Highways for Habitats #3: Harbor Drive, Portland

Harbor Drive McCall ParkTransportation planning is tough.  Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes.  Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit).  Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates.  We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities.  Check out more about our inspiration here.

We view Portland, Oregon today as a healthy urban core, with a vibrant downtown, plentiful public spaces and parks, and on the right road to seamless alternative transportation and pedestrian friendly infrastructure.   But things could be very different.  The transformation of a freeway into a public park can be attributed to citizens fighting for what they wanted in their communities, and has had a profound effect on the city since.

The 1942 completion of Harbor Drive along the Willamette River resulted in total disconnect between downtown and surrounding neighborhoods with the river.  The freeway frenzy of the ‘60s added additional alternate high-speed routes, rendering Harbor Drive less useful for moving traffic through the city.  The ‘60s also had Portland suffering economic problems – downtown housing stock had declined by more than 50% (those additional freeways partially to blame), and mega-shopping centers outside of town (only minutes away via freeway) left city retail businesses suffering.  On top of it all, the Environmental Protection Agency was fining the city daily for its air pollution levels.

The State Highway Department’s 1968 proposal to widen Harbor Drive was the last straw.  Residents saw something different in their future – something greener and full of people – and they found a way to get it.  In 1968 the Riverfront for People coalition was formed and gave a voice to residents.  Then Governor Tom McCall heard them, and convened a task force to address the issues, but traffic engineers said removal was impossible.  McCall pushed back, and appointed a citizen advisory committee to work directly in the process.   The committee hired its own consulting firm, who also said it can’t be done.  McCall pushed again, and with the backing of one inspired planning consultant Richard Ivey, “pledged his support for the beautification of the west bank of the Willamette River.”

1978 marks the completion of the first removal of a major highway – the footprint of Harbor Drive was redeveloped into the 37-acre Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Since, the park has extended south, doubling in size, and the city is working to make the nearest road more pedestrian friendly.  The park serves as an anchor for new development, demonstrating the desire for walkable cores with bountiful public spaces, as retail, restaurants, housing and hotels sprung up nearby.   The waterfront park serves as a destination, hosting festivals and concerts year round, and providing people a place to socialize, recreate and relax.

The decision to replace Harbor Drive was the catalyst that helped Portland move from auto-centric development to pedestrian and transit-centric development.  The park transformed the city, spurred property values, and made the city more conducive to people-oriented growth, resulting in healthier neighborhoods and a higher quality of life for residents.


Photo from Joel Mann on flickr.com