Turning up the “Volume” on planning in Portland

Art Scatter regular Tim DuRoche, a man of wide-ranging interests, has allowed us to post this account of Portland’s “Summer of Planning”, which is rapidly becoming a “Fall of Planning”. We’re especially happy to have his report of Portland planning chief Arun Jain’s talk on the last day of the “Volume” art exhibition, organized by Portlandart proprietor Jeff Jahn, in some ways the clearest expression of the uneasy relationship between art and urban planning. Tim writes about planning, urban design topics for Portland Spaces’ Burnside Blog.

By Tim DuRoche

With all the hubbub about cities and planning in arts circles—Sojourn Theatre’s Built, the Lawrence Halprin Fountain-centric City Dance, visual arts group shows Volume and the Thomas Sieverts-inspired Suddenly for starters, you kind of have to wonder—is urban planning the new black?

Or in the context of the lo-fi, local artscape, is an embrace of placemaking and the language of planning yet another double-coded, wink-wink social-practice gambit from the legions of folks making art that’s rife with sewing circle/swap meet simplicity?

The marquee-prominence of planning in cocktail-conversation Portland thrives because of civic engagement, while on the viz art end, Portland’s social-practice artists bank on a street-level participation that’s one part community charrette, part tea party, part cracker-barrel confession, and many parts Tom Sawyer whitewashing.

So what happens when an architect-planner meets a young-and-restless art posse head on?

For the closing night of the visual art exhibition Volume at WorkSound a week or two back, curator Jeff Jahn created a bold, curious pairing, inviting Arun Jain, Chief Urban Designer for the City of Portland to give a talk on Portland planning. Gallery-goers interested in how Portland’s artists (Sean Healy, Joe Thurston, Ellen George, Laura Fritz, Josh Smith, Adam Sorensen, and Karl Burkheimer, among others) are “reshaping and redefining the city, pushing it to be more truly progressive and engaged in terms of its expectations for itself” were treated to a rare opportunity to see these same issues through the eyes of designers, urban historians, planners and policy makers. A very appealing proposition.

Jain’s “What Kind of City Would You Want Anyway?” was a breezy overview of how Portland’s Urban Design Group looks at urban form, quality, and identity, history and possibility—basically creating a framework and vocabulary for you or I to engage in semi-substantive conversations on urban design concerns in the Central City and how Portland can and should develop in the future.

Jain is a very erudite fellow, a quiet philosopher-king, of sorts. He was able to shoot from the hip and frame The Portland Plan (an inclusive, citywide effort to guide the physical, economic, socio-cultural and environmental say-what of Portland over the next 30 years) for artists and civilians—beginning with a historic timeline and showing the evolution of Great Plans of Portland from Olmsted to the 1988 Central City plan (including the widely vilified, but curious 1966 Comprehensive Plan). It was a great trajectory exploring who we are/what we believe/how we became who we are and what role urban form played in inspiring that evolution. Jain hit on some well-considered historic precedents (Barcelona, Edinburgh , Glasgow , Old Kyoto, Philly, and Savannah ) and contemporary urban analogues(downtown plans of cities like Minneapolis, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Charlotte, among others).

Overall Jain exhibited a cool ease in limning the connections between civic and design quality issues, social equity and balance, history and socially relevant metaphors that would have seemed tailor-made for a group of artists (challenges like fear of change, nostalgia’s burden, resilient frameworks, integrated thinking, and the driving force of Big Ideas). Jain in fact addressed with clarity and precision the qualitative differences between the urban planner and the artist’s reading of the built environment—grappling with the “urban, urbane, cosmopolitan and geographically promiscuous” themes that Volume sought to address, but only speciously tackled.

Somehow it failed to stick. What surfaced instead was kind of a second-cousin of NIMBYism—an irrational, knee-jerk fear and distrust of The Man.

In fact one woman took great umbrage because, in her perception, the talk didn’t address artists, the criminal paucity of public spaces for engagement (and police retaliation when people do gather), or most strange, Portland’s inaccessible sprawl. Another young man (after hearing about extensive public process, citizen-input and the history of civic involvement in planning) wanted to know “who was making these decisions and why weren’t our voices being heard.” Huh?

Maybe it’s a disconnect on what passes for immersion in indie/DIY culture vs. an immersion in civic life of the city. If indeed we are attracting the Young and Restless, as Joe Cortright’s suggested, how is this influx of creative-inclined energy contributing to civic culture—i.e. do they have library cards, are they registered to vote, do they volunteer, and do they feel invested enough to go to public meetings and engage? It can’t be just the bike culture, coffee and free-flowing PBR that’s drawing people here. How are they embedding themselves?

When the Portland Plan Summit was kicked off in June at the Convention Center, you could easily count the number of arts people on most of your left hand. I learned of it not through official arts and culture channels, but through the community-based list-serv of Coalition for a Livable Future. Not only did you get to have your say on issues surrounding the 20-minute neighborhood, public health, socio-cultural amenities and human service infrastructure–you got a free lunch. You’d think every young, restless creative classmate from Alberta would be there for at least the grub.

What to do, what to do. We can’t force civic engagement, certainly. We want to avoid, what Robert Putnam referred to as “civic broccoli” . But in a city that values involvement, collaboration and local decision-making, it’s a bit of a quandary.

Do we look at a more ecological, neighborhood-based, creative-economy frame that values independent artists, and informal, less “official,” undocumented community-enhancing amenities like WorkSound? Do we pay more attention to art as a community-building force as well as an asset and spur to economic capital?

We might find a way to balance dual policy goals of planning and social inclusion if we initiated (as City Auditor Gary Blackmer suggested in passing a while back) Portland Civics 101— a project that stressed social connectivity and engagement as a cultural right alongside the resistant, restless energy of youth and creativity. That might turn up the Volume for real.

Image credit: OpenwidePDX