Park Blocks of PDX and D.C.

The Park Blocks of our young city rank with those in the Nation's Capital, a.k.a. the National Mall.

By Kristin Belz February 11, 2013

Are the Park Blocks of Portland and the National Mall in Washington, D.C. twins separated at birth? Not quite, but they are related. Though we call our green linear park by the simple name, North and South Park Blocks, they could just as easily be called “the Mall.” Washington, D.C.’s long park blocks go by that traditional name, which harkens back to “the Mall” in London.

In London, the Mall is a broad, ceremonial street flanked with shady trees, leading from Buckingham Palace to Admiralty Arch and Trafalgar Square. The western end of the Mall, in front of the palace, is where well-wishers gather for royal family celebrations like Will and Kate's wedding, and where the torch relay run ended at last summer's Olympics.

These park block/malls are of course also related to the ubiquitous American shopping mall, which in its earliest incarnations was an open-air pedestrian-only “street” flanked by shops (as Lloyd Center originally was). 

Portland's founders probably didn't think much about Pierre Charles L'Enfant (who'd designed the plan for D.C. in 1791) when they set about surveying and laying out the blocks for the Anglo settlement north of Oregon City. But in what Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove chose (by legendary coin toss) to call Portland, we find Park Blocks with interesting parallels to the Mall in Washington.

Almost anyone who visits, lives or works in Portland knows about the Park Blocks. The North and South Park Blocks, two swaths of open green space each stretching several blocks long, are treasured and well-used. And anyone with any awareness of the plan of our nation's capital, or of Martin Luther King and the March on Washington 50 years ago, knows that we have a long, open green space in the center of that city. The recent inauguration of President Obama, coming as it did on the Martin Luther King Day holiday, reminded us of that ceremonial, civic space. And the Eisenhower Memorial being proposed for a huge space just off the Mall reminds us of the importance of continuing to honor and enhance that civic treasure over time.

Our own civic space in Portland is not as ceremonial, for many reasons. But it is just as special and important to our city as the National Mall is to Washington. Check out the Slide Show to walk through some of the parallels between Portland's and Washington's "park blocks."

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