About the Author

Mary Vogel is president of PlanGreen, a Portland, Oregon firm that works with the private sector and government agencies to regenerate communities. She has over 20 years experience in bringing sustainability concepts into urban planning and design. She is active in shaping the re-write of the City of Portland’s Comprehensive Plan to help it connect people to nature. She also works with the Portland Downtown Neighborhood Association to help make Portland’s downtown more resilient, climate smart and livable.

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.

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

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.

For families with children considering 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 “wild open spaces” of the suburbs.

Except for this little bit of wild, 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 at least 15-20’ 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.”

If we select these sites carefully, we can create more beaches and natural areas along the waterfront, and that will help attract children and their families downtown – and still avoid flooding. Other cities can do the same.

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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 a waterfront park and a corridor originally intended as a firebreak that extend most of the length of our downtown. Could these be reconceived as wildlife and children’s corridors?  If your city has a freeway dividing its downtown neighborhoods—as I-405 does in Portland—why not start planning for more of a wildlife corridor along its banks, as well?

Portland’s early founders were wise enough to leave undeveloped blocks planted with 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.

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

Downtowns can also create “green streets.”  These public green streets would utilize native plants and trees and porous pavement to filter storm water from the streets, sidewalks and buildings. They would prioritize the pedestrian and the bicyclist in their design and allow for a number of sidewalk cafés, but would still provide a lane for cars. We could give property owners incentives to turn their existing landscapes into native habitat and to green their existing roofs, parking lots and driveways. We could create pocket parks of native plants along the way and join this whole area into the Home-Grown National Park too. Contiguous green corridors, connect Portland’s premier wildlife corridor, Forest Park to downtown, and enhance the natural benefits of the river.

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

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. Portland’s updated, 20-year Comprehensive Plan could lead to a sea change in the way we redevelop cities if we 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.  Citizens in other places can push their cities to adopt some of its best ideas, too.

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


Other reading

True Green: 21 Ways to Plant a City

A New Role for Landscape Architecture

How City Kids Will Save the Planet

How to Create a Homegrown National Park

David Suzuki Foundation Wants to Turn the West End into a National Park

Recommended Books

The Natural City: Re-Envisioning the Built Environment

Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-Being and Sustainability

Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning

Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection

The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance


  1. Mary Vogel

    Please see my website to see extra photos and the extra comments I will be adding from outside the C&NN. It brought quite a number of agreements and additions and invitations to link when I posted it on my LinkedIn groups.

  2. Mary Vogel

    “How Much Is That Tree Worth?” just appeared in Oregon’s major newspaper, The Oregonian. Portland Parks has begun hanging signs on trees in downtown parks to let people know how much the tree has provided in services.

    Note that the price calculation does not cover the wildlife value of trees as I point out in my comments below the article–which I also link to this article.


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