[I had been delaying the posting of this entry as I was waiting to meet the project manager with TriMet. As I’ve heard nothing back from him, I’m going ahead and posting. It would seem that my earlier posts concerned him, but I suspect now that time has passed and the sky has not fallen…he has moved on to more pressing matters. It is a common tactic not to engage ‘critics’ so as not to give them any energy. Ignoring critics can be effective, albeit, a very frustrating treatment to the one who is being ignored.]
Part 3 of the Series
This is an introductory note. Yes, I realize I started the series in the middle, in a linear thinking world this would have been the first posting, but I live nearest the middle portion of the Line…and I have my own motives. Those of you who don’t know me, I do not mean this to be overly critical in spirit. I’m a person who is always thinking what next? How can I do this better? I have similar high expectations of the organizations around me. Organizations all tend to be conservative in action. There is a reason mature bureaucracies have a reputation for mediocrity. It is not my intent to question the intent of TriMet or of its hired contractors. I am a big supporter of transforming our City into a more livable place and the Orange Line is part of that. There is nothing to be gained through polarizing a situation or setting someone up as ‘the bad guy’ and putting them unnecessarily on the defensive…having said that, sometimes a ‘push’ is in order. We live in times of rapid change, many of them destructive, and it does no one any good to not work toward the changes that they see as positive. That is my intent here.
I began this series with a discussion of scale and how it acts as a magnifier. I spent some time talking about the problems caused by compacted, heavily disturbed, soils and I emphasized the issues created by a history of bad weed management…this first section of the Orange Line landscapes, from SE 11th to its beginning at SW Lincoln and 4th is heavily impacted by these factors. Built on heavily graded and or imported fill, often on abandoned industrial sites, on or adjacent to sites that have been out of control weed generators for decades, this section may pose the biggest problem for landscape maintenance of all.
It is dangerous to assume that a new urban landscape is created on a ‘blank slate’. Merely scraping a landscape off and beginning anew does not return it magically to its ‘pristine’ condition prior to the arrival of ‘modern’ white American culture and all of our accumulative impacts. To be successful some effort must be expended to ameliorate at least the worst of these conditions. Even if we make our ‘best’ effort to do this, landscapes such as these with their ‘heavy’ impact histories will present a powerful challenge to those charged with maintenance. It is easy to underestimate the severity of this problem. We have developed an ‘alien’ aesthetic that really doesn’t belong anywhere and as such is outside the bounds of the function of the normal cycling of energy and resources common to nature. We impose this aesthetic and our designs on our landscapes and then expend a great deal of energy, in the form of labor and chemistry, to maintain them, or they quickly degenerate. In some ways it would have made maintenance much simpler to have buried all of the surface beneath concrete sealing the problems beneath it. But then the priorities of urban tree canopy, the capture and ‘treatment’ onsite of stormwater would have been negated, the possibility of groundwater recharge further reduced and the ‘softening’ of a very hard edged urban ‘landscape’ stymied.
Leaving the Clinton/SE 12th Station and heading west toward downtown takes you across the congested intersections and rail stops following a route behind warehouse space and ‘below’ Division St. The bluff next to Division St, built up with fill, follows the northern edge of the slough that once stretched and widened into the wetland that ran back through what has been the Brooklyn Switching Yard for decades now. Prior to the Orange Line construction no one cared for this ‘landscape’ beyond the railroad’s anti-vegetation/sterilant program. It was all vacant/waste space and left largely to itself, for decades supporting the uncontrolled growth of weeds freely increasing, producing seed and yielding only to the more aggressive weeds as they moved into the space often via the trains, but also blowing in from elsewhere or deposited by birds. The soil-seed bank is demonstrably dominated overwhelmingly by many of the region’s most aggressive weeds as a result. This will present a challenge for landscape maintenance staff for as long as viable seed remains in the ‘bank’, which could be for many years, even if there are no more deposits made, a situation given the location, that is highly unlikely given present circumstances. (Please see my previous posts on single use corridors and railroad rights-of-way and weeds. Note that the pictures once included have been ‘removed’.)
There’s not much in this first section between SE 11th and 9th, fencing gravel, tracks, a broad strip of weeds and a mural of an exploding blowfish on a wall. The #9 bus uses the ‘street’ here on its way to Powell Blvd.
The beds framing the 8th Ave crossing were planted a year or so ago. Much of their growth is robust…as is the that of the weeds they share the space with. It looks as if little if any weeding was going on since then as the weeds have reached mature size and most of them have flowered and are heavy with seed. Canada Thistle, Epilobium, Common Groundsel, Cat’s Ear, Blackberry, Oyster Plant, Common Mullin, Cottonwood seedlings, Dock, Black Locust, White Clover, Klamath Weed, several course weedy grasses, Chickory and Dandelion, among others less identifiable to me. Many of these are large physically dominating the plantings. Add in the extremely stressed Nyssa sylvatica trees in the bed and it is a disaster. Zelkova trees serve adequately as street trees and a couple of green streets with the usual suspects edge the other side of the street.
This is a little further west with a construction office and left over materials. The Butterfly Bush to the right has obviously been let go for at least a couple of years and is heavy with seed. Buddleia davidii is on the City’s invasive list. No attempt has been made to control any of the weeds here.
Landscapes, such as the above cannot be built in wastelands like these with any expectation that they will succeed unless a great deal of effort is committed to their management. It would appear that this is not the case. It is also obvious, based on their record, that the railroad and its contractors, have no incentive, without a great deal of public pressure, to change their practices in ways that not only limit their weed impacts on adjacent landscapes, into landscapes that may contribute positively to the soil seed banks through which they pass. While the landscapes on such projects as these are relatively inexpensive compared to the total cost of the project, it will be money wasted without a considerable commitment. It is very common to mandate landscapes as part of such projects while requiring nothing in terms of subsequent maintenance. We see this all over the City with new construction, public and private. Landscapes are undervalued. Landscapes are built without the understanding needed of the sites upon which they are created. Our priorities and value systems today are blind to landscape and we make little to no effort to educate ourselves.
Every landscape could be ‘better’, its maintenance performed more thoughtfully, more timely, so why ‘complain’ about this…and who is to say what is better. Managers don’t have unlimited budgets. They are ultimately responsible to the public, a public with many faces and voices, often in opposition to one another. Not only do organizations have priorities, but they have habits as well, often even codified as formal procedures, formal structures, in part to reduce the chance for favoritism and corruption. This is the norm. Businesses, successful ones, learn to work in this world. It becomes a ‘relationship’, the way things are done.
Major capital projects like this take years to accomplish, even in the development stage. They require huge outlays of public money. No one wants them to fail so the process is slow, tedious and conservative. There is a public expectation for it. If you’re going to innovate, plan it to death and limit all of the ancillary, supporting design and work, making it as simple as possible, to keep ‘non-essential’ costs down and insure that their construction goes smoothly with costs at or under budget. With the Orange Line it wasn’t the landscape that was the concern. This was a major transportation project. That’s where the emphasis went…where it had to go. Landscapes have only a minor supporting role in this project. Landscape had to fit the engineering. This was after all not a Parks or a beautification project.
At some point in the overall project design process a RFP, a Request For a Proposal, was sent out to qualified Landscape Architecture firms, firms with a record of projects of such scale and ‘type’. Specifications are written for the project and competing firms put together mostly conceptual proposals, including themes, renderings and estimates and from these a firm or group of firms are selected to do the work. This is important, especially in jobs of this size, because everything must be decided relatively early in the process so that plants of adequate size, quality and number, can be secured and the landscapes completed in a timely manner. Plants are not widgets to be produced on demand, they must be propagated and grown. If other buyers beat you to them, you must wait another cycle. Project Managers, who oversee construction, do not want to be held up at the end, because plants were not secured and everyone is scrambling when things should be being finished. There are always loose ends and this is another way to minimize those that they can. All of these factors push the landscapes of large capital public projects in a conservative, known, direction. The landscape architecture firms are involved all of the way through the processes of design, procurement, substitutions and installation, often down to individual placement of specimen material. In projects like this one there are many very limiting conditions involved with sites on top of state regulations on sites that are designated ‘brownfields’, contaminated sites. Many landscape architectural firms neither have horticultural expertise nor contract it. A few do. The two involved here don’t have such staff. This is common. It is as if horticulture is a further complication that none of the parties want to take on. This is common practice in public projects in the region. Horticulture is limited to a role in maintenance, or is called in when there is what could be a failure that could bring public embarrassment. Horticulturists seem to be perceived as worrying over unnecessary details which will add costs to a project. Horticulturists have not been in the decision making process. If involved they are asked to comment and their input is weighed against the priorities of, Project Designers and Managers, the landscape architects and upper level managers. They are not inclined to invite others to the table…nor do they generally require horticulturists to be part of a firm’s design team.
The Orange Line landscapes are typical of public projects today. They rely on an almost static palette of plant material, installed in accordance with designs that are ‘graphic’ and simplistic, that ignore many of the conditions involved at any particular site. The burden is then put on the maintenance staff or contractor to maintain them. Overall, this process ignores the issue of our worsening urban conditions within which we live and these landscapes must exist. They ignore the fact that the world is changing politically in that there is less and less tolerance for the regular use of pesticides to maintain these landscapes and that with this changing politics it is making it nearly impossible to maintain them at an even basic level that the public will accept. And, lastly, there is no allowance, within this commonly shared process, to begin developing a new ‘process’ that is working toward the creation of landscapes that are more site sensitive, attuned to their conditions, that won’t require a huge investment committed to fighting back the natural forces at play on a site that can quickly lead to its failure. These landscapes will fail…are already. Our current practices allow for nothing else. They operate very much in a man against nature mode, man as a heroic figure battling back a wild/chaotic nature that without our intervention would bring about our ends. Many of us think that we have long since passed the time when we should have begun to work in relationship ‘with’ nature. In the future such projects must include horticulture in an effective role that works to keep designs more aligned with the forces and conditions at work on a given site, a process that respects the dynamic nature of any landscape. This project followed the old process creating out of balance landscapes and then, apparently, underfunding their maintenance. There is another way.