The early bird builds its nest: Portland’s early start for promoting natural areas

Having been here for a few months, it started becoming evident that a lot of the Portland metropolitan region’s innovative best practices in planning and conservation — be it the bicycle movement that Portland leads the US in, or progressive land-use planning — took root in activism and policies that started taking shape around 30 years ago.

Being an aspiring civic leader, I was really curious to find out what distinguished the political and social environment in the past that put the region on a sustainable path towards becoming the greenest region of the US. Evidently, one of the key areas where this legacy of planning has showed immense positive effects is the abundance of natural wealth in and around the Portland metropolitan region.

The best resource for understanding the complex history of the region’s planning framework, particularly for open spaces, is undoubtedly Mel Huie, who is a legend in trails planning and development. Another planning stalwart from the region who has been key in the success of the region’s natural areas programme is Nancy Chase. Mel Huie and Nancy Chase are experts on natural areas planning and acquisition and have been working with Metro and allied jurisdictions for over 30 years. These two are in fact a part of that cohort of visionary leaders, planners and citizen advocates that put into motion the processes and changes which placed the region onto a progressive path.

Nancy Chase

Mel Huie

In the following interviews, Mel Huie and Nancy Chase describe the political environment and the planning imperatives that sowed the seeds for Portland’s effective natural areas program me, and discuss the impacts and challenges at the ground level.

Major governance innovations and planning best practices that distinguish Portland seem to have come about around 30 years ago. What was unique about Portland’s leadership at that time?

Mel Huie: In general for the US, the concept of transit and development of natural areas had started taking shape long back. The concept of streetcars began emerging in the US around 1897, when American cities throughout the US were created through ’streetcar suburbs’. Typically, a developer would build the houses and sometimes owned a streetcar company, which would be tied to the electric power company to replace the horses (that were unsanitary because of all the manure). Developers set up streetcar lines in Portland as well, going into the housing areas through the tie up of the streetcar company and the electric company. But the streetcar was abandoned in the 50s and 60s with the advent of freeways (we still have homes and storefronts built along historic streetcar lines).

On the natural areas side, historically there was the Olmsted brothers’ plan for trails and natural areas across the US. In the 1920s and 1930s there was the City Beautiful Movement, particularly famous in New York. There were poor masses that were stuck in tenements and needed fresh air. So parks and open spaces were created under this movement. On their free day of the week, the masses would have a park to relax in. The sociologists and planners also thought of it as social engineering because they were able to get people out of slums to have fresh air in parks, which could help lower crimes. But this movement also lost steam as the depression and World War II came.

It was in the 70s that Portland had a very young dynamic mayor — Neil Goldschmidt. He came into power in 1973 at an age of only 32. Neil Goldschmidt represented City of Portland in CRAG, which was a bi-state association of heads of governments from five counties and cities and the predecessor of Metro. He hired a team of young, dynamic people, which actually included me as I was on CRAG staff.

Actually, at the time when Neil Goldschmidt became mayor, the downtown and urban core of the city was deteriorating and everybody was moving out into suburbs. So in the late 70s they came up with the transit model (in 1986 the first light-rail became operational). Around the same time, there was a lot of pressure to clean up the Willamette river in Portland. This was during the period when Tom McCall was the governor. So in a way, an innovative mayor was complemented by an innovative governor who came up with the Willamette greenway plan and the state comprehensive land-use goals. The goal of the Willamette greenway plan is to have a continuous greenway from the headwaters of the Willamette south of Eugene, Oregon all the way up to Columbia.

At the state level, we had elected visionary leaders who wanted to preserve the Willamette River greenway, and ensure public access to all the beaches. In fact, Oregon has always had a history of green activism, even before the famous Tom McCall came up with the state land-use guidelines and urban growth boundaries in 1979.

So the governor and the legislature made all this possible. The legislature passed a lot of progressive laws (that it might never pass today!). The state required by law that all the cities and counties at Metro have a comprehensive plan for future growth. Within each plan, there was a set of goals such as for transportation and for urban growth, and the protection of natural areas, parks and trails. In 1973, the first comprehensive plan for Portland city was drawn focusing on transportation needs and natural areas, and included the Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

What happened at the ground level after these initial pathbreaking legislations were introduced?

Nancy Chase: Actually, there was financial crisis in the 80s. At that time, I was working for Multnomah County Parks and Recreation with Charlie Seiko. Back then, cities did small little neighbourhood parks and activities like swimming and tennis, and the counties did these larger- scale parks where you could go camping. With the financial crisis underway, the politicians and the county commissioners got together and decided that where they really could make a difference through their actions was in the social services (healthcare for mothers and infants, jails, juvenile courts, homeless etc.). In this discussion, parks were thought of as an extra responsibility that probably Multnomah county could not handle. Planning and parks was not a funding priority at the time; when we would put up project proposals for funding, we would always be behind other priority projects under social services.

So discussions began for giving the Multnomah county parks — Blue Lake and Oxbow — away to the city or private interests. This generated the momentum to look at the provision of park and open space services in the region.  Some cities were doing a good job providing neighbourhood and community parks and the counties were trying to provide regional parks; but because everybody in the overall region used all these services, there was some inequity for tax payers and there was no panning on a regional scale.  What was really needed was a regional plan to look at these large-scale natural areas, parks and trails.

At that time Metro was just starting to work on regional park planning. So representatives from all local governments started working with Metro to identify park needs and determine which entities should be responsible for these services. For two years after that, staff and elected representatives from all jurisdictions got together and put together a natural areas plan. The end product was the Greenspaces Master Plan showing what the best natural areas left in this whole region (covering all three counties) were. We did this planning process in two stages. At the time, Mel Huie represented Metro and I represented Multnomah county. Metro also hired biologists to evaluate the natural areas that were left.

Mel Huie: Between 1988 and 1992 the Greenspaces Master Plan was developed. It was a Metro initiative, that led into the natural areas master plan. Overall, it took about four years to develop that plan because it was developed through consensus amongst all the jurisdictions.

Nancy Chase: The meetings and consensus building itself was a long and tiring process that lasted 2.5 years. As part of building the natural areas master plan, we conducted a series of workshops and forums for all the citizens and neigbourhood groups to get together and nominate natural areas and trails they felt should be preserved. We had over 200 public meetings. There was a huge difference in scale on what jurisdictions and people thought was important. It came down to nominations as small as one tree that one little city really wanted to preserve versus 5,000 acres on Sandy River.

What was important about our strategy for these discussions was that we did them before the discussions of money were brought onto the table. Money was not even in the picture. People did say why are you doing this when you do not have any money to buy it. We all had been in government and politics long enough to know that discussions around money could skew the focus. Our philosophy was that it was essential to know what natural areas were biologically important and document the facts. By eliminating any financial discussions we tried and managed to keep the discussions firstly on a scientific basis and secondly, even if an area did not qualify on scientific merit, we considered areas that were located in such a way that the neighbourhood really could make use of them and liked them. So the strategy was to have people nominate areas based on both biology and what would help keep communities together, such as a particular natural area in private ownership that everybody liked to walk to. To the component of natural areas, we also added the notion that we needed trail corridors to link these areas, so that people could either get there on foot or bicycle.

The end product, which was the master plan, ended up being universally adopted because Mel Huie took the resolution to every single city and jurisdiction to adopt it. Every city and every county approved this master plan. So before any money was involved and before it became controversial, the areas in the master plan were universally recognised as important for the region. This proved to be instrumental because we had a document approved by everybody about what was important to be saved before there was money to buy the natural areas.

Besides getting an agreement on what was important, this process was also building up a constituency, because all the neighbourhood meetings gave us a list of people who thought it was important and participated actively on a citizen base. A lot of these active people formed their own unit-level groups (such as Friends of Fanno Creek) that advocated for protection of specific natural areas. These ‘friends groups’ worked on protecting these natural areas and Metro could work with these groups. The workshops and forums along with newspaper articles also raised the visibility on the issue.

Simultaneously, we were working with Metro councillors to create an understanding that regional parks should be something Metro does as a region. We were pushing for a transfer of Multnomah county parks and recreation to Metro given the county’s financial limitations and priority to social services. It worked out very well.

Mel Huie: On January 1, 1994, Multnomah Parks and Recreation became a part of Metro, and that way we brought one implementing agency under us so that there was less fragmentation.

Nancy Chase: While this was still in process we were putting together the first bond measure for $200 million. It was organised by a group of volunteers and the first time we had ever done anything like this. It nearly passed even though we we were not specific about what we would buy – just trust us!

Even before the bond measure was introduced, we managed to build political support by inviting politicians and staff to field visits to cities where such plans were successfully in place. In particular, a trip to Oakland was organised, where the East Bay Regional Park District Master Plan was in effect. When the politicians returned, all of a sudden our Greenspaces master plan started to make sense to them in terms of what we were trying to achieve. By the time we introduced the first bond measure for $200 million, there was universal political support for it.

Unfortunately the first bond measure lost by a very slim margin. Exit polls that asked voters why they voted either way indicated that a lot of people who voted against the bond measure felt it was a huge and open-ended plan, so that they did not know if it would directly benefit their area or not. One of the comments from newspaper editorials questioned Metro’s ability to effectively utilise the $200 million to start buying land and managing it when the organisation had never managed property. That is a huge leap to take!

But we picked ourselves up from there and went ahead with transferring Multnomah county Parks and Recreation to Metro. I became a Metro employee. So all of a sudden, Metro had a parks system and a maintenance staff with over a 100 years of experience in managing property. So they had that component ready and we went ahead with two successful natural areas bond measures.

It has been about 20 years. What impact have you seen with the natural areas acquisition programme?

Nancy Chase: I think there is this huge support for natural areas and it still triggers people to continue voting in it’s favour. State wide there have been measures to help, such as ensuring clean water and protection of salmon. I think people really care. We have successfully managed to save some of the green spaces in perpetuity.

Natural areas in Portland are enjoyed by wildlife and residents alike

Mel Huie: I think that the government managed to buy whole trail corridors in one go such as the Springwater Corridor, the Gresham-Fairview trail and the Trolley Trail because these came up, in accordance with the 1974 bicycle plan, on former streetcar lines that were abandoned. Luckily, the right-of-way remained intact; it wasn’t parceled up and sold to next door neighbours.

Another positive impact is that there is a lot more integration in trail planning in the Portland metropolitan region. The Greenspaces Master Plan has facilitated this integration and coordination.

What are the challenges?

Mel Huie: Implementing the plan is taking a long time, because we are a public agency. We cannot just buy the land we want all the time; some years there is money while other years there isn’t.

Nancy Chase: In fact you can still drive around the area and see land that may seem protected but is in fact in private ownership and not really protected. We have targeted 10 per cent under public ownership, but is that really enough? Within the urban growth boundary, if we are going to have high density, people need to have these parks and natural areas nearby.

The biggest challenge is have we really bought enough land to make it worthwhile for the species over there. It needs to be linked to other natural areas for a deer to be able to survive and not be killed by cars. To have a diversity of species, you really need hundreds of acres linked to larger areas. I do not know if we would ever have enough money to buy it all. Portland was lucky because we had an urban growth boundary around the Portland metropolitan region, which does allow larger land parcels for species outside the boundary.

Another challenge is not having the checkerboard pattern. With the willing seller programme we are going to have holes in public ownership of the land. You have to hope that eventually we might be able to buy that land but it is an unknown and once it gets developed into housing it becomes quite unlikely.

Has there been a conflict between developing trails for people by promoting health and outdoor recreation and protecting wildlife in natural areas?

Mel Huie: I think it is a dichotomy, but the initial focus was more on protecting and preserving natural areas and wildlife. Now there is increasing emphasis on access and public health, passive recreation as well as complete routes for alternative transportation, while the focus on protecting natural areas remains. The scientists see it as imperative for protecting habitat and wildlife and birds; but the plan is for wildlife and people. Both goals are important.

Nancy Chase: The conflict is because people scare off wildlife. In biology it is called the edge effect. If you build a trail or road, then the wildlife on either side of it (depending on the species) gets impacted up to a couple of 100 feet. In our urban areas, however, we do not have any ‘critical’ wildlife species, mammals anyway, because they were all driven out long ago. But we still try to respect the protection of wildlife.

It is kind of a balancing act, because if we do not let people in at all to a natural area, you do not have what we call a constituency to protect it later. Say if politics changes or government laws change in future, you really need the local people there to be supportive to protect the natural areas. That means people need to come there and use it and love it. Earlier it used to be that you would put a trail paralleling the stream, and so the whole time you would have people walking just two feet from the edge of the stream which would be harmful biologically. So now we work with trail planners so you have the trail off the river and then we have spurs coming in as viewpoints to the river. We keep a 50-100 foot buffer so people are not right at the edge of the bank. We also identify sensitive areas such as Eagle’s nests etc. and make sure the trail or the parking lot does not go near it and disrupt it. So we have a good biological inventory and make sure we leave plenty of large areas and do not have trails crisscrossing every where. We minimize the trails enough so people can have a look and get where they’re going.

My takeaways:

  1. Good policies can create an impact in the long-run, but only if complemented by consistent ground-level activism.
  2. It is important to build political and public support (a constituency) as well as reduce institutional fragmentation and disagreement to transform visions into reality. This is a time taking and painstaking process and requires extreme commitment and deliberation.
  3. Natural areas are of vital importance to cities, especially in densely developed urban areas. People must be able to enjoy theses aces to appreciate them and eventually finance their revival; however with minimal impact on wildlife and habitat.
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About the Author

Ishani Mehta Ishani Mehta is The Urban Vision's Fellow at The Young Urban Leader Program. Ishani is working in Portland as part of the program. The program is aimed at facilitating knowledge transfer between cities known for their progressive planning policies and rapidly urbanizing India. The YUL Portland Fellowship is supported by Portland State University and Portland Metro. The Program in Portland was made possible due to the support of Nancy Chase , Independent Planning Professional in Portland and Architect Hafeez Contractor in India. Ishani has been working in New Delhi as an urban infrastructure analyst for the past three years. She has experience in writing articles, papers, reports and newsletters on urban infrastructure developments in India. Her areas of professional interest include urban transport, development policy and planning, civic infrastructure and basic services, and infrastructure financing. By background, she holds a Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics, prior to which she graduated in Economics from the University of Delhi in 2006. Ishani has held various positions of leadership during her academic life. She was the Co-President (Campus) for ShARE-Global, a students' organisation spanning over 20 campuses across the world. During undergraduation, she was the Council Member and Treasurer of the college Economics Scoiety.