David Fisher Q&A: Open space expert talks about creating a true park and trail system
This week, parks expert David Fisher has been making the rounds in the Portland-Vancouver area discussing parks, trails and natural areas with stakeholders and representatives from all levels of government. Fisher's primary focus on the Metro-sponsored trip has been the Intertwine, an organization working on turning Portland's collection of open spaces into a world-class outdoor recreation network. He's slated to speak Friday at a gathering of the region's parks directors.
One major focus was finding the resources to protect, maintain – and, where appropriate, publicly open – natural areas. That's Fisher's specialty, having developed and managed regional parks and trail networks in the Twin Cities and St. Louis.
After briefing the Metro Council on Thursday afternoon, Fisher spent 20 minutes talking to Metro's reporter about his observations on the challenges and opportunities of the Portland region.
But the conversation started in Moab, Utah, where Fisher spends his spare time hunting for fossils.
David Fisher: All of my life, all of this professional career, the volunteers have really made the systems work. They are the keystone that cause the systems to move. I thought when I retired I'd give it back. That's the Moab experience. That's why I build houses for Habitat for Humanity, because I feel like I'm giving something back. When I was doing Moab, on a volunteer basis, the story is I went there, because I'm the frustrated paleontologist and that's a great place to look. I just knocked on the door of the BLM and said "Hey, can I volunteer here? Here's my resume." They wanted me to do a master plan for the BLM, which I did and loved every minute of it. I felt like I had given something back.
This is a profession that's unique in that you literally can go home at night, lay your head on the pillow and ask yourself the question - "Did I make a difference?" And if you can say "I made a difference," then that was a good day. And so when you have a couple of bad days you try to make a good day. I've always self described my job as a social worker with land because with that land I could do, you've heard me talk about the social aspects of what we try to do all the time. It is in fact an engagement community. "So why do I live here and I need to know who my neighbors are."
What did you know about the Portland region before this visit?
DF: I had been here two times .One in '06 or '05, when they put together this forum to talk about regionalism. I spent a couple of days here. I don't walk into anything not knowing what I'm walking into. So I do a lot of research before I go somewhere. I knew what the Portland demographics and statistics and physical layout and stuff was, so I had some idea what Portland was.
I came back a couple years later for a waterfront conference. I rented a bike and did some touring and got a grassroots feel of what's going on.
When you went on that bike tour and when you've been around this week, what do you see that we're doing right?
DF: You're being opportunistic and if a corridor comes up you grab it. What's missing is the vision, the plan. You heard me refer to it as "the it." What is it? Is it the vision, the image, the plan? How do you grow? How do you buy parks? How do you do anything without a plan? A plan gives you the vision of where you're going, but it also gives the community comfort of where you are. It's both.
So what I've found is, and I don't remember the name of the trail, it's real boring. Somebody just paved along a railroad corridor. There were no signs.
The Springwater perhaps?
Could be. It was from downtown. It was long, it was boring, it was hot. There was no information. It wasn't itself acting as a community asset. It was just there. Now there were some people passing me at very high rates of speed, so it was serving a purpose but it wasn't serving the community purpose.
So my impression coming back from here was they got probably the absolute right idea with the wrong implementation. But all politics are local and you figure out how to do it.
They keep saying "What's the it?" and I say "You have to define the it, not me."
You mention community involvement and volunteerism as the cornerstone of the way you think these things should evolve. Portland has no shortage of volunteer efforts for projects. We are a city that loves to volunteer for things. It seems to me, it's the top level, getting the corporate involvement.
DF: This organizational focus, this is the purpose for training corporate responsibility. But let me go back to the Moab experience. Had they said to me as a volunteer "I want you to go out and pick up trash along the highway," I probably would have, but I didn't take anything away from it and I didn't give anything. When they said to me, "I want you do to a master plan," I owned it then. I became part of it. So it's that level of involvement that one takes the volunteer to.
I think that rather than picking up trash, which is important, is to say "I need some people, I need them to canvas this neighborhood. I need to find out what the values of this neighborhood are." That becomes an ownership issue between the surveyor and the neighborhood. I'm a surveyor. Just answer why you live here. What are you doing here?
One thing about this job is you learn all the way through it. I was the youngest superintendent ever appointed in Minneapolis. One of the requirements of the Metropolitan Council was you survey the users of the parks. So I was standing with a volunteer – and that's what we used the volunteers for, surveys and things that made them feel integral to what we were attempting to do, and then we gave them a big party afterwards, there was always a reward – I was standing there off this pathway off Lake Harriet, one of those wonderful, beautiful, sunny, warm Saturday afternoons and there were 5,000 people on that lake swimming and jumping and throwing Frisbees and diving in the water and sailing. You could just feel the static energy.
We motioned a guy off the path and said "Why are you here?" and he says "Look, the energy. I come here and it's like a battery charger. I just get charged. I feel good. I go home." We wrote that down thinking that's what everybody would say.
So the next guy comes along and we ask him and he says "The serenity. Look how calm the water is. There's ducks in the water. There's birds floating on the air." He didn't notice anything else. It was the pastoral part of it. So you start building the idea that parks have got to be something for all people. That's why you'll hear me say - and this staff has heard me over and over again - it's not trails. Trails can be part of the greenway component but just 10 percent is … bicycle. That's not hardcore bike, just bicycle.
So what you're trying to do is start building that constituency. Building the trail between the school (and Graham Oaks, as Fisher mentioned in an earlier briefing). Not the classic bikers. They're going to find a place. They're going to run on the street. I guess if they could run down the median on the freeway they probably would. You build the core of the family. You want the family to take their youngsters on that pathway. That safe, off-street, no hazard pathway to understand the environmental issues of what makes the region great. Does it clean the water? It becomes an educational tool for the family – if you, as an agency, provide the information for it to become an educational tool.
Then you become a lifelong fan of that kind of stuff.
Now the economics on the other hand, is, most park people will kind of cringe when they hear me talk about the economic value. The Trust for Public Land, and there's been other studies that really speak to the "proximity value." There's studies about how far back from this greenway or this park are values increasing or decreasing.
What is really interesting about it, is those parks that are connected, there was in fact an increasing property value as you moved closer to that asset. It's called the golden crescent. Those parks that were individual single parks, there was no value difference. So what it made us believe is then what we could do is connect them and build value, which we did and it did.
Is this new stuff? No. This is Olmsted stuff regurgitated again. This is what Olmsted and the 40 Mile Loop, the Emerald Necklace. He did the Emerald Necklace as well in Boston. So it's an old idea that has now in time, if regions are going to compete – you hear me say that all the time and people don't believe me. But I was chasing jobs when I was a young kid. I'd go wherever the jobs were. My first job was in Illinois. And people said "Why would you go to Illinois?" and I said "A job."
Now, my daughter, who's a highly educated woman of about 30, says "I don't want to live here; I'm going to go there." And she gets there, she needs a job. And then she starts looking. If there's no jobs, she stays anyway.
Have you been outside the building at all? We're an entire city of that.
DF: Well, that doesn't build economy. It doesn't build cities. What did I hear somebody say, that the young people come here to retire?
As you've made your laundry list of visits around the region, has there been one question or one common theme that people have brought up that's surprised you?
DF: Yeah. And it mostly comes from somewhat politically connected people and the example is a staffer from a state representative in Vancouver when I was giving a presentation came up to me and said "OK, how do you do this?" And I said "from the grassroots up."
If you get a community group that wants something they go to their alderman or council member and say "We really want this." And if enough of that happens, then everybody wants it. And it really becomes that grassroot thing. But the ownership is there, and all the politician has to do is say "My community wants this."
So, the top-down approach, which is quite frankly my criticism of Metro, is, we're going to do it this way there's no ownership. They're more concerned about whether Metro's going to do some sort of control of them rather than whether they're going to be some help to them.
That's where I think my biggest message will be tomorrow (at an all-park consortium on April 29). What does it take to get you to buy? What does it take to get your community to buy into what is the greater vision?
Everywhere I go, these park systems are on life support. And they're on life support because they don't have any money. They don't have any money because there's no job growth. To follow that all the way back, job growth equals money.
Last night when I talked about the Central Riverfront — there was clearly a connection between the $80 million we invested in greenspace, 120 acres, and the $2 billion of development that spun off it.
I think Pearl demonstrates that. I'm not sure if it was a chicken or egg approach. But in Minneapolis, we started it. We intentionally started it. I think that if you, the greatest opportunity that exists in this region right now is out in Oregon City at the mill. I salivate thinking of what you could do.
I keep saying Jim (Desmond, Metro's open spaces director) just do a plan. Just do a rendering. Just do a visual. "This is what it could be." Is it presumptive? Probably.
That's top down planning right there.
DF: You create a vision, not the plan. Here's what it could be. Not that it will be. What it could be.
People are visual, very visual.
Are we spoiled? Do we have enough of a decent park system, or even a good park system here, that we can't think about having a great park system?
DF: The point I keep making is the parks are not the system. The region is the system. Parks are a significant component of that system. But there's a transportation system. And other systems that make that work. You can't stand alone. You can't do this by yourself. Otherwise the highways would have built the greatest cities in the world. If I have anything to say it's not an integrated thinking at all.