‘Hard’ Parks in Portland OR – Pioneer Courthouse Square

WCMT Fellowship 2016 research: innovation in participation in public urban green space. Portland, Oregon, US.

Pioneer Courthouse Square is a one acre park in the centre of Downtown Portland, owned by the city and known as Portland’s ‘Living Room’. The city reclaimed a two-storey parking garage to create a new city-centre public space. The park was designed in the early 1980s, with a private non-profit organisation created to manage the parks programming and daily operations.

My interest in this space was two fold – firstly in relation to it being a ‘hard park’, entirely designed and built as a hard surface public park, and secondly in the current artist residency taking place there: Houseguest.

Pioneer Courthouse Square was designed by a team of architects, including Doug Macy, whose firm Walker Macy have designed many public spaces and memorial sites in Portland OR: “We asked ourselves: what do we have that we don’t want to repeat?”

Portland already had some strong architectural public green space design through the Downtown area: Lawrence Halprin’s Open Spaces Sequence (a fantastic unusual and engaging series of linked public spaces bringing water and concrete, people and place together), the Waterfront Park dedicated in 1978, and the Street Tree Ordinance established in the 70s.

The process of Will Martin's colorful painted design of Pioneer Courthouse Square that gave the public a sense of what was to come
The process of Will Martin’s colorful painted design of Pioneer Courthouse Square that gave the public a sense of what was to come

The design was selected in 1980, and then painted directly on the Square as a guerilla art project. When I saw this image on a screen at a talk about parks in Portland given by Doug Macy, I almost wish the park could have been left like this.

Designed to serve a wide range of people and activities, as well as to host events of different scale, and make space for eating and drinking, the designers didn’t know whether the park would work in relation to the public-private management arrangement.

‘Working in partnership with the City of Portland, the non-profit organization has successfully fulfilled the Park’s prominent public role with the help of community volunteers and private sector contributions. In recent years, through this unique public-private management model, the Park has been recognized as one of the most successful public spaces in the United States’.


Earning its nickname of being the city’s ‘living room’, more than 300 programmed events take place in the square each year through a combination of community initiative and private sector sponsors, and range from annual community ‘traditions’ to large scale events, reflecting the civic role of the Pioneer Courthouse Square: a Christmas tree lighting up ceremony, a flower festival, markets, concerts, arts activities. With its inbuilt ‘amphitheatres’ and places where you can both formally and informally watch and be watched by others, it has the ability to host so many different kinds of events. The Wikipedia entry for the park is a good read, including: ‘on January 12, 1991, Pioneer Courthouse Square held one of the largest gatherings in its history, when a crowd estimated at more than 12,000 attended an anti-war rally protesting the country’s involvement in the Gulf War packing the square and overflowing onto the surrounding streets, which police temporarily closed to traffic’.

Architect Richard Lakeman, who as founder of Portland’s Urban Design Division within the Bureau of Planning, was a key design activist that is credited with being the driving force behind Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square. His son, Mark Lakeman went on to co-found the City Repair project and Communitecture and other very influential public space design and placemaking initiatives.

While Pioneer Courthouse Square is certainly a multi-functional space that can be used across season, there’s something stark and unforgiving about this park for me: the hard landscaping, the sheer dominance of the brickwork (the square’s surface is made up of bricks inscribed with the names of citizens whose $15 donations in 1981–1982 helped fund its construction), and the lack of green except for an avenue of trees.

On a chill drizzly October day, the park feels a little desolate, but I know from the images on the web that it is a place where people gather to celebrate, to meet, in the sunshine. When I visit there is a Tesla stand there with a car parked up and people surrounding it. While this balance of private business meeting with public space makes this downtown park able to host all kinds of different events supported by funding through commercial sources like this, I still resist it. Although I also understand that interesting and ambitious arts projects such as Houseguest can probably only take place because of the way that this park is organised and managed.

As public budgets get cut to support parks and public green spaces in the UK, these kinds of funding models are being looked at, inspired by American experimentation and success. I want to see public space function as public space, and be funded and supported by us the public, through our taxes, through grants. Once any product is promoted there, once a space can be hired out, something is lost.  My perspective is an idealistic one that perhaps in the contemporary world is simply not realistic, especially as models of public-private management seem be be growing in popularity. But choices are always being made about where to put public money. Our parks and open spaces budget in the UK is minuscule in comparison to warfare and defense such as Trident, or royal banquets. People frequently expect funding to be found for the restoration of historic sites and heritage buildings, while too easily ignoring the need for everyday contemporary common spaces. For me, priorities need re-drawing and questions need asking about how public space can function and remain as common civic space, with all the benefits that that brings, without the need for commercial use no matter how right-on or unassuming those products might be.

I also recognise the reality of capital investment in cities: how city development is reliant on brokering complex arrangements in relation to creating new public urban green space in and around private residential and commercial construction, and that when that planning, decision making and negotiations are done well, it can be extraordinarily successful for the city, its economy, environment and residents. This is a complex area, and one I haven’t focused on in my research directly, although it is always in the background.

– To what degree does the design of a park or urban space determine what can and can’t happen both consciously and sub-consciously?

– Who feels able to participate? Who is alienated from it?

– How does this multi-function hard surface space enable opportunity and flexibility in participation?

The ‘hard park’ urban landscape surface seems to make more sense to me here in the USA – given Portland is surrounded by wildness, huge swathes of green space, forest and green parks as well as having tree lined streets running through the city, a park designed to be always open and ready to use, in a city with a high drizzly rainfall has so many advantages.

‘Who’s land is this land?’ and ‘What is public space?’ has been a recurrent question through the American and Canadian West. Pioneer Courthouse Square may perhaps feel outdated within the next decade – with its ‘pioneer’ sculptured bronze hat, its dedications and plaques, its one-sided historic reference to white Western culture?  And in particular, the lack of green? – might large hard surfacing in the middle of cities become much more problematic in relation to water run-off? But, this park was designed more than 30 years ago and was pioneering at the time in relation to design of urban public space. So much has happened since then …

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