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A Life by Design: Paddy Tillett - Young at Any Age

What do Portland, Japan, the Tuomoto Atoll and the MAX line to Gresham have in common?  Paddy Tillett.  A tall man with a ready smile, he defies Northwest casual in favor of a bowtie, which may be in homage to his origins in the British Isles. Paddy has helped to shape the vibrant city of Portland, Oregon with his knowledge of transit-oriented development and urban design here and across the globe.

            Scottish-born Michael Patrick was dubbed “Paddy” as a boy by Irish road workers he passed as he walked through town. The name stuck even after he left home to study at Oxford. Before graduation, his attraction to Japanese architecture prompted him to contact architects in Japan, and one of them offered him an internship.  “Now,” he wondered, “how do I get to Japan?”  He found a steamer to New York, hitch hiked across the United States and then worked on a Norwegian merchant vessel via Shanghai to Japan.  During his internship he worked on light rail, which would become a recurring theme in his work across many decades.

When the job was over, he returned to Europe, completed his degree and found work in London.  While there he cultivated his passion as a navigator for ocean racing yachts.  A perfect weekend for him was to race across the English Channel, have a wonderful dinner in France and then race back the next day. 

But nothing compared to a cruise in the South Pacific at the uninhabited Tuomoto Atoll.  His favorite experience was a day he swam away from the boat during a calm sea near the Galapagos.  With the water supporting him and the yacht and its shadow looking so tiny in the vast ocean; he felt as if he were in outer space.  After 10 months cruising the South Pacific, he stopped in Portland. He happened to meet a partner of the firm at which he works today—ZGF Architects, LLP.  That chance meeting proved fortuitous when a year or so later while back in Europe, Paddy received a call.  The firm needed someone to help Portland with the first light rail line.  The TriMet board had approved the project in 1978, and construction began in 1982.

And so he ended up back in Portland and back at ZGF where he continued to shape the Portland we know today. Among other urban design efforts, his firm promoted the effort to establish the streetcars in downtown Portland.

Portlanders quickly embraced their streetcar system. Tillett continued: “The streetcar helps extend peoples’ walking distance. It is not supposed to serve as point-to-point transit. Today it has a dedicated ridership and demonstrates how streetcars can play an important role in public transit around the country.”

He loves Portland’s strong support for the environment.  And he says, “Portland is as close as I have found to a true meritocracy. People here are taken at face value.” 

Throughout his career, Paddy has been involved in transit-oriented development projects. He has also been involved in  downtown revitalization strategies and urban waterfronts, large-scale corporate campuses, and numerous college and university campuses. Paddy is known nationally and internationally as a speaker on urban design. Click here for his thoughts on participatory design . 

At age 73, Paddy believes it is important to be engaged beyond one’s professional life.  He has been involved in Portland City Club, various boards including the parks board, and the Willamette Light Brigade that works to light up Portland’s bridges.  He also teaches at Portland State  University and is working on a book on urban design that will be published this year.  Defining a healthy city as one in which most of life’s needs can be met within a twenty minute walk, Paddy examines the reasons for Portland’s success and imperatives for continuing it.

The biophilia hypothesis (that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life) has influenced Paddy’s work.  One can imagine that he experienced the ultimate biophilia experience while floating in the ocean off the Galapagos.

Young at Any Age is a collaborative project with the AARP Oregon Volunteer team of Carlos Romo, Steve Carter, Joyce DeMonnin, Sam Jones and Debbie Cahill. Send in suggestions to for outstanding Oregonians 50+ who prove that age is just a number. #DisruptAging #RealPossibilities

[Photo: Sam Jones]




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