Engaging the community to achieve a vision: The Lents Green Ring

PSU sociology and urban planning researchers teamed up with City of Portland urban design staff to investigate accessibility and interests concerning green spaces in the city, including the Green Loop, a concept by the City’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability that envisions green spaces, bike and pedestrian networks, and recreational routes as part of the Central City 2035 plan. Their findings revealed low income communities outside of the city center valued local connectivity and desired safe streets within their neighborhoods—i.e., localized versions of the mostly downtown-focused design of the Green Loop.

Community-based organizations in the historically underserved Lents neighborhood, led by ISS partner Green Lents immediately got to work with City planners, thinking about how to connect a network of unimproved streets crossed by heavily-trafficked highways, with the growing number of community assets, schools, and parks. The Lents Green Ring project came to light, focusing on improving neighborhood safety and accessibility through place-making and community-led advocacy. In addition to social connections, the project aims to improve habitat connectivity for pollinators in urban and natural areas in Lents.

PA312 students

Supported by PSU from inception, the Green Ring project is a shining example of how faculty and students contribute expertise and talent to local development, co-designing solutions with communities and partner organizations. Over the past year, planning students compiled a preliminary bicycle and pedestrian plan for the Green Ring, and engineering capstone students developed the traffic control plan with City officials for the 2017 Lents Founders’ Fair. Interns supported by ISS helped partners Green Lents, Better Block and Oregon Walks organize the fair, which showcased an important section of the Green Ring, for hundreds of residents and visitors. PSU students in a design class created the Green Ring logo in use today.

PA312 studentsFor ISS and our partners, improving transit access and bike and pedestrian facilities for underserved communities is vital, and equally important are its linkages to urban ecology and the social connections. In response to the priorities of Green Lents and their allies, ISS is supporting broad-based community engagement efforts to further develop the Green Ring concept.

PSU researchers have led several community walks along the Green Ring to better understand the constraints residents face to access and when walking or rolling along the route. Weekly walks were scheduled over the course of three months and were adapted to account for parental responsibilities, language differences, time constraints, and income barriers of the different participants. ISS and Green Lents wanted to grow the number of participants contributing information, and are now collaborating with the PSU Public Administration Department’s Foundations of Community Leadership class over the 2017-18 academic year to have students build on existing data and connect the work to urban ecology.

As the fall term draws to an end, students presented the first set of findings to Green Lents and City officials. As a result of intercept surveys, students identified the top three concerns for residents for the Green Ring: traffic, lack of sidewalks, and personal safety. Residents responding to the survey, approximately 37% of whom were Latinx, were both surprised and delighted to be asked by students from diverse backgrounds about their neighborhood.

The Foundations of Community Leadership class will collaborate with Green Lents to engage various community groups not previously contacted about this project and will be led by different faculty members each term. To facilitate continuity from one term to the next, ISS funds an undergraduate intern with Green Lents and an undergraduate Sustainability Student Fellow to work with the faculty. Building off of the data collected from the previous terms, students in the spring term will deliver a comprehensive view of the neighborhoods’ feedback and co-facilitate a community forum to prioritize short-term and long-term investments to improve their neighborhood, from sidewalks, to cross-walks, to lighting, to signage.

PA312 studentsBut the Lents community is not the only one benefiting from this collaboration. The Green Ring project also highlights the transformation that community-based learning has on students. “The project wasn’t about getting a grade, says Leslie, a student in the course. It was about getting into the community and learning something there.” Liv, another student, agrees: “[through my experience in Lents,] I learned an important lesson on how to genuinely communicate with other people.”

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