This document was first posted in 2009 as a Google Doc that I encouraged neighborhood residents, workers, students and churchgoers downtown to edit and enlarge. Several people sent me good ideas, but no one else took on the tough job of editing.
I sent it out to a committee of Portland movers and shakers who were advising the Mayor on a new Central City Urban Renewal Area. Then, as everyone’s attention shifted to jobs and economic development, I moved on too. Now, two recent events prompted me to post it:
- My attendance at the City of Portland Central City 2035 Steering Committee Meeting;
- My preparation to lead a discussion on The Nature Principle, a book that gives a more universal framework to my vision.
Portland Development Commission recently asked those of us on the Downtown Neighborhood Association Land Use and Transportation Committee “What is your vision for downtown?” While I knew that they were seeking something that fell into step with the tenor of the times, I submitted this vision in response to that request. Hey! I’m an Aquarian who focuses on big picture and long-term.
I will address the public realm first, and what we might do there to set an example to private developers, property owners and residents alike. I will start with the largest part of the public realm, the streets and address how we might go one step further than we are currently doing to make them sustainable.
Then I’ll move on to our parks, then parking garages, then vacant or soon-to-be-vacant land, then courtyards (which might be made semi-public), etc. I’ll suggest some technologies, practices and uses that will address the global environmental impacts we are facing: climate change, peak oil and loss of biodiversity/extinction of species. Portland’s Watershed Management Plan does a world class job of addressing the latter issue so some of my vision speaks to how we can help implement it downtown.
Children regularly frequent the South Park Blocks and the arts and history institutions surrounding them but few children live downtown.
I also suggest a form-based code to help insure great urban design and truly walkable neighborhoods. I briefly address creating jobs for a portion of the existing downtown population; attracting green businesses; using innovative models to develop workforce housing; supporting existing institutions including arts and service organizations and schools and churches.
Green Street Retrofits, Connectivity Corridors and Placemaking
The first part of my vision addresses infrastructure including what is now considered part of green infrastructure. I suggest retrofitting key streets as “green street” connectivity corridors, e.g., SW Salmon Street/SW Park Place. Green streets are streets with bioswales or infiltration planters in the public right-of-way that not only manage stormwater, but also encourage the recovery of biodiversity with NATIVE PLANTS AND TREES. Such a street, or couplet of streets, might stretch from Washington Park (which still has pockets of native landscape) to the Willamette River. Other streets that might be appropriate are SW Main, SW Jefferson and SW Columbia. These streets could serve as a connectivity corridor between the park and the river for birds and other wildlife. These ideas might also implement former Portland Urban Design Director, Arun Jain’s call for “streets as less of a conduit and more of a place.”
Diverse native plants at Glencoe School Bioswale
If we used a highly diverse mix of natives species in the bioswales—not only the native shrubs, ferns, rushes and grasses that are typically used–but also wildflowers, we could show that we can have color, beauty, interest and diversity in our native landscape while giving residents and visitors alike a true sense of place and providing habitat for critical parts of the ecosystem.
It may seem strange to bring up biodiversity recovery as a priority for our central city core area, but, in the long run it will:
- save us money by allowing ecosystem services to function
- attract and keep more residents in the area
- enhance our reputation for sustainability
- keep Portland in the leadership on sustainability by putting us ahead of the curve on Sustainable Sites
(Hopefully, the integration of the Sustainable Sites rating system (http://www.sustainablesites.org/) into LEED will raise the critical importance and value of using/restoring native species in the landscape. I am hoping Sustainable Sites will be the tsunami wave for landscape architecture that LEED was for architecture.)
Let’s connect this nature to the river via Downtown! Addressing biodiversity loss will help us address other issues as well.
While downtowns are not usually the first place one would think to restore biodiversity, I maintain that
because downtown is a place that best projects our image to our visitors and the outside world and that most people in the region visit—if only occasionally, it is a great place to demonstrate biodiversity recovery and educate about it, displaying our values to our residents and our visitors alike.
Entomologist, Douglas Tallamy, in his book Bringing Nature Home gives both research and anecdotes that show that our native insects need native plants to survive. Hence, so do our native birds, amphibians and some small mammals.
. . .Biodiversity is essential to the stability—indeed, the very existence—of most ecosystems. We remove species from our nation’s ecosystems at the risk of their complete collapse. . . . More energy in the system means that the system will be more productive. . .and, from a selfish human perspective, produce more ecosystem services for us, make more fish, more lumber, and more oxygen, filter more water, sequester more carbon dioxide, buffer larger weather systems, and so on). . . Biodiversity also benefits ecosystems by making them less susceptible to alien invaders (Kennedy et al. 2002).
Douglas Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home
It’s not the plants alone we would be attempting to recover, but also the insect species that pollinate plants, return nutrients tied up in dead plants and animals to the soil, keep populations of insect herbivores in check, aerate and enrich the soil and provide food for most other animals. These and other ecosystem services produced by a healthy ecosystem will be especially critical as the planet warms—to help us fend off invasions of destructive alien insects and keep our soils healthy. To further explain ecosystem services, I might ask, “How would you like the job of pollinating every apple tree in the state of Oregon every year?” While it is nearly impossible for humans to do this, bees do it for free.
Another issue we should consider is the alien ornamentals we currently use in nearly all of our human built landscape have brought us Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, dogwood anthracnose, sudden oak death, hemlock wooly adelgid, and other pathogens that are endangering some of the tree species we will need most to adapt to climate change. Even though we know better, we are still importing invaders. Some diseases, like greening disease (the worst citrus disease in the world) have arrived in this decade on a plant that has become quite ubiquitous–star jasmine. Brought in by an insect on this alien ornamental, in just 7 months greening disease had spread to kill citrus trees in 12 counties in Florida.
Biodiversity Recovery Examples in Other Cities
Other cities are installing examples of biodiversity recovery in their downtowns. In Washington, DC, the National Museum of Natural History has planted the entire street edge on the NW 11th Street side of its property in a native plant butterfly garden with interpretive signage and the US Botanic Garden has a permanent native pollinator garden and display on its property. Finally, the US Senate has installed a rain garden of diverse native species to both filter stormwater from one of its parking lots and rival its ornamental gardens in beauty.
The Corporatelands Natural Landscaping Program in Chicago encourages and supports large institutions to replace their turf grass landscapes with natural landscapes of plants and grasses native to the Chicago region. The program has partnered with Columbia College on the Chicago Loop, to create a native prairie garden in a former parking lot space at 11th and Wabash. They maintain “This beautiful garden is designed to carry the message that biodiversity can work in a very urban downtown environment and that it can also be attractive.” Corporatelands also partnered with one of Chicago’s largest developers, the John Buck Company, to make the planter beds at its prime downtown location, 222 N. Riverside Plaza, a model for how native species can complement a more traditional planting scheme. The entire Chicago region has adopted Biodiversity Recovery Plan.
Costs and Benefits
Researchers have valued the ecosystem services provided by insects at $57 billion each year. What downtown Portland would gain in ecosystem services would be far greater than the cost of adding the additional native plant landscaping. And this green street landscaping I am suggesting would also help us deal with stormwater. The city has calculated the life cycle costs of green streets to be lower than the conventional curb, gutter and storm drain and it is moving ahead despite city budget difficulties on a sustainable stormwater project involving streets from Mt. Tabor to the Willamette River on the eastside. That project will not only retrofit streets with stormwater planters and more street trees, but also stimulate more actions by private property owners such as installing ecoroofs and/or rain gardens and disconnecting downspouts into cisterns or rain barrels or vegetation.
Retrofitting the streets such as those suggested above—and perhaps additional downtown streets—will make a statement and set an example for a greater percentage of our residents and visitors teaching more people about our world class Portland Stormwater Management Plan. This scientifically-based plan needs to be integrated into every economic development and land use decision and plan as its implementation will make a great contribution toward saving our salmon and other species. It will take us a long way toward addressing the impacts of climate change on our water supply as well. Of course, Portland will want to use educational signage to help in teaching people to take action on their own property or public space.