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Coalition: Make green space within walking distance the goal
by: David Plechl, Sacajawea Park is one of the few green spaces in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood, which sits between Northeast Fremont Street and the airport.

Jim Labbe doesn't like what he sees in the Cully neighborhood in outer Northeast Portland. Actually, it's what Labbe doesn't see - parks and natural areas - in Cully that concerns him. And there are other neighborhoods with similar problems, Labbe says.

Labbe is an urban conservationist with the Audubon Society of Portland, which participates as part of a nonprofit organization called the Coalition for a Livable Future. And the coalition, along with Portland State University's Population Research Center, has just finished studying Portland-area parks and green spaces from a perspective a little different than the usual.

Traditionally, the measure of a city park system was how much park acreage the system maintained per resident. But members of the coalition, and many national experts, think there are more important factors to consider, starting with who in a city has access to parks and nature and who doesn't. And the coalition's recently completed study, called the Regional Equity Atlas Project, claims to show a wide disparity between who gets to enjoy parks in Portland and who doesn't.

'Not everyone in the city has the same level of access to public parks and green spaces,' Labbe says. 'While there are high- and low-income neighborhoods that have poor access, low-income neighborhoods are more likely to have poor access to neighborhood parks.'

Among the coalition's findings:

• Just under half of the Portland metropolitan population lives within a quarter-mile walking distance of a public park.

• Out of 231 metro neighborhoods, 103 have more than half of their population living more than a quarter-mile from a park.

• Poorer neighborhoods have less access to parks and nature than wealthier ones. According to the atlas project, 44 percent of neighborhoods that do not have good access to a park rate high for poverty.

• Neighborhoods with a higher percentage of what the study calls 'people of color' have poorer access to parks and natural areas.

The Cully neighborhood, according to the coalition study, is possibly the city's most neglected. Only 24 percent of Cully's residents live within a quarter-mile of a park or green space, compared with a citywide average of 50 percent. Cully has 2,780 residents per acre of park; the city average is 40 residents per acre. Cully has 5 percent of residents within a quarter-mile of a natural area, while the city average is 34 percent.

According to Labbe, most of the Cully neighborhood lacks good access to parks. Other neighborhoods the atlas found to be underserved include King, Humboldt and Parkrose.

Janet Bebb, strategic projects manager for Portland Parks and Recreation, doesn't disagree with the coalition's findings. In fact, she adds Gateway and Centennial as neighborhoods identified by the bureau as underserved.

Bebb says the parks bureau is using the coalition's maps and data as part of its own mapping project that will be completed this fall. But the city's goals and those proposed by the coalition are not exactly the same.

The city uses the goal of a neighborhood park within a half-mile of every Portland resident, and a larger community park within a mile. Currently, a little more than 80 percent of Portland residents live in a place that meets both standards, Bebb says. Many cities use the half-mile standard because that is the distance it will take an adult 10 or 15 minutes to walk.

The coalition favors the goal of a quarter-mile access, which is considered the distance an elderly person or a child can walk in 10 minutes. And by that measure, only about half of the city's residents are close enough.

Usage fades with distance

Ben Welle, program assistant for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for City Park Excellence, says Portland rates high for its park access but not at the top.

More than 99 percent of Minneapolis' residents live within six blocks of a park, a standard that city has been implementing for more than 50 years. Seattle's standard is an eighth of a mile to the nearest park, though Seattle has not yet produced data showing how many of its citizens actually have a park that close.

'The distance to a park in some ways is a more important measure than any other of an excellent urban park system,' Welle says. 'The farther away a park, the less likely someone will go to that park and exercise or spend time in it. It's similar to transit. The further you are from a light-rail or subway station, the less likely you are to use it.'

Bebb says the income and racial disparities highlighted by the coalition report are mostly due to the city's historical development patterns. Older neighborhoods were developed in a time when parkland was set aside, she says.

Parks can boost property value

Recent developments haven't maintained the tradition of setting aside parcels for parks, Bebb says, and the city's policy to increase housing density within the city also has made park expansion difficult. 'Infill is putting pressure on how big a park we can find,' she says.

'It's not like we built parks in areas only for wealthy people,' Bebb says. 'It is simply that once you put a park in, you have raised property values.'

Ironically, the city has owned property in the Cully neighborhood since the 1980s that is targeted for parkland. Empty fields near Cully's Sacajawea Park haven't been developed yet but, according to Bebb, are among the parks bureau's top priorities.

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