Weeds, Politics and Commitment- When Doing the Right Thing is Outside of the Box

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This view is from the northern property line looking westerly toward 27th which runs between the white and gray warehouse buildings. The tall ‘coppery’ growths are the seed heads of the Knotweed. Much of the middle ground is buried in Blackberry while Clematis can be seen to the left now hanging from a neighbor’s tree, and is more than capable of burying it completely. The brick at the bottom of the frame is the cap of a low wall the northern property owner has built.

[There is a recurring theme in several of my postings and that is the failure of various of our local agencies and departments to responsibly care for the landscapes that they are charged with, a responsibility that is secondary to their primary mission and priorities.  The fact that this problem is so common is indicative of two things: first, that society views the ‘care’ of the wider landscape as a non-issue, that it is either somehow self-regulating, the mother nature thing, or, of such low importance that it need not be addressed, or some combination of these two, and, that our need for government accountability is so tightly defined and our mistrust of it, so deep, that our ‘exclusionary’ strategies utilized to accomplish this, eliminate the possibility that secondary responsibilities, i.e., those not directly serving the explicitly stated priorities, are excluded from any action or even discussion.  Thus, an agency or department charged with specific transportation priorities will only respond to and act on issues of transportation efficiency and safety…not landscape concerns.  My position is that this allows the uncontrolled spread of weeds and an overall decline of the health, beauty and vitality of the landscapes across the City within which we live, devaluing both the place that we live and the quality of lives we can enjoy.

The following is another example of one such landscape, in southeast Portland, this time a one block section of unimproved right-of-way, or roadway (UROW), a scenario that repeats regularly across this part of Portland, the difference being that the lack of vehicular traffic and the grade have allowed this property to grow in solid and has become impenetrable.  Many other such properties are in use by vehicles with sections of them graveled and eroded, huge pot-holes turning them into obstacle courses, but largely free of heavy weed growth, or at least free of many of the larger more aggressive invasives that plague our area.

First, below, is a descriptive piece that I sent to Commissioner Novick’s office as well as Suzanne Kahn, PBOT Maintenance Group Manager.  Next is the response I received from Cevero Gonzalez, Constituent Services Coordinator, with the Portland Bureau of Transportation and finally, my interpretation and response to that.  Governments are very ‘conservative’ organizations and are risk averse, meaning they tend to do what they’ve always done avoiding creative solutions that put them outside their comfort zone.  Very often this is exactly what is needed.]

There’s a short strip of ‘street’ a few blocks south of our home and garden at SE Schiller between SE 28th Ave and 27th.   It appears to have never been paved.  It’s not currently passable by vehicles of any type without engineering and improvements.  It’s completely overgrown with several invasive plants and multiple weeds all of which have been left on their own for years providing a significant source of ‘infection’ for the neighboring properties.  It is also a repository for trash.  From maps this appears to be a City of Portland property.  

Among the invasives dominating this property are the Blackberry known under various names as Rubus bifrons, discolor or armeniacus, (I keep seeing different names for this.) ‘C’, Clematis vitalba ‘C’ and one of the Giant Knotweeds, Polygonum spp. ‘B’.  The ‘B’ and ‘C’ correspond to their classification on the City’s Nuisance Plant List, ‘C’ more commonly occurring here than ‘B’ weeds.  As a retired horticulturist, I know these as serious threats to not only our relatively unspoiled native landscapes across the region, but also to both our managed ornamental landscapes and our neglected, disturbed and vacant properties.  At some point, as these plants are allowed to spread largely unchecked, in the not to distant future, all of the landscapes in Portland will be under heavy ‘pressure’ given the ‘free ride’ that most of them are given today including those on the City’s own property.

Portland Parks and Recreation, along with some of the Bureau of Environmental Services field staff, and METRO Parks, are understaffed, are among the few government organizations locally doing anything about this problem on the ground at all across the city.  My 27 years with Parks taught me something of how bad this problem is and how it is getting progressively worse each year, demanding more of staff’s time to hold the line.  I have lived in my current residence for nearly 28 years, only a few blocks from the above vacated street property and have never seen a crew on site addressing the problem, or any sign of their action.  Overall, the City’s current strategy is failing.  Each site, such as this one, puts nearby properties under more weed pressure and given the fact that most, or at least many, residents are ignorant of or disinterested in this issue, these weeds find little resistance as they spread across the region.  At some point our ‘natural areas’ will find themselves to be little islands completely surrounded by invasives with the exception of the too few residents who actively and effectively garden on their properties.  I don’t think that I exaggerate here.  Most conventional ornamental landscapes are unstable or poorly thought out designs.  The maintenance that they do receive is too often completely inadequate and/or disruptive to the point of creating and sustaining the very conditions that have lead to our degraded landscapes in the first place.

The above vacated street (It is in fact not a vacated street.  PBoT pointed out that it is an ‘unimproved right-of-way, a UROW and as such still City property.) property was stripped long ago of its native plant cover, regraded, compacted and left to a downward spiraling cycle of weeds.  Landscapes are dynamic whether they are untouched and pristine wilderness, immaculate and manicured formal gardens, narrow under utilized strips along rights-of-way or defiled and neglected properties sitting for years awaiting ‘development’.  Printing lists of desirable and nuisance plants while taking action only on the new more ‘manageable’ threats, and neglecting to take any action at all on the seriously entrenched invasives, is a doomed strategy.  Where is the active outreach and education programs?  Is the public being educated so that they can take on the responsibility and role that will ultimately be necessary in this effort?

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On 28th looking north. The weedy growth reaches east almost into the adjacent street, 28th Ave, forcing pedestrians off line into the curb lane to pass around it.

Protecting natural areas is certainly an important priority, but the wider landscape, the one that we all live in, is also arguably just as important, though it goes unacknowledged.  Landscapes, all of them, regardless of the type, exist on a continuum, each overlapping and impacting the rest.  Just because we may organize our programs, policies and organizations in more narrow terms does not mean that is how the biological world of our landscapes function.  Our organizations, our programs and practices are an artifact of how we think and function as a society today.  If the solution to a problem lies outside this…we don’t see it.

Leaving neglected, vacant, disturbed, weed and invasive plant dominated sites unaddressed across the city, because they aren’t ‘natural’ areas is failing.  Our budgets don’t support such a change? No, of course they don’t, because we live in a society that demonstrably does not care about landscapes, that is largely ignorant of the problem and does not see how our very practices and patterns of ‘development’ create unstable landscapes in the first place, that in their creation put ever more land at risk of similar decline.  We have a record of building new and neglecting what we already have.  Our public, when we come back to them with 100’s of millions of dollars of projects to compensate for our practice of deferring maintenance, gets justifiably angry and the problem goes on with ever more new projects enticingly proposed, with political leaders seemingly unwilling to discuss the fact that most new projects carry with them additional maintenance costs…it is a kind of budgetary ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ where we can all believe that everything is being handled, being dealt with, only it isn’t, because so many of the problems are being deferred, ignored or denied for political reasons, for expediency.

So, I ask, what is being saved by this denial of the larger landscape problem?  What will happen when the public finally wakes up to the fact that they have been lulled into complacency, duped or mislead?  What happens when they realize that our landscapes have truly gone to shit? and every site is contaminated with some admixture of invasive plants and weeds making it all the more difficult to grow anything without a huge increase in work? in perpetuity?  Who will be there to take responsibility?  Where will the bank of institutional knowledge be that we should have been developing all along as we addressed this problem honestly and upfront?  We will be at zero and the public will be angry looking for a scapegoat only it won’t matter then because the opportunity will have already been lost.

We didn’t do it because the budget wasn’t there, because there wasn’t the political support, because we had other priorities, because ‘maintenance’ isn’t sexy, because we haven’t before…we all wanted something new.

Forgive me my rant…I just want to know who’s going to step up and at least address the problem.  Who’s going to ‘clean-up’ this stretch of street?  Who’s responsible?  The quick answer today is that no one is.  Problems exist like this because they are outside the bounds of our normal practice, they are structural, and, given this, an exception must be made for each instance, because as a society, as a City we still don’t recognize that there is a problem at all, which is itself a huge problem.

I’ve written in previous posts about Tri-Met’s failure with its own landscapes, the City’s with its miles of street-area landscapes, focusing on the Holgate overpass, ODoT’s at the western end of the Ross Island Bridge and the railroad’s long weedy strips cutting up the City.  Landscapes simply aren’t a priority to these organizations so they are neglected, ignored and, in some cases, ‘abused’ by maintenance practices that are poorly attuned to the reality on the ground.  How do we change this?  I have several ideas on this, but know that nothing will improve if we don’t speak out and press the issue.  To some degree government administration has grown dependent upon just that, us doing  and saying, nothing.  It gives them space to maneuver and continue with the status quo, a status quo that is ‘manageable’, that provides opportunities for some to make money and  doesn’t cause too many problems.  Government’s tend to reflect the priorities and values of their citizens…when they don’t politicians risk losing their positions, unless the citizens give up.  I like to think that what I’ve written here is consistent with the beliefs and priorities of my neighbors, but if I haven’t and the public cares so little for this place that we live in and the life upon it, then that is very sad indeed.

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Click on the link to see a PDF of PBOT’s response to the above.  cops-response-to-my-28th-and-schiller-inquiry

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There were no surprises in the City’s response.  I knew it would go something like it did as the ‘responder’ was not who I had addressed, but an underling, and I mean no slight to him.  I was attempting to get them to respond to the primary issue, as I see it, of the uncontrolled growth of invasive plants on their property.  He didn’t, ever, at any point.  His first statement was the reframing of my question as a sharing of my concerns, “about overgrown vegetation or other obstructions in the public right-of-way.”  He added to to this a correction of my casual misuse of the term ‘vacated’, saying the property was an ‘Unimproved Right-of-Way’ or UROW, still owned by the City of Portland.  This was a ‘reframing’ of my ‘question’, into a form which he was prepared and directed to reply to as he would any ‘complaint’.  The Maintenance Bureau, the municipal branch charged with streets and the land upon which they pass, does not ‘officially’ see the problem and are not in the position to acknowledge or discuss it, as to do so moves them in to a more active ‘political’ position.  They administer policy.  They are not authorized to discuss political questions.  This is the nature of hierarchical organizations in which decision making is the responsibility of those in leadership positions specifically charged with it…in this case City Council.  Department and bureau staff are authorized to decided between predetermined options only.  If there are none, they do not and cannot discuss it with the public.  The problem does not exist.  This can create a lot of frustration for those customers, clients or residents being ‘served’ as this effectively allows them to feel ignored, invisible or powerless.  Hierarchical, bureaucratic structures, such as the City, often function as a buffer between leadership and the population diffusing a lot of the energy that might otherwise  be directed at change

He then moves on stating that understaffing and budgets restrictions, political decisions, make it difficult to be more proactive in carrying out their responsibility and as a result they must rely on complaints from the public to identify the  most problematic violations, obstructions.  To begin their process of ‘clean-up or removal of an obstruction in a UROW’ a formal complaint must be submitted by the public…an ‘obstruction’, not a call or request to responsibly control the rampant growth of weeds and invasive plants.  The letter mentions no other cause for action on their part.  This is consistent with their practices and maintenance of improved roadways around the City.  If there is no ‘obstruction’, no impediment to the smooth and safe movement of traffic, there is no response.  Landscapes are otherwise of little to no concern, this from one of the largest property ‘owners’ in the City.

The City’s response to complaints is consistent with how it deals with ‘nuisances’, Upon receiving a complaint it does an inspection and, if it finds that the complaint identifies an actual violation, the abutting property owners are notified and charged with the responsibility of correcting or cleaning it up!  City owned, unimproved, property, with irregular grades, illegally dumped trash, on which the abutting property owner has no legal claim.  The City’s position is that because the original developer did not improve the street to the City’s standard, it remains the responsibility of the abutting property owners.  Okay, we have UROW’s all over parts of SE Portland, they are not, however, all overgrown with weeds and invasives.  Most of these are at least occasionally utilized as roadways which limits the growth of vegetation.  This one, never, in my nearly 28 years here, has ever been passable by vehicles due to the growth and the steep irregular grade of its surface as it climbs up an abrupt bluff, a grade which was likely a significant reason for why it was never improved in the first place.  The only legal use of UROW’s are as streets.

This is another UROW, on SE Cora between 28th Ave. and 28th Pl. It is used by pedestrians, bikes and an occasional vehicle along its muddy, rudded single 'lane'. Adjacent property owners used to rough mow it. Over the last ten years or so the property owner to the south has neglected his own double lot which runs the 200' of the edge and has allowed his mess to spill over. The Blackberries to the right hide and steep bank. This was once the site of a bicycle fatality when a boy rode directly into the path of an unseen Tri-Met bus.

This is another UROW, on SE Cora between 28th Ave. and 28th Pl. It is used by pedestrians, bikes and an occasional vehicle along its muddy, rutted, single ‘lane’. Adjacent property owners used to rough mow it. Over the last ten years or so the property owner to the south, to the right, has neglected his own double lot which runs along 200′ of the edge and has allowed his mess to spill over. The Blackberries to the right and in the foreground hide a steep bank. This was once the site of a bicycle fatality when a boy rode directly into the path of an unseen Tri-Met bus from Cora screened by the grade change, hedge and overgrowth. There is a signed bus stop at the telephone pole to the right.  Somebody, presumably the neighbor, has since come through here and roughly cut down the blackberries and taller growth in th UROW.

So, if I file a complaint, and the City requires the effected property owners to take action, or pay for the clean up, the ‘problem’ will only be temporarily resolved, because growth will recur.  A horticultural/landscape solution, involving the establishment of an appropriate landscape would be burdensome on the property owners and illegal as it would create new ‘obstructions’.  This space cannot be transformed into a useable ‘private’ landscape for the adjoining owner.  There are limited incentives for owners to care for this property.  It is an endless task with minimal benefits especially if difficulties inherent to the site impede its easy care.  As I just mentioned above, the only legal use of a UROW is as a roadway.  Installing a road to City code on flat terrain is expensive.  It is very much more so on a steeply sloping, irregular, grade.  This is a losing situation for all with the surrounding neighborhood ‘paying’, in the form of a vastly increased ‘weed presure’ imposed on their properties with consequences and costs imposed every year.

The City refuses to make the ‘improvements’ needed to bring UROW’s up to its standards, as it is an unfair burden on City area taxpayers, while also doing nothing to control weed growth and spread, which exacts a ‘tax’, or ‘cost’ on area responsible residents and property owners, a ‘tax’ the City chooses to ignore.  We have been in a stalemate and the landscape, as a dynamic, living, system, is degraded as a result.  I would argue that this is in direct conflict with the City’s claims of being ‘green’, and Council’s charge to its bureaus and departments to create a sustainability plan and to begin its implementation.  Continuing the policies and practices that directly and indirectly degrade the environment in their disregard for their impacts on the health of both public and private landscapes is not sustainable.  Sustainability refers to the living world just as much or more than it does for our use of energy and resources, to our built infrastructure, our uses of them and our maintenance practices.  Changes, improvements, that we choose to make in this world, need to be considerate of all of their impacts.  If we choose to make an improvement we must do it with an awareness and be equally committed to its timely, appropriate and sustainable care.  If we don’t then we should expect the continuing decline of our urban environment, our infrastructure and our quality of life.  We cannot continue to ignore the systemic nature of life on this planet, in this place.  Our policies and practices  need to recognize this.

Where does this leave us?  What will become of this property?  How can we move ahead?  The City denied the application to ‘vacate’ this street in the ’90’s, presumably because they saw a need for it to be added to our street network and vacating it would make it private property and open for other development.  Many UROW’s are open for traffic though their use is limited because of their surfaces.  This one is never used nor can it be, even by emergency vehicles.  I understand the City’s reluctance and its codes that require improvements to meet its standards before it will take on a street’s active maintenance, but this street seems to be an exception.  The City refuses to ‘improve’ it and the abutting property owners are unwilling to take on the maintenance of a property that is not theirs in a manner that complies with City codes.  As owner of this property and as the one in control of its future, the responsibility for it ultimately lies with the City.  Because the City bears none of the costs that this piece of property places on surrounding properties they have been ‘free’ to continue their pattern of practice.  If, however, the City could be held liable for the costs that this property  ‘places on other area properties, they might be more willing to change.

It is widely understood by economists that taxes have a dampening effect on behavior.  It is one of the rationales for the of ‘sin’ taxes and those on pollution.  Taxes tend to discourage or limit that to which they are attached.  If they are kept relatively low they don’t significantly reduce the behavior and are considered a stable revenue source.  Increase it though and a ‘rational’ person will look for ways to reduce their tax burden.  The reverse is also true, if a person receives a break or subsidy for certain activities, they will tend to increase them.  While taxes are charges placed on members of the public to finance the administration of government, if they ‘flipped’ this process returning revenue to ‘injured’ parties it would tend to curb those government activities that had been exacting a ‘cost’ on residents and property owners.

In this situation effected property owners would receive a break, a reduction in their tax bills, proportional to their ‘exposure’ and the government a corresponding reduction in their revenue.  The City implements ‘overlay’ zones to limit and control permitted uses on the properties within them.  ‘Overlays’ could be adapted to create areas around problematic properties.  Private property that lies within these overlays would be eligible for reductions in their local property tax rates.  Seed and propagules tend to move off site away from where they were produced, whether by wind, water or having been moved by pets, wildlife or ourselves in the course of our regular movements.  While not easily and ‘accurately’ definable, these overlays could be ‘legally’ defined as extending out 100 yards around the problematic property.  In reality this is arguably a conservative estimate of such seed movement, but it serves the purpose.  If the City were to be actively engaged in a weed control program the ‘overlay’ for that property would be deactivated.  This would not be without its own implementation issues as its administration would be relatively complicated and costly.  My point is that because the City is the responsible party here, because it largely decides the rules by which we live with regard to these matters and their role as a leader, it is incumbent on the City to set a good example and to actively pursue effective solutions that further our agreed upon goals…including those of sustainability rather than deferring right action and leaving it to others to deal with.

Some will argue that such a tax won’t correct the situation, that property owners could just pocket the money, a distinct possibility.  Perhaps it would make more sense if the City compensates the abutting owners for the work they actually do, with each submitting an invoice annually that would periodically be ground proofed by the City.  Not only would work have to be done and documented, it would have to have made a demonstrable difference in the condition of the property.  Straight maintenance, as opposed to reclaiming or ‘capital’ work, would have maximums limited by formula, e.g., $/100 sqft.  Neighbors could, if not limited to the abutting owners, form an LID, a Local Improvement District, to cover the costs of maintaining or improving the landscape for local public use, the bills for which could be submitted to the City and a commensurate reduction in their tax bills made?  The idea of actively involving residents in the care and maintenance of the broader place in which they live, would be an overall positive, since the City has neither the political will nor budget currently to do this adequately.  The City has been sidestepping responsibilities such as these for decades through political maneuvering and residents have failed to pick up the ‘slack’.  A reasonable solution would involve them both.

Another option might be to take UROWs and convert them into locally controlled ‘mini’ parks or ‘green streets’ creating and maintaining them as traffic corridors primarily for pedestrians and bicycles with limited vehicular use, thus allowing much of the land to meet resident’s needs, as long as the City’s primary need is being met and hazards not created.  The City must demonstrate some adaptability.  Such solutions are becoming increasingly valuable especially with the increases in infill and building density removing land from both the social and environmental functions they once served.  A joining of purposes of PBoT, Portland Parks and Recreation and the Office of Planning and Sustainability is necessary.  Each currently pursues its priorities independently of the others, often without their support and resources.  The compartmentalization of services that has served us for decades, in terms of certain narrow efficiencies and accountability, has outlived its helpfulness.  We are living in a period now that is much more in need of adaptability and creativity, of redefining problems and accepting of innovative solutions to meet the evolving needs of a changed world.

PBoT’s Maintenance operation currently has no program or staff specifically working on its landscapes to control or limit the growth and spread of weeds and invasive plants.  Its priorities recognize only safety/obstruction issues.  When it comes to landscapes their priority is the limiting of vegetation that has become an obstruction and a visual impediment to the safe movement of traffic…while anything else can go to hell.  This over narrow definition of one’s duties and responsibilities inevitably creates problems in the community.  This is just one example.  We should all expect more of them.  The fact that they don’t take a more proactive and inclusive approach, should not dissuade us from our desire to live in a safe, healthy, beautiful and sustainable City, which includes its landscape.  This is our home after all and a home is much more than a utilitarian and cost efficient space to occupy, though it must be those as well.  Efficiency and utility are commonly recognized priorities in a factory/business setting, though I would argue that they are far from sufficient alone there also.  Cities are the seat of modern life and they should both meet our needs as residents and living organisms as well as reflect our goals and aspirations.  We should at least make the effort.

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It is January 10, three and a half weeks after having sent the above back to the City…and no response.  While it has been the holidays, and we have both a new mayor and council person, and bureau responsibilities have only recently been assigned, I’m wondering if they will respond???  A common strategy by organizations is to ignore what can be so as not to add any energy to what has been considered a minor priority, avoiding giving something life that might otherwise remain in obscurity.  Players often don’t want to invite anyone else to the ‘table’, it complicates the agenda, potentially splitting power and resources, leaving less for the old guard.  Determining and limiting the agenda is one of the most effective political actions that one can take.  Most people are tired of lip service, of leaders claiming the high ground in speeches and public events, while doing little to actually put it into practice.  The fact is that some people are profiting from bad practice today.  They have a vested interest in things staying as they are, add to this the fact that change in organization can be very difficult to implement and you have us where we are today, stuck.  The practice of good horticulture and its effective use in the landscape has been of low priority not only here in Portland, but through out this country.  If we are ever going to actually improve our practice and make it more sustainable, this has to change.  Horticulture deserves a place at the table and a voice.  We need it!

 

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One thought on “Weeds, Politics and Commitment- When Doing the Right Thing is Outside of the Box

  1. Steve Morgan

    Nice, well reasoned piece Lance – my only suggestion would be to prune it, so more people would read the entire blog.

    Every time I pass abandoned UROW’s and other unmaintained landscape, seeing the various invasive plants spreading seeds – I feel a bit of repressed anger come up. And, regret and sadness for all the reasons you wrote about.

    Thank you Lance.

    Like

    Reply

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