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Healthy Housing
A Handbook for Portland Property Owners

A number of local efforts have recently shined a spotlight on the relationship between the built environment and the health of low-income Portlanders. Poorly designed housing; a lack of sidewalks and safe crossings; and limited access to recreation, schools, nature, places for social interaction, vital services, preventive medical care, and healthy food all contribute to health challenges that disparately affect low-income residents and communities of color.

Youth Design Workshop: Open Space

What do youth want from outdoor open space at their apartment buildings? At a design workshop held in April 2013, the creators of this handbook asked youth living at or near the apartment complexes in our study area to share their ideas.

About the Participants

About 15 teenagers, mostly sophomores and juniors in high school, participated in the design workshop. Most had lived in East Portland for three years or less. Participants included three Karen, four Bhutanese, and six Burmese youth, most from families that are intergenerational and/or have many children.

About the Workshop

The workshop’s purpose was to get feedback on how to create more usable, community-oriented outdoor spaces, geared toward the needs of youth (ages 13 and over) and children (ages 12 and under). We invited participants to discuss challenges and problems related the outdoor space at two properties, and to imagine what would make the environment better.


Workshop participants looked at two properties with different site configurations. Common themes emerged from both discussions:

Existing Conditions

  • Most critically, participants cited a lack of outdoor open space suitable for recreation. There is no outdoor recreation space on either property, so youth don’t play games outside on site. Management dissuades residents from playing outside, concerned that wayward balls will break windows.
  • The properties also lack indoor common space for play or socializing. Youth spend a lot of time inside, doing things like watching movies, when the weather is bad.
  • The properties lack safe outdoor paths and walkways. With minimal separation between pedestrians and autos, it’s unsafe to bike and walk around on site.
  • At one property, residents and neighborhood kids use the vacant lot to the north to play games like soccer and stick ball. The empty lot attracts kids who have no other place to play. But it’s unkempt and dirty, as people use it as a dumping ground for garbage and old mattresses.

Youth Experience

  • Many youth expressed trepidation about using the outdoor spaces at their schools and neighborhood parks. At these public sites, participants described facing harassment from other kids. They also wished to avoid encountering police and drawing attention to themselves. An additional deterrent to using the outdoor space at schools and parks is that they’re about a 20-30 minute walk away.
  • Youth are very busy outside of school with studying, watching younger siblings and sometimes cooking.
  • Childcare often falls to older youth, as parents with jobs work long hours.
  • Participants talked about not having enough room and privacy in their apartments to study. This was discussed in parallel with their responsibility for watching younger siblings.

Ideal Environment

  • Youth were primarily interested in a recreation area that could accommodate a variety of games and ages. Many participants wanted to play soccer, stick ball and foursquare. Others were interested in jump-rope, coin-toss games and lifting weights.
  • Participants cited a need for an on-site play area that was safe and contained so that small children couldn’t wander off. It could be indoors or outdoors, as long as the space were enclosed and had a roof to keep the area dry.
  • Youth wanted an adjacent study area that would allow them to supervise younger children while studying. This study area could double as a community space for gatherings such as birthday parties.
  • Some youth expressed an interest in gardening, and suggested their parents would make use of garden space to grow food. An adjacent seating area would make the space more conducive to interaction.
  • Youth said they’d enjoy having a common kitchen and dining area. Sharing food is a great way to encourage community, and youth would use a common kitchen and dining area for celebrations and summer barbeques.
  • Storage for bikes, games and sports equipment would be helpful. Units are not big enough to accommodate many of these items.