Landscape and Culture: Redefining the Urban Landscape – Single Use Corridors – Railroads

R x R below Division St. and 9th

R x R below Division St. and 7th

Landscape, is a human concept. It is more than simply a place, or the land that we occupy. Land becomes landscape when it passes through the lens of our eyes and we ascribe to it not only our own values and emotions, but also the value and emotions of the culture we share as members of this society. Just as we are shaped by the laws and culture of our society so to is the landscape. Without, sometimes, considerable conscious effort we cannot see the landscape free of this ‘cultural looking-glass’. As individuals I don’t think it’s ever possible to look at the landscape neutrally, though over time, our experiences can change us, and so, also, how we value and view the landscape. This is important if we ever want to change our relationship with the landscape we live in, if our role as an actor in the landscape is to change, if we are to, individually and collectively, become responsible stewards of the places within which we live…because it is one thing to say we are good stewards and something else entirely to actually be one.

People continue to be drawn here to the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. We all have our favorite places that hold us, and, unfortunately, over time, can come to sadden us as we see them degraded and homogenized by the momentum of our culture, the economic engine we all depend on, that is still systematically converting our landscape into one that can be found almost anywhere with the exception sometimes of a geography too expensive to alter. Even climate, we are beginning to realize, is within our ability to change, though we are finding, such changes are likely beyond our control.

One of a culture’s functions is to serve as a template for the society it is a part of. It includes a set of ‘rules’ and patterns that form the base upon which we have built our lives and most of these are givens (a set of ‘best management practices’ moving us toward a common shared goal)…if they weren’t, society would break down and we would find it ever more difficult to accomplish anything collectively. We would be mired in conflict and endless bickering….What has happened over time is that much of this ‘template’, has become fixed, codified in law and regulations. As members of this society we have internalized much of this and, to greater or lesser degrees, identify ourselves with it. Our views and actions, often even our identities, become defined in large part by our culture. This is what makes it so difficult to ‘remove’ ourselves from it, even temporarily, to evaluate its effect on ourselves and the landscape we live in.

There are certain patterns that repeat across our reformed landscape today. The typical grid of streets, heavily influenced by our dependency upon the automobile is one, but there are many others and all of them have consequences on our landscape and, in turn, on the quality of our lives. Ours is a society focused very heavily on the idea of utility. Things should be useful. If not they are often considered to be luxuries or non-essential that we likely can’t afford. Attached to this is a narrow definition of efficiency that often causes us to strip something down to a specific function. Other things tend to get in the way…detract from performance.

But before we look at possible solutions we need to look at a chronic pervasive problem…the under-funding of maintenance. We as a society love to build projects and we have politicians who love to provide them for us especially when they can attach their name to them and solidify their position. Projects, some will say, are sexy. Maintenance never is. Maintenance is like having your mom always bugging you to clean your room or the dishes or worse, when your dad expects you to help out on a home project…without even paying you! So our tendency is to defer maintenance, to let someone else deal with it. In Europe they have buildings and landscapes that are hundreds of years old. Here we’re always looking towards the new. We sell our car within four years and many of us change our residences nearly as often looking for something new that won’t demand maintenance of us. It is a lazy habit and it sometimes leads to problems that leave us with little choice other than scrapping it away and building new. This is a very resource intensive ‘solution’, one that is becoming ever more costly. Sooner or later we’re going to have to realize that if we are going to build something, a structure or a landscape, we are going to have to commit to the needed maintenance over the long haul and if we can’t, we shouldn’t build it. We aren’t there yet.

New construction along the MAX line where Division St. angles off at SE 9th.

New construction along the MAX line where Division St. angles off at SE 8th.

We build more and more and continue to defer maintenance. In many ways we’re better at maintaining what we’ve built in terms of structures than we are our landscapes, but that is only because as a society, the whole of its members, for the most part, don’t understand the complexities of a landscape. They look at them and see dirt and plants. What’s the big deal? The big deal is when the mass of your landscapes are degraded and you don’t have the resources to address them, you find that it becomes prohibitively expensive to maintain the few remaining landscapes you have been committed to. The landscapes you do build are inherently difficult to maintain. They ignore the cycles at work on them assuring that the degradation continues. We live in a society that, by and large, does not understand and value, the landscape. It serves as a backdrop to our activities. We expect little of them and are willing to expend little in terms of resources, or even thought, in terms of our relationship with them and our future. The results are everywhere.

Railroad, freeway and highway rights-of-way, including our bridgeheads, median and buffer plantings, parking strips, levees and wetland areas, acreages being held for development as parks if and when the money becomes available, school properties, everywhere you look are neglected landscapes that were designed with a very narrow purpose or are simply in limbo receiving little to no maintenance so serve as refuges for weeds and trash, and this is just the public lands. The private sector is not immune. The city, especially in lower income areas, contains large areas awaiting redevelopment. Everywhere are commercial properties that many of us call ‘code-scapes’. When they were built they met some minimum city code regarding their landscapes, but have since received little to no care and are now ‘bark-scapes’ most of their once living plants having died. These are all a blight and a drain on our healthy landscapes. Then of course there are the many vacant properties waiting for a bigger upturn in the real estate market, for development money or buyers able to put the properties to better use…in the mean time they sit vacant producing and spreading seed around their neighborhoods. This is not a healthy landscape system. This is a landscape in decline that will have enduring consequences.


Take one piece of this broken puzzle. In the case of the railroads they serve only one purpose and the laws and regulations governing them recognize this. Nature, the ‘forces’ at play on any given landscape, and these are ‘landscapes’, never serve a single purpose. Single use traffic corridors are intended to carry only the traffic they were built for. They are managed to protect sight lines and the infrastructure from the very forces that work together to keep a healthy landscape alive. So, railroads, with this single purpose in mind, do this work in a cost effective way using various herbicides and soil sterilents to keep the right-of-way clear of plant growth that may threaten the safe and continued use of trains. This creates ‘dead zones’ around the railroad tracks where little or nothing grows. At the edges though, where spraying is less effective, where base rock and gravel are shallow or non-existent, where sometimes the grade has been cut or filled abruptly to accommodate the needed train grade, is a buffer of weeds, perennial and annual, that receives enough chemical to deter any more desirable plant growth, but not enough to control the weeds that tend to be the most problematic in any region given the soil, sun and moisture conditions. In fact these edge landscapes can be breeding grounds for the toughest and worst. These corridors work as miles long intrusions into and through any urban landscape that afford not only passage of trains but also the free movement of weeds that continuously re-inoculate these strip landscapes and serve as seed banks for adjacent landscapes and beyond as the seed is caught on and spread by the trains themselves.

We accept these as single use corridors and we leave their management with the railroads, who are under no obligation or expectation that they manage them more responsibly. We accept this situation despite the weed burden this creates for all responsible landowners. This is one of the problems with a codified system, it protects irresponsible management. It creates precedent, which is a conservative force, that protects behavior simply because we did it before even though times and needs change. It should be remembered that this land was originally ‘given’ to the railroads to help foster the development of a wild, unsettled, country. Times have changed. The new landscape is largely set. Trains provide a useful and even necessary service to our very urban world. These railroad rights-of-way are in conflict with our urban landscapes and the costs they impose are put on the rest of us. Many of these could be avoided simply by changing practice, but without the participation of all of the players it can’t happen. Others would require a bigger investment into a solution. What could that look like?


The graffiti is another indicator of this landscape as a waste space.

The graffiti is another indicator of this landscape as a waste space.

Every gardener learns quickly that you have to stay on top of the weeds, whatever the design. If you ignore them or think you can out wait them you lose. There is a gardening maxim, one year’s seeds seven years weeds. Actually I think this isn’t severe enough. They found out long ago that the longevity of dormant seeds can actually be much longer with seeds like Bindweed able to sit buried in the soil until conditions are right for 40 years or longer. Weeds are successful for a reason, they are more patient and persistent than most people and our ignorance or refusal to accept that will be at the detriment of our landscapes.

Recently, on a walk through inner SE Portland to the Hawthorne Bridge, I walked along the train tracks from SE 11th to OMSI. In some areas there was extensive hard surface and newly created planter beds, but much of this portion was bordered by typical waste area. Along Division St. there is a significant and abrupt grade change. This area was dominated by weeds, sometimes annuals like the ubiquitous Queen Anne’s Lace, Horseweed and Fennel often mixed or crowded out by the perennials Blackberry, Canada Thistle and Butterfly Bush over-topped here and there by Tree of Heaven among other things. Annuals, like these, tend to dominate landscapes suffering chronic neglect with periodic disturbances to prepare the ground for re-infection. Annuals can be relatively easy to control especially weeds like these with a longer cycle. They have to put on considerable top growth before they can flower and set seed giving the maintenance staff lots of forewarning to cut them down before they reseed. That presumes there is a maintenance staff paying attention. One missed cycle and annuals can quickly dominate a site.

With perennial weeds it takes longer to dominate, but they are more difficult to control once they do. Weeds like Canada Thistle form an extensive and deep rhizome system. Once established, cutting them may slow them down marginally, but will not weaken and kill them with repeated efforts. My only success with these is to get them early by spraying them with a systemic herbicide, like Glyphosate, but your timing must be good. You need to wait until the flowers are in bud stage, otherwise the chemical fails to translocate to the roots and kill the plant. This is a good thing secondarily because there shouldn’t be any bees around before they bloom. If you wait too long the plant may go ahead and ripen seed before they die and they are prodigious producers of seed. This is a tough plant. You won’t be able to dig out a mature stand. As I said before the rhizome is deep and extensive. The seed will spread on the wind and via songbirds that feed on it. Some will no doubt rush to point out that this is not an exotic so why bother. And they are correct, but it is one of a few North American plants that possesses such vigor. In the perfect, undisturbed world, it isn’t a problem, but in this one it is an aggressive spreader and can dominate many landscapes choking out less aggressive native populations of many desirable herbaceous species. It is difficult to control its spread and while you might choose to let it go there will be many other gardeners and land managers who will be angered as you put them in a position that they must continuously battle.

Blackberries have their peculiarities and difficulties regarding their control as well. They are slightly more forgiving allowing staff a few more options, but all weeds will require persistence and somebody’s attention. Butterfly Bush I’ve never found to be particularly difficult to control, but then again, if no one is watching over a period of a few years, there you go! One of the problems with most utility right-of-way work is that managers are looking to minimize their expenses…completely understandable. Many such landscapes are on a calendar. No one is watching. They just spray on a given date.

In the world of law and herbicides right-of-way work is its on category. Each land category, whether it is residential, agricultural, parks or right-of-way have different chemicals available for their use under federal law. It is part of the licensing process and it is noted on the product’s label. Sometimes states and other districts are able to place further restrictions on chemicals after a long process. How this works out is that right-of-way managers can use significantly more ‘potent’ herbicides than can managers of other categories of land. I assume this is because managers like railroads can have thousands of miles of track to keep clear. (I will point out here that there are many thousands of miles of roads and streets within the City of Portland with all of the edges and weed problems that can go on with that.) One way they do this is by using a group of herbicides classed broadly as ‘pre-emergents’.

Pre-emergent herbicides create a chemical barrier in the top layer of the soil that either kills the extending top shoot of the emerging weed or the root as it attempts to anchor itself into the soil. Other land categories include the use of ‘pre-emergents’, but right-of-way managers can use more potent forms classed as soil sterilents. These are pre-emergents whose concentrations are so high that their effects generally last for two or more years. They create literal dead zones over this period where virtually nothing grows.

Every plant possesses a different degree of vigor and ability to withstand the effects of a given toxin. We have been indirectly selecting the toughest, most adaptable, weeds over the years as we occupy the landscape, farming and gardening. We are constantly adjusting our techniques and the materials we use to control their growth and from WWII to date our emphasis has been on chemical control. We have been, in effect, breeding stronger weeds in the process, necessitating more powerful chemicals and increasing the frequency of their use.

This, over time, is a losing strategy. It is one more reason why we need to a look at alternative strategies for maintaining our landscapes. We can’t do it on a shoe-string budget and we can’t do it by just throwing more labor at it. We need new designs and new strategies and, perhaps most importantly, we need a population that understands its place and roll in the well being of the modern landscape and ultimately, the health of the earth.


Can you imagine a better landscape...with a bike path separate from the street?

Can you imagine a better landscape…with a bike path separate from the street?

So we’re back to what are we to do? Let’s look at the railroad right-of-way. Other than by pumping fluids through a pipeline, railroads are the cheapest, most efficient way of moving bulk products to buyers and resources to processors and manufactures over land. Modern societies require them. Secondly, to move safely and efficiently tracks and the space that passing trains fill must be kept clear for the safety of operation and to reduce any damage to the tracks themselves caused by heaving tree roots. There is also an issue with public safety. These are undeniable. Given these necessities, the managers of these right-of-ways need to understand that their narrow, single function view of these landscapes, has become unsupportable and will become more so. They add to the pressures that are working to destroy our urban landscape, overall. And, they are a significant component of the problem.

Past practice, as stated above, is exacerbating the problem. Plants, the toughest, those possessing the most vigor, will always be the first to move back into such an inhospitable environment…serving as incubators for these weeds and providing a ready seed bank poised to infect adjacent neighborhoods. Alternatives would seem to be few. What ever we do someone needs to start monitoring, observing, these sites, someone who can direct whatever treatment is deemed necessary. This is a basic tenant of IPM (Integrated Pest Management). If you don’t know what’s going on you cannot responsibly address control and treatment. IPM also discusses thresholds of action, if this then we do this. It directs us to define precisely what the problem is and when to act as well as what effective action would be. This process, this IPM approach, appears to be absent from current management, or…because the railroads have a single narrow purpose, these other negative effects are not recognized or acknowledged. This has to change. These rights-of-way are an integral piece of our urban landscape and they should be managed as such.

Okay, let’s assume the railroads are ‘onboard’. What next? We need to define the limits, the boundaries, of the area that it is necessary to keep clear of growth, and that is not necessarily the full expanse of property owned by the railroad. Is it 5’ out from the edge of the tracks or 50’? And, while we’re doing that, what type of growth is the problem? Obviously an Oak tree growing 5’ away is problematic, but what if it’s 30’? Is it acceptable to allow shrubs within a given range?

As a horticulturist and land manager myself, I know that if the goal is to keep an area ‘clean’, free from any growth, your strategies are very limited. You are locked in. But, because something will eventually ‘invade’ the better strategy may be to actively plant a landscape that will meet your needs and serve as a first line of defense against opportunistic invaders. Occupy the space first. When you do this you should chose plants that you can work with, that will tolerate the type of maintenance you will have to do to control the growth that is truly undesirable and problematic.

It maybe, that a limited ‘dead-zone’ is necessary. Having been a licensed applicator on public lands I know that no matter how careful an applicator may be some material will move off target. The key is to limit it. One tactic to limit this might be to define the sprayed edge with a fixed curb or hard surface like a foot path or a bikeway. Spray on one side…none on the other. Such a solution would give an alternative route to non-automotive traffic to negotiate the city on a grade that might draw even more people out of their cars.

The landscaped portion would be a mixed informal planting, that would not show the occasional plant failure. When possible, trees of an appropriate size would be included. Shrubs, deciduous and evergreen, herbaceous material and grasses would all be components. There would be spreaders to fill in spaces so that time is not spent keeping ground clear in-between plants. And this would all be monitored routinely and maintained with work happening regularly as needed. Staff would be well trained and would understand the base requirements of the railroad. These landscapes must be thought of as assets to the City not as necessary urban sacrifice zones.

Plants would be chosen appropriately meeting the requirements of the site and the railroad. Awareness of the long history of chemical use and their residual effects must be considered. It may be that base rock can be graded back toward the tracks or removed from areas not necessary to keep ‘clean’. Where possible it would be advantageous to break up the sub-soil to improve growth conditions. In others it might be possible to do some grade work in order to bury problematic soils, improving the rooting zone and to improve maintenance staff access.

Before maintenance begins a manual of Best Management Practices should be compiled, subject to periodic review, as conditions change and experience suggests alternatives. Staff should be well versed in it and in fact participate in its evolution as a living, practical document.

This brings me back to the railroads themselves. It maybe necessary to have another organization be responsible for this work as they have a long history of undervaluing/ ignoring the non-railroad portion of their responsibilities. A contractor might be able to do it if there is an independent watchdog if you will. I don’t think this is unreasonable after all the land was originally given to the railroads in order to help develop the ‘wild west’. Well, its been developed now for some time, and while their services are perhaps more necessary today than ever, their management of their lands are placing too much of a burden on the rest of us. Responsibility must be demonstrated on a regular basis. This is not a simple job for knuckleheads. This will require educated observers committed to their sites and physically capable of getting the work done. They need to understand their directive and be committed enough to care to improve their own practice and that of their peers. A tall order. Not a minimum wage position.


Spraying routinely with pre-emergent herbicides, sterilents as well as selective and non-selective herbicides needs to come under on-going peer review. We must start being more careful what we target and kill and open ourselves up to landscape management as a dynamic process. Our one-time actions always have consequences. If we repeat them their consequence may go well beyond what we intend. It is necessary that we always stay watchful. What was once a short-term fix, over the longer term can create a problem that we never anticipated. Staff must be engaged, included and supported if we expect them to contribute in a way that is truly helpful. We can no longer afford to manage our landscapes as if we can always tear them out and do them over. We may never have resources adequate to do that again.

Can I guarantee that this strategy will work? No. But current practices and strategies are demonstrable and ignored failures. Many of our urban landscapes, some of them public, many others private, are ongoing failures supported, actively or passively, by those who believe they benefit in the short term. Through the twin magics of risk assessment and cost benefit analysis we have given the short stick to our landscapes. Greed, blindness and bias does not change reality. It is always the younger generations who will pay.




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