Know your history

 Urban Planning
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  September 6, 2013

It’s become a local wedge issue; you’d be hard-pressed to find a Portlander who doesn’t have thoughts about the fate of Congress Square, of which a portion may be sold to a hotel developer to be transformed into an event center, and the other will be redesigned according to some evolving public vision (see “Getting Congress (Square) To Work,” by Jeff Inglis, August 16).

On Tuesday evening, the city council held a workshop discussing the hotly contested sale of about 9500 square feet (two-thirds) of Congress Square Plaza to Rockbridge Capital for $524,000. Opponents of the deal say the city shouldn’t be putting public space up for sale, while proponents say the site is in sore need of a facelift. Should the sale be approved, the city would issue a Request for Proposals to redesign the remaining one-third of the plaza this fall.

In an effort to contextualize this hot-button conversation, the city of Portland’s Planning and Urban Development department (in conjunction with SPACE Gallery) will host two talk-and-walk events on Wednesday, September 4, with architectural historian Scott Hanson.

Both events will begin with a slideshow presentation of historic maps and images at SPACE Gallery, followed by a walking tour of the Congress Square intersection, which has been a main artery of Portland since the 1800s.
“Congress Square historically has not been the static place that we think of it being today,” says Hanson, who previously served as Portland’s preservation planner and now works for Sutherland Conservation and Consulting in Augusta. “It has in fact been a dynamic space and has really encapsulated the development history of downtown.”

For even broader context, interested parties should attend next week’s screening of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, a one-hour 1988 documentary charmingly narrated by its director, the American urbanist William Whyte. After observing that some public plazas were severely underused while others bustled with activity, Whyte wondered, “Suppose we could find out what made the good ones work, and the others not?”

Studying several locations, Whyte and his team mapped where people sat, at what time of day, and so on. Among his findings: The number one activity in a well-used plaza is people looking at other people.

Both the film and the historic tours are part of the Planning and Urban Development department’s effort to “round out people’s knowledge about the Square [and] provide a little more background about public open space and urban design,” says Caitlin Cameron, project manager of the Congress Square visioning process. The city is also planning on hosting two meetings for public input on the potential redesign of the plaza later this month. Visit portlandmaine.gov/planning for more information.

“Whenever change is contemplated, within an urban environment particularly, it’s important to have a real understanding of how the place came to be the way it is,” Hanson notes. “Understanding the long sweep of history helps people to understand that decisions being made today are part of  a continuum.”

HISTORICAL TOURS OF CONGRESS SQUARE | Wednesday, September 4 @ 12:30 and 6 pm | SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | Free

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces | Thursday, September 12 @ 7:30 pm | Rines Auditoriam, Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square, Portland | Free

  Topics: This Just In , Congress Square
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