Better Block PSU: a Partnership Program

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Photos by Sam Balto, Greg Raisman, and Cait McCusker

Better Block PSU is a partnership program between the volunteer-led group Better Block PDX and Portland State University - encouraging everyone to imagine what spaces could be when they are designed for people. Once a year local community partners submit their project ideas to be considered. These projects promote equitable placemaking, community building, and active transportation advocacy.

Integrated into PSU planning and engineering classes, PSU students support community members with the technical aspects of infrastructure improvements–elevating and materializing their ideas by developing plans, designs, and engineering concepts. It’s a shift from the status quo with a ground-up approach, and their transportation expertise can help community members in navigating the permit process or proposing informed solutions to the city.

CURRENT PROJECTS

These projects are currently engaged in a phase of the Better Block PSU project pathway.

PAST PROJECTS

We'll be sharing more about past projects and the positive impacts they've had on meeting community transportation needs, but you can download this report from Better Block PDX - recapping the project accomplishments and milestones from 2013 through 2018.

The partnership between Better Block PDX advocates and Portland State University students is most well known for the success story that is Better Naito in Portland, Oregon. In 2015 a group of PSU civil engineering students dedicated their Senior Capstone to re-designing this roadway to improve safe access for bicyclists and pedestrians. The students partnered with Better Block PDX to secure a $10,000 grant from Clif Bar and People for Bikes to help buy materials to install the pilot project. Fast forward to today, it is a full-fledged city project. See coverage of this evolving street transformation since 2015 on BikePortland.org.

SUBMIT A PROPOSAL

We are not currently accepting project proposals. Join the email notification list to receive an update in February 2022This program aligns with PSU transportation classes over an academic year. The call for proposals opens in the Spring, through which we are able to accept 2 - 3 proposals per year.

Questions you'll need to answer in your application (subject to change):

  1. What is the location of your proposed Better Block project?
  2. What is this place like currently?
  3. What steps (if any) have you already taken around this project? (This helps us determine which part of the Pathway you will start out in. It is okay if your project is just an idea right now.)
  4. Do you know of any existing partnerships or events that could help leverage this project?
  5. What ideas do you have for re-imagining this space?
  6. How do you plan to engage community stakeholders
  7. What are some ways to make the space inviting for all?
  8. Who are the local leaders and champions for this idea?
  9. What are the desired outcomes?
  10. How might you measure success?

Learn more about "pop-up projects": Better Block PDX created a handy visual guide to pop-up projects which you can download here.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

What deliverables should I expect, and how might they be useful?

Deliverables are the content produced from the students that you can expect to take with you to help develop your project. Not all accepted proposals will go through all three phases of classes. Which phase(s) your project will undergo will be discussed upon acceptance. Please keep in mind that these are classes tied to PSU's academic year.

Phase I - Bicycle and Pedestrian Planning course (April - June): 

  • The students will work with you to develop community engagement plans, activity and behavior monitoring, data collection plans, and performance measures.
  • These focus on the big picture vision for community through engagement plans and behavior monitoring. These are meant to assess the current activity of the project site, to give you a base to then form your future plans. Since community engagement overlaps all phases, it is important that we start out with engagement in Phase I. 

Phase II -Active Transportation Planning and Design Studio (Sept - Dec):

  • The students will work with you to develop existing conditions, design alternatives, and cost estimates.
  • The deliverables in Phase II are meant to build upon Phase I, but with more of a technical lens. These deliverables will provide you with more of the nuts and bolts you’ll need to implement the project itself, including the anticipated cost. During this phase, you will move from theory into more of the practicalities of your project. 

Phase III - Engineering Capstone (Jan - June): 

  • The students will work with you to develop and engineering plan that includes design alternatives, traffic control plan, and other materials that can assist with city permitting process.
  • These deliverables are useful in beginning conversations with the City, and gathering the materials necessary to obtain permits for the project. This last set of deliverables shifts the focus outward and helps to ease the bureaucratic components of the project.

 

What should I expect from the students?

First and foremost, this is an experiential learning opportunity for Portland State University students to engage in a real world problem. The students will maintain regular communication with you throughout the term, and will partially be working on deliverables on their own. It can be helpful to establish parameters with your student group during your first meeting around what level of communication you need. For specific deliverables, see the prior questions above. Please note that if your project moves through multiple phases, you will have a new group of students in each phase.

What level of commitment should I plan for?

Some of the most successful projects that have come from our program, such as Better Naito, have evolved over many years. It is up to you if you want to participate in Phase I to implement this summer, and concentrate your efforts into just a few months, or if you have larger needs and want to spread it out over a year or two due to the complexity of the project. What you accomplish with the deliverables the students provide is up to you.

How can I use the seed money?

If accepted into the pathway program, up to $1,000 is available to assist participants with the planning and implementation of their projects. It is up to you how you want to use this money. You may choose to compensate volunteers, subsidize the cost of materials, or something else.

Are there other organizations in the Portland metro area who can support my advocacy work?

We recommend reaching out to Oregon Walks, the Street Trust, Bike Loud PDX and/or the City Repair Project. Each of these organizations specialize in different areas of advocacy, active transportation, and resources.

How will COVID-19 impact this process?

At this time the format of classes for the academic year of 2022 - 2023 is unknown. We hope to have an update when program applications open in February 2022. Please assume that the classrooms will be virtual, which means your involvement with students will be primarily through Zoom. There may be an opportunity for physically distant site visits to occur. Traditionally, Better Block projects have had a strong in-person element to them because of the emphasis on community building and placemaking.

THE PROGRAM PARTNERS

Portland State University

Through the Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) at Portland State University, this program connects planning and engineering student expertise with community advocates. This exchange of knowledge is also an opportunity for students to tackle a real transportation and/or placemaking challenge in the local community. The Pathway program provides a practicum experience for PSU students, increases capacity for community organizations, and has been successful at influencing policy and leading to permanent changes in Portland’s streetscape — most notably the Better Naito project. A total of fifteen projects have been shepherded through the Pathway since 2015, including four that will be built in the first phase of the City of Portland’s Central City in Motion plan that kicked off in Summer 2019.

Better Block PDX

Better Block PDX is a volunteer-led effort encouraging everyone to imagine what spaces could be when they are designed for people. We partner with community organizations, Portland State University, Portland Bureau of Transportation, and you to create inviting and interactive places through tactical urbanism “pop-up” projects. "Most close watchers of the Portland transportation world have heard of Better Block PDX," BikePortland's Jonathan Maus wrote in February 28, 2019. Better Block PDX won the "Spirit of Portland" award in 2017.

THE PEOPLE

Program Staff

  • Hau Hagedorn, TREC Associate Director

Better Block PDX Core Volunteers and Technical Advisors

Learn more about becoming a volunteer technical advisor here. Reach out to asktrec@pdx.edu to inquire.

  • Jessica Horning, Pedestrian & Bicycle Program Manager at Oregon Department of Transportation
  • Shilpa Mallem, Traffic Project Manager at HDR
  • Bryan Poole, Transportation Planner II at Portland Bureau of Transportation
  • Ryan Hashagen, Owner Founder at Icicle Tricycles
  • Gwen Shaw, Civil Engineer, Toole Design Group, LLC

PSU Faculty and Class Instructors

Additional PSU faculty, staff and students have supported the class projects over the years. The current core faculty leading the classes include:

PSU Students: Engineering and Planning

Civil engineering and urban planning students have helped to shape many of the inspiring ideas from the community, given form and function for real world application. Many of those alumni are now transportation professionals in the Portland Metropolitan area! Learn more about studying transportation at Portland State University.

Better Block PSU Project team members, community partners and volunteers

There are many partners involved in the projects themselves that are shepherded through the Better Block PSU pathway program at PSU. See each project to learn more about the people involved.

And, there is a long history of volunteers that have supported the implementation of Better Block PDX projects since 2013!