Tourist guidebooks hail big regional parks, but for locals, neighborhood natural areas are a big draw. They give people a place to walk, reflect and connect with nature.
Nature in Neighborhoods grants are helping communities create and transform outdoor destinations close to homes and schools. Thanks to voters’ support, kids are enjoying a new nature play area at Westmoreland Park. In North Portland, urban gardens provide a learning laboratory for nature lovers of all ages. And students at Pleasant Valley School will explore their favorite natural area on a network of trails and boardwalks.
Unlike big regional natural areas, neighborhood projects typically don’t protect large blocks of threatened wildlife habitat. But, by preserving the nature down the street, they forge a connection between people and the natural world.
Cully Park, $577,000: Once a closed and gated former landfill, Cully Park is being transformed with walking trails, play and picnic areas and a native gathering garden. The nonprofit Verde is taking the lead in the transformation, engaging diverse community groups and neighbors to reclaim this 25-acre site in Northeast Portland.
Westmoreland Park, $150,000: A popular Southeast Portland park gets an upgrade with the restoration of Crystal Springs Creek and new play area to help children discover the natural environment. The nature play area -- the first permanent one in Portland -- incorporates logs, boulders, sand, water, plants, hills, and opportunities for building with "loose parts" such as branches, sticks, pinecones and more.
Pleasant Valley School boardwalk, $112,000: Restoring the Wildside natural area has been a learning experience for students at Centennial’s Pleasant Valley Elementary School – and the lessons will multiply with a new network of trails and boardwalks. This project allows students to explore the seven-and-a-half-acre natural area more easily.
Conservation Corner, $99,000: A historic property in North Portland’s Humboldt neighborhood has been transformed into an outdoor classroom and living laboratory. The demonstration garden, housed at the East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District office, gives visitors ideas to try at home.
April Hill Park, $83,000: A durable trail, a boardwalk with a nature-viewing platform and bridges at creek crossings will protect sensitive habitat at April Hill Park in Southwest Portland, while catering to the people who enjoy it. Visitors are treated to chorus frogs, long-toed salamanders, rough-skinned newts and dozens of bird species.
Nadaka Nature Park, $239,000: Led by the Columbia Slough Watershed Council, neighborhood and community groups secured a $239,000 grant to transform the gateway to the Gresham park with gathering spaces, nature play area and a community garden.
Dirksen Nature Park, $390,000: An enhanced experience will greet visitiors as they walk through a variety of Northwest ecosystems. Visitors will get to exprience a restored forested wetland with a new boardwalk, a restored oak savannah with a new overlook and two nature play areas.
Donald L. Robertson Park, $22,042: Wood Village residents and visitors will soon see a new recreational nature trail and bridge. The trail will improve connections with other trails, neighborhoods and retail centers.
Old Town Loop Trail, $138,000: Walkers, joggers and bicyclists will soon be able to enjoy a new 3,500-foot, paved multi-use trail along the edge of Gales Creek Natural Area in Forest Grove. The trail will connect to the existing B Street and Highway 47 trails, resulting in a 1.65-mile loop.
Siskiyou Pathway, $93,780: A restored brownfield site will soon link two nature and recreation sites with a new public pathway that improves connections for people -- and wildlife.
Whitaker Ponds Nature Park, $422,667: Safety, wheelchair access and other improvements will be made at the entrance to Whitaker Ponds Nature Park on Northeast 47th Avenue in Portland. The project includes an improved, expanded parking area designed with low-impact development techniques, a new sidewalk, a small nature play area and more native plants.
Zenger Farm, $142,750: Improvements to a courtyard at the new Urban Grange at Zenger Farms will enhance hands-on, experiential learning of stormwater and water quality needs in urban areas. The improvements include infiltration basins, a stormwater conveyance features, bioswales and permeable pavers.
Case study: For a park-deprived area in Clackamas County, a neighborhood natural area was a selling point
When Jill and Adam Brittle want to take their toddler to the park, they barely have to leave the front door of their Clackamas County home.
Less than a minute away, at Hawthorne Park, they can enjoy native trees and shrubs, a walking path, picnic tables, a stormwater pond and bridge – and, most importantly for little Ella, a play area that borrows from nature with logs and climbing boulders. The promise of this park, funded in part by a Metro Nature in Neighborhoods grant, helped attract the Brittles to the neighborhood a few years ago.
“It’s not a private park, but it’s right across the street,” said Adam Brittle, president of the Hawthorne Park Condominiums Association. “That was one of the real selling points.”
Until their namesake park opened in 2012, residents of the Hawthorne Park development had to walk a mile to the nearest playground. West of 82nd Avenue near Southeast King Road, the new neighborhood offered easy access to shopping and transportation – but no park.
The development falls in an urban renewal district intended to revitalize part of northern Clackamas County, which allowed Portland-based HP Development to enhance the project by teaming up with the Clackamas County Development Agency. They guaranteed that 10 units in the 29-home development will always be affordable. Plus, the county purchased an acre of land for a neighborhood park and secured a Nature in Neighborhoods grant to help create it, along with a $50,000 grant from Oregon State Parks.
“Initially, our interest was piqued with the housing part of the project,” said Ken Itel, project manager for the development agency. “When we realized there was going to be this leftover open space, we recognized that was an opportunity to provide some additional park space for the community. The entire neighborhood is really deficient in parks and open space.”
Leftover land was no accident, said Kirby Gibson, HP Development’s real estate agent. Rather than build a traditional neighborhood with large yards, she said, the developer decided to squeeze lots and make room for a communal outdoor area. This approach paid off, with the promise of a future park attracting home buyers with dogs and children. Residents paid $185,000 to $235,000 for the three- and four-bedroom homes, trickling into the new neighborhood in 2010 and 2011.
The Brittles were among the first to move in, getting settled just a few days before their daughter was born. Their new addition heightened their interest in park space, Adam said, because “we wanted somewhere for her to play.” He served on a committee that helped design the park.
Participants said Metro’s involvement helped steer the park toward a greener future. They chose a nature-based play area, instead of traditional slides and jungle gyms, and opted for native plantings. Natural materials take fewer resources to maintain – a bonus for the homeowners association, which is responsible for park upkeep. They also make the park more appealing, participants said.