Yesterday Dylan Chavez, president of the Salem Chapter of the AIA (American Institute of Architects), gave a fascinating Salem City Club talk about Influence in Design, "the nature and significance of architecture in our community."
His slide presentation included interesting observations about what's good and bad in Salem's built environment.
To semi-quote Madonna, we are material beings living in a material world -- not ethereal entities who can float through life blissfully unaffected by the physical stuff that surrounds us.
Likewise, Chavez said that architecture is the background in which we live. Why does it matter? Because the background influences our behavior, both actions and feelings.
He noted that even though we are the same person, we're going to be affected differently by going into a church rather than a biker bar. Or being in Salem rather than in Las Vegas. In a similar fashion, architecture is shaped by society while also shaping it.
This is an overhead view of Lancaster Mall (the mass of connected buildings in the upper left of the photo I took with my iPhone). I'm pretty sure Chavez said that the scale of the image is the same as the view below of downtown Salem.
The large dark areas surrounding Lancaster Mall are parking lots, surrounded by roads. Downtown Salem also has parking, but it is mostly onstreet or in parking garages.
Chavez used a laser pointer to indicate a walk of similar length between your parked car and a destination at either downtown Salem or Lancaster Mall (top two images in his slide, as above).
How is that walk going to feel to you? How enjoyable will it be? This is the power of the built environment, of architectural/design decisions.
Downtown, Chavez said, you're going to be walking through an area with lots of interesting things to see. Like people sitting at sidewalk tables -- image at bottom left.
But at Lancaster Mall (and, I have to add, dreadful Keizer Station, a horribly-designed shopping center), you're going to be staring at a vast expanse of bare boring pavement. Or a mixture of boring pavement and boring cars. See image at bottom right.
During the Q & A period, Chavez was asked about making trees an integral part of parking lots so they're more attractive. His answer opened up my mind to a different way of looking at this, since I've always thought, along with the questioner, that more trees in parking lots would be a good thing.
Maybe so. Assuming that a big parking lot already exists, and the trees replaced some parking spaces.
However, Chavez pointed out a fact that he was pretty sure of: the City of Salem requires a parking space for every 250 square feet of a building's space. Given that a parking space is about 200 square feet (20 X 10), this means that parking is going to take up almost as much square footage as a building itself.
"Do we need that much parking space?" Chavez asked. Should a parking lot be planned around rare events, like Black Friday shopping sprees? He said that adding trees to a parking lot increases the size of the lot, given the above-mentioned City of Salem requirement.
So Chavez got his audience thinking about the bigger picture -- whether we need giant parking lots at all -- in addition to the smaller question of whether trees make giant parking lots more palatable.
Lastly, here's a slide that shows per capita income over time (1990-2011) for Salem, Oregon, and the Portland/Beaverton/Vancouver metro area. Salem is the bottom line; Oregon is the middle line; Portland metro area is the top line.
In 2011, Salem's per capita income of a bit less than $35,000 was about $8,000 less than the Portland metro area per capita income of about $43,000. Chavez noted, "This leads some people to say, Salem can't afford nice things." He then said that we also need to look at the cost of housing, though.
I jotted down that Chavez said the overall average price of a house in Portland is around $500,000. But I was taking notes hurriedly, and could be wrong about this. Whatever the amount is, the price is Salem is much lower.
The Willamette River is on the left. Mission Street angles downward across the lower right of the map. Most of Salem is the same color as far-southeast Portland, with some fairly large swatches of dark green (lowest priced homes) that are missing in Portland.
Chavez said that the overall average price of a home in Salem is about $300,000. Or maybe $200,000, though I ended up scratching out whatever I first jotted down and ended up with $300,000. Again, whatever the price is, it's around half of what people are paying in Portland.
So even though us Salemians/Salemites (I'm a big fan of the first term for us; see my Strange Up Salem column) have quite a bit less money than Portlanders, we also pay much less for housing.
I guess the implication is that we can afford nice things, so long as they don't cost as much as the nice things in Portland.