Returning to Its Roots

With a new block-size park by Herbert Dreiseitl, Portland restores a piece of its natural environment.

Before the west bank of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, was settled in the 1840s, the unfettered natural landscape consisted of several creeks, marshes, and ponds. Salmon rested on their way upstream, and herons flew overhead. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries these wetlands were filled to become downtown Portland to the south and a busy port and rail yard to the north.

Today more transformation is under way. Portland’s industrial sector has been reborn as fashionable Pearl District condos, galleries, and shops. A 1999 master plan by Peter Walker, codesigner of New York’s Ground Zero memorial, for the former Hoyt Street rail yards has spawned a series of small parks. Walker designed the first one himself: family and pet-friendly Jamison Square. But the second, by acclaimed German landscape designer Herbert Dreiseitl (in collaboration with the Port-land firm GreenWorks), was conceived as a pulling back of the urban fabric to restore the buried wetlands. The space is returning to its roots both figuratively and literally.

At Tanner Springs Park—which opened late last summer but is just beginning to grow into itself—a small grove of native oak trees gives way to tall grass and reeds before sloping downward to a marsh. “It’s a key idea for the park,” Dreiseitl says, “going from dry to wet, from hill to valley or forest to open fields.” An undulating art wall, fashioned from locally reclaimed railroad ties that seem to peel back to reveal the landscape underneath, strikingly evokes the visual metaphor of liberating Mother Nature. It’s a lot to squeeze into a 200-by-200-foot block. “It’s not a question of scale,” Dreiseitl argues. “You find the same systems and patterns on a large scale in the landscape as you do in one little seed.”

Tanner Springs Park represents an emerging philosophy regarding wild-life protection in a high-density urban setting. Instead of just setting aside one or two larger parcels on the outskirts of the city, Portland planners favor also introducing small pockets of nature throughout. “We’ve done a lousy job of protecting nature in the city until very recently,” says Mike Houck, urban naturalist for the Audubon Society of Portland and director of the nonprofit Urban Greenspaces Institute. “This is a new phenomenon.”

“Having the urban fabric on one side and nature on another in the form of a big park or wildlife refuge, that’s an older concept,” Dreiseitl agrees. “I believe we have to bring sustainability into cities in a decentralized way, more like steppingstones. And I think nature itself works like this too.”

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