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Residents in the West Portland Town Center experience different health outcomes, depending on where they live

News Article
New consultant research on public health and best practices for equitable growth is informing how the town center plan can help reduce racial disparities in health and improve health outcomes for all.
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As work on the West Portland Town Center Plan moves forward, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is using a health equity framework to develop a new land use and transportation plan with the community that lives in SW Portland. New public health research and engagement of immigrant communities in the area is influencing the plan recommendations being drafted this spring.

Community-based organizations (CBO), such as HAKI, UniteOregon and Community Alliance of Tenants have engaged with low-income residents, renters and immigrants with community-wide events, focus groups, and canvassing. Through their outreach, they have identified actionable priorities to improve health by preventing cultural displacement as well as increasing safety and economic opportunity:

Voices from the community!

Through our community engagement, residents have said:

"I want it (West Portland Town Center) to be a real place that naturally draws many people rather than cars to the area — a Southwest Portland living room like Pioneer Courthouse Square."

"West Portland is a beautiful place that I spend of my time because of my community. I would like to see more affordable housing, a food market, and a community center."

"I'm proud of growing cultural diversity in our neighborhoods so my son can grow up with greater understanding and appreciation for other cultures and languages. I'm worried about new Portlanders/non-English language speakers not getting their voices heard — they're so often not at the table but are affected most by displacement."

Health equity research reveals challenges to residents in the area

The West Portland Town Center Health Equity Assessment looked at many health indicators in the study area. Researchers found five challenges to environmental and community health:

  1. Traffic safety: Fewer than 13% of the streets in the West Portland Town Center area have sidewalks. Pedestrians and cyclists are forced to use dangerous major streets designed for cars, and collisions are frequent. High speed auto infrastructure (I-5 and Barbur Blvd) and lack of quality pedestrian and transit infrastructure (sidewalks and safe crossings) disproportionately affect low-income communities (who are more likely to depend on walking and transit). They also increase the risk of collisions and fatalities for everyone.
  2. Infrastructure as a divider: I-5 and SW Barbur physically and socially divide the town center and create barriers to accessing community assets/services, such as stores, parks and a library, and maintaining social cohesion.
  3. Air pollution and noise: Residents of the town center are exposed to high levels of diesel fumes from I-5, which increases the risk of developing lung cancer, asthma and cardiovascular disease. Low-income, children and racially diverse populations are at a greater risk of developing these health conditions. Noise levels from I-5 traffic are a source of chronic stress for everyone.
  4. Displacement risk: Renters, households of color, those lacking college degrees, and lower income households are more vulnerable to displacement pressures,  which will increase with the introduction of light rail. Racism and displacement risk are major sources of chronic stress, especially for residents in the denser and more diverse West Portland Park neighborhood.
  5. Poverty and living wages: Income is one of the strongest indicators of health outcomes. Poverty doubled and incomes fell 16% in neighborhoods south of I-5, while neighborhoods north of I-5 experienced the opposite trends. Poverty increases the risk of inadequate nutrition, inaccessibility to healthcare services, unstable housing, lower quality schools and high exposure to environmental toxins.

View the full report: 

Existing conditions and opportunities for improvements

Traffic safety is a key concern of residents. A lack of sidewalks, long crossing times for pedestrians at intersections, substandard bike infrastructure, and high-speed traffic entering and existing the freeway has led to a high number of accidents for walkers and cyclists. By making pedestrian and bike improvements on routes to key locations will reduce traffic injuries and deaths. It will also create a healthier environment that encourages residents to walk or bike to places around their neighborhood.

map of existing traffic conditions on and near SW Barbur

The map shows what’s already in the West Portland Town Center area, including the number of traffic deaths and injuries (pink circles). Community priorities include improving routes to key locations, such as Markham Elementary School, Jackson Middle School, the Masjid As-Saber mosque, and the proposed light rail station (pink box).

The good and the not so good stuff

West Portland Park is a neighborhood in the southern part of the town center. Research shows that it has unique assets as well as greater health disparities than other parts of SW Portland.

Assets include:

  • The West Portland Park neighborhood is more racially and ethnically diverse than the rest of the Town Center and Portland as a whole. 28% of residents identify as non-White, compared to 16% in the larger West Portland Town Center study area.
  • Holly Farm Park, Capitol Hill Library, and Markham Elementary serve as a civic campus, providing opportunity for physical activities, learning, and community gathering.  
  • There are more renters (57%) than homeowners (47%) in the area. The percent of Black renters (91%) is drastically higher than the White population (39%).
  • The area is home to a well-established and growing immigrant community anchored by the second oldest mosque in the city, which culturally enhances the area.
  • Collaborations with community-based organizations show there is powerful community capacity within West Portland Park.

Health inequities and challenges:

  • Compared to similar areas north of I-5, West Portland Park is experiencing declining trends in income, education rates and health outcomes as well as increasing poverty rates. And this divide appears to be growing.
  • West Portland Park has a higher percentage of residents without a high school or college education compared to those living in the greater Southwest Corridor.
  • West Portland Park renters are likely to spend more than 50% of their household income on housing costs, leaving less money for essential food and healthcare needs.
  • On- and off-ramps to I-5 create peak-hour auto congestion, concentrate pollution, and force pedestrians to cross wide intersections full of cars that are backed up.
infographic showing population and demographic information

Recommendations for healthier, more equitable outcomes

To create a healthier, safer environment for people living in the West Portland Town Center area, the consultant recommended the following action items:

  • Construct roadside vegetation barriers to filter air pollutants (acting as a “Green Lung”) and increase access to nature. Vegetation and manmade acoustical barriers can also reduce noise pollution.
  • Improve the use of and connection between existing parks and open spaces through a pedestrian pathway.
  • Improve sidewalks and bike lane completeness to enhance physical activity and reduce chronic diseases, especially for lower-income residents more dependent on walking and transit.
  • Create indoor and outdoor places for community gatherings. A multicultural center could provide the community with opportunities for social cohesion within immigrant communities and amongst the broader mainstream community.
  • Invest in immigrant-owned small businesses to grow and employ local residents and provide more culturally relevant goods and services.
  • Work with Portland Community College and major employers like OHSU to train low-income residents for jobs that pay a living wage.
  • Preserve the affordability and improve the quality of the current homes of low-income renters and immigrants who are vulnerable to displacement pressures. 

Staff will be working with the community in the spring to integrate some of these recommendations into a discussion draft of the West Portland Town Center Plan.

Want to learn more and/or get involved?

Join us at the West Portland Town Center Plan Open House on March 4 at Markham Elementary School from 6 – 8 p.m., where project staff will share three growth concepts, which focus on improving health outcomes by addressing air quality, connectivity and physical activity.

You can also connect with our community partners: UniteOregon, Community Alliance of Tenants and HAKI Community Organization

Or contact Hanna Osman at hanna.osman@portlandoregon.gov.