Wednesday, 14 Feb 2001

PORTLAND, Ore.

It’s 7:30, and I’m up on the 13th floor of the Portland Building, high above Portlandia, the trident-bearing, dice-tossing icon adorning the building’s western portico. Gathered in the Forest Park room is the dogged group that has met at the same hour several times a month, for many months. Our charge is to develop a strategy that moves the movers and shakers, as well as the regular folk, to recognize the aesthetic, social, educational, economic, and ecological values of the city’s park system. To move them to consider parks essential to a livable city. Just as important as fire, police, and schools.

Downtown, where higher density residential development is slated, especially needs more parks and public places.

Photo: Mike Houck.

In the end, the six of us, two park bureau employees and four citizens, agree on some basic goals and strategies to ensure that park constituents, the presumed choir, well-connected Portland civic leaders, and the media “get it” — get that parks and recreational programs for youth are every bit as important as other “basic” city services.

We call ourselves the “promotions group.” We are one of several subgroups of 50 or 60 citizens and park professionals who for two years have been creating a vision for the Portland park system. Parks Vision 2020 harkens back to 1903, when John Charles Olmsted, adopted son of Frederick Law, Sr., presented both Portland and Seattle with a master plan for a “comprehensive, interconnect” urban park system. (Nothing’s changed in the intervening 98 years. Neither city had sufficient funds, so both cities agreed to chip in for Olmsted’s train fare to the West Coast.) I’ll write more on 2020 and Olmsted after tomorrow night’s unveiling of the 2020 Plan by Parks Commissioner Jim Francesconi.

At 9:30 sharp, I’m at the Koin Tower, the pyramidal green-capped Portland landmark, en route to talk with former Portland Mayor and Oregon Governor Neil Goldschmidt. We ran into one another a few months ago at a local coffee shop and struck up a conversation about a program to teach reading to Oregon’s kids. In sixth grade, I had a teacher, Mr. Ebert, who every day read to us books like Green Mansions and The Wizard of Oz. Mr. Ebert also introduced us to classical music and took us on a tour of a Portland Art Museum van Gogh exhibit. Having grown up in the outer southeast part of Portland, where many streets remain unpaved to this day and there are no parks, Ebert had a huge impact on me. I actually ran into him a couple years ago at a political fund-raiser and had the chance to tell him how much he meant to me as a teacher — a rare opportunity to thank someone who has made an impact on my life. I wanted to know more about Goldschmidt’s SMART reading program.

Metro regional trails and greenways.

But this morning’s not about reading. Instead, we discuss the need for open space in the central city as residential density increases. We also muse about the fate of Ross Island (see Tuesday’s diary) and marvel at the success of Metro’s Greenspace program. I give him a copy of Wild in the City, and we agree to take a day off to visit some local green spaces and perhaps link nature study with one of his reading projects.

Next, it’s Metro’s GTAC (Greenspaces Technical Advisory Committee). Thirty of the region’s park planners and a handful of park advocates, like Barbara Walker of the 40-Mile Loop Land Trust, myself, a
nd southwest Portland trail guru Don Baack, are gathered to discuss priorities for the regional trail network. Although most of the attention has focused on the 6,500 acres Metro acquired in 1995 with a $135.6 million bond measure, Metro and local park providers have also made great strides in implementing the regional trails program. For information, check out their website.

Two hours later, still at Metro, we start another committee meeting, this time for performance measures. We are attempting to establish measurable benchmarks to see if we’re succeeding in developing a compact metropolitan region, while maintaining a healthy economy and environment, as well as an outstanding quality of life.

A water trail of the Willamette River, near Rock Island.

Photo: Mike Houck.

For example, for Greenspaces, one measure is to ensure that every citizen is no more than a 15-minute walk from both a park and natural area. For more information on Metro Region 2040, check their website.

Finally, I catch the tail end of a meeting of Metro’s Metropolitan Policy Advisory Committee (MPAC), a committee of the region’s elected officials, representing all 24 cities and three counties within Metro’s jurisdiction. At 7 p.m., the indefatigable Jim Zehren, Portland attorney and urban park advocate, convenes the MPAC parks subcommittee. His goal: to convince MPAC that parks are an essential element of the region’s growth management strategy, just as important as roads, utilities, and how much industrial land we might have in the 20-year land supply. Sound familiar? It should. Jim also serves on Portland Parks Vision 2020.