Around the world, communities gather this season for holiday celebrations of light. During the dark, short days of winter, light is a shared symbol of anticipation, hope and joy expressed through glowing candles, twinkling lights, fireworks and gathering around a fire.
We marvel at the world as seen through the eyes of a child, one that is rich with imagination, explorations of nature and attraction to color. As the landscape architects on a collaborative design team for the Elks Children’s Eye Clinic in Portland, Mayer/Reed considered environments for children whose sight may be limited. We asked, how could tactile qualities and perceptions of color help enrich their experience? How could we help to put children and families at ease as they approach the eye clinic for treatment? Within a small garden, could we offer a sense of calm and artistic expression through color, tactile surfaces and natural elements?
We posed these questions to medical specialists and administrators as we studied site design opportunities for the new clinic located directly across from the renowned Casey Eye Institute on the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) campus. This world-class facility for the treatment of eye diseases is noted for its medical excellence as well as making kids feel safe and relaxed. Recently completed in spring of 2021, the Elks Children’s Eye Clinic welcomes both children and adult patients. We hope that the building’s entry and courtyard offer unique and delightful encounters for everyone.
During the design process, we learned that people with sight as well as those with sight impairments have great variations in their interpretations of color. We became intrigued with NBBJ Architects’ proposal to use colorful dichroic glass on the skyway connecting the clinic and institute. With this inspiration, we explored how to bring this rainbow of color down to a place in the landscape where kids could engage with it.
Leading to the building entry, we incorporated thick sheets of smooth, poly-chrome slumped art glass (fabricated by Portland’s Bullseye Glass Company) into a crisp, board-formed concrete retaining wall. The two materials reveal a sharp visual and textural contrast. The vibrant colors rendered in glass punctuate the wall, remaining durable and effective, no matter the time of day, season or weather.
A verdant, narrow courtyard between the new clinic and existing parking garage provides an intimate place to relax or enjoy a snack. This subdued, shady environment is favorable for clinic patients, especially if their eyes have been dilated during exams or treatment.
The final phase of the clinic’s terraced sensory garden will be completed after construction of the adjacent OHSU hospital expansion. Until then, the colorful art glass wall and richly vegetated courtyard provide unexpected visual and tactile treats for everyone entering the Elks Children’s Eye Clinic.
The opening of the newly renovated Leodis V. McDaniel High School on SE 82nd Avenue will be officially celebrated on Saturday, September 18. Originally built in 1958 and named for President James Madison, the school has been recently re-named for a highly respected, celebrated former school principal and community leader of Portland. Leodis McDaniel, who was Black, “…was well-known for his kind demeanor, contagious laugh, absolute integrity, and his instinctual ability to deeply connect with all people. McDaniel was wildly popular with students and staff while earning numerous awards and accolades from the many community organizations to which he contributed,” according to Portland Public Schools.
McDaniel High School is one of the most diverse in the state, drawing about 60% of its students from Hispanic, Black, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American and mixed-race communities. Over 30 languages are spoken in the hallways here. It celebrates the many foods and cooking traditions of the students and their families with a unique Sustainable Agriculture curriculum that includes a large, hands-on teaching garden and greenhouse.
The 20-acre school site is perched aloft a 60 ft. high hillside with impressive views of Mt. Hood. Straddling the Alameda Ridge, the site is part of a geologic feature that runs for several miles through northeast Portland. Mayer/Reed’s curvilinear landscape design capitalizes on this unique history, referencing the fluid patterns of the ancient Missoula Floods that shaped this exact location 13-15 million years ago. Boulders weighing between 12 and 22 tons popped up everywhere in building excavations. These geologic tributes were muscled and craned into place at building entries, courtyards and landscape as a noteworthy signature for the school. A reminder of what is underfoot, they provide fun, informal “perches” for students to populate.
The new landscape includes over 200 new trees of 35 different species that will become a teaching arboretum for science classes. Thousands of new shrubs on the grounds are drought resistant; a significant number are native species that support local urban wildlife and express the school’s Indigenous Club interests. In addition to six vegetated stormwater planters, a downspout outfall and runnel through the east interior courtyard showcase a dramatic splash of rainwater generated from the building roof.
Other site features include a childcare center play area, new synthetic turf athletic fields and a pedestrian plaza for a new gym, concessions and grandstand. Throughout the school you’ll find a Mayer/Reed designed sign system as well as large graphics that infuse interior spaces with identity. The architecture firms for this 296,000 sf high school renovation are Opsis Architecture and DAO Architecture, and the general contractor is Fortis Construction.
All over Portland this summer, you can see people out in the streets. Over the course of the past year, the city’s occasional parklet, or “street seat,” has multiplied by an impressive order of magnitude, providing more public outdoor space necessitated by the pandemic. Within downtown and neighborhoods, portions of streets have been closed to traffic and painted with colorful patterns. On a recent walk I saw nearly continuous dining pavilions along “restaurant row” on SE 28th Street in place of typical curbside parking. On SE Hawthorne, I was inspired by an exercise class held outside the front door of a gym. As a landscape architect and urban designer, I’ve witnessed this shift in street use with particular interest. The pandemic seems to have accelerated public acceptance for creative use of the right-of-way that’s friendly to small businesses.
This boom of places to eat, drink, shop and even exercise outdoors is thanks to an ambitious Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) program called Safe Streets Initiative established in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Now becoming permanent in some locations, the program allows changes to city streets that provide people and private businesses more space and visibility within the public right-of-way beyond just the typical claim of a narrow strip of sidewalk. Absent this initiative, approximately 60% of a typical neighborhood street in Portland is dedicated to the movement and storage of automobiles. But to support social distancing requirements and restrictions on indoor dining, PBOT has enabled more space for outdoor activities. Now businesses serve their customers in the street using custom themed furnishings, structures, signage, banners, heaters and landscape elements. One I saw even featured small fire pits.
These changes are particularly transformative in Portland’s Central Eastside. Historically a light industrial district, this neighborhood has grown to include many more active commercial establishments and offices. Despite becoming a more vibrant place to eat, drink and shop, there was zero open space and hardly any public seating in the district. Now, along SE 6th Ave alone, the street is hopping with people enjoying Kinboshi ramen or Hat Yai fried chicken, a glass of wine at Coopers Hall or a beer at Loyal Legion. These small bars and restaurants contribute a new neighborhood identity through a vibrant display of life on the street.
More permanent reimagined city streets are in the works. Landscape architects and urban designers are leading the charge in addressing these changing roles of public space. As an example, Mayer/Reed is working with the City of Portland to envision ways to implement the “Green Loop” along SE 6th Ave through the Central Eastside. The Green Loop is an urban design initiative adopted in 2018 to repurpose certain segments of rights-of-way for a linear park that connects and celebrates neighborhoods in the central city. In the section through Portland’s Central Eastside, our proposed design introduces much-needed broad canopy street trees and open space, as well as more generous places for people to walk, run, scoot and bike. The current streetscape activation that we are seeing now along 6th Ave just hints at the vision being designed for the forthcoming Green Loop that will encircle the downtown.
In the summer of 2020, we worked with Friends of the Green Loop, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, and PBOT on a concept for uniting the existing Safe Street installations along the corridor with street paintings to infuse Green Loop identity while also collaborating with the adjacent artists and businesses.
In addition to this work, I had the opportunity last fall to co-teach a landscape architecture studio for the University of Oregon focused on urban design in the post-COVID city. As a project, one group of students imagined the future of SE 6th Ave as a place that celebrates the district’s industrial roots, promotes a vibrant neighborhood, and expresses the creativity of the district’s businesses. They proposed new green spaces, flexible uses in the right-of-way and parking lots, an innovative bike delivery system, solar energy generation and spaces for art and artists. Stakeholders from the Friends of the Green Loop and the Central Eastside Industrial District collaborated with the students and are carrying some of these ideas forward.
As our cities continue to densify, there will be increased demand to support streets as places for people to linger and gather, rather than exclusively as places for people to move. A key to success will be finding the right balance and integration of placemaking and transportation. I can imagine a future where it will be possible to walk along SE 6th Ave and enjoy a mix of open spaces activated by adjacent businesses with spaces that are truly public, where you can experience the shade of a mature tree, comfort of a bench and conversation with a friend.