In planning for growth, there’s at least one generally agreed-on idea that most cities are trying out: Densifying along the major streets.  The arterials, boulevards and avenues, the wider ones, where the streetcars went, where transit does now.

Portland has a lot of them, radiating out from the river and downtown.  Here’s one of those streets – Division.  As you’d expect, it bisects the 19th-century suburbs:


Once it was a streetcar route, with a mix of bungalow housing and one-or two-storey commercial frontage – surprisingly narrow for a major corridor of activity.  It went into decline as Motordom prevailed, and became heavily auto-oriented.  Division, it was said, was where you went to get your car repaired.


But the combination of old houses and low-rent commercial was ideal soil for sprouting new businesses, opening restaurants and coffee shops and all kinds of eklecteria that made it more and more attractive for others.


As Portland grew and the old streetcar suburbs, still affordable, attracted more renters and owners, It was clear that growth had to be accommodated.  But there was agreement not to change scale or character in the single-family-residential neighbourhoods between the arterials.  The frontage along streets like Division would be the better if not only place for … ta da …more density, more housing choice, more retail, more frequent transit, hopefully more affordability.  It would look like this:


Portland started with four-storey condos and apartments, with retail at grade and significantly reduced parking requirements – in some cases, controversially, little or none at all.  Today, these blocks are redefining the corridor.


More floors have been added.  And more to the debate.


Hopefully some of that mix of uses, ages, styles and eccentricity, if not affordability, can be retained.



  1. No matter which city, it’s still a bad policy. Arterials are noisy, more polluted and more dangerous. Unfortunately they are still largely our commercial strips containing almost all of our shops, services and amenities. As such they should be kept as hospitable as possible until we find a way to get MV traffic down to tolerable levels. That means sunlight. Four five and six storey buildings just mean less of it as more and more people are housed on the least livable streets.

    If there are to be useful storeys above the ground level shops they should be geared toward office and similar space that have less expectation of peace and quiet and would add another layer of citizen to the health and vitality of the street. The lower demand, compared to residential, would necessarily maintain a lower building profile and more light.

    The first wave of missing middle should be set one street off of the arterial for proximity to all that it offers without all the negatives. As that parallel street evolves there might be opportunity to introduce some shops and services on the ground plane that shares the commercial alley for easy access for goods – particularly where it crosses another arterial to create a stronger node. Where separated bike routes are impractical or politically impossible on arterials they should run on these parallel streets (as they often already do) and begin to evolve a human scaled commercial environment. Increased density should create the need for additional commercial space and this would be an alternative to the noisy, smelly arterials for the types of shops and services that aren’t car focused. Which is most of them even if the merchants refuse to see it.

    It seems impossible to get merchants to agree to any measure that constrains the car and there’s almost nowhere to show that some merchants would prefer car lite (or none). Finally we’d have a place for those businesses to move in to.

  2. Well, it seems that “arterial” means different things to different people. Compare the Portland SE Division St photos with Vancouver’s Oak Street, a new home for the missing middle under Cambie Corridor Phase 3 with AADT (average annual daily traffic) ranging from 70,000 at w67th to 50,000 at w41st Ave. An artist’s vision of w67th and Oak can be found here
    from the Marpole plan (incorporated into Cambie Plan) found here
    A bit more Darwinian than this Portland example, perhaps.

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