The man and the river
Len Otto has a lifelong bond with the Sandy River. It’s where his earliest memories take place. Born in Troutdale, Otto grew up in a home on the Sandy, and has fished the river since he could walk. In his adulthood, he was a community activist who participated in work to protect the river. Now, his relationship with the river is almost spiritual.
“The river is coursing through my blood, let’s put it that way,” Otto said.
As the years turned to decades, 71-year-old Otto eventually became a part of demographic that nearly a third of Americans will join by the time they are 75: those with limited mobility. In fact, according to an analysis on census data by Pew Research Center, around 46% of Americans aged 75 and older reported having some type of disability.
“Pain has become a limiting factor in my life, and while nowhere near as extreme as many, many people, it is an issue,” Otto said. “But that is not what led me to start writing letters to Metro about accessibility at Oxbow.”
In fact, it was Otto’s friends that inspired him. They were fellow anglers with mobility issues, one due to a battle with cancer.
The steep ramp down to the boating dock at Oxbow – the only route down from the parking lot – was not ideal or safe for someone using a wheelchair or other mobility device.
It was easier and safer for Otto and his friends to drive themselves to the bottom of the ramp. The problem was, there was nowhere for them to park once they got there. This forced people with limited mobility, like Otto and many of his friends, to be dependent on others to drop them off and pick them up from the end of the ramp.
So in 2020, Otto reached out to Metro looking for a solution. He received a response, but not a clear promise on when changes would be made. Next, Otto wrote a letter to his Metro councilor. He received a response that accessible parking spaces would be made available; it would just take time.
“I was frustrated with the timeline, but I do also understand that sometimes bureaucracy does take time,” Otto said.
Metro’s Accessibility Journey
Otto’s conversations about accessibility with Metro came shortly after the hiring of accessiblity project manager Will Cortez in 2019. Cortez was brought onto the staff with funds from the 2019 voter-approved parks and nature bond.
“In that parks bond we'd set aside $11 million just to do ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] accessibility work,” Cortez said.
In 2017 Metro hired a contractor to do an ADA barrier assessment of all their parks. Two years later, Metro used the findings of the assessment to create its ADA transition plan, which outlines a strategy for removing physical barriers experienced by people with disabilities. Title II of the ADA requires that Metro’s fishing and boating programs be made accessible. In that context, Otto's email came at the perfect time, fitting into work Metro had already begun.
There are many reasons why natural areas and parks were originally created without accessibility in mind, according to Cortez.
“There's this inherent ableism and the way we view people with disabilities, like assuming that they have a lesser quality of life or that they only have the right to a lesser version of life,” Cortez. "We talk so much about the healing qualities of nature. Then again, here we are granting access to only those folks who have the physical ability to deal with the barriers that are in front of them."
This institutional ableism has led to many parks being built without accessibility in mind. But even as Metro parks and nature is working to change that, there are still challenges. Some locations can’t be made accessible without completely altering the landscape. There is also a difficult balance between creating access to a natural area and avoiding impact to the area. Parks providers must find the middle ground between accomplishing goals of access and of environmental sustainability.
“I think as an agency we're at a great place to continue to have these conversations with the community,” Cortez said.
When Cortez joined Metro Parks and Nature, he became the point person for the Oxbow accessible parking spaces. Metro staff engaged with community members, including Otto, to get insight into the project. They also worked with and Adventure Without Limits, a non-profit that aims to provide access to nature for all. After a few years of planning, permitting, and construction, the parking spaces opened.
Access at last
“There was relief that it finally had happened,” Otto said, remembering this Memorial Day, when the spots opened to the public.
After years of planning and construction the spaces were ready to serve the community. The day came with strong emotions. One of Otto’s friends did not live long enough to see the finished project. But Otto witnessed others using the spaces and felt a sense of pride in having created something for his community: access to the river he has loved all his life.
“When somebody has access who did not previously have access, that's powerful that they, all of a sudden, can do what somebody else has always done,” Otto said.
In the last several years, accessibility has been an area of focus for Metro projects. Metro’s most recent ADA-compliance work is happening at Graham Oaks Park. Cortez said it’s sort of a pilot project for what accessibility work at Metro parks could look like going forward. Projects include repainting accessible parking spots, making repairs to the Tonquin Regional Trail, leveling out the parking lot and connecting the bus stop to the trail head with an accessible path.
This work should be completed by the beginning of 2024.
Going forward, Metro is not only using bond funding to make accessibility improvements to current parks, but building accessibility into the core of planning and designing new parks. For instance, both of Metro's newest nature parks – Newell Creek Canyon and Chehalem Ridge – include paths that can be used by adaptive mountain bikes made for people with disabilities. This summer, Metro funded several parks projects from other agencies that focus on accessibility through the Local Share program.
This is exactly what Otto hopes to see in public spaces in the future: accessibility not being an afterthought, but an integral part of planning.
“When a project is at the very, very beginning of its planning, even at the inception of the idea, let's start thinking: ‘How can this apply to all groups?'"
Editors note: a previous verision of this story listed the incorrect year that Len Otto reach our to Metro Council about accesible parking. Len Otto reached out to Metro Council in 2020.