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February 15, 2018 at 3:17 PM

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Field Notes: Pioneer Courthouse Square – Portland’s Living Room

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Pioneer Courthouse Square

Article and cover photo by Hema Ramnani.

Affectionately referred to as the city’s ‘living room,’ the red brick amphitheater that makes up Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square represents a highly successful recipe for activation and place-making. Like a living room or a courtyard space in a family home, the Square provides Portlanders and visitors to the city, with a place for engagement, celebrate, socialize or relax.

In 2004 the square was named the fourth best public square in the world by New York’s Project for Public Spaces. Whether or not you buy into this sort of ranking, if you spend any time there, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular.

Located on the block bounded by SW 6th Avenue, Yamhill, Broadway, and Moison, the 40,000 sf (3,700 m2) downtown square is surrounded by diverse land uses and transit options – all of which act as catalysts to attract tourists. More than that, the cultural and social activities that are programmed in and around the space make the Square a place of pride and a hub of community and visitor activity. Over 300 events take place each year, in addition to the many passive forms of recreation that are supported. (If you’re not into one of the programmed activities, the nearby food trucks provide a opportunity to grab a snack, sit on the steps of the Square, and watch the public life unfold).

Photo by Flickr user Ian Sane (Creative Commons).

There are lessons here. Like Vancouver, Portland rains a lot. This bowl-shaped Square tackles this climatic challenge by hosting several seasonal events in the spring and winter.

The art installations – including the famous “Allow Me” (aka “Umbrella Man”) sculpture by John Seward Johnson II – is situated on the south side of the Square just above the amphitheater and is seen as welcoming visitors there. The sculpture depicts a life-sized man dressed in a business suit, holding an umbrella and is in a hurry. The sculpture is so well known that it is used as a reference point for people, gatherings and taking pictures.

“Allow Me” by sculptor John Seward Johnson II. Photo by Wikipedia user Noliver. (Creative Commons).

The many events, concerts, and celebrations that take place in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square represent a full spectrum of activities. The programming and other aspects of management are administered by a non-profit organization and Board of Trustees that was created to oversee the site when it opened in 1984.

Both the stewardship and programming elements provide an interesting case study for central gathering areas in North America. Here, in Vancouver, it’s worth asking how we might learn from this when it comes to programming (and stewarding) the recently redesigned North Plaza in front of the Art Gallery. Although different in many ways, our newly refurbished Plaza could – and should – be a fantastic activity node for all weather events as well.


Hema Ramnani is an Urban Designer/Planner passionate about participatory planning, and placemaking through public engagement and public space innovation. You can find more of her work at

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