Progressive Urban Planning is an Attraction in Itself
By Karen Rubin
To the list of attractions that lure people to a destination-museums and attractions, scenic wonders, cultural traditions–I would add that seeing how a city reinvents itself to solve modern day urban problems in a progressive fashion, while preserving its history and heritage, is an attraction in itself.
Portland, Oregon has a marvelous art museum, zoo, science museum, historical society and amazing gardens-indeed, all the wonderful amenities of a major city–but Portland actually makes being “green” a reason to visit.
The city is known for its green spaces and urban wilderness -like the 5,000 acre Forest Park and the smallest dedicated park, Mils Ends Park (just 24-inches in size)-and its proximity to pristine natural wonders like the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood. But it is also is known as an incubator for progressive urban planning, environmentally conscious public policy, and the sustainable development movement.
I wanted to see how a place makes itself “America’s No. 1 Cycling city” (so says Bicycling Magazine, 2006). I wanted to see the place that was named the most walkable city in the country (says Prevention Magazine, 2006). I wanted to see a place with street cars and a light rail (free in the downtown) that makes commuting actually fun as well as efficient. I wanted to see a place where residents actually use the “flexcar”-a kind of timeshare approach to driving-and where the riverfront has been reclaimed for parkland and public uses.
I wanted to see a city that has blended preservation and progress in such a harmonious fashion, where what is old becomes new again using “sustainable building practices.” One of these going on now is a $36.1 million renovation of Portland’s Armory Building, which will become the world’s first historic renovation to earn a LEED Platinum rating. The renovation will turn the structure into the new home of Portland’s Center Stage by the end of the year. And where stunning historic hotels like The Governor and The Heathman that are so much a part of this city’s heritage, have been updated and renewed.
Portland, Oregon, has done this in masterful fashion-becoming not only the most walkable city, but also the most bikeable city in America. And cities that are walkable and bikeable are charming, easy to get around. People (locals and visitors alike) are easy-going, outgoing, helpful and happy, joyful-I would maintain, because there is less stress, less frazzle from congestion and more oxygen, less pollution.
Consider that 41 percent of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming come from the fossil-fuel-based transportation, the many initiatives that Portland has implemented to reduce or eliminate hydrocarbons is, to me, a major attraction. Through a grant with the Climate Trust, Portland is retiming traffic signals at 81 intersections to reduce fuel consumption by 470,000 gallons of gas per year, and decrease carbon dioxide emissions by more than 4,000 tons per year. Its “smart” parking meters are solar powered, accept credit cards, and stand one per block; a sticker is issued for each vehicle and is transferable to other spaces.
Portland is the birthplace of car-sharing in the U.S. Portland’s Flexcar members enjoy access to a fleet of vehicles located throughout the metro area; each Flexcar replaces an estimated six cars on the road.
The Light Rail and Street Car system that has been expanded over the years, has brought with it beautiful cobbled streets, brick pavers and visual and textural changes that are pleasing; the rail and bus shelters are beautifully done. There are plants everywhere and trees gently shade. And there is the absence of clogging traffic.
The Street Car offers a six-mile long route that winds its way from the waterfront to Portland State University, downtown Portland’s cultural district, the Pearl District and Northwest Portland/Nob Hill, and will be expanded further. At stops, you can pick up a brochure that directs you to dining along the route, or shopping.
The next innovation underway aimed at getting commuters to forgo using their cars but is certain to be a visitor attraction is the Portland Aerial Tram, due to open this fall. Built at a cost of $40 million, the 3,400-foot tram will ferry passengers from downtown Portland’s South Waterfront District to the top of Marquam Hill, where the Oregon Health & Science University campus is located. The tram will provide gorgeous views of the Willamette River, Mount Hood and downtown Portland.
The city is so bicycle-friendly, it is almost as if cyclists get priority on the roads (motorists are accommodating). In fact, 5,000 people commute to work by bicycle. There are 246 miles of developed bikeways, including 289 miles of bicycle boulevards and 156 miles of bike lanes.
We also found a city that was surprisingly cosmopolitan, hip, stylish, diverse, and sophisticated. It is vibrant and vital, yet laid-back.
People are friendly and helpful and I chalk it all up to these transportation systems that have eliminated the traffic, congestion and frustration, and contributed to the beautification of the downtown.
Portlanders tend to smile a lot (an advantage of biking is that you see people face-to-face) though I will concede that the sunny summer weather in a city that is cloudy eight months of the year, would have something to do with the giddy mood.
No wonder, Portland is rated the best summer vacation destination (and the plane ticket cost about as much as going to Florida). In fact, it is like an urban, real-life Disneyland, with amazing attractions and rides, phenomenal natural wonders, all in close proximity, all planned in such a way with people in mind. You can go from the snow and ice of Mount Hood, which provides a spectacular backdrop, to the beaches on the Pacific shore in the same day (the water temperature varies only by 10 degrees during the year). It is a mystical, magical place.
From 1910, when the city was first laid out, it was decided to make the blocks just 200 feet long-about half a city block-and to set boundaries to prevent urban sprawl. Visionary for its time.
Built on a European model, Portland is indeed a walker’s paradise. The streetscape features outdoor cafes and markets, fountains, statues, parks shoehorned between buildings.
The smaller scale (a trick that Disney used in creating Disneyland) makes it more manageable-eminently walkable-and less intimidating or oppressive. It also makes possible more corner stores and apartments. More corners mean larger interior rooms, more natural light into buildings and on the streets. There are some high-rises, but most of the buildings are at a relatively low scale, and there is not the feeling of high-density that is oppressive and all the related traffic and congestion that comes with massive buildings.
Smaller scale and more corner locations are actually also good for business, as it turns out. Being a sheer delight to walk is a boon to local merchants. Portland is among the highest in sales to local retailers (as opposed to chain stores). “People stay in neighborhood and buy local,” says Jeff Hadley, whose wife, Karen Stiles, owns Waterfront Bike Rentals.
Befitting the laid-back atmosphere, this is the place to come for coffee, microbrews, jazz and books. And bicycles.
On our first morning in Portland, we meet Jeff Hadley and his wife Karen Stiles at her shop, Waterfront Bike Rentals, now in its fifth summer on RiverPlace, a gorgeous waterfront mixed-use complex of shops, restaurants, two hotels and the RiverPlace marina.
Karen Stiles, owner of Waterfront Bike Rentals, with her husband, Jeff Hadley. are both so knowledgeable and gung-ho about biking and Portland; eventually, Waterfront will make it possible to select the ride you want to take, and you will be able to take away a printout of directions.
Waterfront Bicycles, now in its fifth summer, stocks top-quality Trek bikes (hybrids, road bikes, mountain bikes)-the same or better than the ones we have at home. They have bikes for kids (just a couple, so reserve in advance), as well as trailers; some Bermuda (two-seater) bikes, and an adult tricycle (a lot of clients are disabled). They also are stocking Kickbikes, popular in Europe (a great workout). (Waterfront Bicycle & Skate, 0315 SW Montgomery St Ste 360,http://maps.citysearch.com/location/37237436?>503-227-1719).
We immediately headed out of the bike shop to do the riverfront ride.
The waterfront which is so dazzling and such a source of joy and activity was reclaimed from industrial uses. Now it is lined with pleasant cafes, wine bistros (like Thirst Wine Bar), parks, bike and kayak rentals, and a walkable, bikeable esplanade on both sides of the Willamette River; just about all of Portland’s magnificent bridges accommodate bikes with a dedicated lane.
At RiverPlace Marina, about 800 Portlanders are members of Dragonboat and outrigger clubs, who come to practice and race on the river; if there is space, you may be invited to join the 20-person dragonboat team or the six-person outrigger group during the Sunday morning open practice, 9-11:30 a.m.), plus several major attractions.
The path opens to Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Once the site of a Portland freeway, this riverfront park is now a popular place for jogging, in-line skating and cooling off in Salmon Street Springs, a fountain whose water patterns change with the city’s mood. The park is named for former Oregon Governor Tom McCall, a staunch advocate of recycling, environmental preservation and urban planning. This mile-long stretch of green along the Willamette River is also where many annual events are staged, including the Portland Rose Festival (Portland is called the City of Roses), the Oregon Brewers Festival and the Waterfront Blues Festival.
The route is exceptionally well marked (you get the idea that bikers rule, here), with destination, estimated time and distance to go.
About a mile down, you can stop to visit the Oregon Maritime Museum, located on The Steam Sternwheeler Portland floating exhibit. The museum features ship models, navigational instruments, marine artifacts, and the shipyard room. (Open: Summer, Wed-Sun, Winter, Fri.-Sun.www.oregonmaritimemuseum.org
It is fun to go under the many bridges that span the river (bikes and walkers are accommodated on every one), but ride down to the Steel Bridge. That one has a dedicated walking/biking path, and if you are lucky, an Amtrak or freight train will come rumbling right alongside, or you may be stopped so that the bridge can be raised to allow a tall-masted boat to glide through.
On the Eastside Riverwalk, you go 1,200-foot series of floating metal bridges and then onto the Riverwalk, just below the busy Interstate Highway. From here, you get stunning views of Portland’s beautiful skyline, with the bridges adding to the industrial art motif.
About a mile down from the Steel Bridge on this side, you come to OMSI-the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry. If you don’t have about three or four hours to spend visiting this fantastic, hands-on, interactive science museum, which offers a planetarium and Omnimax theater, as well as a chance to tour a real Cold War era submarine, be sure to come back (the museum is open until 7 p.m. in summer).
This is also where the Willamette Jetboat Excursions ride is based-imagine a jetski, times 20. Promising the “ultimate river adventure,” Willamette Jetboats travel upriver past beautiful waterfront homes, a wildlife sanctuary and magnificent Willamette Falls. The return trip includes a close-up look at Portland’s skyline and a shipbuilding/repair facility. At some point, though, they do some fast turns that are certain to get everyone splashed. Scenic tours (morning, afternoon and early evening departures) run either one or two hours; private charters, including meals, are also available. (Operates May through mid-October).
Continuing on the path, you will soon come to the Portland Opera Company. To me, this is the threshold of a sophisticated city: one that supports an Opera Company.
To continue biking on a dedicated rail-trail, the Springwater Corridor, for another four-mile segment along the River, you ride on a bike lane for about two blocks (well marked), and turn right, to the entrance.
There are wonderful views along the river-to Ross Island, which is a heron rookery, and past a wildlife refuge (and a place where kayakers love to paddle). You can walk some trails in the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge if you have time.
Almost to the end of this segment of the path is the Oak Amusement Park-with carousel, ferris wheel and all sorts of rides, plus a park on the water.
The Springwater Corridor is actually part of a 40-mile loop (imagine, a dedicated biking path 40 miles long), but parts are under construction, so you have to ride through the streets to get to the connection. It wasn’t entirely worth it.
You can return the same way, or walk the bike carefully over the Sellwood Bridge (this is narrow and there is no dedicated bike lane, but motorists are amazingly biker-friendly). On the other side is another bike trail, that connects back to the Riverwalk, though there is a plan to extend the biking path at the waterfront.
In all, this ride is an 11-mile circuit (though you can do smaller segments, since you can come back over any of the bridges).
You can bike throughout the city, but you can also take any number of ambitious rides, but be prepared for elevations.
I took the bike up to Washington Park, following Jeff’s directions to angle in from Burnside (a main street) to 24th avenue entrance, and rode up the serpentine road, higher and higher, to a high point at the famous Rose Garden, from which I could see the city aglow in the setting sun.
You can bike 11 miles to Forest Park, one of the largest urban parks anywhere, on streets with bike lanes, then reach the park where there is an unpaved bike path.
There is a five-mile dedicated path at Mt. Tabor, as well.
You can take your bike on the Light Rail to the end of the line at Gresham, then ride on bike lanes through the streets and ultimately come to the Old Columbia River Highway, for an extraordinary ride past an series of waterfalls along the Columbia River Gorge-a 22-mile ride each way.
Since this is biking country, believe it or not, bicycles are permitted on the shoulders of most state and federal highways, even interstate freeways, with some exceptions on the busiest sections. (Indeed, this is how our son David and the Habitat Bicycle Challenge made their final leg of their 4,000-mile cross-country bike odyssey, winding up at the Salmon Springs Fountain.)
Bikes are accommodated on TriMet buses (they have racks in the front), on the MAX light-rail trains. The city has superb programs for bicycles, including funding for a campaign that distributed night lights for free to cyclists (a $100 fine if you are caught biking at night without lights) through the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, 503-226-0676, one of the community activist groups. Visit BikePortland.org.
“You can spend a week to 10 days on different rides all from downtown,” says Jeff Hadley.
Portlanders are so into biking, the annual “Bridge Pedal Ride”, which goes over all 10 of Portland’s bridges, last year drew 20,000 people-the second largest such bike event after NYC’s Five Boro ride (which last year had 36,000 riders).
You can join a group ride: contact Metro Regional Parks and Greenspace Department, 503-797-1850; Portland Wheelman Touring club, 503-257-7982; Portland United Mountain Pedalers (www.pumpclub.org ); Portland Transportation Options (503-823-5266) and River City Bicycles (503-233-5973).
Maps and guidebooks are available from the Oregon Department of Transportation, 503-986-3555, Portland Bicycle Program (free map and brochures), 503-823-CYCL). Maps of the Springwater Corridor Trail and the 40-Mile Loop are available from Portland Parks (503-823-2223).
For further information, the Portland Oregon Visitor Association has an excellent website with information about attractions, accommodations, travel packages, 87-PORTLAND (toll-free, 1.877.678.5263), www.pova.com.
© 2006 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com .