In 1938, when Portland, along with other cities, was reeling from the stubborn effects of the Great Depression, the City Club of Portland hosted the writer and historian Lewis Mumford
of New York. A profound and blunt thinker about cities in time and geography, Mumford hit his Portland audience where it hurts with his cogent take on the city's and region's prospects. "I have seen a lot of scenery in my life," Mumford opined, "but I have seen nothing so tempting as a home for man as this Oregon country.... You have here a basis for civilization on its highest scale, and I am going to ask you a question that you may not like. Are you good enough to have this country in your possession? Have you got enough intelligence, imagination, and cooperation among you to make the best use of these opportunities?
"Rebuilding our cities will be one of the major tasks of the next generation," Mumford challenged Portlanders.
In providing for new developments you have an opportunity here to do a job of city planning like nowhere else in the world. Oregon is one of the last places in this country where natural resources are still largely intact. Are you intelligent enough to use them wisely?
In many ways, the outspoken Mike Houck of the Urban Greenspaces Institute and one of the Above Portland essayists, is a contemporary Lewis Mumford. As Mike observes in his essay,
from an eagle's perspective, Portland is a city in a garden and a garden in the city. Our city is embedded in nature and nature is interwoven throughout the city, at every scale, from regional landforms to the streetscape. Within the urban matrix (the Intertwine), the region's ever-growing interconnected network of parks, trails, and natural areas are discernible as ribbons of green along the Columbia Slough, Johnson Creek, and Fanno Creek. Forest Park's massive green peninsula plunges from the coast range into the downtown skyline. East, dormant volcanic buttes — Mt. Tabor, Powell Butte, Kelly Butte, Mt. Talbert, and the Gresham Buttes dot the urban landscape — the city's "forest park east." Upstream, the Ross Island archipelago and Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge straddle the Willamette. Marquam Nature Park and Terwilliger Parkway are a giant swatch of green draping the Tualatin Mountains to the west.
At the streetscape, too, a new urban greenscape is emerging. Acres of ecoroofs top many downtown buildings and bioswales line neighborhood streets. Three acres of ecoroofs grace South Waterfront towers on the west bank of the Willamette and there are plans to install many more acres of rooftop greenswards on the expanse of buildings in Portland's industrial district abutting Forest Park. The urban forest canopy is also clearly visible, currently covering 33 percent of the city's surface.
While these parks, trails, natural areas, and the urban forest canopy comprise an invaluable recreational resource, they serve another critical function. They constitute the city's green infrastructure — an ecologically-based complement to our grey infrastructure of pipes, roads and other utilities. This "greenfrastructure" provides habitat for myriad plants and animals; reduces the city's energy consumption by disrupting the urban heat island effect; attenuates stormwater runoff; reduces flooding hazards where natural floodplains have been allowed to follow their natural paths; reduces fire and landslide hazards where fire-resistant native vegetation has been retained or restored and steep slopes protected from development; and increases adjacent property values.
I think we can agree with both Lewis Mumford and Mike Houck that we have had the challenge of living up, intelligently, to the great landscape and resources of Oregon and that we have begun, in turn, to live up to that challenge. We have, to a greater degree than other cities, I believe, heeded the advice of such visionaries as John Charles Olmsted and Lewis Mumford, William Whyte and Ian McHarg. Portland has begun to design with nature, as Mike Houck attests. Bruce Forster's images in Above Portland reveal where we have succeeded in that effort — and where our work remains.