For years, planners working to design new parks have engaged the community through open houses, surveys and other traditional methods. But what if a different model could work better?
A new initiative called Connect to Nature is contracting with Verde, a community-based organization, to develop a new approach to designing parks that are welcoming to diverse communities.
It’s getting a tryout starting this summer as Metro and the city of Gresham launch an effort to plan for the long-term future of the East Buttes area. Gresham and Metro own a significant collection of properties in the buttes, a series of forested, extinct cinder cones in the Boring Lava Field that formed millions of years ago. The planning effort will create a long-term vision for the area and focus in particular on providing formal access to Gabbert Butte, which connects to Gresham Butte.A new initiative called Connect to Nature is contracting with Verde, a community-based organization, to develop a new approach to designing parks that are more welcoming to diverse communities.
As part of the planning effort, Verde will be working to engage diverse communities to identify nature-based activities and facilities to ensure underserved communities can better access nature. The team, led by Verde, includes community organizations and a landscape architecture firm.
“In poll after poll, people of color indicate very highly the need for parks, open spaces and access, yet you see the disparities in our region with people of color and low-income people not having good access to parks in their neighborhoods,” said Tony DeFalco, the Verde project manager for Connect to Nature.
“This opportunity is huge, and a lot of people will be watching our work because it’s really saying for the first time, ‘Let’s figure out what designing and planning these parks mean for these populations, and let’s figure out how to incorporate that going forward in all the work that we do.’”
Connect to Nature
Although the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the East Buttes area are predominantly white, the larger Gresham community reflects the region’s growing diversity. Of the city’s estimated 108,000 residents, about a third are people of color or Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2014. The median household income was approximately $47,700.
“Parks planning historically has focused on the needs and priorities of higher-income folks, or the directives around science in terms of ecological protection, and I think that low-income people and people of color were not thought about,” DeFalco said.
To create a new model, Verde will be working with the Native American Youth and Family Center, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, and the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization to identify about seven local leaders to connect with community members. The local leaders will receive stipends to learn about the parks planning process, bring members of their communities to the table, and engage them on the types of features and activities they would like to see, as well as overcoming barriers to access. Design workshops will help incorporate that input – and solutions – into the ultimate plan.
Planning more inclusive parks will allow underrepresented groups to better enjoy the health benefits of active lifestyles and other benefits provided by access to nature, DeFalco said.
“It’s really an area where there’s an increasingawareness on behalf of Metro and other agencies, and a need for real practice around ‘How do we do it?’” he said. “There’s a real hunger around institutionalizing this kind of effort. As a community service organization, we’re really excited by that because it indicates to us that this is not just a flash in the pan.”
Protecting nature, collaboratively
From the city’s land around Gresham Butte in the north to Metro’s West and East Bliss buttes in the south, the collective East Buttes area is one of the region’s largest patchworks of publicly owned natural areas.
“This area has the potential to become one of the iconic natural areas in the region,” said Olena Turula, a parks planner at Metro who is leading the East Buttes project. “As this area develops, it’s going to be a huge resource.”
An informal trail system at Gabbert Butte and the Gresham Butte Saddle Trail already allow visitors to explore the forests full of Douglas firs, bigleaf maples, red alders, Western red cedars, sword and licorice ferns, and various flowers. The East Buttes area also contains the headwaters of Kelley Creek and other creeks that flow into Johnson Creek.
On a balmy spring afternoon, sword ferns gracefully unfurled their leaves, Pacific bleeding hearts gently swayed in the wind and trillium blossoms dotted the forest floor. Bees buzzed among Oregon grape and red-flowering currant shrubs. Amphibians, deer, porcupines, a wide variety of birds and other wildlife rely on East Buttes, said Elaine Stewart, a senior natural resources scientist at Metro.
“The buttes provide places on the landscape where birds can ‘drop out’ and rest and feed before they take off again during migration. Some stay to nest in the buttes,” Stewart said. “It’s just nice to have large tracts of land. When you add it up, it’s possible to support viable populations of wildlife.”
The joint planning effort between Metro and the city will allow for better coordination on access improvements and better leveraging of shared resources, said Steve Fancher, Gresham’s environmental services director. Metro has more experience planning regional parks and trails, and Gresham knows its residents best, Fancher said.
“It’s not just about more trails, it’s about doing it in a sensitive way for the environment and for the people who live there,” Fancher said. “It’s about doing it the right way so we give more access to natural areas that have been purchased by everybody collectively, but doing it in a way that’s best for all.”
One of the top priorities is to find the community groups that might provide the most meaningful feedback and to get their input, Fancher said.
One of the key groups will be neighbors.
“I love this trail,” neighbor Buz Carriker said as he walked along a trail at Gabbert Butte one spring afternoon. “I like being out in the woods, especially on days like this when it’s nice and sunny.”
Jim Buck, chairman of the Gresham Butte Neighborhood Association, says he’d like to see restrooms and interpretive and directional signage along the trails as part of access improvements. Neighbors are concerned about the possibility of illegal camping and dumping, given ongoing issues along the nearby Springwater Corridor Trail, Buck said. He’d also like the planning conversation to discuss whether pets should be allowed.
“I know most Metro areas don’t allow dogs, and some people really want to use the buttes to run with their dogs,” Buck said. “I say that in terms of pets because part of the planning is to preserve the natural environment, and there’s a concern that pets may hamper wildlife from reproducing or even remaining in the area if pets are allowed to roam free or start chasing wildlife.”
Buck, chairman of the city’s urban forestry subcommittee, hikes in the East Buttes area about three or four times a week.
“I think there’s a strong appreciation that Metro’s really trying to apply the bond funds for land acquisition, that people are pleased with what they’ve acquired and is now being held in the public trust,” Buck said. “That’s going to add to the livability of this entire area.”