We can create a better built environment in Oregon

Old Mill district in Bend Oregon

Quick Summary

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In a previous Place Matters Oregon blog, “Let’s talk the walk,” we spoke of the individual and community benefits of creating more walkable places in Oregon. We touched on what makes a neighborhood walkable and we alluded to the importance of city planning and transportation design to walkable places. Now we get to dive into this in more depth! Our guest is Laura Buhl, AICP, CNU-A, a land use and transportation planner with the Transportation & Growth Management office at the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development.

PMO: Laura, thank you for joining us. Let’s start by hearing about the state agency where you work and getting a better understanding of your role.

Laura: I am a land use and transportation planner with the State of Oregon’s Transportation and Growth Management (TGM) Program. The TGM Program is a joint effort between DLCD and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). Our mission is to link land use and transportation planning to create vibrant, livable places where people can get around easily by different modes of transportation, especially walking and biking.

We understand that the way we design and build our communities determines what kinds of transportation people can use. In my work, I help cities and counties make changes to their zoning ordinances so that the “built environment” can create more walkable places. I was drawn to the planning profession after the frustration of spending my high school years trying to walk, bike and use transit in the suburbs of Portland. Those unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous, experiences convinced me that something needed to change in the way our cities and transportation systems were built. If you spend time walking or biking around your city, you will discover lots of opportunities for improvement to make your city’s built environment support healthy transportation options.

PMO: You mention the phrase, “built environment.” Would you explain for us what this means.

Laura: The built environment is everything that humans build, as distinguished from the natural environment. The built environment can certainly contain natural spaces and what we call “green infrastructure” like trees and parks, but those are integrated into areas developed by humans. In any given location, we can’t choose our natural environment, but when we build our environments, we make choices about how they are designed. For example, how wide the streets are built, whether there are sidewalks or bike lanes, or even how fast the speed limit is set on any given street. Those choices will determine whether someone can safely and comfortably walk to school, work, or the store.

PMO: Most of us live in places that were designed decades ago to optimize using cars, not walking, biking or using public transit. These transportation and land use planning decisions haven’t always created places that are good for our health. Why is that?

Laura: I would like to expand the question a bit and say that in the recent past (and even today) transportation and land use planning produced results that are bad for our health, but that in the more distant past, the built environment supported more healthy, active forms of transportation.

You may notice that cities and towns built before cars became the primary mode of transportation are easier to get around by foot because they have narrow streets and buildings built up to the sidewalk. They also feature a mix of different kinds of buildings and uses, such as residential and commercial uses that are close to one another. On the other hand, during the 20th century and into the 21st century, cities created a built environment that reinforced car use, including wide, high-speed streets, large parking lots, and spread-out development that make destinations too far to walk to.

These car-oriented areas create a host of health problems caused by sedentary lifestyles, air pollution, noise pollution, loneliness and social isolation For example, elderly people in car-dependent locations who lose their ability to drive become isolated in their homes. Sadly, car-oriented areas don’t just contribute to health problems, they are also responsible for a staggering tally of physical injury and death. Contrast this to cities and towns where it’s safe and convenient to get around by foot, bike, or transit, so it’s easier for people to naturally build activity into their daily lives.

Caption goes here. Source: doverkohl.com

Caption goes here. Source: doverkohl.com

PMO: Fill us in on how land use and transportation policies at the state or local level can make a difference in whether we are supporting or hindering communities that are more walkable and bikeable, and people who are healthier.

Laura: A city or town where it is hard to get around by healthy modes of transportation like walking, biking or public transit is the result of conscious policy decisions that prioritize automobile travel. Both transportation and land use policies affect our built environment. For example, in the area of transportation, many communities are converting wide four- or five-lane avenues built for fast automobile travel to streets with sidewalks and bike lanes that safely accommodate many modes of transportation. These conversions are often called “road diets.”

The South Willamette Street road diet, completed in 2022, converted a four-lane road into a two-lane road with a center turn lane, bike lanes and wide sidewalks. Road Diets slow traffic, make travel safer and more pleasant for pedestrians and cyclists, and have been shown to improve adjacent businesses. Source: eugene-or.gov/2055/South-Willamette-Street-Improvement

The design of the transportation network is also very important. If streets aren’t well connected and designed for slow traffic, then it’s harder to use healthy modes of transportation like walking and biking because of long distances and unsafe roadways. It’s important for policy makers in different parts of government to work together to build healthy cities. Many emergency responders want very wide streets for their trucks. However, these wide streets encourage speeding and increase crossing distances, putting pedestrians and cyclists in danger. Wide streets also increase the amount of asphalt, contributing to higher urban temperatures (the urban heat island effect), which can be fatal to the elderly and other vulnerable people during extreme heat. However, efforts by planning organizations such as the National Association of City Transportation Officials and the Congress for the New Urbanism have shown that there are many opportunities for cities to collaborate to build safe, healthy and livable cities for all modes of transportation.

On the land use side, it’s important for local governments to allow mixed-use and efficient pedestrian-oriented development so that people can be closer to their destinations. Mixed-use development isn’t just for downtowns. It used to be common for residential areas to have corner stores, in-home stores or businesses, and small commercial districts so that most people in a city were walking distance from most of their daily needs. Because of this, people used to get more exercise just by going about their everyday lives. Today, most cities have made this type of mixed use illegal in the majority of their zoned neighborhoods. Cities can help us return to having active lives by allowing residential areas to have neighborhood commercial uses and making it easier to build residential uses in commercial and light-industrial zones.

Similarly, compact development like multi-story buildings built close to each other instead of separated by parking lots will help create a built environment where it’s easier to walk because destinations are closer. Again, city governments have the power to make this happen through pedestrian-friendly development standards, for example by increasing height limits and not mandating off-street parking. Design standards must favor pedestrians by prohibiting parking between the building and the street, and requiring sidewalk-facing building entrances.

The bottom line is this: we can create the built environment we want. We should feel empowered to make different choices in order to have cities in Oregon where it’s safe and comfortable to walk, bike and take transit.


The State of Oregon’s Transportation and Growth Management Program has resources to help local governments build healthier communities that support active transportation modes like walking and biking. For more information visit, https://www.oregon.gov/lcd/TGM/Pages/index.aspx, or contact Laura Buhl, [email protected], (971) 375-3552.

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