It’s not often that a city comes together to reimagine its downtown, but Eugene, Oregon recently did exactly that. In recent years, Eugene’s downtown spaces like the Park Blocks, Kesey Square, Hult Center Plaza, and the Library Plaza had seen a significant decrease in attendance. To reimagine the downtown area, Eugene’s public spaces would have to draw people back in and create a new identity. PPS joined the City of Eugene in a “Places for People” campaign aimed at a livelier downtown, alongside safer and more inclusive public spaces — all while Eugene happened to be in the market for a new site for its City Hall. The result would, residents hoped, be a connected series of public spaces that served as “the city’s center for culture and commerce.”
After taking a closer look at the use of the City’s downtown spaces and interviewing and surveying more than 2000 locals, PPS saw that one of the main challenges faced by Eugene was making the downtown feel inviting and welcoming for everyone. At the time the project began, numerous unhoused individuals sought refuge in parks and plazas. Other users reported feelings of discomfort around using these spaces. Nonetheless, Eugene residents showed support for expanded social services, alongside events and programs accessible to all Eugenians, especially kids. The spaces needed stronger links to existing social services and to become more inclusive during long-standing events, like the Park Blocks’ well-loved Saturday Market and weekly farmers markets.
Now, the downtown has a wider appeal, with exciting new programming, including an ongoing concert series, lunchtime street performances, and yearly events like a Human Foosball Tournament. New seats, bistro tables, and a large deck area at the Park Blocks created a playful and relaxing atmosphere. But perhaps more important than the new seating and activities is the new thinking around inclusion of unhoused individuals and other Eugenians in the spaces. The downtown area has evolved to be more comfortable for everyone — starting with widely used daytime lockers and public restrooms to expanded shelter options for local teenagers. Social outreach has also continued to grow since the project began: The Downtown Youth Initiative, run by the Recreation Department, provides programs, games, crafts, and outreach to at-risk local young people, and a Youth Mentorship Program has opened up opportunities to take on temporary roles with Eugene’s Recreation or Facilities staff. Eugene is also investing further in its Community Outreach Response Team, a mobile group that connects unhoused people with social services.
Thinking ahead, the City of Eugene embraced PPS’s recommendations to create a management plan; hiring Downtown Ambassadors to manage the spaces, adding a Homelessness Liaison to City staff, and planning for long-term monitoring. It’s paying off already: People have begun to feel safer and more welcome in the parks, evidenced by the rising number of children and families taking part in well-loved new events and programs. Final plans for the new City Hall are still in the works, but many residents point to a new building facing Eugene’s Park Blocks, becoming part of a renewed civic square. The City Hall would have a front-row seat as Eugene’s downtown spaces come alive once again — as places where all Eugenians are welcome.