BY BRIAN LIBBY
If students from Portland State University's School of Architecture are successful in a fundraising campaign that concludes in a few days, downtown Portland may be getting something it could really use: seating for food-cart pods.
A student-designed mini-park (or park let, as it's commonly known), occupying a succession of curbside parking spots, has been approved by the city of Portland for installation in front of the Southwest 4th Avenue food carts. The park was designed with sustainability and community building in mind, using locally sourced building materials and native plants. It's also designed to be wheelchair accessible.
But to complete the project, it needs funding. PSU's School of Architecture, its Institute for Sustainable Solutions and the SoMa EcoDistrict Steering Committee have launched a crowdfunding campaign to gather donations—small and large— to finance building materials for the parklet. Luckily as of today, the project has raised $14,211 of its $15,350. Just a few more donations are needed. But the campaign only goes for four more days.
“Parklets—these small green spaces that extend out from the sidewalk—are being embraced by cities across the country as tools for community building,” says BD Wortham-Galvin, assistant professor at PSU’s School of Architecture. “We’re thrilled to have been approved by Portland’s Street Seats Program to build downtown’s first truly public parklet, and we can’t wait to construct this shared space in front of our popular food carts.”
If fundraising is successful, Wortham-Galvin will teach an architecture class this spring that will focus on finalizing the design, constructing the parklet, and then installing it in front of the food carts over the course of one weekend. The park will provide much-needed seating for the popular lunch spot and add an attractive gathering space to the south end of downtown Portland.
What's more, even though this Fourth Avenue food cart area is perhaps not as popular or prominent as cart pods such as that on SW 10th Avenue at Alder downtown, the parklet here could create precedent for similar street seating areas at these and other food cart destinations. While food-cart pods outside of downtown often have seating areas in the middle, such as at the SE 12th and Hawthorne pod or the one at North Mississippi and Skidmore, downtown food-cart areas spend much of the year selling food to people who need shelter to eat it in. If patronizing the 10th & Alder pods, for example, if it's raining and one doesn't have a home or office downtown the best one can hope for is to traipse a few blocks to Director Park to eat under its awning.
"Daily lots of people go and purchase food and then leave," Wortham-Galvin says of food carts and their patrons. "They go back to offices, hallways and other interior spaces. If we provide a place for people to sit (alone or in groups), they can stay outside and revel in being in public. We are social creatures and even if we are eating alone, it's more enjoyable to do so when we can people watch. The parklet takes this into account and offers a variety of seating: a high bar stool type, group bench, and individual bench. It also makes the neighborhood a more interesting place when we give people a reason to interact with each rather than run back inside with their meal."
The food-cart parklet idea is also part of a broader movement, one that transcends food carts: creating usable public space from curbside parking spots. Obviously we need to maintain street parking, but giving up a few spots here and there amidst the thousands of spots available is an easy decision.
In addition, the parklet design and campaign is merely the latest example of how PSU's young architecture school (accredited only in recent years) is making a name for itself not only with a focus on sustainability, but in making its students and faculty active in the community, and designing for real-world problems and opportunities.
"A 21st century university needs to bridge the gap between learning and applied knowledge," Wortham-Galvin says. "It also needs to be more issue based rather than siloed by discipline. With the design and building of this parklet, students are trying to answer a fundamental but critical question: How do we make and sustain great public places? Instead of writing a paper on it, they get to put their knowledge in service to others as well as themselves. When learning is a shared and public process, all of us have a stake in everyone's education."