6 Lessons from Portland

Insights for a thriving public realm

Preparing to push off for our first day exploring Portland on bikes from Cycle Portland. Image credit: Bronlynn Thurman.

In August, the Civic Commons Learning Network hosted a multi-day learning journey to the Pacific Northwest. We started with two and a half days in Portland, Oregon where they pride themselves on doing things differently. We found advocates working side-by-side with local government and non-profits, fostering innovation in the public realm across a wide range of asset types including community centers, parks, streets, public markets and urban waterways.

After exploring sites in the urban core and many Portland neighborhoods, here are six lessons from the study trip for anyone working on public space:

1. When local governments are comfortable sharing control, residents and non-profits are free to innovate in the public realm

In Portland, local governments allow pilot projects in public space, giving non-profits and advocates the opportunity to pilot new ways of creating and operating these places. One example is the newly-created Audrey McCall Beach along the Willamette River, built and run not by the parks department, but by the non-profit Human Access Project and its founder, Willie Levenson. This summer, Levenson and a handful of advocates singlehandedly transformed a rock- and cement-strewn beach under a bridge on-ramp into a valuable new community asset, and by doing so, they hope to show the City of Portland the value of a new place to swim. The Human Access Project got permission in 2014 from eight different local agencies to remove rock and cement, with the stipulation that no mechanized equipment could be used. Over the next four summers, volunteers removed 19 tons of concrete with the help of an inmate work crew and a small all-terrain vehicle.

Audrey McCall Beach. Image credit: Stephanie Phillips.

Recently the city gave Levenson’s group permission for permits necessary to open the beach and to fundraise for lifeguards through working directly with Portland Parks and Recreation. Human Access Project is working with the city to take over management in the long-term.

Meanwhile, along Portland’s southwest waterfront is Naito Boulevard, a parkway built for cars that now encompasses “Better Naito,” a protected pedestrian walkway and bike path that carries thousands of people every day. Better Naito began as the brainchild of the non-profit Better Block PDX and civil engineering students from Portland State University. In summer 2015, Better Block PDX petitioned the city’s transportation department to implement the pilot Better Naito project for a few months. The team collected data on people walking and biking during the summer, and examined impacts to car traffic. The results were dramatic: a 56 percent increase in bicycle use along the street and, even during rush hour, car drivers experienced just a 45 second increase in travel time. After piloting Better Naito through several summer seasons, the city’s transportation department finally took over the protected walkway and bikeway in 2017, making it permanent just this year.

Better Naito created better bike and pedestrian access to Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Image credit: Bronlynn Thurman.

And in the Southeast Portland neighborhood of Mt. Scott-Arleta, neighbors have transformed a neglected traffic island into an inviting community space. In 2005, several area residents noticed that the high-traffic intersection at SE 72nd and Woodstock were unsafe and unwelcoming families needing to cross the street to and from the Mt. Scott Community Center, an outstanding community asset in one of the lowest-income areas of the city. In the absence of a crosswalk (which the city’s transportation bureau was not ready to provide), neighbors organized and have spent the past 14 years creating an urban sanctuary known as the “Arleta Triangle,” a formerly vacant island space created by three wide, sweeping roads. Thanks to neighborhood organizing, the Triangle now features public seating, native plants, and an information kiosk, providing a haven for people trying to cross the street and slowing traffic. The space continues to evolve each year as volunteers continue to maintain and alter this unique mini park. The Portland Bureau of Transportation, responsible for the traffic island, has contributed to the effort largely by agreeing to stay out of the way and making it easy for volunteers to move forward with their plans. In 2006, the Portland Bureau of Transportation issued a revocable encroachment permit to the neighborhood association so they can continue their work.

2. The civic commons and civic entrepreneurship go hand-in-hand

Locals often say “Portland is a city of neighborhoods.” And when you walk around Portland, one of the first things you notice is the sheer number of small businesses, and not just in the downtown. In virtually every neighborhood, a thriving commercial corridor means you stumble across food cart pods, small neighborhood retail and sidewalk cafés.

Small, local businesses flourish throughout the city. Image credit: Helen Hope, Susan Dalton, Bronlynn Thurman.

This didn’t happen by accident. Oregon has no sales tax, which gives local governments no incentive to zone for large retail, so the city has fewer big box stores and malls. A strong culture of small business (Oregon was largely a resource-based economy for decades and has few large businesses) mean that while the typical American city has about 900 storefront businesses within 3 miles of the city center, Portland has more than 1,600. Portland also has less retail space per capita than most American cities. Of the country’s 51 largest metropolitan regions, Portland ranks 4th in small businesses per capita, 4th in self-employment, 5th smallest in average firm size and 7th in patents per capita.

There’s a culture of support for small business at the local government level. Prosper Portland, the city’s economic development agency, offers a range of technical and financial assistance for small businesses, with a focus on supporting women and entrepreneurs of color. These programs include microenterprise consulting and affordable commercial spaces, as well as events and an online platform that highlight entrepreneurs of color.

Portland’s food cart pods are thriving communities of small businesses. Nong’s Khao Man Gai got its start as a food cart and now has two brick and mortar restaurants. Image credit: cariberry.

On city streets, the Portland Bureau of Transportation has a “Street Seats” program that allows restaurants and other organizations to convert some street parking into café seating or parklets. And in Multnomah County (the most populous county in Portland) guidance and application materials for food vendors are packaged to make it easy for “food cart pods” to spring up. To accommodate entrepreneurs whose first language is something other than English, Multnomah County offers food cart application materials in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese and Arabic.

If you’re considering how to jump-start public life in your city, consider the connection between the civic commons and small, local businesses in bringing the public realm alive in neighborhoods.

3. Stigma can be overcome through direct experience

“If you want humans to hang out at the river, you must create a human habitat at the river.” — Willie Levenson, The Human Access Project

Changing the reputation of a public place requires changes in physical space and changes in beliefs built over time. Nothing in Portland demonstrates these principles better than the changed reputation of the Willamette River. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the river was polluted due to the long history of companies discharging industrial wastes directly into it. Even after decades-long, extensive clean-up efforts left the river safe for swimming, generations of Portlanders avoided getting too close — until Willie Levenson decided to change the river’s reputation for good. In 2010, Willie and his non-profit The Human Access Project started the Big Float, an event that provides an opportunity to float down the river with other Portlanders while listening to live music.

Willie Levenson shares the story of the Willamette River and Keith Jones explains what a “splash mob” entails. Image credit: Bridget Marquis.

Willie views his work, not as public space work, but as culture change work. And it appears to be working. What started as a few hundred people has grown into a major event featuring multiple bands and tens of thousands of people. A “River Hugger” swim team plans major swims (that sometimes even feature the city’s mayor) and a new public beach was founded this year to provide new access to the Willamette. Longtime locals who grew up in Portland and never would have dipped a toe in the river, now have their kids convincing them that the Willamette is a great swimming hole.

4. Public markets can celebrate culture and entrepreneurship

Intentionally including and promoting small neighborhood businesses in innovative ways, can ease neighborhood fears of change, celebrate local culture and draw in new people.

After five years of planning, Portland Mercado, the city’s first and only Latino public market, was launched in 2015. The popular market and food cart pod includes a commercial kitchen and business incubator and is operated by Hacienda, a community development corporation that builds affordable housing and creates economic opportunities Latinx communities.

Portland Mercado offers a springboard to business ownership, while fostering neighborhood public life. Image credit: Bronlynn Thurman.

At the Mercado, Hacienda offers business advising services including a bilingual business bootcamp, technical assistance, and one-on-one coaching with financial support from Prosper Portland. Prosper Portland (Portland’s economic development agency) helped throughout the planning process with grant funding, concept development and the business plan, making a total investment of more than $1 million along with extending a long-term lease of the property to Hacienda for $1 per year. By creating a springboard to business ownership, the team at Portland Mercado is working to create opportunity, bring people together and bridge cultures.

5. Investments in public space & transportation can spur private development

In Portland, the Pearl District neighborhood shows the widespread benefits of investing in public infrastructure to drive private investment. In the Pearl District — a neighborhood planned and created almost in whole cloth in the late 1990s and early 2000s in a former manufacturing district — local and federal investments in the Portland Streetcar and a series of quality parks have driven private investment in mixed use developments, including more than 2,500 affordable housing units.

Dan Bower shares the history and financing of the Portland Streetcar, while we explore the unique personalities of each public space in the Pearl District’s parks sequence. Image credit: Bronlynn Thurman, Stephanie Phillips, Bridget Marquis, Helen Hope.

Rather than creating one main park in the master plan for Pearl District, a series of parks, called a parks sequence was developed with each park having its own personality and purpose within the neighborhood’s daily life. Jamison Square, the Pearl District’s “beach,” uses an oscillating water feature and fountains to draw in families and tourists; Tanner Springs is a quiet, contemplative space that connects visitors to the natural environment by re-creating the streams and wetlands that used to be a large part of the area; and the Fields neighborhood park provides a playspace alongside a wide open lawn for gatherings, events, outdoor recreation and movies in the park.

By taking a portfolio approach to public space, the Pearl District has a set of assets that play unique roles in bringing the community together, connecting people to nature and offering respite in the core of the city.

The Portland Streetcar is public transit that provides a low-barrier way to move around the city and connects the neighborhood to greater central Portland on both the east and west sides of the river. It is the country’s most used streetcar system with 15,000 daily riders as well as having shaped the form of the Pearl District in terms of housing and jobs. In fact, for every new housing unit over the last 15 years, the Portland Streetcar has gained a new rider — and is now the most ridden streetcar system in the United States. In addition to the link between housing and ridership, new storefront businesses, including retail, cluster along the Streetcar lines, and business owners benefit from the ridership getting on and off at the neighborhood parks.

Jamison Square, one of the three public spaces that is part of the Pearl District’s parks sequence. Image credit: Leslie Carlson.

Surprising many, the Pearl District draws diverse residents, including families. In fact, the Pearl District is the neighborhood with the most affordable housing units across the city — over one-third of all the city’s affordable housing units are within ¼ mile of the streetcar. Thousands of families needing affordable housing now reside in this dense, amenity-rich urban neighborhood. In an area of the city that once completely lacked public life, the Pearl District is now one of the most vibrant and most mixed-income inner city neighborhoods in Portland.

6. Capturing value should be a strategy from the beginning

While investments in civic infrastructure are often made with an understanding or hope that private investment will follow, most are done without instituting value capture mechanisms from the start. However, once value has been created it’s hard to capture it and put that value to work for the neighbors and surrounding neighborhood.

In Portland, prior to the major public investments in the Pearl District, the public sector instituted a very effective value capture mechanism — Tax Increment Financing.

Portland established a TIF as a value capture mechanism for the Pearl District to fund civic infrastructure like a streetcar, public spaces and affordable housing in that same district. Image credit: Helen Hope, Stephanie Phillips.

Value capture mechanisms allow a portion of the economic value from public investments to be put to work for beneficial social purposes. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is particularly useful in areas that are suffering from distress or disinvestment but where the potential for growth and development is strong. Unlike special assessment districts, TIF programs do not increase tax rates, but rather capture the additional tax revenue generated when properties increase in value. After a TIF district is established, property tax revenues from the district are split between the existing tax districts (e.g. public schools, parks) and a fund for special projects inside the TIF district is created, with a focus on investments that could attract new economic activity.

Because of its proximity to Portland’s downtown, the Pearl District was ripe for new housing, retail and office space. When development in the neighborhood began two decades ago, the TIF system was established with funds to be used to support public space and affordable housing within the district. And because of the rapid increase in value over the course of those two decades, the TIF funds captured have resulted in significant beneficial investments in the neighborhood including $22 million in parks and open space, $24 million in public transit and $150 million in housing to subsidizing 2,400 units of affordable housing.

Throughout our time in Portland, we were reminded that people power the civic commons. And that action-oriented civic engagement paired with smart public investments can result in a thriving, ever-evolving public realm.


Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration between The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.

Reimagining the Civic Commons

Transforming public spaces to foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability and economic development in our cities. A collaboration of The JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.

Reimagining the Civic Commons

Written by

Reimagining the Civic Commons

Transforming public spaces to foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability and economic development in our cities. A collaboration of The JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.

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