Gardening as a Political Act: Growing a Better Public Landscape – The Ross Island Bridge West Approach

Peeling off towards downtown from the bridge westbound

Peeling off towards downtown from the bridge westbound.  The little landscape Roses and new trees…one mown down by a car further down.

I’ve said it before that everything we choose to do is a political act. Politics is not something practiced by ‘politicians’ exclusively. We are social animals. What we choose to do effects those around us…gardening is political. We have chosen to invest our time and energies into growing plants and maintaining our gardens. We do this as individuals. They feed our spirits and those of our friends and families. Beyond this are our neighbors and, to some degree, commuters passing by. I’ve had people I don’t know stop by and tell me, “I’ve been walking/riding/driving by your house for years and I just wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed it.” There’s the bus driver who used to stop in his turn at our corner, open the doors and tell me how much he loved my Wisteria (now gone…Sad for him, good for me), the guy from BES who stopped one day to quiz me about a Grevillea and many others. People, gardeners or not, may be buoyed by your gardens. We change the world for the better. Politics need not be limited to the big divisive social, economic and environmental issues of the day. In fact, if we want to make a positive difference we better start on the little things that we can.

Because we garden we are perhaps more sensitized to all landscapes. We see the potential, the lost opportunities and the shift in budget priorities, the neglect. I worked 27 years in Portland Parks. Over that period budgets increased slower than the growing acreage of properties we were charged to care for. Parks, was also often contracted to care for the landscapes of other agencies whose primary mission was very specific, e.g., BES with its many pump stations and sewage treatment facilities and PdoT with its thousands of miles of roadways and interchanges. Starting 15 or more years ago these contracts began to shrink and, eventually, many of these ended and the care of these landscapes largely stopped.  Other agencies, like Multnomah County charged with responsibility of many of our bridges, and the land they occupy and ODoT with its many acres of landscaped rights-of-way along our highways, suffered similar budget to workload imbalances. It doesn’t take a very critical eye to see the decline in care of many of these public landscapes around the City. I’m going to look at one of them.

I live in inner SE Portland and for years worked downtown driving/scooting over the Ross Island Bridge to work and play. For a brief period it was my responsibility to take care of the several landscapes comprising the west approach of the Ross Island Bridge. We controlled the weeds and pruned the shrubs in a way that kept them out of the roadway and respected their natural forms. I remember particularly pruning the Strawberry Trees abutting the northern edge of the ramp that connects, the then Front Ave to the eastbound lanes on the bridge. A little unnerving but at least traffic had to slow for a stop sign. It has been years since Parks has had any responsibility for this landscape…and it shows. As one of the major approaches/entrances to downtown Portland I would think this would be an embarrassment to civic leaders, but apparently not.

Looking east from the  overpass on Naito at the Clematis vitalba burying the bank and blackberries

Looking east from the overpass on Naito at the Clematis vitalba burying the bank and blackberries

Efforts have been made, to ‘spruce’ it up with landscape type roses, a signature plant used by ODoT in the Portland area, but the overall level of care is non-existent to grossly inadequate. A portion of the problem is that as revenue from gas taxes has fallen below what is needed to maintain their roadways, their first priority, the landscapes suffer. This has happened over and over again where an agency charged with one priority lets all others go.

One of the mown 'lawns' dominated by Canada Thistle and Cat's Ear

One of the mown ‘lawns’ dominated by Canada Thistle and Cat’s Ear

One of the old lawn areas that sweep down to the southbound Naito ramp dominated by Canada Thistle

One of the old lawn areas that sweep down to the southbound Naito ramp dominated by Canada Thistle

This western ‘approach’ to the bridge is the perfect example of what happens when ‘traditional’ design meets unilateral cuts in cultural care. Irrigation is cut, the frequency of visits is cut and the work that is done is what a manager might do in a typical managed landscape. The ‘lawn’ is mowed and some portion of the landscape has the weeds cut back once or twice a year and everything else is left on its own. The result is a landscape disaster.  They rapidly deteriorate as landscapes do not respond in a proportional way when maintenance is cut. A 10% cut in weed control results in an exponential increase in weeds quickly escalating out of control in just a few years. This whole landscape functions primarily as a nursery for weeds and a center for weed dispersal infecting private and public landscapes limited only by the birds and wind that spread them.

This shot is filled with the Roses, volunteer Pin Oaks, Holly, Thistle and Blackberry

This shot is filled with the Roses, volunteer Pin Oaks, Holly, Thistle and Blackberry in the background with a tough as bullets Phitzer in the foreground and a few dead berry canes someone sprayed

Matured Buddleia seed heads, the landscape Roses and a wash of many weeds

Matured Buddleia seed heads, the landscape Roses and a wash of many weeds in a pedestrian no-man’s-land

Trees o Heaven volunteered above the wall, while Birch, Butterfly Bush and Clematis compete to overwhelm the landscape Roses.

Trees o Heaven volunteered above the wall, while Birch, Butterfly Bush and Clematis compete to overwhelm the landscape Roses between the east bound ramp to the bridge and the road to Corbett and Hwy 43.

We promote ourselves as the City of Roses. Oregon is one of the biggest producers of landscape plants in the country. We have a large vibrant regional gardening community. We live in a region with ‘sublime’ growing conditions ranging from 7a to 8b yet many of our public landscapes are unimaginatively designed and could as easily fit in Ohio (no knock on Ohio). And, we have a network of specialized agencies that consistently rank their landscapes low. Our public landscapes impact all of us much as our gardens do…and if they’re neglected and ugly, they affect us in a like way.

These landscapes can be reclaimed. They could be viewed as assets by the community and the responsible agencies could be leaders when such places become examples of sustainability and beauty. I think many managers feel that their decisions have been responsible, that because the landscape is not their primary charge, they would be under attack if they were more proactive in the care of these landscapes.  Over the years since Oregon’s Measure 5 passed administrators and managers have been overly sensitive to being accountable for how they spend their budgets and detractors have been more than ready to attack them for any dollars spent away from the primary mission of the agency.  Now we are left with neglected public landscapes everywhere.

Adjacent neighbors tended gardens with Clematis buried plantings pushed up against their fences

Adjacent neighbors’ tended gardens with Clematis buried plantings pushed up against their fences

Obviously little used pedestrian underpass below Naito

Obviously little used pedestrian underpass below Naito Pkwy

A hodge podge of weeds and volunteers totally overwhelming the Roses

A hodge podge of weeds and volunteers totally overwhelming the Roses

Everyone's favorite Horsetail polka-dotted with Canada Thistle

Everyone’s favorite Horsetail polka-dotted with Canada Thistle

A healthy stand of flowering English Ivy

A healthy stand of flowering English Ivy

The narrow strip separating two ramps dominated by a variety of weeds

The narrow strip separating two ramps dominated by a variety of weeds

There is an old saying, “If the people lead then the leaders will follow.” As a former employee of Parks I had limited leverage. Overly squeaky wheels can be removed.  Take this as a challenge to the wider horticultural community.  All political power originates with the people.  If the gardening public makes its feelings known it could pressure the powers that be to manage these neglected landscapes more responsibly.  Horticulturally these spaces are indefensible and place a burden on everybody else.

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8 thoughts on “Gardening as a Political Act: Growing a Better Public Landscape – The Ross Island Bridge West Approach

  1. annamadeit

    Sad but true – there really IS politics in everything. And don’t get me started on Measure 5… Holy crap – it caused the same devastation to Portland’s public schools as it did to our public plantings – and not just in the classroom. I heard that PPS only have two seasonal people employed for yard maintenance during the summer – for the entire district!!! As you said – where is our pride?

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  2. Mary Ann Pastene

    I apologize for the late post (I am a little behind in my blog reading).
    Great article. It is what I have thought for many years. Is an ‘adopt a landscape’ program the solution?

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    1. gardenriots Post author

      I think adoption might be a piece of the answer, but the land owner must take a more positive active role. This is not just about weeding. Several of the weeds have deep, very persistent roots, that will defeat hand or mechanical weeding attempts. Others have been growing on site for years so are likely to be heavily represented in the ‘seed bank’ from which they may continue to germinate for years. It will take a targeted spray program, because the problems have been let run free for so long. Then it needs a new site appropriate design. Working on the site is problematic because of such limited access and high vehicular traffic volume. The Ross Island Bridgehead landscape problems are just a pieces of a very large problem that has been building for years. Will our leaders choose to address it? Their track record is poor. The most immediate role that the public is absolutely essential for, is to provide organized political pressure on the system. It must be put on their radar with insistence.

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  3. Leslie Pohl-Kosbau

    I think that you did the reporter’s task to reveal what we all think. Maybe WW would be interested. It is shameful how the approaches look. Perhaps there should be a collection for landscape maintenance by someone with a sign on the approach to the Ross Island Bridge.

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  4. julie a. fukuda / portland tree tour

    Thank you for this post — all very true! The weeds are an embarrassment but more than that the mature Ailanthus spreading through the highway rights-of-way in the vicinity of your subject post will cost thousands of dollars to remove. Once established, the city does not issue permits for removal if they are in the public planting strip – where is the reason in allowing highly invasive species to spread in our urban landscape?

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  5. Loree

    Excellent read and I couldn’t agree more. We are “The City of Gardeners” and our public landscapes should reflect that. I also love Paul’s comment “those god awful landscape roses in shrill pink, red, and white basically look like Cupid threw up”… I thought I was the only one who felt that way about those hideous roses!

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  6. bonine4336

    Oh Lance. You are my hero. And brilliant to boot. I’m genuinely ashamed of our public landscapes. In a city that boasts constantly about it ingenuity this is an unmitigated disaster. People got bent out of shape when I criticized Friends of Trees but they like these landscapes receive no follow up. And that is a tragedy and a mess. And I’m sorry but those god awful landscape roses in shrill pink, red, and white basically look like Cupid threw up. Good news for the Canada thistle though.

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