An urban planning tour of SF, Portland, and Seattle
August 14, 2015 11:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm a young, aspiring urban planner, and over the next month my friend and I will be driving from San Francisco to Portland and then to Seattle. What should I see in these cities that will be interesting from a planner's/social justice/sustainability perspective?

Other than walking all over the place, taking public transportation all over the place, and taking bike tours all over the place, what are some places, events, museums, tours, interesting infrastructure to visit?

I'm interested in how cities work (and don't work), in infrastructure that was meant for one intention but over time has been used with different intentions, and I'm especially interested in social justice, the geography of migration, and urban sustainability.

I'm also open to visiting nearby cities in the Bay Area.

Some examples:
* In Brussels, I really wanted to visit the Sewers Museum.
* In Baltimore, I've taken the toxic tour, where a long-time community organizer drove us to various locations that showed intersections between social justice, sustainability, and health. Ex. The EBDI area, where an entire neighborhood was razed and hundreds of families displaced for Johns Hopkins University's further expansion.
* In Tokyo, there was this one pedestrian bridge in Shibuya that I loved being on, as standing on the bridge, I could see the verticality of Tokyo, specifically in transportation: there was a street below, two highways around my level, the pedestrian bridge I was on, and a subway stop and rail above me.
* When I asked a planner friend about Portland, she recommended visiting an area where minorities and immigrants have moved due to gentrification.
* Another planner friend talked about her "tourist planner" perspective, in that when she was in Europe, she took an inordinate amount of photos of public stairs, as many of them have slopes for bicycles, unlike in the US.
posted by facehugger to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Take a tour with or go to a talk from Shaping SF
posted by animalrainbow at 12:00 AM on August 15, 2015

Well, I guess you pretty much have to do the Portland Shanghai Tunnels Tour. There are modern implications for earthquake preparedness, but the political history of why the tunnels even exist is worth knowing too.

I couldn't find out much about the tunnels before going, but the tour had some good detail. They're still figuring out the tunnels currently, though.

Just, go.
posted by amtho at 12:05 AM on August 15, 2015

Best answer: The Seattle Underground Tour may be of interest, in terms of sustainability and rebuilding.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 12:19 AM on August 15, 2015

Best answer: For Portland, you could go check out South Waterfront. Modeled on our dense Canadian neighbor to the north, Vancouver, B.C., it was also hit hard by the downturn. It's interesting to see what happens when you try to force density on a blank slate and then get walloped by the market.

On the flip side, look at the City Repair folks. They do an annual event where they "de-pave," build communal structures (using lots of earthen and recycled materials), and use paint and other features to create neighborhood community zones. It's called Village Building Convergence or VBC.

There's an urban studies program at Portland State. See what kind of things they talk about on their website.
posted by amanda at 12:43 AM on August 15, 2015

Best answer: In Seattle, Yesler Terrace. It was the first racially integrated housing development in the U.S. and among such projects a relative success. It's being redeveloped into something more modern and mixed-income, but the redevelopment is controversial. I don't know how much you'll really be able to see since construction is about to start if it hasn't already, but for someone interested in urban planning, it's certainly worth looking into.
posted by thetortoise at 12:44 AM on August 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: As a zoning person I'd look at new housing being built. One thing that has shifted in the last decade or so is that low income and affordable housing (which are not the same as you know) are disappearing as gentrification is happening. In the northeast cities are becoming the enclave of the wealthy and the poor/moderate income tenants have been pushed into the fringes. While I like the idea of mixed use development if you visit the areas that typically house the poor, look at the shopping. Is there a grocery store, pharmacy, medical care within walking distance? IMO mixed use development tends toward the boutique and trendy as far as commercial development.

I don't know those cities but I've been to SF. How is the the public trans? How are the schools? If I were looking at those cities I'd pretend I had an average income of someone in that state and try to find housing etc. in that city. My thought is can you live on the average income in that city?
posted by lasamana at 4:20 AM on August 15, 2015

Best answer: Check out Know Your City in Portland for tours and events. They do good work.

September 12th, our newest light rail line opens as does our newest bridge, Tilikum Crossing which is for pedestrians, bikes and transit only. Hopefully you'll get a chance to experience that.

Go to Oaks Park! It's an end-of-the-line trolley stop amusement park with the best roller rink on the west coast. Sadly it is now poorly served by transit! But you can bike there fairly easily.

Near Oaks Park there's a new Sellwood bridge being built. They used a "shoefly detour bridge which meant a major commuter route was shut down for only 1 week.

Portland has a major gloss but we have suburbs full of housing, retail, and manufacturing. Maybe look at the Nike bunker in Beaverton (technically unincorporated Washington County) or Intel's massive plant, massive empty parking lots (off Cornelius Pass Road in Hillsboro) and the many many industrial parks full of Intel subcontractors.
posted by vespabelle at 7:30 AM on August 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: SPUR, a great urban planning organization in San Francisco, has tours and talks.
posted by three_red_balloons at 8:56 AM on August 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Years ago, I took a class on homelessness and public policy through sfsu. The course used to be available online for free, but I have been unable to find it for several years. One exercise was about trying to live like a homeless person for a few hours. Don't take your car. Carry your stuff. Walk or take the bus. Try to figure out where you would sleep for the night. Try to find public restrooms. Etc.

When I took the class, SF had as many homeless people as New York city in spite of being much smaller. Part of the reason is the Mediterranean climate. You are less likely to freeze to death or suffer heat stroke or what not. It is mild year round with less rain than most of the US. But another part is how crazy expensive housing is. At the time, it was possible to work a full time minimum wage job and barely be able to pay rent for an SRO with nothing left over for food, clothing, etc. So if you really want to understand SF, you should learn a bit about homelessness and how the high cost of housing interacts with it.

SF is best understood as the crowning jewel in the Bay Area. It is what it is in part because during the Great Depression, they built the Golden Gate Bridge, linking them to the county due north. The cheap seats of the Bay Area is Solano County. When I was there, 40% of working adults commuted to another county for work. The marks of this can be seen in the ridiculous multilane highway passing through Fairfield and the existence of varioius shuttles and the like to help people get to work elsewhere.

You should look up information on Suisun City. Their dramatic makeover is a model case study for how to do it right. They also have the only Amtrak station in Solano County. You might find all that worth a visit.

SF is gorgeous and inspiring. It also has an interesting history. You should do some study of the 1906 great quake/great fire and the consequences that grew out of it.
posted by Michele in California at 9:59 AM on August 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In Portland check out: the endless rows of new four story apartment buildings on SE Division St; go to St John's to see a cool bridge and a not yet fully gentrified neighborhood; and definitely drive out along Hwy 26 to see Beaverton and Hillsboro.
posted by monotreme at 10:19 AM on August 15, 2015

Best answer: Take BART as far east as it goes (Pittsburg/Bay Point), and observe that people well beyond that commute to San Francisco (and San Jose). Try getting from Pittsburg to the South Bay using public transportation, or even between the three community colleges in the Contra Costa Community College District.

(Not that I'm bitter or anything.)
posted by wintersweet at 11:33 AM on August 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh yeah, and Fremont--the fourth-largest city in the Bay Area, and where we were displaced from--is attempting to artificially create a downtown. You can take BART there (the southern end of the line) and then walk to it. It's under construction currently.
posted by wintersweet at 11:35 AM on August 15, 2015

In SF, I adore the Stairway Walks book and have done a majority of the walks contained within. I also like the tours offered in affiliation with the library:
posted by bookworm4125 at 1:58 PM on August 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

In Seattle, you might stop by the Beacon Food Forest, which is a newish urban food forest project in the Beacon Hill area (another of the more diverse areas in Seattle, also navigating gentrification challenges.) Recent Food Forest article.
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 2:40 PM on August 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The SF Cable Car Museum is super cool, but more importantly contains the motor and all the cables that all of the cable cars are attached to. Watch them! Watch them turn!

Really love Microcosm's store in Portland and they have great indie-published guides to the city that might have some of what you're looking for.

(Also, not to neg, but I went on one of those Portland Shanghai tunnel tours a few weeks ago and was...much underwhelmed. They make you sign a waiver when you go that all of the facts contained in the tours are copyright to one guy, who has never published any of the stuff, and the tour itself was full of a lot of "No one in authority wants to admit this but it's TRUE" talk. We googled around later and the actual historians in the area seem to say, 'Eh, maybe, but there's no real evidence.' Then again, I was also annoyed that I signed up for a history tour and was Shanghaied (ha) into a ghost tour.)
posted by theweasel at 3:24 PM on August 15, 2015

In Seattle, if it doesn't conflict with work, I can show you my micro apartment .
posted by spinifex23 at 4:11 PM on August 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This one's easy: check out Seattle's woonerf on Bell Street.

Ride the LRT to the Rainier Vista station - the city has put a lot of money into affordable housing at this location.

This year's APA conference was in Seattle - if you go to the APA website and scan through the conference mobile tours you'll find a lot of potential locations to visit.
posted by nanhey at 8:54 AM on August 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding bookworm4125's recommendation of the free and excellent City Guides walking tours. A few that may be of particular interest to you:

Port of San Francisco: Turbulent Waters - No other port has been so shaken by seismic events, natural and man-made. Discover the changing face of the downtown shoreline.
South Beach and the South End Historic Warehouse District - Learn about a Chinese fishing village from the 1850s; the Pacific Mail Steamship Company; dockworkers; waterfront restaurants and the artist who paints them. Experience good and not so good examples of adaptive reuse of historic buildings.
Presidio: From Earthquake Refuge to National Park - Learn about the Presidio from its critical role in the 1906 earthquake to its current transition from a military base to a crown jewel in the National Park System.
Making Waves on the Waterfront - explores the northern waterfront, where Gold Rush pioneers, labor organizers, entrepreneurs, genius inventors, and architects helped created our modern city
City Scapes And Public Places - Discover hidden parks, rooftop gardens, while learning colorful history and distinctive architecture of San Francisco's Financial District.

That last one may be especially great for you - many San Francisco buildings are required to have publicly available spaces, and finding those spaces can be a challenge, but they tend to be really awesome once you find them.

You may also want to check out the exhibition for the Recology Artist in Residence Program run by our employee-owned disposal and recycling company.
posted by kristi at 10:34 AM on August 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh my gosh thank you for all the amazing recommendations!

I'm in Portland, just about to travel to Seattle, and while I was only able to do half of what was recommended, they were all golden!

I especially recommend the Know Your City tour in Portland and the North Beach City Guide in SF. And the Cable Car Museum is the bomb!

Portland past 82nd, and Fremont, were both fascinating. Off to the heart of Cascadia!
posted by facehugger at 12:08 PM on September 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

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