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Image: Matt Chase

In the history of Portland parks, few names are less controversial than Olmsted. America’s very first landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, was the mind behind New York’s Central Park and other great greenspaces. In 1903, the firm run by his sons John Charles and Frederick Jr. devised a similarly sweeping plan for Portland, including city-spanning parks and greenways.

More than a century later, an extension of the Springwater Corridor completed one of the final pieces of the Olmsted plan: citizens could travel along a pedestrian trail stretching 21 miles from the Willamette River all the way to Boring. The city’s 1992 Master Plan envisioned the Springwater as “a refuge from the urban bustle” that “invites residents and visitors of all ages to meet, play, contemplate nature.” Frederick Law Olmsted would have gone further. He believed parks could exercise a “harmonizing and refining influence on the most unfortunate and most lawless classes of the city.”

In the past year, the Springwater has made headlines for reasons far removed from Progressive Era social uplift. Rather, massive homeless camps evolved along the path, manifesting Portland’s (recently reextended) “housing state of emergency.” In early September, the law moved in, displacing, by one estimate, some 500 people.

Following the sweeps, the fate of the Springwater remains in question, together with a larger conundrum: if public parks belong to everyone, what does that really mean?

In the beginning, there were campers. Back in 1990, George Hudson, now president of Alta Planning and Design, was a park planner walking a hundred-year-old rail line with a few Lents residents, navigating trash and the occasional campfire, discussing its cleanup. A local geography class rallied neighbors. An ad hoc Johnson Creek advocacy group, launched in the mid-1980s, found its cause gaining momentum as the city acquired the land.

The 1992 plan for the $7.7 million buildout detailed financing and even signage, but security received less attention. The plan counted on citizens to “take pride in ‘their’ trail and protect it.” At the time, Hudson says, the general thinking was that transients would vanish once a trail took shape—which it did, piece by piece, until a connection to Boring was paved in 2013: the last leg of Portland’s ambitious “bike superhighway.”

At first, cyclists, pedestrians, and even equestrians flocked. One 2006 trail count placed more than 1 million annual users on the trail’s Willamette River stretch. But then—as successive waves of recession, gentrification, and population growth reshaped Portland as a whole—homeless campers flowed back to the Springwater. Earlier this year, the corridor gained a few mordant  new names: “Camplandia,” even “Avenue of Terror.” Activists and neighborhood groups lobbied city hall for intervention. Longtime volunteer Ed Kerns watched as saplings he’d planted disappeared for firewood and tent poles. Meanwhile, Israel Bayer of the homeless newspaper Street Roots decried the situation as “an example of how Portland  ... [has] created one of the greenest urban environments in the world without any real strategy for people experiencing poverty.” 

A July gunfight near the trail spurred the city to action. Social service agencies descended, followed, eight weeks later, by park rangers and police. New camps appeared elsewhere, including a two-block-long line of tents abutting Laurelhurst Park.

Homelessness doesn’t often come up at civic-minded greenspace planning charrettes. Indeed, the Springwater’s plan barely alludes to the issue, asserting that “the psychological effect of good maintenance” would deter vandalism and littering. The ideology of the Olmsteds—that parks themselves can cure social ills—still infuses the process, as planners march forward without specific provisions for urban poverty as lived. As East Precinct police captain Robert King said in August, the likely outcome of the Springwater sweeps “is the reality that we all live with now ... there will be low-income camping throughout the city.”

For Mary Anne Cassin, who managed the greenway with Hudson back in 1992, the path’s future could look grim. “I’d be surprised, and delighted, if there was a plan,” says Cassin. But, she adds, “there never was one to have what happened happen.”

Many cities have built or are considering multimillion-dollar greenways: Cleveland’s Red Line, Tacoma’s Point Defiance Project, Atlanta’s Beltline. “A lot of trail managers [are] watching the Portland situation,” says Hudson. “It’s hard to sell a trail to another community when a trail like the Springwater suddenly became a negative asset.”

A strategy for the Springwater seems likely to fall to incoming mayor Ted Wheeler. Cassin would start with more funding: for enforcing the camping ban, and wooing other users back to the path. (That won’t fix homelessness, of course.) Perhaps a better chapter for parks begins with harder questions up front. Otherwise, consider one of the Olmsted Brothers’ darker insights, from the 1903 Portland plan: “a large part of the expenditure is liable to be as ... wasted, if the true objects fail to be accomplished, as if the money was thrown in the fire.”

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