same time, the adequacy of schools and affordable housing is a concern. These issues have been front and center in Portland for a decade, and a primary goal of the city's new comprehensive city plan is to make the Central City attractive to families.

Just as in other American cities, population fled downtown Portland after World War II. 25,000 people left the ten neighborhoods comprising the Central City before numbers stabilized in the 1980s. The 1988 Central City Plan set out to create a pedestrian friendly urban environment that supported a diverse mix of residents, workers, and visitors. Investments in transit, parks, and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure fueled development and, by 2010, 12,000 housing units were added, a 300 percent increase. Projections are for another 35,000 housing units to come on line in the Central City by 2035, which will account for 30 percent of Portland’s population growth on just 3 percent of its land. 

For families there is both opportunity and adversity. Housing in the Central City is expensive, but approximately 30 percent of it is classified as affordable, the price equitable for those earning 80 percent or less of the region’s median family income (MFI). The problem is that 85 percent of units are either one bedroom or studios, which is not adequate to support the demand for family housing.

The Pearl District, which has a birth rate comparable to that of the established neighborhoods on the near eastside, is an important test case. Portrayed by critics as an elite high-priced neighborhood, 28 percent of the housing is classified as affordable, and its 2015 median income of $50,636 is less than the city’s average of $51,741. Its vibrant urban life and mix of parks, safe streets, and services is appealing to families. Young children can watch trains pass, ride streetcars, search for books at Powells, and splash in the rising and falling waters at Jamison Square. "It is just wonderful for a child because you are exposed to so many new sights, sounds, and smells," the mother of a four year old notes.

Exposed to a more diverse population than in the suburbs, children prosper from this variety of people and experience. Growing up in concert with adults enhances their vocabulary, conceptual understanding, and social skills, including the ability to read people and gauge their character. Moreover, exposure to the workings of society--the interdependence of business, government, and the arts--heightens a child’s ability to understand career opportunities and negotiate a path to adulthood. These attributes inspired the curriculum of the Emerson School, a charter school that opened in the Pearl District in 2003.
Emerson School on North Park Blocks
The founders of the K-5 Emerson School wanted to make use of the neighborhood’s unique surroundings and they devoted the curriculum to the project approach, which invests students in experiential, hands-on education. Children have a strong disposition to explore and discover. The project approach builds on this natural curiosity by enabling students to step outside the classroom and question, problem-solve, and interact with experts.

An exemplar project was having student teams identify their favorite parks. Emerson is is ideally situated for this exercise. It is located next to the historic North Park Blocks and there are a series of parks within walking distance. Tanner Springs is the favorite. Its mix of native habitats and a restored wetland with a variety of fish and amphibians are magnets for exploration. Students map the site and trace how stormwater moves through the park and pollutants are filtered out before water flows east into the Willamette River. Experts share how Tanner Springs and the slew of bioswales being built throughout the Central City improve the water quality for the endangered Chinook and Steelhead Salmon. This effort is not only integral to the ecological health of the region, it has cultural benefits as well as the endangered salmon are icons of Native American culture.

Such lessons lie at the core of the Emerson School’s mission to inspire “life-long learners who see themselves as being engaged members of their communities whose actions can make a positive difference.” This task is ideally suited to the Pearl District. It is an urban laboratory where students learn the advantages that accure from caring for their immediate surroundings. Moreover, they glean the dynamcis of a place designed to be resilient in the face of rapid expansion, climate change, and declining resources.

The success of the Emerson School inveighed the need to make the Pearl District more family friendly. In the 2008 update to the Pearl District Development Plan, a primary objective was building “larger units to attract families.” The Great Recession blunted the initiative, but progress has ensured.

In 2012 the Ramona opened to families earning up to 60 percent of MFI and offered 138 family apartments (two and three bedroom units). The LEED certified building delivered three essential items families with young children desire: quality schools, play space, and safety. Located on a pedestrian scaled street, the neighborhood benefits from the “eyes on the street” that secures personal safety for both children and adults.

A special feature of the Ramona is an interior courtyard designed as a play space for toddlers. Since the 1920s, housing reformers in the United States have championed such spaces as integral to developing the mental acuity and social maturation of preschool children. In 1929 Radburn, New Jersey, a model community designed by Henry Wright and Clarence Stein, sited a system of interior greens that allowed children under five to enter a world of play by stepping out their front door. The Ramona offers similar access to recreation. Parents find seating on short walls with views of the play equipment, while the interior walkways are wide enough for two children’s tricycles to pass an adult.
Playground at the Ramona
In 2016, Chapman Elementary School, which serves the Pearl District, moved its kindergarten to the Ramona's ground floor. This new twist to mixed-use development is meeting a need, but it has detractors. Residents find that noise of children at play over the course of a day grating. At the same time, a group of 70 parents and residents are upset by the noise of the 100 decibel pile driving operation used in constructing a condominium tower 100 feet away.  Portland's noise officer declared their would be no harm to the children's hearing, as long as they stay inside.

The Pearl District will need a new K-8 school in the near future.  But after half a century of investing in suburban schools, there are few models for locating a school in a dense, pedestrian scaled neighborhood. Brooklyn, New York, which has also seen an influx of Millennials and young families, benefits from having historic schools front residential streets and blend into neighborhoods. Built before the demands of the automobile, the schools devoted land to play space rather than parking lots. This model is not unreasonable in the Pearl District, where new buildings with affordable housing offer no parking but offer safe pedestrian passage and access to a range of transportation modes.
Brooklyn Public School
Locating a school in a neighborhood inevitably draws protests, but the issue may be moot. An  authoritative study of American land use by Issi Romen, the chief economist for Building Zoom, finds  that the only way to balance environmental protection and housing affordability is for suburbs to embrace density and “a broader acceptance of multifamily housing as a legitimate place for raising children.” For this transiton to occur, it is imperative that downtown neighborhoods like the Pearl District embrace the future Romen has delineated.  The way ahead is not easy, as residents must come together and fashion a place that is more dense, diverse, and welcoming.  

Change is often seen as a threat.  Nimbyism and the specter of law suits can deter the best designed project. This is why consensus-building is integral to planning and, just as in politics, virtue and compromise must meld to create a better world.

For more on Romen's study see Emily Badge, “The Ugly Future Cities Face,” Washington Post, September 15, 2016.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

At Home In an Urban Paradise: Part II The Sublime Nature of Social Capital

I live in a 13-story condominium, Park Place.  A pedestrian pathway separates it from an attendant three-story building, and the two structures house approximately 250 people in the heart of the Pearl District. When conceived in 2003, Park Place broke from the squat warehouse pattern where mostly brick structures topped out at six to seven stories. A significant portion of it was clad in concrete and glass, which made the tower appear as "a ballerina among break dancers," a reporter wrote.

Over time, the surrounding expanse of 15 to 20-story buildings has diminished the Park Place's ascendant appearance. When describing where I lived to a talented local scholar, he recognized my residence as "the wedge." If stolid in disposition, Park Place occupies an optimal site with stellar pedestrian connections. At the ground floor on the building's southern end, a restaurant extends to a 50-foot wide walkway that borders Jamison Park. The benches lining this linear space are ideal for meeting friends and genial discussions. When seeking repose, I find a bench that faces away from the park with a view of the lushly planted interior walkway between the tower and the line of low rise townhomes.

This half-block passage exemplifies how public and private space can merge into an aesthetic delight. Lined with birch trees, it is bordered by a profusion of vegetation. Flowering plants adorn the townhome balconies and brighten this idyllic refuge people use to escape the summer cacophony of Jamison Park. I have regular hellos and quick conversations here, while in the winter, when the sun sets by 5 p.m., I conclude my nightly walk at its entrance. I take in the spurge of lights framing the walkway and the white expanse of the Metropolitan, a 20-story tower that terminates the view. Uplifted by this respite, I shoulder the darkness aside for the rest of the evening. 

View to Metro in Winter

I live in a fifth-floor unit because that is the limit of a comfortable ascent carrying groceries, and I can view the western hills and Forest Park. The balcony is my interface with the public realm. It sits above the tree canopy, offers a panoramic vista to the downtown, and a swirl of sensations. Mischevious grins adorn bright modernistic totems, pedestrians voice glee and concern, and streetcars glide by on their regular runs, the gentle revving of their electric motors a reminder of the neighborhood’s efficiency of movement.
The balcony's most viserceal experience is at sunset. The sky is usually awash in hues of purple, blue, and gray, but in the autumn it takes a different turn. Giant streaks of orange and brilliant yellow command the horizon, reminiscent of the tones and shapes that fill Thomas Cole’s painting, The Savage State. Cole believed views of sublime nature—the grand and awesome spectacle humans could never replicate—unlocked our spiritual moorings. In the midst of a city I revel in the sky’s primeval display, a transcendent experience that enlivens a too often insular existence.
Thomas Cole, The Savage State
The balcony is where private life is exposed to public view. I have tried to make a convivial statement in the small 4-foot by 9-foot space. Planters filled with native grasses and indigenous firs stand on each end, leaving enough room for two chairs and a small table. A stone Japanese garden vase with flowers adds a spate of color. The final accruement is a small marble Buddha grounded on a circle of recycled timber. My oasis is scant, but ensuring that this bit of nature thrives enhances my well-being. The mix of plants, stone, and furniture also extends the boundary of my unit, which helps lessen the claustrophobia endemic to high-density developments.

The balcony also informs the configuration of my residence. Indoor plants harmonize with the sturdy outdoor specimens to diffuse distinctions between inside and outside. Vibrant abstract paintings line the walls at the far end of the unit. Their vivacity flows into a series of increasingly formal works that terminate at the entrance to the balcony. The colors, however, are consistent and they combine to accentuate the view to the western hills. In the late afternoon, light floods the room and its reflection casts an array of golden tones. The amber glow marks the wedding of nature and art, a time when tension falls away and poetic thoughts ensue.
Merging of inside and outside space

Modulating constrasts into a common aesthetic brings order and beauty to dailty existence. This endeavor is always a challenge, but the close quarters of urban life demands creativity. In return, abandonded neighborhoods like the Pearl District are crafted into an "urban paradise" with a responsive citizenry.

Caring for the spaces we inhabit not only attunes us to our surroundings, it envokes a sense of place and attachment to others. In the process, we build social capital and gain the confidence to join others in engaging the wider world. Just as in personal relationships, fear of failure dissipates when we advance a cause more important than ourselves.

Cooperation directs the survival instinct, it is why humans not only evolved but flourished. It is no different in our effort to master the city. For humans to reach their potential, only a common effort will make cities both efficient and transcendent. Then we can truly lay claim to paradise.