There’s a place where the ubiquitous American road intersection (crossroads, to us Brits) has been reclaimed as the artistic focus of community efforts to reclaim the highways for residents. That place is Portland (Oregon), and since 1996 its residents have been getting together to paint the intersections near their homes.
Modern towns and cities are significantly lacking in places where you might meet your neighbours on an informal basis, exchange news and gossip, and find out what’s going on in the neighbourhood. It’s the function that used to be fulfilled by locations like the village water pump or common land, or the weekly market. Today we might occasionally meet our neighbours in the supermarket, but that high-stress environment is hardly the best place for a catch up, or at the school gates, which is fine but excludes anyone who hasn’t got school-age children or children at all.
In 1996 a group of neighbours in Portland began meeting for tea parties in a temporary structure in one of their front gardens. It was an attempt to recreate that informal meeting point for the local community, and it worked very well, until the city planners ordered that the non-authorised building should be removed. Considering alternatives, local resident and architect Mark Lakeman hit on the idea of using the local road intersection and making it the focus of his and his neighbours’ sense of place. When you look at Portland’s suburbs, you can see why. There are a lot of intersections, and by their nature they’re right in the middle of blocks of housing.
Lakeman and his neighbours came up with the idea of painting the intersection, and asked the Portland Department (now Bureau) of Transportation for permission.
They were refused, apparently because the roads were considered public space, and therefore weren’t available for members of the public to use. But by all accounts, there were officers within PDOT who were more sympathetic to the idea than the official line, and who quietly suggested that the best way to take forward the project might simply be to get on with it, permission or no, in the grand American tradition of non-violent civil disobedience. So the neighbours organised a block party and were granted official permission for a temporary road closure, but took the opportunity to paint their intersection, which they named “Share-It Square”, a play on SE Sherrett St, where the intersection with SE 9th Avenue is located. They also installed structures on each corner of the intersection, fulfilling traditional community meeting place functions, including a play house, bulletin board and refreshment kiosk. Hey presto, an intersection had become a community focal point. The project had brought people together to undertake the work and created a lasting asset for the neighbourhood.
PDOT was (officially) furious and demanded the painting’s removal. But the neighbours lobbied city council members on their project’s behalf, and most importantly they undertook some survey work. The findings showed that residents were communicating better with each other, traffic speeds had fallen and perceptions of crime levels had improved.
By painting intersections, and making these places look less like a highway on which cars are the priority traffic, drivers expect there to be a greater chance of pedestrians crossing, and slow down accordingly. As a result, these intersections are safer places for pedestrians, making them more likely to cross the road to reach the various facilites installed. It’s a virtuous circle, and without costing the city a dollar, the residents had achieved many established policy goals for the city.
[Above, Beech St Project at NE Beech St & NE 12th Ave, and NE Beech St & NE 13th Ave. More details on this particular project via this link]
There was only one thing for it, which was to co-opt the idea officially. In 1998, Portland City Council passed Ordinance No. 172207, allowing the creation of other Intersection Repair projects around the city on a formal and agreed basis.
Share-It Square, the pioneering Intersection Repair, been repainted several times since with different designs, but here it is in 2014:
Building out from the Share-It Square example, an organisation called City Repair was created, with Lakeman as creative director. It has worked with many other residents’ groups around Portland to undertake Intersection Repair projects, as they have become known.
City Repair has expanded into a number of other community-based workstreams, not least the installation of Portland’s first permitted bike shelter in a residential area (and very wonderful it is too). The Intersection Repairs must be some of the most attractive traffic calming projects in any city, and the fact that they are a ‘bottom-up’ solution led by local people, rather than a ‘top-down’ solution imposed by engineers, is laudable. The Intersection Repairs have spread beyond Portland to other cities including New York, Seattle and Los Angeles.
It’s the kind of thing that could probably only start in a city like Portland, however. The city has a reputation for environmental awareness, for instance a well-developed public transport system that’s not just a transit solution of last resort for those with no alternative. It even has a cable car, or ‘aerial tram’ as it’s known. It also has the only directly elected city planning authority in America; a rare model anywhere else, too.
Because road vehicles continue to drive over the intersection repair paintings, they eventually abrade. They are transient works of art, making them particularly special. But the fact that they are not “fire and forget” projects ensures continuing community involvement and interest in the intersection repairs, as the paintings are refreshed every few years, sometimes to the same design and sometimes to new ones.
[Above, Unity Circle at N Haight & N Emerson. More on this project via this link]
Further Reading and Bibliography
City Repair’s page for intersection painting projects, here
This article from grist.org was especially helpful
Online placemaking resource inthefield.info article on history of Portland’s City Repair, here
The Guardian article on Portland’s painted intersections, here
The Oregonian article on Portland’s painted streets, here
…and anything else linked to in the article above