Walking the Holgate overpass across the Brooklyn Switching Yard, with its adjacent container operation, is anything but pleasant. Trucks, trains, blasting horns and the four lanes of traffic whizzing by next to the 5′ wide sidewalks wipe away the positives of the views across the river and to downtown. Most people probably don’t think of places like this as ‘landscapes’, but in the broader sense they are. Landscapes, most simply, are the places that we occupy, whether they are artfully designed, narrowly utilitarian, neglected, forgotten or simply dismissed. They become ‘landscapes’ through our occupying them or merely perceiving them. They are places we are in relationship with. Holgate is a traffic corridor for automobiles. Here is where it crosses the north south railroad line and the region’s major container handling yard. Car and truck traffic are heavy, at times, nearly non-stop. This is the only east-west route between Powell Blvd. and Bybee, and Bybee is intended for, and used by, more local traffic. It is loud. Traffic typically is moving a 35-45 mph although it’s posted 30. The sidewalk is relatively narrow and this zone of unpleasantness is over a third of a mile long, an expanse from which there is no ‘escape’ for the pedestrian beyond enduring it. Since I retired, and weather permitting, I walk it once or twice a week on my way to the gym for a swim.
You notice things as a pedestrian that you don’t as a ‘driver’…the world is slowed down and your attention is able to broaden beyond the distance to the bumper in front of you and the light up ahead. Because I’m a gardener, I see a ‘landscape’ that has been traumatized for decades.
Rather than relying on steel and concrete alone the east and west approaches to the ‘bridge’ are built up earthwork compacted to carry the load of traffic and support the center span. The sides are steep and neither armored nor reinforced in any way to prevent erosion, and, more to my point here, are un-landscaped. This is an engineered structure, not a piece of landscape architecture. It serves a utilitarian purpose and like most such ‘structures’, nature, unplanned for, has taken on an uninvited role…it has successfully claimed this space.
There are two ‘approaches’, each with a north and south side forming bands 500’ long on the west end, 300’ or so on the east, each space delimited by the sidewalk, on the street side and a chain-link fence along the property line, that omni-present defender and definer of right and liability in the City. At its widest this band is probably 30’ or more stretching out as the ramps rise above the surrounding grade. All told there is probably over an acre, 43,560 sq.ft. Almost every plant growing on these four sites currently is an aggressive survivor. Most are prodigious seeders with the ability to move offsite. There are no ‘compliant’ landscape plants here.
The following is an annotated list of what I found there one recent morning, it is not complete:
Bedstraw/ Galium aparine – a common annual weed that climbs over and around everything with its seed sticking to clothing, fur etc.
Box Elder Tree/ Acer negundo –
Buckthorn Plantain/ Plantago lanceolata – common Eurasian weed, in compacted drier soils
Cheatgrass/ Bromus tectorum – Common across the sites, invasive all over Oregon. On the City’s C list.
Chickory/ Cichorium intybus – A common Mediterranean weed in waste areas and on dry roadsides, mostly in the northwest site. This plant also has a long history of cultivation, but is prone to escaping.
Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale – Ubiquitous wherever land has been disturbed/ developed
English Walnut/ Juglans regia – Often spread by squirrels
Evening Primrose/ Oenothera sp. – most common on the northwest site
False Brome Grass – Brachypodium sylvaticum – An invasive perennial grass and ecosystem disruptor on the State noxious weed list. Can dominate woodland vegetation. On the City’s A list and required eradication list
False Dandelion/ Hawkweed – Hieracium spp. – Ecosystem disruptor. On the City’s B list. Can form mats in grasslands.
Fennel/ Foeniculum vulgare – On the City’s C list. Aggressive seeder, can form dense monocultures on drier sites, like this. Seed drops and germinates thickly. All over, especially dominate on the southeast site
Field Bindweed– Convolvulus arvenensis – Invasive, on the City’s C list. Common Eurasian weed on disturbed sites and roadsides. Difficult to spray because it becomes entwined in other plants. Difficult to eradicate.
Tall Fescue Grass/ Lolium arundinacea – A taller coarse non-native perennial grass being experimented with for turfgrass use. Now being ‘improved’ genetically.
‘Himalayan’ Blackberry – Rubus armeniacus – Invasive and an ecosystem disruptor. On the City’s C list. This plant is dominant in the NE, NW and SW sections. Can be spread by birds over large areas.
St. John’s Wort/Klamath Weed – Hypericum perforatum – State noxious weed. On the City’s C list. Invader of waste areas and roadsides
Morning Glory/Hedge Bindweed/ Calystegia sepium – Invasive. On the City’s C list. Larger, coarser than field bindweed. Difficult to eradicate
Mustard/ Brassica kaber – a common annual weed, heavy seeder
Perennial Rye Grass/ Lolium perenne – Commonly grown turf grass. Spreads into natural areas.
Prickly Lettuce/ Lactuca serriola – On the City’s C list.
Robert’s Geranium/ Geranium robertianum – On the City’s C list. Heavy seeder. Spreads quickly into colonies
Salsify/ Oyster Plant/ Tragopogon porrifolius – Taprooted, giant Dandelion like plant sometimes cultivated for its edible root. Common in waste areas.
Scotch Broom – Cytisus scoparius – State noxious weed. Heavy invader of waste areas and roadsides. On the City’s C list. Mostly on the southeast site
English Hawthorn/ Crategus monogyna – Invasive. On the City’s C list. Very competitive. Appears to be just starting
Sow Thistle/ Sonchus spp. – On the City’s C list.
Sweet Pea – Lathyrus latifolius – State noxious weed
Traveler’s Joy – Clematis vitalba – Invasive, ecosystem disruptor, noxious and on the City’s C list. Capable of producing over 100,000 seeds/ sq. meter of mature canopy with the vigor to bury almost anything. Difficult to eradicate once established.
Tree of Heaven – Alianthus altissima – State noxious weed. On the City’s B list. Opportunistic heavy seeder. Several mature trees on and adjacent to the sites. Seedlings widely scattered.
Vetch/ Vicia spp. –
None of these are desirable landscape plants or natives. They exist in an out of balance and dynamic mélange. Each of these four ‘sites’ contain most of the plants listed here though the balance and mix vary. They’re ‘managed’ in a simplistic and crude manner. They are simply left on their own until they’re mown down on a loose annual schedule, when the City’s Bureau of Transportation’s budget allows. The North-East site was mown in early April along with much of the trash left at the homeless camp which nested at the base near the fence ‘protected’ by Blackberries 8’+ tall. By mid May the Blackberries and Tree’s of Heaven were re-sprouted and beginning the cycle again. This particular section is the widest and largest containing more flat land at the base before running up against the Railroad’s fence. The piece of equipment that worked this site tore much of the bottom portion up making it ripe for the germination of whatever seeds are available on site, when rainfall permits. Broken rubble is visible along with much exposed and partially buried trash. The perimeter fencing contains the mowing. To the other side of the fence is a continuation of unmanaged weeds dominated by Blackberry and Traveler’s Joy. Fence lines running north-south away from the property are in a similar state of weedy over growth, standing ready to re-inoculate the area with more seed, though it is not needed as ‘management’ is not timed to reduce or eliminate future seeding. Weed plants are able to complete their cycle annually adding to the soil seed bank that is dominated, over-whelmingly, by the aggressive weeds that already populate the four sites. Management guarantees that this status quo will continue, or get worse, as more aggressive weeds move through the railroad corridor over time and gain a foothold here.
Each site is in a similar state. The South-East section has several differences. First, it is narrower as it is pinched against private industrial properties to its south. Second, the Blackberries are not as dominate. Here, is a long band of Scotch Broom pressed up against the private properties, well on their way to ripening this year’s crop of seeds. I did not see Broom on any of the other sites.
Third, Fennel is a major constituent of the mix here, dominating the section closest to the switching yard and continuing south along the fence line. This makes the whole area feel less daunting as the bulk of the Blackberries along the sidewalk is mostly missing. The management, at least recently, is different as well. A portion of the Fennel dominated area was sprayed a couple of weeks ago, as it displays the twisted growth, epinasty, characteristic of several broadleaf herbicides. All of the spring growth of the Fennel is showing the effect of the translocated herbicide, as it is ‘wilting’ and discolored (written in May).
Last year’s tall flowering stems still stand indicating that, last years crop of seeds matured and dropped in place. By spraying and doing no follow-up we are assured of an even more dense crop of Fennel to follow along with which ever other weeds are the most efficacious seeders.
The North and Southwest sites are as yet unmanaged this year (The Southwest was mown in early June, primarily the portion dominated by herbaceous weeds leaving the Blackberry, near the fence line, mostly untouched. The Northwest site was mown a bit later, while I was on vacation.) and are dominated by Blackberry though there are significant populations of both annual and perennial weeds already flowering while others are holding mature seed. This is a minimalist management plan. The Bureau of Transportation (PBoT) seems to be doing just enough to say that they’re doing something. Their goal appears to be only to control ‘conflicts’ with pedestrians on the sidewalk. Particularly on the North-West site the Blackberries are doing very well having seeded and rooted in many places right up next to the sidewalk where even their early growth is arching out into the sidewalk space where tips have been broken by pedestrians and sidewalk riding bicyclists. Chickory stands four and five feet tall, and blooming, at the sidewalk’s edge. Bindweed, Vetch, Clematis (Traveler’s Joy), Morning Glory and Sweat Pea, in places, run rampantly vining within and over everything else.
Current Maintenance Regimen
Management practices on these sites do not address the huge problem of seed production and continuous re-inoculation. Timing of management ignores this. Major seed sources, even on the sites themselves, e.g., the Tree of Heaven, are left alone to grow and add their seed. An English Hawthorn is left alone and is being allowed to reach mature size. A Box Elder has already begun flowering and producing seed. In addition adjacent property owners make little to no attempt to control their weedy species that are contributing to the problem. The Railroad sterilizes most of their graveled areas but seems unconcerned with their fence-lines as they do not cause them a direct problem. Other fence-lines are simply low priority and relatively inaccessible.
To be fair, all of the City’s Bureaus have been in a continuous budget crunch. Compounding this, each Bureau has its particular mandates. They are directed to address their particular priorities and, historically, have been attacked for ‘misspending’ revenue when they don’t. Weeds on the Holgate Overpass, do not effect the road’s traffic capacity or the ability of drivers to safely utilize it, though they can impinge on pedestrian use. The Bureau has not been responsible for the sensory experience of pedestrians crossing it. Nor have they been held responsible for the ‘weed pressure’ their sites put on every landowner in the area. Each Bureau has clearly defined responsibilities and must answer to Council if they move beyond them. Council represents the citizens of Portland and so far, they have not seen fit to expand their responsibilities to include weed control on its own properties…as much as many of us might like them to. And they haven’t done this, at least in part, because most residents aren’t gardeners and don’t value the landscape as we do. So, we are caught in this world where both the public and private landscape are under ever increasing threats to their health and vitality. The City grows, builds new infrastructure and largely, leaves the landscape on its own…as long as it is not a direct threat to human health and safety.
Many of these ‘street area landscapes’ are managed only when they become a nuisance. These are landscapes that are undervalued by the Bureau responsible for them, PBoT. Maintenance is viewed, effectively, as a negative, a draw on budgets, something to be minimized…given their priorities, there is nothing to be gained by doing a ‘good’ job, so work is done to minimize them as nuisances. Maintenance is conducted in a way that neither follows good horticultural practice nor acknowledges that there are positive strategies available that can move these landscapes toward an improved and sustainable condition. Current strategies and practice assure only that every one of these landscapes will remain as a negative draw on the City’s budget and as a burden borne by all surrounding landscapes. The first necessary step to change this state of affairs is the recognition of ‘our’ role in creating and perpetuating these devalued and degraded places—and the development of a positive vision that is reflective of our role and responsibility in moving Portland toward a more ‘sustainable’ future.
Okay, so given all of this, what can be done? Landscapes are different in many ways from ‘built’ infrastructure. Concrete, steel, glass and wood, as engineered building materials, begin to degrade almost as soon as a structure is completed (True, concrete gains strength as it cures for months after it is poured, but then it begins to degrade as the forces of nature, weather, etc. begin to work on it, in a sense reincorporating it’s base material back into the Earth.) Landscapes, though, comprised of living plant and animal material that they are, if sensitively designed, used and maintained, can be a part of the dynamic balance that is characteristic of the living Earth, continuously evolving and cycling material, always working toward increased diversity and complexity. If we are sensitive to the ways of this system as it plays out locally, ‘nature’ can ‘reclaim our ‘broken landscapes’. If we continue our more recent role as chronic and serial disruptors, we will plunge more of the region’s landscapes, and this is going on everywhere, into a state of chaos. Current management of these sites works to regularly disrupt their balance. It is disrespectful of the cycles and processes occurring on site. Whether it is done out of ignorance or budgetary adherence to narrow short term goals, makes little difference. Either way we are still stuck in a loop that guarantees that no ‘balance’ will ever be reached and the ‘need’ for our clumsy intervention will remain…with no progress ever being made. As infrastructure continues to expand along this same model, our burden of management will likewise increase and the quality of life for residents will decline.
The first thing to do on the ground is to stop the disruptive practices that continually destabilize the landscape. Practice must be sensitive to the cycles and populations at play on each site. This can never be a one size fits all program. Landscapes are not ‘engineered’ structures or systems. They are open, cyclic and dynamic. These ‘broken landscapes’ are extremely unstable. There successful management will require the leadership and direction of skilled horticulturists and those with practical experience in developing and maintaining sustainable landscapes. This will be a balancing act. Not only will each site be unique, but we have much to learn as professionals and as an institution to pull this off successfully.
One of the unique qualities of this group of landscapes is the overpass itself and the necessity of maintaining its structural integrity…its ability to continue fulfilling its original function as a traffic arterial and ‘bridge’. Our work cannot unduly compromise this function. Likewise, the civil engineers, must recognize the need to ‘heal’ the broken landscapes we live in. Various hard and soft solutions will come into play. What ever engineering solutions are chosen, there will be a horticultural component and it may be significant.
At minimum, management must recognize the role of plants, desired as well as the weeds already on a site. Work must be sensitive to the reality of the soil seed bank. Undesirable plants, weeds and invasives, cannot be allowed to continue contributing to the soil seed bank if any plan is to work. Plants selected for planting must be well suited and be tolerant of the maintenance that will be necessary during establishment. These will be phased projects. A sustainable landscape cannot be planted and created over night. They will take a period of years to develop so there must be a commitment on the part of the City. There will also have to be a degree of comfort with a fluid and dynamic plan, because our experience and knowledge is not now nor will it likely ever be, complete. We are again, working with dynamic evolving systems and insistence that a plan is final and not malleable over time, will doom us to failure.
Any planting solution, to be sustainable and to minimize the opportunity for weeds to dominate a landscape, should be done with the knowledge and awareness of the specific conditions on a site . Any inputs, soil amendments, fertilizers, irrigation, the use of power equipment and pesticides, should all be minimized with a goal of zero when the ideal landscape becomes fully developed (This is a theoretical goal, which we may never actually reach. Outside inputs should be viewed as corrective, not routine.) Our goal is balance and balance is maintained in natural systems through diversity and complexity. There must also be the understanding that this ideal may be impossible to attain, because of the degree of disruption, ‘brokenness’, and the urban reality of a large population of humans living in a limited space. Residents will play a role in these landscapes and to the degree that they are informed and respectful, they will minimize their burden on them.
I have planted a similar ‘engineered’ landscape during my employment in Portland Parks and Recreation, compacted fill soils built with minimal attention to the needs of a landscape. I am no longer employed there, but were I, it would still be in a state of flux. There are, however, successes and a way out of our landscape mess is forming. I will not repeat all that I cover in previous postings, but I would direct the reader to several of them (Riverplace I & II, Soil Seed Banks, Weeds and Adaptive Management are the most pertinent. The first two are a kind of annotated list of some of the plants I’ve grown at Riverplace. The second, discusses why seedbanks are important, the third, addresses how our actions may effect, select, weeds on a site and, the last link addresses the approach that is needed to reclaim landscapes like these). These Holgate sites, I think, share much with my Riverplace project. Compacted mineral soils, summer drought, the linear nature of the sites, so a similar palette of plants, would be a good starting point. The Holgate site is much steeper so provision will have to be made for worker access and safety as well as to limit surface erosion, but doable solutions are available. Yes, all of this will require greater expenditure than current budgets allow, but the current state of affairs, as I’ve previously pointed out, is only digging us a deeper hole.
This ‘program’ will require much from staff and it is likely that staff and management, especially if such landscapes continue to be the responsibility of PBoT, will be reluctant and unqualified to take this on. Landscapes more appropriately fit within the scope of Portland Parks and Recreation or BES (the Bureau of Environmental Services, they conduct an extensive re-vegetation program reclaiming natural areas.) As I said before this kind of work and the care of such properties is outside PBoT’s skill sets and priorities and will always suffer from under funding. This program is ideally suited to being phased in over a period of years. It can be grown as staff retire/leave and new staff are hired with the necessary knowledge, skill sets and energy to take it on. No one is in a position to institute such a program across the board unilaterally. It needs to be grown with this understanding shared by all, including, City Council and Bureau managers. We are looking at a completely different way of doing business, in fact, we are redefining what that business is!
Broken weedy landscapes like this are not just an aesthetic affront they are a sign of disease that has impacts on all of our landscapes and ourselves. Consumptive societies, depend on the constant use of limited resources to perpetuate themselves. They do not look to the natural systems of cycling that characterize a healthy landscape. A sustainable society does not ignore its landscapes. It looks to them for ‘cues’. It seeks to understand and support the complexity of healthy functioning systems and puts into practice what it has learned. With enough resources and time we can make almost anything ‘work’…but we will be forever required to continue our efforts to maintain them in their out of balance state. Anything less…once that commitment is broken, the system crashes. That has been our habit, to restructure our landscape to meet current functional needs or fashionable desires, for as long as we remain so interested, and then to walk away and provide minimal, nuisance abatement, indefinitely, or until a new plan, possibly just as out of balance, is put forward and commitments are made in the short term, again.
Some have argued that if we do nothing, if we let ‘nature’ take its course, and stop ‘screwing’ with our landscapes we would be better off. Such a ‘strategy’ assumes that there is some inherent ‘force’ in nature moving us toward balance, that is independent of what has happened on a site, to its soils, its population of plants and their relationship. This is wrong, at least in the meaningful human future. Our landscapes are alive and dynamic. You cannot create an entirely new landscape, through design or neglect, add plants that have not evolved in relationship with each other and expect a healthy balanced landscape to result immediately. Nor is a strategy that essentially keeps a landscape in a perpetual state of disruption, out of balance, in anyway, neutral. Consistently ‘wiping’ the board partially ‘clean’, as we have been, assures that it will not only stay out of balance but will shift it ever further toward even more aggressive weeds as they move throughout the region. Our ‘willed ignorance’ is neither protection nor excuse…it simply serves to underline how far out of balance our practices are and that there is a penalty to be paid.
Building a sustainable City, is not simply a process of a series of capital projects, it must include a process of internal evaluation, in which we critically assess what we are doing and how that may be detrimental to our stated and desired goals. There has to be a recognition that often times, business as usual, is part of what has created the problems we now face and we cannot continue in like manner and expect the changes we purport to desire to miraculously manifest themselves. Any change of this scale will require a clear vision and commitment or it will just be another idea, that had its moment…and passed.
Portland Parks and Recreation, particularly City Nature, is better suited to manage such programs as I propose here. While one can always argue with their priorities, care of landscapes, has always been at the core of their mission. Sustainable landscapes are more than on their ‘radar’, they are working toward developing such programs. Council and managers should be careful though not to just shunt its street area landscapes all on to Parks at once. It is critical that adequate funding be secured and that time is allotted for staff development and ‘experimentation’…this will be new for everybody.
There is one last essential piece of such an undertaking and that is the role of private and institutional landowners. All have a necessary role to play. In this case that includes the Railroad. The failure of one to participate responsibly increases the load on those who do as their uncared for/neglected landscapes continue to provide space for weedy species to grow and produce seed that will in turn continue to reinfect the landscapes of those who are attempting to be responsible. The City plays a pivotal leadership role. It is hardly in a strong position when it fails with its own landscapes. It smacks of disengenuousness when the City urges, or mandates, that private actors work toward sustainable goals, when it fails to take responsibility for its own land and facilities. The City’s actions should be consistent with its stated goals. The City’s landscape maintenance should be supportive of its own programs, i.e., Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s, Portland Plant List (The List dedicates it’s last section to the problem of weeds and invasive plants). The properties described above contain many plants determined by the City to be disruptive and direct that they be controlled. PBoT’s efforts at this are almost worse than nothing. No one hires a traffic engineer to design, build and maintain their landscape, nor the person who operates an asphalt machine…but, in a sense, that is exactly what the City is doing here. We shouldn’t blame PBoT. It is time for a restructuring of responsibilities.