Size matters. In horticulture it changes everything. Things that are inconsequential, or maybe even enjoyable in the backyard garden, can quickly become daunting or onerous when the scale is ramped up. Working at a commercial or institutional scale has to change your entire approach to the landscape. In a small garden it is easier to accommodate mistakes, the conflicted combinations and those issues of horticultural ‘fit’ that we missed when we design or install. Scale, however, rubs our faces in it everyday, makes us pay with aching backs as unintended consequences play out across the thousands of sq.ft. and acres. It becomes a matter of physical survival and undermines your professionalism. You become perforce part laborer, part diagnostician, designer, plantsman and critic….Out of necessity you sharpen your critical thinking skills and the last thing you ever wanted, your sales skills, as you work to sell your ideas to management who are absurdly ignorant of the problems you face everyday in the field. And, then, eventually, you retire, but you don’t turn it off…you can’t.
Which brings me to the MAX Orange Line and its landscapes. When I did horticultural design review for large capital Parks projects, it often felt like a dueling match. I would pour over the design, whatever the stage it was in, match that with my particular knowledge of site conditions and my maintenance experience within Parks. I would state my concerns on paper and in meetings with the Project Managers and Architects. I was stubborn and consistently found myself up against a process that undervalued horticulture and my input. Good horticultural practice was regularly placed in a losing position opposite not just that of the Landscape Architects but of a very political process that tried to give the public what it wanted as long as it fit within the Architect’s vision. Horticulture always came out a poor third, even though good horticulture always saves money in the mid and long runs. It was exasperating. The public, by and large is ignorant of horticultural practice and no effort is made to educate them at any level.
I walked a portion of the new Max Orange Line the other on my way to get a haircut. It’s very pleasant as it allows me to avoid walking on busy streets and it cuts a diagonal line through southeast shaving off some distance as well. And I said pleasant, but there are already telltale signs of problems to come. Some things are as inevitable as gravity if you know what you’re looking at.
Commercial landscapes have suffered poor design probably from their beginning. Yes, there are notable exceptions, but by and large they can be characterized as simplistic and boring, generally very rarely taking advantage of notable physical features or even acknowledging site conditions and future use. This can best be explained by cost, good, thoughtful, appropriate design requires time which = additional cost. Municipalities often require landscapes by code and these are often the only factor considered. Institutional landscapes may be a step above this especially if the organization views its landscape as a reflection of itself. On the other hand institutions are often strapped for money and so may be driven to reduce any costs that do not directly serve their mission. This will inevitably result in initial cost savings, efforts that will translate into bad design and costs, that could have been avoided down the line had good horticulture have been a priority. Tri-Met is a mass transit agency, landscapes are neither their forte nor their priority…they are only a consequence of the rail systems they have built and continue to add to.
This landscape is narrow and linear. It jumps and skips the length of the project filling in buffer spaces between adjacent properties and oddly shaped gaps within its predominately linear path that neither serve any transit function nor can be converted or leased as commercial space. In a sense the landscapes are all left-overs, though they do serve to ‘soften’ the otherwise hard engineered edges and the waste edges that often fill narrow ‘unusable’ spaces between different properties. These are neither gardens nor multi-use human spaces. They may dress up fencing providing a little more separation and distance from something that may be dangerous. Some of these may serve to process storm-water runoff, while all of them by default, may aid with groundwater recharge, a function that the built city almost completely negates.
This type of planting design is seen in many linear landscapes today, a series of bands, that may be slightly overlapping or diagonal if the space is wide enough. The bands are almost always single species and their length is in some part a function of the speed at which traffic moves by. We see these along interstate freeways and pedestrian esplanades as well. Along the Orange Line here they are relatively short within the scale of pedestrian and bicycle traffic that passes by them. There are a very limited number of planting schemes for the bands and they repeat. Scroll through the photos below. The same limited palette will repeat over and over again with slight alterations in order with perhaps a smaller scale sweep at unique points, in this case, station stops. Accumulatively, over the length of the ‘O’ Line there are no doubt several acres of plantings, each acre, 43,560 sq.ft. The pattern of plantings are more important to the design than having the plantings be in response to site conditions.
I was not privy to details of site conditions nor was I a part of the review process. Having said that I think that my experience allows me to make a few assumptions. All of this new landscape lies within the ‘foot-print’ of old roadways, railroad rights-of-way or that of demolished buildings and as such have suffered heavy compaction, probably soil contamination with all sorts of nasty compounds including soil sterilants and have likely received fill material in previous decades as the rail line lies within the old slough and wetlands that once were here. My point, these are highly ‘modified’ urban soils without any kind of desirable existing biotic community. Think dead, mineral, inert and compact. Severely out of balance.
Second, the entire project is ‘engineered’ for heavy train traffic which translates into heavily compacted soils with gravel base material which results in a very compacted limited/restricted rooting zone with poor drainage. These are givens. Sub-soilling or other techniques intended to open/improve the soil and drainage will ‘always’ be discouraged. No one responsible for maintaining the built structures, hard surfaces or rail beds will want anything to ever compromise them.
Third, this and much of this Line shares an edge with the railroad which because of its single function priority has historically been an irresponsible steward of it’s ‘landscape’. Land serves a utilitarian function for the railroad only. They use soil sterilants and systemic herbicides on their own schedule that completely ignores adjacent property owners and uses. I’ve observed this time and again when I was with Parks and shared a common edge. Their practice effectively selects for some of the region’s worst weeds and their properties often serve as conduits and incubators for every obnoxious weed and invasive plant. No entity has ever taken them to task. This will put these landscapes under tremendous weed pressure for the indefinite future. Given these conditions it is highly unlikely that a ‘healthy’ plant community will ever exist here until long after these facilities are abandoned. What this means is that these landscapes will always be ‘artificial’ and out of balance. They will always require our active participation if the ‘human community’ wants them to retain any aesthetic value. If we, via Tri-Met, under values these landscapes or under estimates the work necessary to maintain them, they will quickly be ‘lost’.
Linear landscapes are problematic because of their narrowness. Edges are always dynamic and present multiple sets of conditions that work against a steady state or static result, something that is expected in the design typically in these urban linear hard edged landscapes. Imagine a woodland or a meadow that is planted as a narrow strip. Unlike these natural landscapes these strips allow light to penetrate most of the way in creating an edge where a greater variety of plants can occur than if it had depth. Any given community has a threshold size before it can be stable. Adding the fact that these are irrigated landscapes and are exposed to not just full sunlight, but also to all of the reflected light and heat from the sea of hard surfaces that dominates here, and you have a tremendous amount of energy to power growth.
Some stretches of these beds serve as bio-swales taking more waste water than most of the narrower curb side ‘green streets’ receiving the contaminated runoff from adjacent streets. Portland has added many of these around the City and while their effectiveness as filters and cleaners may be established there long term maintenance and effectiveness, given the load of contaminants, has not yet been demonstrated here. Elsewhere the maintenance that they receive is ‘uneven’.
These landscapes must endure harsh conditions that may not exist in any natural landscapes. And they are planted simplistically, with plants common to commercial landscapes without the pedigree one would expect if you were interested in having said plants thrive. Viburnum davidii, Liriope, Lonicera pileata, Calmagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, Pennisetum aloepecuroides, used in mass in the portion of the line ‘downstream’ from the Rhine St. stop, all come from summer moist regions of the world. Only Helictotrichon sempervirens and Blue Fescue which appear in this portion as it does in the south, are summer dry plants, but here it is planted in beds with everything else and no doubt subject to the same irrigation schedule and so compromised by it. The one plant of those used in this portion that could do well, given the conditions, is the one dying the quickest.
This series of one dimensional low landscapes is planted in bands of single species, evenly spaced according to plan. Space surrounds each plant, spaces that will be taken advantage of by whatever is available. Only the Liriope, amongst the chosen plants, is rhizomatous and capable of spreading and filling in. It is yet to be seen if it has the ability to dominate the many weeds that exist in the adjacent railroad right-of-way or the other opportunistic weeds that exist in the area, though I doubt it. All of the other selected plants are individuals and so maintaining them free of weeds will be highly problematic as evidence by the weeds that have already begun to mature amongst them. This planting scheme is highly volatile and unbalanced. Forward thinking landscape architects, horticulturists and land managers have begun to abandon the idea of these simplistic schemes in favor of models tailored to the existing and unique urban conditions, that look at native plant communities for their inspiration, creating diverse layered communities comprised of species that fill all of the niches, that possess a dynamic and simultaneously specific nature.
This northern section, before the crossing where Milwaukie Ave splits into 11th and 12th is one of the consistently widest planting areas until you get near the southern terminus. Along one stretch, the far side of the tracks, a bank, is also planted in a similar ‘graphic’ pattern.
As you move south along the new construction on SE 17th down to Mcloughlin Blvd. many of the planting spaces are narrower with the exception of the median plantings around the station stops. These narrower areas don’t have the banding typical of the wider plantings. They are simpler still with linear plantings. These are closer to the ‘classic’ type commercial plantings. While compaction and weed seed pressure maybe somewhat lower they are still high. The railroad is at a bit of a remove, but you don’t have to look far to find vacant properties and property lines that have been let go ready and willing to add their load of weed seed regularly to these landscapes.
Mostly toward the north end of this strip and at the station stops there are plantings with more width that follow the pattern of the beds earlier discussed utilizing most of the same plants most of which will demand summer irrigation and bring with that the usual problems with year round weed germination of weeds that might otherwise be minor issues. Conditions like these present a ‘challenge’ to plants like Viburnum davidii. They tend to be irregular performers so when planted in masses this way they show all of their ‘defects’. Uniformity is part of the aesthetic of this type of planting.
Every patch of ground contains a potential for life that changes over time from the most inert compacted subsoil intentionally laid on the surface because of its inhospitable characteristics, its stability as an engineered material, to manmade materials like asphalt and concrete, on which given time, life will find a way to invade and colonize it and in so doing provide the opportunity for other plants, other organisms to follow. Ultimately all our efforts to hold the line against life, to capture a contrived static moment in time, will fail and yield to ‘wildness’. When we create simplistic contrived landscapes they are foreign and unstable. To maintain them as ‘snapshots in time’ requires continual commitment and intervention. Without this our less than well chosen plants will decline and die while others, more attuned and ‘available’ like weeds or even more desirable plants that are in the local soil seed bank, will germinate and grow and in so doing, not only alter the landscapes appearance, but will change the growing conditions in such a way as to provide for the next change. It is a continuous process. An aesthetic is an abstract human creation. They carry no ‘weight’ in the natural world. Life and place, in a very real sense, are all that really matter. To the ignorant or untutored it may be seem chaotic, but there is a purpose in operation everywhere. It requires a certain willingness, a receptivity to begin to see it. It requires a surrender or yielding to natural forces to the cycling of energy and resources in a any organic system, a characteristic that our society these days is still fighting.
Working as I have in the field of landscape maintenance for much of the last 35 years, I have been told several times by well meaning people, “Dude, you need to stop and let nature heal herself.” This advice, or admonishment, contains some truth. In a relatively intact functioning landscape, with intact plant communities, we can do that, keeping a watchful eye out for the invasion of the occasional invasive interloper. But these are completely contrived landscapes located in an area, a region, where literally every natural functioning landscape has been either destroyed or is under heavy ‘attack’. There is no simple ‘rebounding’, no straight line return to a natural state. We need to remember that these mature or climax landscapes were not static either. They were incredibly complex and dynamic, responsive to every ‘member’ of their ‘community. The decline and death of one plant did not result in its identical replacement. An opportunity was created, whether it was from gradual or more catastrophic, sudden, change like a fire or a landslide. Life would select from what was available, the best adapted moving in and filling that space for so much time before yielding again.
Today’s soil seed banks may vary tremendously from site to site containing opportunistic germplasm that we have brought intentionally or not from around the world. The old plant communities and the conditions that supported them are gone. Bringing them back through a redesign and planting project, in a moment in time, is hopelessly naive. Those old landscapes can serve as reference points, beginnings, to understand what we have lost and offer us a direction. We need to understand though that the whole landscape, not just the pieces that we might be working on, has been radically altered and that much of it serves a very urbanized purposed that will stay. This alone should cause us to think a little differently about how we go about designing and maintaining our landscapes in an effective way, a way that demonstrates our new reality and our own ability to adapt to rather than to continue ignoring what is going on within our landscapes.
When a weed appears in a landscape we should be taking that as an opportunity to learn. Something that we have done or failed to do has brought us to this point. We failed to account for the particular niche the weed is now occupying. Pulling it or spraying it to remove it or applying pre-emergent herbicides to attempt to keep it out, are all options, as is doing nothing…but observing and asking questions like, if we leave it to fill this niche, will it increase aggressively or is it simply a ‘place holder’, allowing for a change in conditions that will move the plant community closer to our goal of stability?
Today though, with these landscapes, we are in a situation, that will require massive intervention for as long as we are committed to these landscapes. They are incredibly unstable. They have little to no ability to resist on their own. Any landscape will require our vigilance to watch for and actively control the incursion of invasive species, but these landscapes are wholly unable to resist even common weeds. They simply lack the complexity inherent to natural plant communities. There are too many ‘niches’ open. And there won’t be a one size fits all kind of design that can be applied the length of the line. It must be sensitive to the site conditions and then given what we know, we need to create plant communities that fill more of these niches and, again, develop the patience to watch and respond to the changes that will follow over time.
Of course if Tri-Met is committed to their design and has the resources to follow through effectively, these landscapes will be fine. Anything, given the proper resources and commitment is, for as long as they remain. We need to ask ourselves in this time of increasingly austere public budgets if this is a realistic expectation?
Another posting follows that will be examining the section from the Bybee Overpass/Station to the terminus in Clackamas county at Mcloughlin Blvd. and Park Ln.