A Tale of Two Cities' Parks

Portland is widely regarded as having the most parks per capita of any American city. Or, at least I think that's right. Maybe it's most acres of parkland. Or, at the very least, we have both the biggest and the smallest parks of any U.S. city. I'm pretty sure that's true, because it is stated on a framed Portland promotional poster that I often see at my workplace, over the toilet, while I'm urinating.

Anyway, it sure makes Portland sound like a great place. More parks must mean more places to relax, recreate, enjoy (or, possibly, insulate) oneself from the urban scenery, right? And I think that's all true and good. But, really, there's so much more to it than that.

Let me first explain that I grew up in a suburb of Denver known as Aurora. Aurora has plenty of parks. Even more so, Aurora has plenty of greenbelts. For those of you who did not spend half your lives out in some analogous McMansionburg, a greenbelt is typically a multi-acre swath of arid (at least in Aurora) land that has been set aside by the local municipality to be sodded with non-native grass, rigged with a sprinkler system, then mowed and manicured, by teams of groundskeepers on a weekly basis, into a state of lush perfection.

It goes without saying that all this watering and maintenance costs taxpayer money that some would argue could be better spent on schools and/or social services, but I digress. The establishment of these greenbelt areas is done, ostensibly, to keep the viral accretion of housing developments from covering every last square foot of available land, which would thereby render the suburbs so densely overbuilt as to be almost indistinguishable to its inhabitants from the more urban environs they left behind in the first place. (It's worth noting that even our most densely built and populated cities are regarded by some foreigners as spacious and full of breathing room. But again, I digress.)

So, Portland has lots of parks, and unlike those in my native Aurora, most of them here are truly great. As the father of a four-year-old, I have had many opportunities to appreciate how great so many of them are. However, within the past few days, I've had a couple of experiences that have taken that appreciation to a new -- dare I say, "arts & cultural" -- level.

First, on Saturday 8/23, I took my daughter, Ella, with some friends to the free Oregon Symphony in the Neighborhoods concert at Mt. Scott Park. It turned out that there was a lot more to see and do there than just the symphony. We saw and heard other kinds of music, played on the playground equipment, ate bratwurst and shave ice, joked and chatted with fellow Portlanders, and enjoyed the late-summer weather. But for me, the highlight was when I sat with my friends and watched Ella and several other young kids dancing in front of the Portland Taiko stage, the late evening sun streaming through the branches of tall conifers. It reminded me again why I'm so happy to be raising my daughter in a place so unlike that uncultured suburb where I grew up. It was incredible to see her exposed to the music of multiple cultures in the span of a few hours, while also reinforcing for her the feeling of being part of a community. Public shool funding issues notwithstanding, I can't imagine a better environment to raise a child.

If this were an unusual occurrence, I wouldn't make such a claim, but the truth is, Portland affords kids and adults these kinds of opportunities all the time. I can't believe how often we've found ourselves at street fairs, waterfront festivals or neighborhood celebrations, watching local musicians and performers, and feeling so grateful for the community we live in. There was even a rather touching article about the Mt. Scott event in The Oregonian, which featured a photo of Ella dancing her taiko dance.

A similarly sublime feeling came over me again tonight, when the Regional Arts & Culture Council held its annual staff picnic in Irving Park. This is yet another beautifully wooded park, in this case filled with stately old oaks, which served as a positively lovely place for our growing family of RACC staff members and their spouses/partners and children to relax, have fun, and reflect on the past year's accomplishments together. There was ample well-maintained space for the kids to frolic, for the adults to enjoy treats of the charcoal-grilled as well as ethanol-enhanced variety, and for everyone to feel content to let their hair down on a temperate August evening.

As with the greenbelts and parks of Aurora, Colorado, I am sure we pay a sizeable chunk of our taxes to keep these urban oases safe and in good condition. But on those broad, vacant suburban greenbelts, I never once saw musicians playing, kids dancing, or people enjoying a summer evening in the company of their friends and fellow citizens. I couldn't be happier or more proud to be a resident of Portland for going on ten years now, and hopefully for many more to come.

Updated 08-27-08: I think I may have defined the term "greenbelt" incorrectly. Having read something about greenbelts today, I found that the term usually applies to urban or urban-adjacent land that remains largely undeveloped for various ecological purposes. That actually sounds like a great idea, but it leaves me even more confused about the large stretches of well-maintained lawn that I've seen in some suburban areas, usually running alongside roads or canals. They don't quite qualify as parks, so what are they? Maybe they're "greenways," although I'm also fuzzy on what that means exactly. My qwest for knowledge continues....


cynseattle said...

I wonder how much traffic to Culture Shock will increase now that the word "urinate" has been used in a post?

shobiz said...

Hmm. Maybe we should provide helpful links to more relevant sites for visitors who find us that way. I'm assuming these will be folks who are looking for... um, info on prostate health? [Ahem.]

I also presume that the Aurora, CO, Chamber of Commerce is now boycotting us for non-urine-related reasons.

culturejock said...

Last night's follow-up Symphony event at Tom McCall Waterfront Park was equally inspiring. Listening to Tchaikovsky and Copeland with 10,000 other folks on the banks of the Willamette River under the towers of the Hawthorne bridge at sunset? Priceless. Although they could have used more port-a-potties!