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(Photo courtesy Portland Parks & Recreation)
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 27 July 2023

“PP&R is committed to centering the people most impacted by inequities in Portland’s parks and recreation system, including Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, immigrants and refugees, LGBT2SQIA+ people, people with disabilities, youth, older adults, and people living with low incomes,”  Adena Long, director of Portland Parks & Recreation, stated in The Healthy Parks, Healthy Portland report. “We know that to create a healthy community, we must make sure that all people are served through Portland’s parks and recreation system.”

The voter-approved Parks Local Option Levy went into effect in 2021, and is projected to add $240 million to the department’s budget over a five-year period.

But some neighborhood leaders in north and east Portland wonder how much of that windfall will benefit their unimproved and often neglected parkspaces, and have suggestions for a better system of delivery.

‘Not For Everyone’

“Many of our people who live here do not feel comfortable in the parks,” Arlene Kimura, chair of the Hazelwood Neighborhood Association, told The Skanner.

“They feel it’s for somebody else.

"The thing when you’re providing green space for Portlanders is that it’s not a one-size fits all. Yes, the Portland model has been to have recreational parks where you play ball games and all that…that is not particularly a model that works with our senior population, or our refugee population.”

The standard baseball diamonds don’t fit with populations raised with soccer, Kimura pointed out.

Kimura added that some in her neighborhood, especially those with limited English fluency, avoid parks altogether, citing slow safety response.

According to the report, while 30% of respondents to a 2017 PP&R survey felt unsafe in parks, 37% of BIPOC Portland residents, and 45% residing in East Portland, felt the same.

Brian Borrello, board member of the Piedmont Neighborhood Association, detailed safety issues in the northern quadrant.

“It’s definitely a problem at Farragut Park in our neighborhood, with crime, dumping, homeless camping – from lack of response by (the Portland Police Department) and especially Union Pacific Railroad Inc., that will not patrol or secure their property adjacent to the park.”

Kimura said her neighbors deserved better.

“To be real frank, (Hazelwood)’s got 28% of the people” in Portland, she said. “We don’t have 28% of Portland parks, and we have the largest majority of school-age children…

"Maybe we don’t get to have Laurelhurst Park standards, but we certainly should get Creston-Kenilworth and Dawson Park standards.”

Centennial Neighborhood Association chair David Lin has been observing shortcomings in the PP&R approach since growing up in the Montavilla neighborhood, which abuts Hazelwood.

“Growing up, our family was a huge user of the community center in Montavilla on 82nd and Glisan,” he told The Skanner, “and I saw user fees become this self-fulfilling prophecy of, well, there’s nobody coming so we have to charge more money to operate, fewer families can afford it, the wealthier families go to private basketball, private soccer, private lessons – the poor families are less holding the bag. And then the fees go up, and less people can make it, and the fees go up and so on and so on. We’ve had this 30 years of austerity since the property tax measures started hitting all the local governments.”

According to the report, PP&R parks comprise 7,890 acres, 227 outdoor courts, 158 miles of trails, 154 developed parks, 137 playgrounds, 60 community gardens and 30 free lunch and play sites. Eighty-five percent of Portland households are within a half-mile of a park or natural area, but in East Portland, that number drops to 69%.

Two new parks under development in the Centennial neighborhood, Mill and Parklane, will slightly increase this number. The report confirmed about 13 additional parks, at a cost of $300 million, would be necessary to achieve access parity in East Portland.

Still, Lin felt the report was lacking in detail.

“They said they spent $1.8 million on community projects and outreach, but it was difficult to judge: Did they focus on just a few really important projects?” he said. “Were they really important projects, or could they have gone into some of the capacity for lower-income people? Instead of installing pickleball courts, should that money have gone to reducing fees, or giving free access to low-income people?”

Lin said he’d like clarity on how funding is allocated to parks.

“Are they doing this in a systematic way to match where the housing is being put in, where we have had population growth? And are they coordinating with transportation, with crime prevention, with housing, to make sure that when we’re putting in a bunch of high-density housing, we’re matching that with greenspace? And are we matching that with transportation infrastructure?”

He added, “Along Glisan, Stark, Burnside, you’re talking about incredibly dense housing, and the type of population that really benefits and really needs community services in a community center fashion.”

Getting Creative

Another looming concern: The estimated $595 million in deferred maintenance.

ppr report pool med(Photo courtesy Portland Parks & Recreation)
“Without significant investment, one in five assets are projected to close in the next 15 years,” Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan noted in the report.

For Mary-Margaret Wheeler-Web, chair of the Portsmouth Neighborhood Association, the controversial closure of the Columbia Pool in North Portland, made official last year, haunts the discussion.

“Having watched the slow-moving catastrophe of Columbia Pool, my sense was that during (former) Commissioner (Amanda) Fritz’s tenure there was an overexpansion in some ways that was not sustainable in terms of their capital repair budget,” she said.

She added, “It’s not a small amount of our city budget that goes to parks, and it’s still not enough. And so I guess my overall response is, I’m glad to see the values they’re talking about, I’m glad to see the work they did. My feelings aren’t particularly hurt when they don’t talk to us as a neighborhood association as long as they’re doing other good work with community groups.”

Wheeler-Web said it was unclear how the department meant to finance the maintenance backlog and achieve its equity goals. Commissioner Ryan’s comment in the report that he is committed to exploring “a better long-term dedicated source of funding” for PP&R facilities, piqued her interest.

In conversations about the development of a new aquatic center, which has an estimated price tag of $50 million, Wheeler-Web said she got the sense a special taxing district might be the city’s next step.

“What I’ve been thinking to myself is, if the closure of Columbia Pool, and the process of this new aquatic center is used as one of the justifications for a special taxing district, I’ll have really mixed feelings,” she said.

“Because I’m still mad at them for not having managed Columbia Pool responsibly when they had it.”

But such a funding mechanism would also make sense in light of the increasing role PP&R plays in the city’s climate resilience plan: While Portland residents on the westside enjoy a 56% tree canopy, the vast majority of the city’s population resides east of the river and has only 21% tree canopy. Because of this, heat domes -- like the one that hit Portland in 2021 -- tend to fall unevenly on the parts of the city where the BIPOC community and low-income households tend to be located. A more robust approach to tree-planting would reduce the risk of fatalities in future heat waves.

In the meantime, many neighborhood organizers are cautiously optimistic about the PP&R report’s impact.

“They did a good job in forming the aspirations,” Kimura said. “I need to see them actually do it.” 

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