On June 16-18 the long-awaited SEGD Portland Conference will welcome the global design community to meet in person after a two-year delay due to the pandemic.
This year a key theme is mentorship and creating access for BIPOC and young designers. As an example, one session in the agenda will feature three Portland area non-profits—Architectural Foundation of Oregon, Comma, and Diversity in Design—engaged in mentorship and community programs seeking to empower BIPOC communities and allies while connecting them within design fields. Together these groups will lead a workshop focused on the impact of informal and formal mentorship programs from high school to working professional.
Mentorship is also central in planning the conference. As conference co-chairs, Kathy Fry, Traci Sym and I collaborated with students in the Portland State University Graphic Design Department’s Design Club to develop conference branding. It was an exciting real-world opportunity with valuable hands-on experience for the students—and a lot of fun for us! They developed a bold, vibrant visual language for media graphics, signage, stage backdrops, tote bags and badges, and a custom bike donated for the SEGD Auction.
Working with the students has reminded me of the saying, “you get out, what you put in.” As a professional designer with over 25 years in this field, the mentoring experience allowed me to shed my seasoned designer lens and look at the world of design from the perspective of young and upcoming designers. It is rewarding and stimulating. I have shared my career observations with them, and they have opened my eyes with curiosity, personal stories and excitement for the future of design. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to devote time to build a connection with these promising designers.
I hope you will join us at the SEGD conference to see their work, share your experience and build bonds with our design community.
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.
During April, we reflected on the significance of the month in the Pacific Northwest. Nature has shaken off its winter rest and has fully awakened, treating our senses to an explosion of color, scent and birdsong. The month also features a convergence of green celebrations. These acknowledgements honor ideas that are essential to our work but are not limited to a certain month. Together, Earth Day, Arbor Day, World Landscape Architecture Month and Frederick Law Olmsted’s birthday form a tapestry of ideals that we put into practice every day throughout the year.
Mayer/Reed is dedicated to upholding the principles of sustainability and green design as well as advancing our understanding and practices as new strategies emerge. Social sustainability in its many forms, though difficult to measure, also remains a focus of our firm. We recognize that a sustainable design ethic is not static, but constantly evolving. It demands our advocacy, exploration and willingness to consciously lead and adapt.
We are fortunate to work together with forward-thinking clients and partners who are devoted to addressing climate action plans, reducing our carbon footprint, preserving natural resources and wildlife habitat, enhancing water quality and creating healthy, equitable places for people. We thank these clients, partners and consultant teams for their commitments to addressing environmental and social challenges as we foster sustainable design. So much is necessary and, with teamwork, so much is possible.
It used to be that selecting environmentally responsible materials meant using local and recycled content, sustainably harvested wood and low VOC paint. Today, the architecture and design community recognizes that we can do even more through our material choices to impact human health, climate, environment and society. Until recently, though, we didn’t have the information we needed to avoid harmful materials.
This is changing.
Designers and manufacturers are now engaged in a movement to advance content disclosure of architectural building products so designers can understand the environmental and social impact of the materials they specify. With this knowledge, we hope to drive the development of healthier material and product options through increased demand.
Support Human Health by preferring products that support and foster life and seek to eliminate the use of hazardous substances.
Support Climate Health by preferring products that reduce carbon emissions and ultimately sequester more carbon than emitted.
Support Ecosystem Health by preferring products that support and regenerate healthy air, water, and biological cycles through thoughtful supply chain management and restorative company practices.
Support Social Health and Equity by preferring products from manufacturers who secure human rights in their operations and supply chains.
Support a Circular Economy by reusing buildings and materials; and by designing for material efficiency, long life and perpetual cycling.
We’re in an exciting time for design, with opportunities to create places that push past the old benchmarks for sustainability. But a system change will only find success when individual designers, owners and manufacturers change their patterns. Will you join the movement?