Lines of Yellow, Green, Red, and Blue

A few weeks ago, I was with a number of Texas Architects colleagues in the center of an active pedestrian mall on the campus of Portland State University, when two puzzling issues became apparent: 1) It was 75 degrees in late July, and 2) we were standing in mass on a commuter rail line.

Craig Reynolds, FAIA
2012 Texas Architects President

There were no flashing yellow lights, no audible warnings of impending doom, not a single smushed student at this point of cross circulation; simply two parallel rails laid in the brick pavers entering off a bordering street and exiting between the buildings of the modern urban campus.

The steel tracks weave through the mall, past a cascading water feature, landscaped court, expansive steps, and students hustling off to classes. And occasionally, the electric train glides by, taking passengers to, from, and through the university and city destinations.

Portland’s mass transit began operating in 1986 as part of the adopted Region 2040 Growth Concept, which is Oregon’s legislated planning statute that focuses on increased density along major transportation and light rail corridors to avoid sprawl into nearby farmlands and to limit roadway strain from growth and urban revival.  Of the 35 light rail lines operating in the U.S., Portland’s MAX (now in its 25th year) is ranked fourth in boardings per mile, surpassing 125,000 passengers per day traversing the 600-square-mile region. Over $10 billion of development is directly attributable to the rail lines, revitalizing tired downtown districts and riverfront development following the removal of a downtown highway; accelerating an economically and aesthetically vibrant, livable downtown. 

What have we learned?  The urban sprawl and carbon footprint of our Texas cities continues increasing at an unprecedented rate.  The infrastructure to support the growth is unsustainable.  Alternative forms of transportation are no longer optional.  In 1996 the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) opened its red and blue lines with Portland as a model; followed by Houston MetroRail in 2004 (2011 - second greatest ridership light rail line per mile); and Austin’s CapMetro (heavy rail) in 2010.  Each beginning ever so subtly to address this issue, each being debated, and each questioned as to its cost and value.

Starting ten years behind Portland’s MAX, DART now ranks seventh in ridership per day, and by 2013 will have completed 90 miles. It is the longest U.S. light rail system to date, and it continues to expand. Sixty-two stations occur at existing civic destinations, dense suburban and urban commercial centers, hospitals, universities, and park and ride locations. Bordering the stations are new, diverse developments, taking advantage of the accessible transportation opportunity. Ridership comes with age, familiarity, and close by residential density. Livability comes with a necessary mix of shopping and cultural needs within walking distance of the stations. Architecture is impacting the positive success of sustainable communities.

In downtown Portland, parking is discouraged for new developments and may only be added below grade.  It is a contrarian approach to that of most municipalities, yet the entire downtown area has experienced a resurgence since the rail line openings, and consequently the approach is reducing the automobile population.  Although discarded as too expensive for the time, Olmstead’s Green Space Master Plan, presented to the City Council in 1904, has gradually been implemented over the succeeding century creating usable parkland within the existing fabric. The Pearl, formerly a railroad warehouse district, home to AIA Portland, is bustling with the necessary commerce to support new living accommodations for a growing inner-city neighborhood that is survivable without a personal automobile.  A streetcar line, intersecting the light rail at multiple locations, now extends into new developments on the downtown fringe, and a loop extension connects the transitional industrial district fronting the Willamette River across from downtown. The rail infrastructure has become the catalyst, allowing access to jobs and education for the area’s current and future residents, and it has become the groundwork for architecture to establish the context of inspirational spaces and a preferred community.

Long, expensive, time-consuming commutes are becoming less desirable and affordable and less practical as a society.  The next generation of planning and building developments, going beyond carbon neutrality, will need to address the importance of proximity and the health of its inhabitants through design. We, as architects, are at the forefront of the impact.

At the 2012 Texas Architects 73rd Convention, we will visit another city transitioning.  We will learn and appreciate the imperative need for architects to influence a change in the thought process for planning and design objectives.  We will engage our colleagues in Continuing Education sessions and learn from their experience.  We will spend time connecting and reminiscing with our friends. 

See you in Austin!



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