How Better Block PSU Helped Launch the Steel Bridge Skatepark

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Portland's Old Town neighborhood is getting a new skatepark, and a team of PSU transportation students were instrumental in bringing the project from idea to reality. 

Given the project of activating a vacant lot on the west side of the Steel Bridge by transforming it into a community skatepark, students in the Spring 2023 bike-pedestrian planning class created a set of design options, a weighted decision matrix, and a memorandum of existing conditions for the site. They also developed performance measures to determine how best to meet the project's objectives of activating the space, creating a welcoming environment, and stimulating local business activity.

Their work provided a basis for ongoing conversations with stakeholders around the project, which ultimately resulted in a green light: Funding for the new skatepark was announced in January by Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees Portland Parks & Recreation. Work is slated to begin this spring on property acquisition, community engagement and design of the 35,000 square foot facility.

"Getting to see this skatepark regularly as I navigate the city will be a nice reminder of why I entered the planning field to begin with," said Lise Ferguson, a student who worked on the project.

The Steel Bridge Skatepark is just the latest of many successful projects to come out of the Better Block PSU project pathway: a process in which community leaders are connected with PSU planning and engineering students to design and implement community-driven projects in public spaces. Each Better Block PSU project has a project "champion" who serves as the point of contact between students, faculty, and external stakeholders.

The 2024 Better Block PSU RFP is open now. Have an idea to reimagine an underused public space in your neighborhood? Submit your project idea by March 11.

The project champion for the Steel Bridge Skatepark is Ryan Hashagen, director of the Steel Bridge Skatepark Coalition. He is also one of the community volunteers leading Better Block PDX, and has long been a proponent of the PSU project pathway.

"The Steel Bridge Skatepark Coalition utilized the amazing work of PSU Urban Planning students to further conversations around access opportunities, existing conditions, and stakeholder engagement with Portland Parks, the Portland Bureau of Transportation, and City Hall. The PSU Better Block Project Pathway helped move the Steel Bridge Skatepark concept towards reality as PSU Students let their 'Knowledge Serve the City,'" Hashagen said.

The PSU Project Team

The PSU Steel Bridge Skatepark Team consisted of Urban Studies & Planning students Anchal Erachankandy Cheruvari, Summer Cook, Lise Ferguson, Andrew Napurano, Elias Peters, Symeon Walker, and Gabriel Quiñones-Zambrana.

Lise Ferguson, a second-year Master of Urban & Regional Planning (MURP) candidate who also works as an engineering intern at the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), was the project lead. She is intrigued with the concept of providing more accessible "third places," or public locations where people go to socialize or relax in between work and home.

"I am interested in ways to add more 'third places' to urban areas that are not necessarily commercial-based. While we tend to prioritize the revitalization of downtown's economic health, it is also important to activate the space by making it appealing to a wide variety of people, not just those who travel downtown to spend money," Ferguson said.

During their information-gathering stage, the student team spent time at the proposed site of the future skatepark, just being still and observing the area.

"These field observations were a new experience for me, and I learned a lot that you can't from combing through data alone—like learning the travel paths pedestrians and cyclists favored, and how that might impact the accessibility and visibility of the skatepark," Ferguson said.

The partnership between PSU students and community project leaders has obvious benefits for both sides: students gain work experience, and partnering organizations get free research and consulting. However, the collaboration brings an additional perk that's harder to define. Ideas from students can be like a breath of fresh air for the industry.

"Fresh in our minds are concepts of equity and theory, which I think are easy to lose focus on as planners get further into their professional careers," Ferguson said.

More Better Block PSU Success Stories

Grounded in tactical urbanism and pop-up demonstration projects, the Better Block PSU project pathway made a name for itself through projects like Better Naito, Better Broadway, and the Ankeny Alley/SW 3rd Plaza project. Since being officially added to the PSU curriculum in 2019, the program has continued to make its local impact felt. Below are just a few recent projects that moved through the Better Block PSU pathway:

Inviting PSU students in on the planning and design stages of projects like these both embodies PSU's role as an urban research university, and offers a shift from the status quo with a ground-up approach. The Better Block PSU program encourages everyone to imagine what spaces could be when they are designed for people.

Left image courtesy of PSU Steel Bridge Skatepark Team / Right image from Google Street View

Portland State University's Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) is home to the U.S. DOT funded National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC), the Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation (IBPI), PORTAL, BikePed Portal and other transportation grants and programs. We produce impactful research and tools for transportation decision makers, expand the diversity and capacity of the workforce, and engage students and professionals through education and participation in research. To get updates about what's going on at TREC, sign up for our monthly newsletter or follow us at the links below.

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