Urban Design

Bring Back the Row House | Missing Middle Housing and Diversifying our Neighborhoods

Have you noticed how many movies and tv shows are set in neighborhoods teeming with old, brownstone row houses, lively sidewalks filled with shops and people, and roads lined with street trees? Sure, our images of Brooklyn, historic Philadelphia, even pre-war Portland neighborhoods are idyllic, maybe even of a bygone era, but there’s a deeper reason these communities are so celebrated.

If you look closely at these scenes, not only are the houses connected, but the people are connected too. Those bustling sidewalks are where chance encounters take place. Stoops and porches are hubs of activity that build community. Even the tree-lined streets connect to a world of transportation and jobs.

Look even closer and you’ll notice that not everyone is alike. Not everyone is doing the same thing. Not everyone is going to the same place. Not everyone is living the same lifestyle. These dense neighborhoods bring all sorts of people together, and the housing types and built environment supports a wide range of family structures.

“The greatest asset of our city is its people, and our city is at its best when it facilitates connections among those people: cultural, economic, and social.” - Portland For Everyone

It’s no secret that modern Portland is facing a housing crisis. Whether your concern is affordable or market rate housing, we’re not building enough to keep up with future demand. And the way we’re building is throwing barriers in the way of connections.

Many cities and suburbs try to organize development in order to protect something. They create zoning codes to protect property values and sensibilities, traffic flow and commerce. Often, these codes were first implemented to keep certain types of people out or to preserve one lifestyle over another. These codes often miss the mark and do little beyond separating things and preventing change and progress. They are also one of the primary reasons we have a housing and affordability crisis on our hands. 

For instance, zoning keeps younger single people and less affluent renters away from wealthy families by preventing building apartments and narrow houses close to larger, single-family homes. On one level, it keeps traffic and noise away from areas where small children play. On another, it separates income classes and segregates lifestyles. On yet another, it can keep grandparents from living near their grandchildren or prevent multi-generational family units from living together on a single property.

We all love walkable communities, where we don't need a car to access services, restaurants, shops, cafes, entertainment, etc. Currently, our zoning laws dictate vast swaths of land exclusively for monotonous single-family homes, preventing diverse uses within our neighborhoods. The laws keep restaurants, shops and entertainment away from most of our homes. On one level, it keeps congestion and noise away from where people sleep and play. On another, it keeps baristas and servers and clerks away from their jobs, it promotes a car-based lifestyle, and limits neighborhood businesses where people come together to interact with their neighbors. These tactics remove connections.

Diversifying Portland housing by reintroducing smaller, attached, and multi-family housing into neighborhoods near our commercial centers and transportation corridors may be the key to bringing lost connections back. Allowing large footprint, single-family homes to be re-developed as apartments or condominium properties can preserve community character and provide housing opportunities. Loosening up our zoning laws to allow community retail, and removing side setbacks to allow for row houses, will be a step in the right direction to address our housing crisis, while making our neighborhoods a better place to live, with stronger community ties. 

It is possible to provide affordability and equity in small-scale developments. It’s possible to design and build value into small-scale projects. It’s possible to bring connections back and retain, even enhance the quality of our neighborhoods by allowing more diverse housing types.

These possibilities and connections are why Propel Studio is committed to working with clients who recognize the lack of housing options, and have the desire to reintroduce missing middle housing. We’re committed to working with clients who want to provide affordability and equity in smaller scale developments. We’re committed to working with clients who understand the higher financial returns possible from developing multi-unit projects, while building a better city.

How can we help you? Do you need us to be part of the development team, leveraging design services for equity in a project? To facilitate the pro-forma process? To help with due diligence and feasibility studies? To provide full design services for your development? We are passionate about diversifying the housing opportunity in Portland as well as communities around the country. If you are interested in these issues and small-scale incrimental developments, please get in touch. 

Aridagawa Design Charrette with Propel Studio and PLACE


Propel Studio  traveled to Aridagawa, Japan last October to run a community design workshop in collaboration with PLACE and the Portland Development Commission. The local town government is interested in the Portland planning process of engaging the public and community members. Our team ran a series of workshops to explore ideas for how to reuse a soon to be closed Nursery School building as a community focused entrepreneur center, how to activate a bike path that runs through the town, and how to make the town a more livable, sustainable and attractive place to live.

This video shows the design team working at PLACE's creative office space, developing our design ideas to present to the town this June.

Thank you to PLACE for producing the video - http://place.la/

Propel Studio + PLACE run a series of community design workshops in Aridagawa, Japan


【有田川という未来vol.3】まちづくりワークショップ@ポッポみち from まっくす on Vimeo. 有田川という未来vol.3まちづくりワークショップ 「あったらいいね!」を自分たちで描いてみよう! ********************* ポートランドのまちづくりチームが再び有田川にきて 住民の皆さんと一緒になってワークショップを行いました。 有田鉄道の線路跡から生まれたポッポみち。 みなさんから「もっと楽しく使えそう!」という声が 多く寄せられる有田川町のお宝について 暮らして楽しいまちになるための人が集まる 繋がる必要なものがなんなのか アイディアをみんなで出し合いました!

Nick and Lucas recently traveled to Aridagawa, Japan to run a community workshop with PLACE and the PDC. The local government is interested in the Portland planning process of engaging the public and community members. Our team ran a series of workshops to explore ideas for how to reuse a soon to be closed Nursery School building as a community center, how to activate a bike path that runs through the town, and how to make the town a more livable, sustainable and attractive place to live.

‪#‎Japan‬ ‪#‎Portland‬ ‪#‎CommunityDesign‬ ‪#‎PublicInterestDesign‬ ‪#‎ilookup‬

Building A Future: Mapping, Molding and Measuring Educational Success Through Architecture

[soliloquy id="1603"] A scale model of the neighborhood east of Berlin's iconic TV tower was recently conceived by the Year 1 class at Berlin Bilingual School. Doused in vibrant colors and with new buildings sprouting from the children's imagination, this model represents the dreams of our future architects, designers, and politicians. The Junior Architects Project conceived by Jessica Waldera, founder of Kleine Baumeister in collaboration with the AEDES Junior Campus Workshop was a unique opportunity for 6 and 7 year olds to engage their built environment. The ultimate goal was to build a 3D model of the school and it's surroundings; in the process they achieved much more. This was truly a cross curricular project, where the children applied math skills, had geography lessons, discovered the science of mixing colors, and learned valuable lessons in team work.

The Architecture Forum AEDES is uniquely focused on exposing architecture and urban design through the local and global community. This international association, who runs a gallery and holds workshops for university students, generously donated their facilities and supplies for the children to engage in the creative rethinking of their school's neighborhood.

This project was the culmination of a larger “building” theme at school, where the children at BKIS had been learning about iconic structures around the world, including Berlin, and the elements of architectural design. Equipped with basic knowledge of construction materials, structure and building features, they were eager to apply their junior architectural skills. This exploration into the world of design began with the children analyzing various chairs around the school and discussing their peculiarities and purpose. Using these observational techniques, they embarked on a local scavenger hunt where they photographed their environment, sketched buildings, counted windows, measured car lengths, read street names, took note of colors, shapes and sizes, and democratically decided how to spend 3€ on a sweet treat for 9 people.

Next the students were given maps of the city, the country and the continent, which they intently and industriously examined. With the help of their teachers and a street index, they found their homes on a large map of Berlin and marked it with a pin and ribbon measuring the distance to BKIS. Surrounding this chart, which is now a permanent fixture in the classroom, are drawings of the students' homes and their own visionary portrayals indicating their route to and from school. This taught not only map reading skills but also gave the children an understanding of context in relation to the urban environment.

This led up to 3 intensive days at the AEDES campus, where the children were able to explore the current exhibit and make use of the studio space. Working mostly at stations and in small groups, the tasks were laid out in a fashion that allowed the children to work freely and at their own pace. On one large table was an enlarged scale map of the area surrounding Berlin Kids International School. Here each child used tracing paper to contour an existing building they wanted to model. They took this outline, cut it out and pinned it to a piece of polystyrene which they then took to the hot wire cutter - the most exciting part of the process. At this station, which was the only one constantly monitored by an adult, the children used the tool to carve out their building, sometimes doing it twice in order to more accurately represent the scale of their structure.

The next step was coloring their replicas. Some children used pictures that they had taken earlier in the week to guide them in painting a semi accurate representation but most of them just adorned their models in a color they thought to be appropriate with the attitude that “anyone can leave a building white, only we can make it colorful”. As adults and educators, we had to step back and suspend our conventional preconceptions, allowing the children to be masters of their design.

Finally, paper roads were painted, polystyrene trees were planted and water fountains were given life on the model. The climax of the week was a vernissage of sorts in which reporters, parents and peers were present to bask in the children's vision of our future metropolis. The students presented the result of their hard work - including the older classes who created a newspaper of the project, documenting interviews they conducted as well as stories and poems inspired by architecture and the city. The finished model will now be permanently displayed at BKIS.

Normally children do not find themselves in a workspace containing pristine white walls, high ceilings and designer chairs, so all tolled their conduct in such circumstances was very commendable. They worked with professionalism, pride and proficiency, and despite longer than normal work days, were cheerful and energetic as always. It was amazing to watch the children concentrate so hard when given the responsibility to use the wire cutter or discuss how best to represent their neighborhood.

The significance of a project like this should not be underestimated. The children were able to apply what they learn in the classroom to something very real. They understood why they need to measure or count, why communicating ideas is so valuable and how vital team work is. Moreover, they were able to apply their own special skills and expertise, that do not necessarily emerge in the classroom. The theory of multiple intelligence is truly applied in an activity like this and highlights the advantage of project-based learning in schools. It also gave the students an opportunity to express their creative sides and comment on the state of our built environment. Often architects and elected officials get it into their heads that they know what the best vision for a city is. When offered the opportunity this class of first graders completely re-imagined the city in which they live and gave it a vibrancy lacking in so many cities today.

What Makes a City Beautiful?


This is a question I ponder as I visit cities throughout the world. Is it the surrounding landscape - like the snow capped mountains, rivers, lakes, and oceans? Is it the awe inspiring skyscrapers or beautiful old churches? Or could it be something else - perhaps a more human scale built environment, or widespread parks, trees and other green spaces?

On a recent trip around the world I visited a vast range of urban conditions that were often disheartening, sometimes stunning and yet often enough too similar. From Japan to Russia and on to Europe cities tended to blend from one to another losing the unique qualities of regional architecture. Landscapes were too often obscured by towers or tucked away below roads, bridges, buildings and other concrete monstrosities. Skyscrapers are all too familiar, boasting smooth glass facades while towering over adjacent concrete apartment blocks. Whether in Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney or Toronto the buildings didn't reveal the uniqueness of the local climate.

I look at cities that celebrate their unique conditions and that is where I find the beauty. Berlin celebrating the river Spree and its many canals lined with parks and grand public buildings pops into my mind as a beautiful urban environment. Hong Kong with its stunning architectural skyline backed by a beautiful mountain and stunning views of the harbor is another example of a city that is complementing the grandeur of its environment.

Too often in America, cities turn their back on their environment. Elevated roads and rail yards separate downtown districts from adjacent lakes, rivers, or coastlines. Buildings rely on air conditioning and other mechanical systems to ignore the influence of the climate. Other cities blessed with an abundance of stunning landscapes lack great architecture - Portland and Vancouver pop into mind. Montreal turns it back to the St Lawrence River. Bangkok has replaced the majority of its hundreds of canals with roads. At least Sydney has embraced its water front and historic harbors.

I know there is not an easy answer to this question. Cities are huge complex entities that grow and morph over hundreds of years. I believe that urban planning and architecture that celebrates the local climate, landscape, materiality and culture is a step in the right direction.

Propel Studio Proposal Selected for Lents Urban Renewal Area


The Portland Development Commission has approved three temporary-use proposals on vacant PDC-owned sites in the Lents Urban Renewal Area, and will pursue further discussion of qualifications and feasibility of a permanent project as well. The proposals were among six responses to a PDC-issued Request for Interest in permanent or temporary uses of the Lents properties, which are located in close proximity to the historic and re-emerging commercial heart of the Lents neighborhood at SE 92nd Avenue.PDC Executive Director Patrick Quinton said, “We’re very pleased to see these Lents sites activated with community-driven projects inspired by the Lents Grown brand and adding to the growing positive energy in Lents.” The Belmont Goats will locate temporarily on the site at SE 93rd and Woodstock; PDC has also offered to work with the project proposers to locate the herd on PDC-owned lots at SE 91st and Foster Road on a seasonal basis when the Lents Farmers Market is in operation. At PDC’s request, two of the proposers, Propel Studio Architecture and ROSE Community Development, will co-locate at 8801 SE Foster Road. ROSE Community Development’s proposal, “Lents Grown – Our Stories” will be an installation of photographic portraits with text and audio produced through a collaborative effort by members of the community. Propel proposed an installation of gabion (wire mesh) furniture to create a gathering space and placemaking identity. PDC’s evaluation committee, made up of community stakeholders and staff, noted that these two uses combined on one site would be more successful than separated on individual properties.

Nick Sauvie, ROSE Executive Director, said, “As a community builder and property owner, ROSE has a deep commitment to the Lents Town Center. This project is a great opportunity to feature the diversity of Lents and to add life to the town center.”

Lucas Gray of Propel Studio Architecture said, “We love the idea of collaborating with ROSE Community Development and incorporating the stories of local residents as a way to better integrate our installation with the community. We actually met with them last summer to talk about ways we could work together so this is a perfect opportunity.” Speaking on behalf of the Belmont Goats owners and caretakers, Christopher Frankonis said, “All of us are excited for this next phase of Portland’s original resident urban herd. We look forward to working with PDC and, especially, the residents of Lents to make this ongoing urban experiment in rural community truly Lents Grown for the coming year.” Each organization will receive a $7500 grant that can be used for design, construction materials or labor, or construction project management. The temporary uses will range from one to three years. Community members on the evaluation team were Sarah Broderick, Lents International Farmers Market/Zenger Farms; Carolee Harrison, Vice Chair, Lents Neighborhood Association; Jerry Johnson, Johnson Economics/ Neighborhood Economic Development Leadership Group; Ed McNamara, Mayor’s Office. The evaluation committee also recommended that PDC continue discussions with a Lents property owner who proposed the only permanent use project, a mixed use building at 93rd and Woodstock.

“We’re very pleased to see these Lents sites activated with community-driven projects inspired by the Lents Grown brand and adding to the growing positive energy in Lents.” - Patrick Quinton Executive Director, PDC Lents Grown

PDC Announcement Link

The Winning Street Seats Design Has Been Built!!


Congrats to the winner, Bob Trempe, for his fantastic design!  Special thanks to Lucas Gray and folks at The Center for Architecture for the hard work running the competition, managing funding, and obtaining the permit.  The construction was led by Lucawoods Inc. of Portland.  Nick Mira of Propel Studio offered a helping hand on the final installation. 

Street Seat
Portland Street Seat Design

Portland Street Seats Design Competition


We are proud to be the recipient of an honorable mention in Portland's 2013 Street Seats Design Competition. Congratulations to all of the other participants and Bob Trempe for his winning design. If anyone would like to build The Portland Bench outside of your business, let's talk!