By Rebecca Wahlstrom
As a rower on a master’s crew team, I have been on the Portland portion of the Willamette River most times of the day and most times of the year. In the spring, fishing boats dot the river in clusters, moving between a slow crawl and a frantic rush to the next great fishing spot. When the fishing season ends there is a brief quiet time until the weather turns warm and the river really gets to be a busy place when kayakers, swimmers, rowing teams, water skiers, jet skiers, sailboats, dragon boaters, pirate ships, outrigger canoes, stand up paddlers, jet boat tours, and Portland Spirit tours, industrial barges, motor boats, and wildlife all want a part of the Willamette River.
With all this river action, one would think that there is a great deal of public access to the river. Not necessarily the case. The amount of public access to the river remains spotty at best. With the seawall, industry, and private land covering much of the river edge in Portland, the public has little option other than to crowd to the remaining access points. Trying to get a rowing shell out on the water on a sunny afternoon requires a certain amount of determination and loss of reason. The one major public dock in the downtown area becomes standing/sprawling room only with people wanting to get next to (or in) the water. The shallow access under the Hawthorne Bridge becomes a spot for people to wade in and little kids to throw sticks in the water. People try to pick their way through the rip-rap on the west shoreline along the concert bowl, looking for access. Tourists lean on the seawall railings and look down at the water like they would really love to be there, but can’t figure out how. Whether you are of the opinion that the river going through downtown is filled with contaminants or not, these people want to interact with the water.
How can we, as landscape architects, get the public safely to the water? Not just gazing at it from afar, but actually get people to the water. The development around the river shore in the Portland area is intense and there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of flex, but I wonder if clever landscape architects, working together with water enthusiasts and the city, can figure out how. The more people who can connect to our natural surroundings, the more likely they will care about preserving the natural spaces in Oregon. After all, that is a large part of what we do as landscape architects; preserve places, rebuild environments, and re-connect people to their surroundings.
See you on the river.