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Evaluating the socio-cultural performance of Portland’s Pearl District green infrastructure.

Posted By Deni Ruggeri , Monday, November 28, 2016

Evaluating the socio-cultural performance of Portland’s Pearl District green infrastructure. Scenes from a post-occupancy evaluation.

October was a very busy time, as I spent a month in the United States. First, I visited UC Berkeley to work with Peter Bosselmann and his students in advancing a methodology for assessing the livability perceptions in urban neighborhoods. The project involves students and faculty from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) and UC Berkeley in a comparative study of the livability of Oslo and San Francisco’s districts.

The second half of my time in the US was spent in Portland, Oregon for a post-occupancy evaluation of three of the city’s new and most notable public open spaces: Jamison Square, Tanner Springs, and The Fields. The study involved daily observation sessions aimed at assessing the type of social interactions and physical activities people engaged in while visiting the parks. Observations involved an assessment of the fit between physical design features in these parks and the needs and behavior of visitors. Jack Ahern’s socio-cultural performance indicators of green infrastructure were tested through a mixed method approach inspired by Clare Cooper Marcus and Carolyn Francis research.

Morning, midday and afternoon observation sessions lasted approximately 30 minutes. They involved the collection of data related to the presence of park visitors, their activities, gender, and level of physical engagement (walking, running, dog walking, exercising/power walking, strolling with children, sitting, etc.). A standardized template featuring a plan of the park was used to locate and quantify/qualify observed user behavior (fig 1).


fig 1. Field notes for one of the observation sessions in Tanner Springs.

While the data analysis part of the research has yet to start, a few findings can be already gathered concerning the socio-cultural performance of the Pearl District’s parks. Landscape architect Peter Walker’s Jamison Square is an urbane space, a neighborhood square supporting the need for socialization and civic life. The central feature is both a wall (fig. 2), separating the functional and civic parts of the space and a fountain, which is popular with children and families on hot summer days. There is much evidence that the park does indeed serve a civic function. Groups of people have been observed engaging in building social capital, including games of bocce, small groups of residents and homeless who find this place more welcoming and public.


fig 2. The Fountain/wall at Jamison Square.

A much different social life characterizes Tanner Springs, an iconic landscape by the German landscape architecture firm Atelier Dreiseitl (fig 3). Observations showed a park that is very active with visitors and small family gatherings. The park performs as a stage, a backdrop chosen for its picturesque landscape of native plants and historic railroad remnants. On weekdays, the park fails to engage users, particularly on overcast and rainy days. Signage against skaters and dog walkers significantly limits the park’s potential as a sacred community space.


fig 3. Tanner Springs Park.

Designed by the Office of Cheryl Barton, San Francisco, the fields is a successful neighborhood park offering a range of affordances to its users, from picnic tables to a playground, and from a popular dog park to restrooms (unavailable at the time of my observations). The Park featured a circular pathway framing a large lawn, which is very popular on weekends during the summer. At the time of our observations, the grassy areas were largely inaccessible due to maintenance. People were observed crossing the lawn, despite large patches of standing water due to poor drainage. Dog walkers represent the vast majority of users of this park. Many of them combine their dog walking with physical exercise, as witnessed by the many speed-walking dog walkers making circles about the park (fig.4). More runners were spotted exercising here than in any of the other parks in the district. Children and family populate the playground on sunny days, favored by the positive sunlight over the fenced off play areas. The quality of the interactions across user groups seems to be the downside of a park design with functionalism in mind.
Programming could help create opportunities for social capital construction.


fig 4. The Fields’ central lawn and exercise/walking loop.

Overall, I left Portland with the impression that the Pearl Districts’ parks are an accurate and positive representation of the Portland model of urban development. Density offers a constant flow of users to the open space. Public transit access makes them easy to reach and explore for both residents and visitors. Their diversity helps them achieve a unique identity, offering choices regarding experiences and engagement. Still, the public health potential of these parks is an untapped resource for greater engagement. Tanner Springs and Jamison Square would require a major redesign to introduce opportunities for physical health.

How would the introduction of a Thai-chi platform in Tanner Springs and outdoor exercise room in Jamison Square alter the intent and concepts behind them? EDRA’s mission is to create environments that support healthy lives, as well as communities. As designers, we must strive to think about what we do in light of pressing environmental, social and public health issues. The Pearl’s parks are environmentally sustainable, imageable, and well crafted, but they seem to be less successful in providing the bridging social capital, identity-building and health-promoting affordances required of truly performing green infrastructure.

Tags:  2016-17 Chair of the EDRA Board of Directors  ed  Guest blog post 

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