Many great public spaces have grown out of communities resisting development. It is the evolution from opposition to proactive visioning – helping to create, finance, and manage public spaces – that often makes the opposition successful. Congress Square, and the community around it, are forging this story of transformation.
The City of Portland Planning Department conducted a public visioning process to assess the needs and aspirations of the community for Congress Square. Through neighborland.com, Twitter, and with signs strategically placed throughout the city they asked people to respond to the prompt, “I want… in Congress Square”. Their efforts garnered over 650 responses. With those responses in hand, the Friends of Congress Square Park began to implement some of the more immediately obtainable requests, the “Lighter Quicker, Cheaper
” (LQC) interventions.
“We saw the potential of Congress Square Park, but knew we had to work quickly if we were going to save it,” says Bree LaCasse, Friends of Congress Square Park board member, “Inspired by the work of Project for Public Spaces, we set to work raising money, establishing partnerships, and adding amenities. Our first summer of community-led placemaking has been a tremendous success.”
With some movable furniture and free WiFi, more people started stopping by. Food trucks brought meals (coffee and doughnuts by Urban Sugar, and nationally acclaimed street food by Small Axe) and meals brought more people. Soon more and more people started coming and staying, populating the square throughout the day with people from the neighborhood who finally had a place to sit outside, read the paper, enjoy a cup of coffee, eat their lunch, or get some work done. It was a square that had been waiting for people and people who had been waiting for a welcoming public space.
Congress Square Park is turning into the community asset it always had the potential to be and the community is jumping on the new found opportunity to come together in a great public space. It serves a densely populated neighborhood of retail establishments, commercial properties, educational and arts institutions, and residential housing. It has the highest population density, the oldest age demographic, and the most people without cars of any area in the City of Portland. In fact, there are approximately 10,000 residents within a five-minute walk of Congress Square Park. Congress Square Park is their “backyard” and can provide these residents with important opportunities for recreation, relaxation and interaction. With SPACE Gallery, the Portland Museum of Art, Children’s Museum, two theaters (one large, one small), a number of galleries and music venues, the Cumberland County Civic Center, and the Main College of Art within a three block radius of the square, the possibilities for partnerships in the future seems endless.
The story of Congress Square Park is still unfinished. With the hard work of the Friends of Congress Square Park, the square is starting to come alive, gain momentum, and to live up to its possibilities as a public space. But with a start like this, the future of Congress Square Park could be a true city square.
“The transformation is now well underway: Congress Square Park is becoming a lively community gathering place. It’s inspiring to be a part of this community effort.” states Bree LaCasse, “We are now working to establish a public private partnership with the City to create an ongoing management structure. We are confident that together we can create a world-class public space – a central attraction at the heart of Portland’s Arts District – that will be an anchor for economic and community growth in the neighborhood.”