ZGF and the Architecture Foundation of Oregon (AFO) hosted a moderated discussion with Paddy Tillett, FAIA, Principal at ZGF, on his book Shaping Portland: Anatomy of a Healthy City. As an established architect, urban designer, and city planner for more than 40 years, Paddy has played a key role in transforming Portland into one of the most livable cities in the nation. His thought-provoking narrative explores the placemaking strategies and values that contribute to Portland’s success and calls attention to looming concerns for future cities.
We sat down with Paddy to dive into the motivation behind his book and what he hopes his readers take away from it:
Q: How has your career at ZGF evolved as perceptions of urban design have shifted?
The greatest change has been in public attitudes and responses. There is now a widespread awareness of urban design and its importance to the quality of the built environment and our lifestyles. Thirty-five years ago, urban design was the focus of a few architects and fellow design professionals. Today, our urban design team includes architects, landscape architects, and city planners, among other disciplines, all talking the same language and reaching ever more widely into collateral professions, including fine arts, ecology, and the many branches of engineering. I am fortunate to have been carried forward on this wave. The place of urban design in popular appreciation of urban life has moved from insignificance to a position of widespread interest.
Q: What was the motivation behind writing Shaping Portland: Anatomy of a Healthy City?
To be honest, the motivation behind writing Shaping Portland was vanity. I was so flattered that a New York publisher would call and ask me to write a book on the strength of a chapter I had contributed to an academic volume in the UK that I immediately said ‘yes!’. It was a wonderful stimulus to complete a lot of half-formed ideas about what is so special about Portland. The notion of the city as an organism whose health could improve, or decline seemed apt; thus, the subtitle Anatomy of a Healthy City.
Marvelous though Portland is in many ways, there are many flaws, and much that we choose not to see, so the book has a polemic side to it too. Notable is our disregard of known landslide sites and seismic dangers when we undertake development. The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, known as DOGAMI, has mapped all with great accuracy, yet who knows that information relative to their own home or workplace or their children’s school? No-one wants to be the bearer of calamitous news, so collectively we choose to ignore it. It falls to planners to bear the moral responsibility to at least inform development permit applicants of this information and where to find it.
Q: What is the primary message you hope others take away after reading your book?
The primary message from my book is to use all your senses and every branch of your intellect in analyzing what a place is, and in what it has the potential to become. Resist, and if possible, change mindless rules and regulations that limit the potential of what a place can be. Model development codes that were adopted by jurisdictions across the country have done untold damage, enforcing segregated single use developments and necessitating massive investment in highways to reconnect the separated activities. Building height and density limits have been imposed for no better reason than that other jurisdictions have done so, with the consequence of stunting the economy and creating artificial shortages of housing where it is most needed. This is not an intelligent use of resources. Wake up and see what good urban design can achieve by looking around you; take notice of what falls short and why. Development regulations are not immutable; they should be refined as our understanding of their consequences improves. Too many regulations are intended to prevent bad design. Instead, like Oregon’s state planning law, they should be aspirational; pointing to a higher pinnacle of urban and architectural design.