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Metropolitan Greenspaces: A Grassroots Perspective

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Metropolitan Greenspaces, A Grassroots Perspective

By Mike Houck

The belief that the city is an entity apart from nature and even antithetical to it has dominated the way in which the city is perceived and continues to affect how it is built.  The city, the suburbs, and the countryside must be viewed as a single, evolving system within nature.” 

--Anne Whiston Spirn, The Granite Garden, Urban Nature and Human Design, 1984

The Portland-Vancouver metropolitan greenspaces movement, a grassroots, citizen-led campaign to build cities differently, emerged in the mid to late 1980s as urban conservationists, neighborhoods, and “friends” groups coalesced around a shared vision for creating a community where ribbons of green would flow through every neighborhood.  

This loose-knit coalition rejected the premise that cities are solely about the built environment and that access to nature is “out there”, beyond the Urban Growth Boundary---at the coast, in the Cascades or up the Columbia River Gorge.  

While they embraced smart growth’s central tenet of containing urban sprawl through compact urban form, their support was contingent on the quid pro quo that streams, wetlands, and wildlife habitat be protected, and restored where necessary, to provide access to nature within a short walk or bicycle ride from home.  

This movement was rooted deeply in an emerging vision for a livable, just, and sustainable region that rejected the dichotomy between the built and natural environment and embraced the city as Spirn’s “single, evolving system within nature”, not apart from it. 

Landscape architect John Charles Olmsted provided us with the greenprint to achieve such a vision in his 1903 report [ii] to Portland’s citizen park board, recommending the creation of a comprehensive, interconnected park system, one that included a full range of park types as well as streams, rivers, steep ravines, and volcanic buttes. 

“While there are many things small and great which may contribute to the beauty of city”, Olmsted wrote, “Unquestionably one of the greatest is a comprehensive system of parks and parkways.”


Seventy years later the Columbia Region Association of Governments (CRAG) published The Urban Outdoors, A New Proposal for Parks and Open Space[iii], a vision for a bi-state regional park system, the armature of which would be streams, rivers, wetlands and volcanic buttes.  

Unfortunately, insufficient public involvement consigned The Urban Outdoors to the shelf.  It wasn’t until 1985 that the political will and grassroots support for the creation of a regional parks and natural areas system emerged. 

At the Columbia-Willamette Futures Forum a small band of citizen activists, led by advocates from the 40-Mile Loop Land Trust, Audubon Society, and The Wetlands Conservancy, agitated for a regionally funded parks and trails system.  

Metro, the Forum recommended, should assume responsibility for parks and trail planning at the regional scale, a task that was assumed in 1989 when the Council adopted a resolution “supporting a continued parks and coordination role for Metro.”[iv]


1989 was a watershed year for the region’s urban parks and greenspaces movement.  Metro contracted with Portland-based David Murase and Associates, to conduct a comprehensive park inventory, including what was then a crude map of the region’s natural areas. 

Meyer Memorial Trust awarded the Audubon Society of Portland an $116,000 grant to develop a plan for establishing a Metropolitan Wildlife Refuge System. 

The 40-Mile Loop Land Trust continued its advocacy for a regional trail network.  The Wetlands Conservancy and a growing number of “friends” organizations like the Fans of Fanno Creek militated for  stream, wetland, and watershed protection. 

The creation of a natural resource-based system, connected by a regional trail network, was embraced by Metro, local park providers, and citizens attending early regional park forums.  A second inventory, focusing exclusively on the region’s natural areas and utilizing new infrared photography, was launched by Metro.  

Using this photography, PSU’s Geography Department, established the first ever four county, bi-state natural areas map that, in turn, formed the basis for a regional landscape, ecologically-based greenspace planning effort.  


Following in rapid succession, between 1989 and 1990, myriad park forums, symposia, field trips, and meetings, brought together citizen activists, non-governmental organizations, park planners, and elected officials. 

Outside experts such as Dr. David Goode of  London, England’s Ecology Unit;  Charles Little, author of Greenways for America; and the New Yorker’s Tony Hiss, addressed the City Club of Portland and keynoted several Country In The City symposia at Portland State University. 

Visits to the East Bay Regional Park District in Oakland, CA provided a funding model with their recently approved $225 million natural areas acquisition bond and an on-the-ground example of a 90,000-acre regional natural areas system

Taking a lesson from CRAG’s Urban Outdoors experience, FAUNA (Friends and Advocates of Urban Natural Areas) was created to ensure a grassroots constituency for our own regional bond measure.

Citizen activists and elected officials made numerous trips to Washington, D. C. resulting in more than $1 million being allocated, through the efforts of Senator Mark O. Hatfield and Congressman Les AuCoin, to the regional office of U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which both provided funding to Metro’s nascent regional greenspaces program and ensured the program remained ecologically based. 

Regional park forums kept citizens, park planners and elected officials actively engaged in the development of a regional greenspaces master plan. 

Many pitchers of Blue Heron Ale were consumed during countless evening and weekend meetings at Bridegport BrewPub, which served as the informal, after hours, venue for planning and celebratory events.  While it was intense and arduous work, a concerted effort was made to have fun and build a sense of esprit de corps as well. 


After adoption of a Greenspaces Master Plan in July of 1992 a $200 million regional bond measure was put to a vote. 

While the bond effort failed by a 5% swing, combined with the transfer of Multnomah County parks and greenspaces to Metro in 1994, it laid the groundwork for the approval of a $135.6 million bond in May, 1995. 

That bond, approved by over 60% of the electorate, in all three counties, provided funds for Metro and every local park provider to acquire over 8,200 acres of greenspaces and build some of the region’s most popular and highly used trails. 


As we launch the next era of park, trail, and greenspace planning we would do well to remember what inspired the collaboration, camaraderie, and commitment that led to the creation of a regional parks and greenspace program where none existed. 

It was a grassroots, citizen-based effort, active participation by local park professionals, and political will at Metro and local jurisdictions, that created a legacy that will compare favorably with Olmsted’s. 

Those same ingredients will be necessary for the next generation of park, trail, greenspace, and livable city planning in the coming decade, and beyond. 

[i] Mike Houck is Executive Director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute, founded in 1999.  He has been Urban Naturalist at the Audubon Society of Portland since he founded the Urban Naturalist Program, now Portland Audubon’s Urban Conservation Program, in 1980.  He serves on Metro’s Greenspaces Policy Advisory Committee (GPAC) and has served on several other regional and local advisory committees related to parks, trails, and natural resource issues.

[ii] Report of the Park Board, Portland, Oregon, 1903.  Available at the reception desk at Portland Parks and Recreation, 1120 SW Fifth Avenue, 13th floor, Portland, OR 97204.

[iii] The Urban Outdoors, A New Proposal for Parks and Open Space, Portland-Vancouver Region, Columbia Region Association of Governments, 1971. 

[iv] Space limitations prevent a complete historical review in this essay.  For a more comprehensive history of the evolution of the regional greenspaces initiative the reader is directed to the following sources:  Metropolitan Greenspaces Master Plan, July 1992, Metro;  The Environment as Infrastructure:  Metropolitan Portland's Greenspaces Program, Deborah A. Howe, Portland State University; Metropolitan Greenspaces Program, Summary of Accomplishments (1991 to 2002), U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ron Klein, Lynn Wilson, Mel Huie and Deb Scrivens, Metro and Jennifer Thompson, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, March, 2003; U. S. Fish and Wildlife Financial Assistance for the Metropolitan Greenspaces Program, January 1991 to September, 1992; Metro Planning Department, 1992. 

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