Future Prairie Radio Season Three Episode Four: In Patterns with Heather Flint Chatto
My name is Heather Flint Chatto. I'm an urban planner and environmental designer. I'm also a community educator, activist, dancer, artist, maker, and photographer. I'm also a working mother. I use she/her pronouns. I'm deeply passionate about design and communities having a voice in shaping their neighborhoods, places, and homes. I have been leading several different initiatives fighting for community rights against gentrification and sustainable planning. We do that at PDX Main Streets, which I'm the co-founder and director of, also known as Portland Main Streets Design Initiative. I'm also a small business owner and founder of Forage Design and Planning, which is a sustainable design firm. We do a lot of community engagement and support projects to integrate more environmental design.
At Forage, we kicked off a project with the Gresham Redevelopment Corporation partly for Rockwood market food hall, in partnership with the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition, where we're looking at food systems. We want to support more BIPOC community members and secure food networks and local farmers. That's one type of project. I also have an innovative developer that's a client, and we're working on a tiny house artist eco-village, trying to support more affordable housing for local artists. Another project is with Levee Ready Colombia, helping develop long-range strategic communications and culturally appropriate engagement plans for some of the work that they do. I also work a lot under a PDX Main Streets in partnership with neighborhood associations, business associations, and other community partners.
As I walk around, as I drive around, I look at, "Oh, how could that have been done better? Oh, that's a good building," or, "Oh, wow, missed opportunity, you know, it's right next to this great old building, and it doesn't speak the same language at all. That building sticks out like a sore thumb, but it could have done so well if they had picked up on some of the character cues." It's about who we want to be as a city. It feels like we are in a moment in time like we have a little bit of an identity crisis. I fell in love with Portland for its architecture. Thus our email address is "ilovepdxmainstreets," and I have a whole series of articles I'm writing about my love affair with Portland main streets because they are so beautiful and formative to our identity as a city.
As we grow as a city, I want to see bigger buildings on the broader streets instead of smaller ones. I'd love to see us be able to have more of a form-based code - a really great approach to thinking about solar access, and about what is the foundational form of a place that allows for a variety of different traditional or modern designs to happen, while also having human-scale elements, regardless of small or large buildings. For me, when we think about making great cities that endure, I think about how we respect the identity of a place. How do we grow with needed housing and urban infill without losing our soul as a city?
What people love about Portland is that it still has that kind of vintage flavor. That's one of the things that drew me to Portland, that there were so many old buildings. We are underserved for art on the east side, and these buildings represent a great deal of our art. You don't notice it when you're driving, but when you walk or bike, you see the detail in the brickwork, you see the divided panes and the raised sills, and the tiny intricate details. Architects didn't build these most of these buildings; they were created by immigrants who were demonstrating their cultures through their craft. It's the craft that we're sort of missing in some of the new buildings. I think as we grow, we want our city to reflect who we are as makers, craftspeople, and artists.
When I look around, I feel sad that I don't see that reflected. It feels like we are kind of losing our soul in the process. It doesn't have to be that way. One of the ways we get at that is through proactively teaching people the language of good design and how to make human-scale buildings, and I can talk more about that. Then, we try to really support the positive through art by giving main street design awards, for example, honoring the buildings and people who are doing real leadership work and making that notable. That's another strategy.
We are taking the thread back to the housing policy. I'd like to see our city creating more tools that would incentivize the things we want, instead of de facto incentivizing demolition and displacement. When we build high-end housing, as we have been, in the areas that already have higher-end housing, it further widens the equity gap. Suppose we were to have better programs that would give tax abatements, low-interest loans, and technical assistance for adaptive reuse, supporting more sustainability and climate responsive design for our future. It maintains the identity of our city in a really kind of dense way, without the same kind of impacts, and is a more climate-responsive approach. Whether it's an art show about density and design or city making, that can be powerful to integrate art in the process to help understand policy and design.
We do a lot with photography. We will be having a photography exhibit for Alberta, looking at those patterns of place, and examples of density with excellent compatibility, as well as poor contrast, and explaining those important design patterns that are key to good density. So, we're looking for more photographers. Another opportunity: We have a series of art installations that we did up and down the Division corridor that we made to be reusable for any neighborhood, so we're kind of calling them Listening Posts, but initially, we called them the "Your Voice Matters Project." They are custom-made art suggestion boxes with these really great vision cards. There's an opportunity for artists to make their own. We used old radios and printing presses, and all kinds of found objects that made them really interactive and engaging. We'll be doing kind of a design-build workshop in Alberta. That would be an enjoyable way to connect locally through art because it's the arts district.
One of my ideas for the future was from a woman named Ursula Barton. She does these beautiful paintings of the architecture of Portland and other cities, and I kind of had this flash about "murals for Main Street." We are creating these big blank walls. We could make that a beautiful art wall and really fill it with color, you know, bringing back that vibrancy that feels like Portland.
One of the things that we are doing is putting together this whole toolkit to support communities. Part of it is education and public engagement, identifying your essential qualities and desires for the future. Being involved in those kinds of conversations and events will be great to have more of the arts community really get involved, but also, becoming a volunteer with us is super fun, and it's a great way to engage. Those are a few ideas.
One of the things that we've been doing with PDX Main Streets is that we support communities with greater design literacy and proactive tools for managing growth and change. As we are growing as a city, we see a big divide in the way people are looking at how we are evolving as a city. What is the future we want to have? In addition to kind of a fast-paced development boom, we're also having a long list of significant new city policies. Mostly I've been working on things related to the design issues for commercial areas, and have kind of stayed away from this particular residential infill project (RIP), mainly tracking it as a land-use activist and member of my neighborhood association, and the land use chair. But also, I know it's a contentious issue. I kind of had been watching it, but I started to get a little bit concerned. we've been advocating on things like the DOZA Project, which is new citywide design standards and guidelines, also the comprehensive plan, mixed-use zoning, and more. I know, it ends up being a lot of alphabet soup but realizing that that's really where a lot of the change can happen. A lot of community members don't understand the nuances of policymaking.
The Residential Infill Project is an exciting idea about changing how we allow a greater diversity of housing types to be supported through our zoning code, and by right. We have a lot of diverse housing that we may not realize because the actual zoning designation when you look at it on a map is all yellow, zoned for single-family, and you think that's all there is. But actually, there is a broad diversity of townhouses, courtyards, apartments, stacked flats, plexes, things like that, and good multifamily buildings, but it's a kind of hidden density because we don't notice it when it is well designed and blends in. As we look at making a new city broad-brush policy, to upzone all of our single-family areas to allow for duplexes and diverse multifamily housing. We have a missing middle, things that people aren't building. They're building single-family or large multifamily. Still, they're not building that sort of in-between. It's exciting, and it's excellent on the one hand, but it's also challenging because policy can have unintended consequences.
When I started to see what was going on in terms of the potential for displacement and layering in, you know, kind of who's building and what they're building and at what affordability rate, I started to get concerned. So, I'm kind of two minds about this policy. As I began to dig in more, I began to see a divide in the planning commission about displacement concerns and a broad-brush approach outside of the comprehensive plan effort, so that's our long-range plan 2035. typically, this kind of significant policy rezoning would occur as part of that.
I started to get a little concerned because people are under-engaged right now, not that many people understand the policy's nuances. It's so broad-brushed that I am concerned, it's going to further lead to more significant demolition and climate impacts, without the necessary tools to refine it. In listening to some of the testimonies, I hear a lot of people advocating for the policy for affordable housing. But this policy is not directed at affordable housing. Four out of nine of the planning commissioners, all four commissioners of color, voted against this policy from the Planning and Sustainability Commission. I don't think that many people realize that.
Let’s look at the background on why we have this affordable housing crisis right now. That's an essential piece of it when we have enough zoned capacity right now to meet all of our goals, according to the city, for housing. This is happening outside of the comprehensive plan, and it's not going to go to the people. What we're seeing on the ground being built is expensive housing. If you want more affordable housing, we need to advocate for a diversity of financial tools in place right now, which is missing from this package. That's one piece that is missing, is we're not seeing that there's a greater diversity of housing that's affordable right now. The most affordable type of accommodation is what's already built. That's for a fact right there. These older houses might look like they are a specific type of exclusivity, or for a single-family, but very frequently there are 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 sometimes students living in these big old houses, and that's what makes it affordable for them to pay a few hundred dollars of rent.
I love duplexes and adapted structures. One of the most affordable and climate-responsive things we could do is convert these older houses to multifamily. When you build new construction, it is inherently more expensive. If you're building in the most expensive areas, it's going to be even higher. That's one piece of the puzzle to understand. But the reason developers would be more likely to tear it down than to convert it is that it's complicated, it's not as easy for them to do it, and can't get in and out in the same way. You can't build your standard model. it's easier to tear it down. The carbon and climate impacts of that are devastating. We do in the next ten years to be the most significant because every one of those buildings represents a substantial amount of carbon of the materials extracted, refined, transported, and built. if you tear that down, even if you build something more energy-efficient, it still takes between 10 and 80 years to offset that environmental impact.you're doing it with even more materials. The most sustainable thing we could be doing is infilling, adapting, building up, and looking at other kinds of creative solutions.
This is the other—this is the planner's side, not necessarily the sort of artist part of me, but it's imperative because what we miss is that the fundamental difference is design when we want to make good density. I'd like people to know that we often don't see density when it's well designed. The design is what makes the difference in perfect density. that it's an equity issue too because everyone deserves good design. We shouldn't be cheaping out on housing. Because what happens is, if we build with poor quality, that we end up having to spend more money on maintenance, we end up providing a lesser product for people where the doors are hollow. The sound impacts are worse, and there's less flexibility in using the space and less access to light and air. You know, how energy efficient the building is, impacts your monthly utility bills, affecting affordability.
There are so many pieces to this design conversation that get missed. People think you're talking about style, which we're not talking about. that's where I kind of get into that more with the design literacy work that we do with PDX Main Streets, and where we bring a lot of art to the process of education. We do a lot of photography exhibits, and we talk about the pattern language of Main Streets, and how you do that. I get a lot of joy from that. When I see someone get excited about design like they suddenly start to — it's like putting on a pair of glasses is how others have explained it to me after taking them on a design walk. They can suddenly see their city in an entirely different way. That's a thrill for them and a thrill for us.
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