For this month’s constituent spotlight, we spoke with Steph Routh, community advocate extraordinaire, about her passion for walking*, community engagement, and finding solutions to some of Multnomah County’s most complex issues.
Steph is an energetic and caring community activist who has spent much of her career developing ways for community members to become active in the planning and development or preservation of the places where they live, work, and find belonging. Walking is a huge part of how Steph conducts community engagement, motivated by the Latin phrase “solvitur ambulando,” which translates to: “It is solved by walking.” Steph believes that stepping foot in a neighborhood and seeing a place through the eyes of its residents is one of the best ways to examine issues and potential solutions, as well as improve one’s ability to connect with a space.
To her core, Steph believes that complex issues, such as homelessness, transportation safety, and climate change, can be addressed and mitigated. One way to do this is by encouraging community members to be an agent of change to solve the issues that occur in their neighborhood. Steph’s recommendations include addressing accessibility barriers to important tables, such as City and County committees or neighborhood forums, and of course embracing a Housing First approach to our region’s housing shortage.
(Responses have been edited for clarity and conciseness.)
You have devoted your career - both professionally and personally with your volunteer work - to community and bettering our city. What's been the most rewarding part of that work thus far?
I think it's flattering to think that I am bettering the city, but only time will tell. I enjoy meeting people who show up and continue to show up for our community. Organizing is about developing relationships and creating conditions for people to meet and develop belonging. It is such a joy and honor to be a part of someone else’s sense of belonging.
As the former Executive Director of Oregon Walks, how does walking improve a person’s ability to engage with their community?
I want to start by prefacing that at Oregon Walks, we use walking to mean walking and rolling. While everyone is a pedestrian, not everyone walks.
I love the Latin phrase “solvitur ambulando,” which translates to: “it is solved by walking.” Walking is an elegant solution to a lot of our societal issues: climate change, connectivity, social services, belonging. When we create a space for walkability we build in self determination for all community members. There are a lot of places where transit doesn’t go, and there are a lot of places where you cannot drive.
In addition, prioritizing walking creates place and space. We have destinations that are about people, where the focus is connecting people rather than storing vehicles.
Tragically, we are seeing far too many deaths from traffic incidents, most of them occurring in east Portland and in neighborhoods where people drive too fast or there is inadequate pedestrian infrastructure. Why do you think traffic fatalities are an all-time high? What can we do to make Vision Zero a reality?
We have too many high crash corridors. We know where they are and we know the many conditions that heighten the probability of a fatality occurring. These are predictable and therefore they are preventable.
We need to see traffic safety as street and community safety. These efforts need to be seen in a holistic way. As we have seen in the past year, an overwhelming number of people who have been killed while walking have been people experiencing houselessness. Traffic crashes and traffic deaths are unfortunately the outcome, but answers exist. An answer I believe in is housing first and prioritizing our most vulnerable road users. An example of this is installing street lighting in east Portland. Traffic issues are a branch of systemic issues which have only been met with incremental issues.
If you were trying to explain to someone living in Portland who knew very little about Sightline’s work and research, what would you say? What is the most compelling work Sightline is engaging in currently?
Sightline Institute envisions in the Pacific Northwest an economy and way of life that are environmentally sound, economically vibrant, and socially just. We work on policies that change the odds for our environment and economy: more democratic voting systems, abundant housing, and decarbonizing our grid, as three examples of work we are currently undertaking in Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Idaho.
If you had a magic wand, how would you adjust Portland’s neighborhoods to meet the city’s rapid growth and why? Or, what would you prevent from changing?
I would like to see more neighbors welcomed into more neighborhoods and invited to engage in local conversations. I believe that where you live is not your entire identity. We want to have people feel comfortable to engage in a space, venue, and manner in which they find empowering. Expanding the definition of how a neighbor can engage requires re-drawing the tables, expanding them, and also uplifting certain voices.
Also, we need more homes, since we are experiencing a housing crisis. As we’ve talked about we have communities that are overrepresented in statistics of traffic fatalities and are over policed. Far too many people are unhoused, we need more homes for Portlanders (and all are Portlanders).