Have you seen this? Padlock placemaking on the Esplanade

Have you seen this? Padlock placemaking on the Esplanade

padlocks on the Eastbank Esplanade

People have spontaneously chosen the Eastbank Esplanade’s grated bridge as a place to commemorate love.
(Photo © M.Andersen/BikePortland)

Every day, Portland’s Eastbank Esplanade is a thumping, clunking, whirring, panting mile of proof that human-friendly infrastructure in a common public space can create great results.

At an urban development conference I attended in May, a fellow reporter told me about a rule of thumb in the architecture world: the hallmark of successful urban design is that it makes couples want to share a kiss. Beautiful views and pleasant places make people want to express love.

Have you noticed that people have recently felt a similar impulse on the Esplanade’s grated crossing just north of the Morrison Bridge? Over the last two years, the fence overlooking the Willamette River there has started filling up with padlocks marked with hearts, dates and people’s names.

Love padlocks are a tradition that might have started in Serbia in the mid-20th century. They’ve recently spread to public fixtures around the world, from Rome and Prague to Sydney, Montevideo and Seoul. Wikipedia doesn’t know of any other spots here in Oregon.

When the $30 million Esplanade opened in 2001, some called it a triumph and others called it pork, a public handout to central-city residents and workers. But it’s not likely that the dozens of people who’ve been moved to track down padlocks, mark them with the names of loved ones, carry them to this bridge and seal them there are aware of any of that controversy.

And although the Esplanade creates very conventional economic value by providing transportation to thousands of Portlanders each day, I don’t think these people are thinking about it that way, either.

They’re just expressing the emotions that come naturally when a city has a truly beautiful piece of human-friendly public space. Creating a space like that can be expensive, but it’s also priceless.

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