Children and Nature Belong Downtown

March 30, 2013   This post was first  published on the Children & Nature Network Blog. It’s editor, Richard Louv, attempted to make it more interesting for his international audience with his edits. Here, I want to re-capture some of my original thoughts.

Each year at the end of August, the Oregon Symphony holds a free concert at the south end of Portland’s downtown Tom McCall Waterfront Park on the Willamette River. Families come with picnic supper, blankets and lawn chairs. I’ve noticed that the kids who are old enough for a little independence make a beeline for the wildest part of the waterfront—a shore with driftwood, rocks and boulders.

Older kids make a beeline for this remnant downtown beach during concerts and festivals.

Older kids make a beeline for this remnant beach during concerts and festivals at “The Bowl”–the only place where the Willamette River is accessible in downtown Portland.

Climbing over the tree limbs and rocks is rough going. But the kids are unfazed. That’s where they want to be.

My Portland Downtown Neighborhood Association has been talking about the need for more families in downtown Portland. Now that developers are finding financing to build again, we are seeing more proposals for apartments downtown. Members of our association would like to see some of those apartments be appropriate for families — in size, in design and in price.

Families with children who might consider moving downtown are often deterred by the lack of affordable housing and the absence of a downtown public elementary school. However, there’s another reason that families with children often avoid living downtown in America’s cities: the need for more wild in downtown to attract those families who escaped the city for the “wide open spaces” of the suburbs.

Except for “The Bowl”, most of Portland’s central city waterfront is armored with a seawall—like many river cities, with good reason. When the Willamette was at severe flood stage as it was in 1996, we had to throw up sandbags so that the first few blocks of downtown wouldn’t flood — as they did historically. The Portland Daily Journal of Commerce has some fun photos of people canoeing along Third Ave and other parts of downtown.

As a result of those seawalls, the river at normal flow appears to be about 25 feet to the surface of the water. So how do we make the riverfront more attractive to families who want to touch nature? Portland’s new Working Draft Comprehensive Plan encourages more beaches along the waterfront. One suggested policy for the Willamette River Watershed is: “Promote rehabilitation of riverbank sections that have been significantly altered because of development to create more natural riverbank conditions.”

With the intention to attract both families and fish downtown, we could do much to make “The Bowl” more natural. But to address other parts of the downtown waterfront–-and still avoid flooding–-we may need to adapt Chicago’s invention of a Fish Hotel and stairs down to this structure created out of plants to give fish resting and hiding places.


Hundreds of children already use the downtown area known as South Park Blocks—largely on the way to the Performing Arts Center and museums. They come by bus from other neighborhoods.

Let’s look at what else downtowns, particularly Portland’s, could do to meet children’s need for wild in their lives. Why not rethink our parks and our other public spaces downtown? Portland is lucky enough to have both a linear waterfront park and the Park Blocks, an interior corridor, originally intended as a firebreak, that extend most of the length of our downtown. Could these be re-conceived as wildlife and children’s corridors?

Portland’s early founders were wise enough to leave undeveloped blocks planted with trees (mostly American elms), running from north-to-south for twelve blocks of central westside Portland. Ultimately, these blocks, planted with native species, could become part of something much larger, along the lines of Doug Tallamy’s idea for a “Homegrown National Park.


Green (or Eco) Roofs, such as this one on Portland Central Library could be added to all buildings that occupy what is known as the Park Blocks corridor. This could help to create north-south connectivity throughout central westside Portland.

Tallamy recommends that cities and neighborhoods across the country replace alien ornamentals with native plants—and hence attract more species of native wildlife. Many existing buildings could install green roofs and green walls with native plants to attract our native insects, the base of the food chain.

Portland might also make the streets along the Park Blocks into  “green streets.”  These streets would utilize native plants and trees and porous pavement to filter storm water from the streets and sidewalks. They would prioritize the pedestrian and the bicyclist in their design and allow for a number of sidewalk cafés. Of course they would provide a lane for business deliveries by motor vehicle and bike, perhaps limited to certain hours.


Sidewalk cafes such as this one at SW Salmon & Park would also be encouraged in our children and wildlife corridors.

Finally, we need a contiguous green west-east corridor to connect Portland’s premier wildlife corridor, Forest Park to the river.  I nominate SW Salmon Street/Park Place, my usual path to get to Washington and Forest Park. We could give property owners incentives to turn their existing landscapes into native habitat and to green their existing roofs, walls, parking lots and driveways. We could create “Nature Play” pocket parks along the way and join this whole area into the Home-Grown National Park too. Scroll through the map I created in Google Maps  to see the entire length of the Park Blocks–North and South–and the suggested link from Washington Park to the river.

The Salmon/Park Place corridor could become a “Greenway” (a 20 mph street that prioritizes active transportation and filters stormwater) utilizing NATIVE trees, shrubs and plants and other technologies such as porous pavement. Parking could still be allowed on these streets as it protects pedestrians and helps slow the street.

In an era of cutbacks, how will we pay for a new green infrastructure that could allow our children to live downtown and have nature too? Annie Donovan who serves as Senior Policy Advisor for New Financial Instruments at the White House Council on Environmental Quality presents some ideas in her Forbes 1/22/13 article Smart Communities will Build Green Infrastructure. She writes: “For impact investors, green infrastructure is an emerging market. Investing in it will help build economically sustainable communities that are also resilient in the face of change.”

Doubtless, some of the empty-nesters who have moved into the condo buildings in central cities throughout the US would like to be impact investors in this arena. Let’s make that opportunity possible by creating the vision for our children — one that acknowledges the benefits of nature along with all the other rich amenities of our downtowns.

One last point.  Working Draft 1 of the Portland Comprehensive Plan Update could lead to a sea change in the way we redevelop cities. Children & Nature advocates would do well to take advantage of some of the most innovative parts in it, such as the focus on habitat, the “design with nature” approach, and the “greenways” concept. It’s a forward-looking document that encourages bold thinking — and not just for Portland.  Planners and advocates elsewhere can push their cities to adapt some of its best ideas as their own.

And that will be good news for children, families, community and nature.



The images below help to further define the setting for those unfamiliar with Portland’s South Park Blocks and “lost park blocks.” I also provide an example from the Comp Plan: its definition of Greenways.


Portland’s founders left Park Blocks, but some were lost to development. The Arlington Club in the background, sits in one of those lost Park Blocks. Admittance to this club is restricted to Portland’s 1%–the kind of people who should be able to fund the proposed green infrastructure.










The buildings on the left side of this block sit in what was originally intended as Park Blocks. With time, they could revert back, but meanwhile, they should be made as wildlife-friendly and child-friendly as possible–via green roofs, green walls, wider sidewalks, street trees and other green street technologies.

Greenways are defined in the glossary of Working Draft 1 of the Portland Comprehensive Plan Update as: A system of accessible pedestrian- and bike-friendly green streets and trails that link neighborhood centers, parks, schools, natural areas, and other key community destinations. The city Greenways system is a prioritized subset of pedestrian and bicycle connections that makes use of opportunities for multi-objective, distinctive design approaches that draw on and contribute to Portland’s pedestrian, bicycle, green street, and parks and open space systems.

3 thoughts on “Children and Nature Belong Downtown

  1. Mary Vogel Post author

    I got multiple comments from my LinkedIn groups that I want to share here:
    A good blog, Mary! Very interesting. Let me know when you put up the additional material on your website.
    With best regards,
    Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Ph.D.(Arch.)
    Director, International Making Cities Livable Conferences LLC

    Completely agree with trying to bring families back to urban cores. This is one of the objectives of our company. Our list of features (that we can easily get data for) that are important to families are listed here:

    Applying these criteria to the 50 largest U.S. cities, Portland came in 16th. Full results at:

    Applying these criteria to Portland and a few of its suburbs resulted in a ranking of: Oregon City, Beaverton, Oatfield, Tigard, Portland, and then Gresham.

    I’ll be at the Making Cities Liveable Conference in Portland in June presenting some of these results.
    By Scott Ranville
    National Complete Streets Coalition

    Nice article! As a downtown resident with kids I think this is spot on. One observation is that you don’t really need that much green space/natural areas to create an environment where kids (&others) can explore, adventure, and connect with nature. For me personally it’s about the quality of the space rather than the quantity. Also liked the green infrastructure emphasis in the article and potential to integrate that with kid/family friendly environments.
    By Andrew Fleckner Dane, AICP, ENV SP
    APA Sustainable Communities

    Hello; congratulations; you’re on the right track. If a city is a balanced child-safe; sustainable tiered eco-habitat; then you are one step from a pseudo-utopia. Every rooftop should be a mini terrarium which houses both ornamental and food species of plants with a dedicated water source. there should be a dedicated interconnection system which separates vehicular traffic and mechanization from pedestrian and non-motorized transit. Any individual should be able to SAFELY travel to any point in the urban center without ever having to negotiate motor transit; so safe that any child would never be at risk of mechanized impact. Imagine being able to walk; bicycle; play; eat; drink; and stay cool anywhere you traveled in any given urban environ without once having to accost or encounter any motorized vehicles; unless by choice or necessity.
    This is my conceptual idea of a balanced future in urban life
    By Russell Donnelly
    Stormwater Professionals

    Urban green spaces are designed to be safe. The cost of liability insurance demands that all surfaces and fixtures be standardized and under a certain code of safety.

    My nephew, aged 7, was the sole child attendee of a public consultation for a local neighbourhood playground refurbishment. He courageously raised his hand and asked if the playground would have sand as a base to play with. Everyone in the room decided it was a great question and a valid concern. There was no debate.

    6 month later, construction is complete. Wood chips.

    Even when we ‘listen’ to what kids yearn for in their spaces, we decide otherwise. My nephew will rarely play in that playground (and neither will his age cohort) because it does not suit his purpose of interacting with his environment.

    If you want to design down-towns that attract young families then you have to accommodate ALL their needs. You will never convince a child to leave their video games or TV behind if the environment you allow them to access is barren of the excitement which virtual reality provides. The ever changing natural world provides that excitement. No two days are the same, no two experiences are the same, in natural spaces that you can interact with. Not just spaces to look at, or to walk through (like a museum), but to interact…. and build a relationship.

    Here’s an experiment for planners to try out:
    Go to a local playground. Play there for 10 minutes. I don’t mean stand there and look at the equipment or think of what the liability insurance costs are… actually get on the equipment and play… touch the ground… get into the experience.
    Go back the next day, and the next… if you are bored with the space after 3 visits, it is not a functional space for children. Remember: “Play is children’s work.” You will discover that the only way to accommodate a child’s need for variability is to plan for “wild and unsafe” natural spaces that change with the kids.

    Or you could just put in woodchips and call it a green space.
    By Chris Kopar

    Liked on Linked In
    Whitney Stohr
    Attorney and Public Policy Professional
    Smart Growth Network

    Alex Crothers
    Spatial Sciences Department Manager GIS Professional
    Urban Design Network

  2. Ahmad

    Great blog here! Also your website loads up very fast! What web host are you using?

    Can I get your affiliate link to your host? I wish my website loaded up as fast as yours lol

    My weblog Ahmad

    1. Mary Vogel Post author

      Thanks for your compliment on my blog. My web host is Canvas Dreams and my web designer is Mary Ann Aschenbrenner–both in Portland, OR. I’m afraid that I don’t know anything about affiliate linking to my host.

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