Eyes on the Street
“A street that ends in a forest—there is a magic there.”
— Ursula K. LeGuin
In Portland, Oregon, we’re fortunate to have large expanses of contiguous forested greenspaces protected within the city. Many of these wild places were saved from development (if not logging) due to their steep topography. But early visionaries like the Olmsted brothers still recognized the importance of setting aside pristine forests as a respite from the smoke and bustle of the industrial city, despite the vast swaths of wilderness that then existed on every horizon and which, at the turn of the century, were still mostly untracked.
The popularity of these urban open spaces is enduring. Recent public bond measures have passed easily, providing money for regional and local governments to proactively purchase additional open space before it’s developed. As a result, both established older neighborhoods and new subdivisions exist in close proximity to wild places, resulting in fascinating, sometimes abrupt transitions.
My favorite transition is at the end of Thurman Street in Portland’s Northwest District. The street begins at railroad tracks along the Willamette River, and is initially fronted by old industrial buildings, some converted to restaurants, in the shadow of an overhead freeway that severs the street for several blocks. It then re-emerges as a few blocks of some of the most delightful urban streetscapes in the city, featuring a mix of uses that could never be planned—a library next to a dry cleaner across the street from a French bakery, next to a tapas bar, across from an cooperative grocery store, across from a bagel shop. (Ursula K. Leguin describes it infinitely better in her Blue Moon Over Thurman Street, the source of the above epigraph.) One passes several blocks of old Victorians mixed with higher-density townhouses before Thurman climbs a hill over a rickety bridge and winds past some of the city’s grandest old mansions. Steeper and steeper it climbs, until some of the mansions become contemporary, angular boxes, with views to distant volcanoes. With one final curve, the street then just… ends.
Thurman originally continued into the forest as the spine of an imagined 1930s subdivision that would replace the deep woods with large homes. That Depression-era development failed, however, ending up in city hands as payment in lieu of back taxes. The steep lots have been subsumed into Portland’s Forest Park, a remarkable urban wildland of over 5,000 acres, and the road has become Leif Erickson Trail, extending almost 12 miles through the woods, crisscrossed by a network of narrower paths disappearing into deep woods. Where Sunday drivers looking at house lots once wound in and out of endless ravines on their circuitous way north, a gate now ensures that only walkers, runners, and cyclists can wander, their progress measured by small concrete markers every quarter mile.
But where are the Forest Parks of the future? Despite the impressive land purchases for open space on the edges of some of our region’s rapidly growing cities, new subdivisions often ignore wildlands, turning the backs of homes to the very places that kids (and their parents) should be exploring—the deep ravines and open fields—fencing them off altogether. The walls and fences of subdivisions provide dramatic and forbidding edges that limit both access and exploration. It’s ignorance by design.
Richard Louv’s writings suggest that the many psychological and physical problems of modern children can be addressed, at least partially, with more time spent outdoors. Perhaps most importantly, without access to nature, we could all lose our commitment to protecting it. As Robert Michael Pyle writes in The Thunder Tree, “only the ditches and the field, the woods, the ravines can teach us to care enough for all the land.”
As an urban planner, I often try to provide connections to nature in town and neighborhood plans—it’s evident that something as simple as a trailhead sign and a narrow path can suffice as a portal and enticement to the tangled, mysterious world beyond. A popular trend in landscape architecture features the design of “nature-play” areas that mimic the actual unstructured adventures that a kid could get out in the woods, unsupervised. As fabricated, ersatz nature, this is not ideal, but isn’t it better than screen time?
Other steps include integrating open space into parks and making these the heart of a community instead of the undevelopable leftovers at the margins. Schools can be located adjacent to creeks and wetlands to provide nearby ecology labs. This need not be pristine wilderness. The wild leftovers can suffice to provide the magic that compelled LeGuin to the woods at the end of her street—and can continue to compel future generations.
Coniferous forest with sunlight photo by Paul Aniszewski, courtesy Shutterstock.