Investing in Nadaka Nature Park
Since 2009, several Metro Nature in Neighborhood grants have helped fund land acquisition, construction and programming at Nadaka Nature Park. The money comes voter investment in nature through the 2006 natural areas bond measure and the 2013 parks and natural areas levy. Over the years, Metro has invested more than $90 million to support a broad range of community nature projects across greater Portland.
Improved access to Nadaka: In 2009, Metro contributed $220,000 in grant funding to acquire a 1.9 acre site that improved public access to the existing Nadaka Nature Park. The grant represented a third of the assessed value of the site. This acquisition made the park accessible to its south-side neighbors.
Nature-based playground and community garden: A 2012 capital grant totaling $238,805 was awarded to develop a nature-based play area, community garden and spaces for the community to gather. Funds also went to the development of a five-year operation and maintenance plan to increase community involvement in caring for the park.
Conservation education grant for $61,000: In 2014, Metro gave $61,000 to Friends of Nadaka and the Columbia Slough Watershed Council, who oversaw a collaboration of eight organizations to expand multicultural environmental education and social service delivery to youth and low income residents of West Gresham.
2015 conservation education grant for $100,000: Metro gave $100,000 to the TALON program in 2015. Through training and paid employment, the TALON program, managed by Audubon Society of Portland, is preparing a new generation of environmental stewards, conservationists, educators and naturalists from east Multnomah and northern Clackamas counties.
Conservation and English education: 2015 conservation education grant for $7,608.00: IN 2015, People-Places-Things was awarded $7,608 to use Gresham’s Nadaka Nature Park as an outdoor classroom to teach real-world language and life skills to English-language learners from around the world, and also connect them to nature.
In the far northwest corner of Gresham’s Nadaka Nature Park, there is an enormous, painted boulder shaded by tall Douglas Firs. Its painted grin seems incongruous at first in this ten-acre forest where natural shades of green and brown predominate.
“This is Turtle Rock. The Camp Fire girls would come and sit on it to make a wish,” says Lee Dayfield, and perches on it herself. She loves this rock and the forest in which it rests. On a recent Thursday morning she walked through one of Gresham’s newest parks and explained how it came to be and who uses it.
From 1956 to 1995, the natural area was owned by Camp Fire, the youth development organization that started as Camp Fire Girls of America. They ran day camps at the site until it was sold to the City of Gresham in 1995.
The city installed a quarter-mile walking loop through the trees, but an eight-foot-tall chain link perimeter fence topped by barbed wire remained in place. “People,” says Dayfield, “didn’t even know it was a park.” In 2001, the city unlocked a small gate on the north side of the property, but over on the south side near Glisan Street the gate remained locked. Furthermore, two acres of privately owned land stood between the south gate and the street.
Dayfield, who lives nearby, loved to walk her dog in the forest, and one day in 2008 she noticed a for-sale sign on the adjoining south side land. “I knew I wanted to do something,” she says. “I could imagine what might happen here.”
Over the next several years, Dayfield, with Friends of Nadaka, built an innovative coalition of public and private partners and led an extensive community-driven effort to acquire the land and make the natural area accessible to all its Rockwood and Wilkes East neighbors. The group engineered the purchase of those two acres and unlocked the potential of the park. In 2009, Metro contributed one third of the purchase price of the land with a $220,000 capital grant. Now, that land is the front door of the park, with a community garden, a nature-based play area, a picnic shelter and a restroom having replaced what had been a grassy field on the south side.
Along with that initial grant, several other voter-funded Nature in Neighborhood grants from Metro supported early forest restoration efforts and, crucially, helped pay for development of the two south side acres. But it takes more than land acquisition and development to build a truly successful park. Nearby residents have to use its facilities, feel welcome there and care about it. To that end, Metro has awarded grant funding to programs aimed to draw a diverse range of users into the park and give them access to nature right in their neighborhood.
The Rockwood town center about half a mile from Nadaka’s southern entrance is one of the poorest, youngest, most diverse and densest town centers in the region. About 17,000 people live within one mile of the park.
The acquisition of the two acres on Northeast Glisan Street in 2009 and the unlocking of the southern gate “doubled the number of people who had access to the park and tripled the number of people of color,” says Jim Labbe, formerly an urban conservationist at the Audubon Society of Portland. A 2015 survey of park users showed that about 80 percent of visitors came from Gresham and East Portland with 61.5 percent of those from the park’s adjacent neighborhoods of Rockwood and Wilkes East.
In 2012, another Metro capital grant of $238,805 went toward implementing the master plan for the park which included the community garden, walking paths, a meadow area for gatherings and a nature-based playground.
As Dayfield walks by the playground, several kids leap from stump to stump in the playground. Others, even younger, are scooping up sand and watching it trickle through their fingers. Nature-based playgrounds allow kids to play in, on and with natural elements such as rocks, sand, wood and living plants. Dayfield points out Gresham’s first accessible swing, designed to make transfers from walkers or wheelchairs easy.
She heads towards a group of young people standing in a circle. These high schoolers and recent graduates are members of STRYVE – Striving to Reduce Youth Violence Everywhere – and they’re having their morning meeting with Monica McAllister, program coordinator at the park. It’s the organization’s third year of helping out at Nadaka. The collaboration encourages youth and their families to be leaders in the park and the community, says McAllister.
STRYVE member Malik Cistrunk says getting to work with the younger kids, taking them through the forest, showing them fox and raccoon pelts, is really cool.
Andre Channel, STRYVE supervisor, says that the kids act as positive role models in the park. “Our model is that they help themselves also – building relationships and holding each other accountable. Nadaka,” Channel says, “is a great way to connect people.”
This morning their mission is to distribute flyers, in English and Spanish, about an upcoming safety meeting. Dayfield explains that some neighbors have complained about safety issues – people sleeping overnight in the natural area. “Some of those neighbors have probably never been in this park,” she tells the STRYVE members. “It shouldn’t be just a fussing session,” she says. Instead she sees this potentially volatile meeting as an opportunity: “Let’s get more people into this park and get them involved.” The kids head off into the surrounding neighborhoods with the flyers.
Mary Rose Navarro, capital grants coordinator at Metro, says the process of building Nadaka was distinguished by innovative public-private partnerships. One example: the successful collaboration between the City of Gresham’s contractor and non-profit Verde – an organization that aims to ensure that low-income and minority communities benefit from sustainable building projects – who worked in tandem to build the neighborhood park.
All the way through the process, Dayfield engaged the community, Navarro says. “There were hurdles along the way, but they seemed like one opportunity to collaborate after another.”
About this series
Metro has invested in community nature projects for more than 25 years. Through this occasional series in 2017-18, we’ll revisit projects that previously received Nature in Neighborhoods grants or local share money to find out where the projects are now and what difference Metro’s investments made.
As of early 2017, Metro is not accepting Nature in Neighborhoods grants applications. Grants paid for with money from the 2006 bond measure and 2013 parks and natural areas levy have all been awarded.
In November 2016, voters renewed the Metro parks and natural areas levy. Money from the levy renewal will be available starting in July 2018, and more Nature in Neighborhoods grants will be available then.
A 2014 Metro grant focused on tapping into education and social service programming from eight organizations and integrating them into the park’s activities. McAllister, as park coordinator, plays a central role in this. She regularly teaches environmental classes in the community rooms of nearby affordable housing buildings. The SUN program at H.B. Lee Middle School has regular activities at the park, Audubon staff lead bird walks through the forest, there are nature walks for toddlers, gardening classes and field trips for English language learners.
The organization People-Places-Things, which teaches English, has made Nadaka one of its classrooms.
“We aim to teach cultural skills as well as English,” says Patrik McDade, the founder and executive director of People-Places-Things. “It’s about introducing people to local geography and institutions. We take learners out of the classroom and into the real world. Field trips to Nadaka involve listening to the birdsong, smelling the sap, touching the bark of the trees. It’s about naming the world.”
At the park, a woman named Meui Saetern is leaving the community garden and stops to chat with McAllister, who tells her about the upcoming safety meeting. Saetern is pushing a cart loaded with vegetables harvested from her plot. “No bitter melons this year?” asks McAllister. “No,” says Saetern. Instead she has corn, peppers, eggplant, long beans and a vegetable that looks like a ridged cucumber. She isn’t sure about its English name – but it’s in the loofah family and she says it can be used as a sponge. Best eaten when young, Saetern advises, before it gets too fibrous.
Adam Kohl, executive director of Outgrowing Hunger, the non-profit which manages the community garden at Nadaka, says that people often use their garden plots to grow vegetables that are not available at grocery stores. “It’s a way of passing on food and cultural traditions to their kids and family,” he says.
Gardeners at Nadaka hail from Laos, Vietnam, Ukraine, Russia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mexico and Central America. The garden has about 60 plots plus some raised beds for wheelchair users. Kohler says all the plots are spoken for and there is a waiting list.
Less than a decade ago, none of this was available to the community.
Back walking in the tall trees, Dayfield greets a woman pushing a baby stroller through the forest. The only sounds are birdsong and the distant voices of children calling to each other on the playground.
“Those little Camp Fire girls being in these woods for so many years,” muses Dayfield. “I swear they left some magic here.