Portland Updates Pedestrian Design Guide

Portland Transportation Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has approved a new Pedestrian Design Guide, modernizing the city's standards for sidewalks to provide more access for people with disabilities, while ensuring the tree canopy grows, to reduce the urban heat island effect. The new guide, finalized after two years of public input, replaces standards from 1998. 

The Pedestrian Design Guide serves as the City’s primary guidance on how sidewalks should be built, to ensure they are context-appropriate and accessible to people of all ages and abilities. All pedestrian facilities designed and constructed in Portland by City-led capital projects and by private development must conform to the guide. It addresses modern needs, such as designing for facilities that accommodate both bike use and pedestrians, as well as some places where topography, narrow right of way or community needs make a traditional sidewalk not viable. 

The guide requires that sidewalks provide 6 feet of width for people walking or using a mobility device such as a wheelchair, as this is the space required for two people traveling side by side or passing each other on a sidewalk. In busier Pedestrian Districts, 8-foot sidewalks are required to accommodate a higher number of pedestrians.

The guide also enables the planting of large trees in the public right of way by requiring larger tree wells, the unpaved area surrounding the base of a tree. It also requires continuous planting strips, for a longer area of connected soil for tree growth -- along 80 percent of Portland streets -- and increases the planting strip width in residential areas by 2 feet, to 6 feet. To make more space for tree roots, the guide allows a curb to be extended into a city street, removing on-street parking, to accommodate a larger tree.  

"Climate change is real and it's already having catastrophic impacts here in Portland," Transportation Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said. "I am determined to reduce our carbon emissions and help protect our low-income communities. This Pedestrian Design Guide will make it safer and more comfortable for people to walk or use a mobility device, giving them options that reduce the need to drive a car. I'm proud that the guide both makes our sidewalks more accessible while also including creative ways for us to accommodate more street trees, especially the larger trees that create a larger tree canopy and lower the street temperature on hot summer days." 

Commissioner Hardesty said the guide could not have been possible without the advocacy and engagement of community organizations and dozens of Portlanders who provided input over the last two years. In addition, numerous public agencies and experts provided technical expertise and assistance. 

"We greatly appreciate Commissioner Hardesty's commitment to expand tree planting opportunities in the right of way," said Micah Meskel, Activist Program Manager for Portland Audubon. "The dedication of more space for larger trees in the Pedestrian Design Guide can help improve pedestrian experience and safety while providing environmental co-benefits in our most tree deficient and hottest urban areas." 

"PBOT reached out to Disability Rights Oregon about important updates to the Pedestrian Design Guide that would impact Pedestrian Through Zones," said Matt Serres, Managing Attorney for Disability Rights Oregon. "We provided a recommendation to preserve accessibility and safety for wheelchair users and blind individuals by not extending the size of tree wells. PBOT included this recommendation in order to prevent hazardous and dangerous conditions for people with disabilities on our city sidewalks. We appreciate Commissioner Hardesty and PBOT staff for their efforts to make the Pedestrian Design Guide a solution that works for everyone."  

At Commissioner Hardesty's direction, PBOT Director Chris Warner on Thursday signed an administrative rule implementing the new design guide. The new rules will be effective July 1, at the start of the new city fiscal year. 

The guide will likely have its most immediate and largest impact in how it requires developers to adhere to better standards for sidewalk construction. To comply with the guide, homebuilders and real estate developers build or modernize nearly a marathon's distance of sidewalks in Portland each year.  

The guide provides rules but also guidance that allows flexibility and standards developers and city planners should aspire to. For example, sidewalk level bike paths are not required in the guide, but it does contain guidelines for how such paths should be designed, so they can accommodate the needs of pedestrians, people with disabilities and space for trees and public transit stops. 

The guide includes some significant new provisions that enable more and larger street trees: 

  • Tree planting in the curb zone. The new guide allows trees to be planted beyond the sidewalk, into the street space normally preserved for on-street parking, as long as they don't interfere with traffic safety or physical conflicts, such as underground utilities. This provides an opportunity to plant trees along curb tight sidewalks or where the furnishing zone is too narrow for large street trees -- locations where tree planting is not allowed under current guidance. (The furnishing zone is the buffer that separates pedestrians from the street, where utility poles, street furniture and street trees are located.) 
  • Longer tree wells. The guide increases soil volumes by increasing the length of standard tree wells in Portland. The updated Pedestrian Design Guide calls for tree wells that are a minimum of 9-feet long, an increase from today’s 6-foot-long standard. 
  • Continuous Planting Strips. The new Pedestrian Design Guide increases opportunities for continuous planting strips in Portland by requiring this furnishing zone treatment on all Industrial Streets, Regional Corridors, and Local Streets, regardless of land use. Together, these street types account for about 80% of Portland streets. 
  • Increased Furnishing Zone width on Local Streets in residential areas. Additionally, based on public feedback, the guide now calls for 6-foot furnishing zones on low-traffic residential streets outside of commercial areas. The 6-foot requirement may be met by extending the furnishing zone into on-street parking space or by voluntarily donating an additional two feet of private property.  

PBOT staff continue to look for more ways to increase tree canopy in Portland. Subgrade soil treatments and planting requirements are outside the purview of the guide. However, PBOT is actively collaborating with Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R)’s Urban Forestry on updating planting specifications, including evaluating opportunities for structural soils, tree vaults, and suspended sidewalks. Additionally, PBOT is also partnering with Urban Forestry on a grant proposal to pilot tree planting in the curb zone. 

In fall 2021, PBOT released a Public Review Draft of the updated guide for public comment. Staff received hundreds of comments from Portland residents, which directly influenced the revised Guide released in February 2022. At a public hearing April 4, PBOT gathered more comments and written testimony and made adjustments to the plan. A memo on the project website describes recommendations from the public and the edits to the guide that were made based on public feedback.

The guide is a living document that will be revisited and updated over time, as needed, to keep standards current with best practices. 

Source: Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty

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