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Sunday, November 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Plant Life

Nature, Artfully Embraced

THE PEARL IS the coolest new neighborhood in Portland. Despite all the edgy condos, galleries and restaurants, its heart is green. This high-density neighborhood is blessed with refreshing parks amidst the crescendo of new construction. Ever since the beginning stages of revitalization in the early 1990s, city planners and the neighborhood were intent on fostering community and ensuring open space by creating three parks, each with a distinctly different character.

When I visited most recently, the parks between 10th and 11th avenues were lively with people even at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Children splashed about in Jamison Square's water feature as if they were at an ocean beach. In the more quiet, naturalistic Tanner Springs Park, a group gathered for a potluck brunch.

Jamison Square, designed by Peter Walker and Partners Landscape Architecture, is a wide-open block of civic space, and the first of the three parks to be completed. Birch trees and a picnic lawn lend a European vibe. Totem poles in primary colors ring the square, and the hugely popular, interactive water feature stretches nearly the width of the park. The shallow pool is fed with fresh water spilling from between stone steps. This is a family place, somewhere to meet friends, stroll, admire the city growing taller around you by the minute.

While this kid-friendly space may be the biggest draw, Tanner Springs Park just two blocks north seems to me the greater achievement. It's a slice of wetlands with a sense of seclusion despite the bustle all around it. A web of watery rivulets spreads over the park's sloping topography into a vast pond. The materials are simple: cobbles, water, beds of mahonia, stretches of wild-looking grasses, native trees. Pebbled paths lead to curvy metal benches and descending terraces of grass and concrete ideal for picnicking, reading or lounging. The breeze ruffles the grasses and stirs the surface of the pond. The water runs over boulders, its sound drowning out traffic noise. When you're down at pond level, the city disappears.

Where to look


You'll find Tanner Springs Park in Portland's Pearl District at Northwest 10th Avenue and Marshall Street; Jamison Square is two blocks south.

At the end of the boardwalk is an art installation made of century-old rail tracks. The 180-foot-long, bowed wall weaves along the edge of the water, part ancient fence and part the cleverest use of salvaged material ever. Segments of fused glass link the rails, each embedded with hand-painted insects and amphibians that glow when lit at night. Portland's GreenWorks PC and the German firm of Atelier Dreiseitl created the park. More than a hundred docents and stewards give tours and help maintain it.

Both art and wetland echo the history of the place, which was known as Couch Lake before it was filled for a railroad yard. Tanner Creek, which fed the lake, was buried in sewer pipes for years. Atelier founder Herbert Dreiseitl describes the project as peeling back the city's skin, its urban fabric, to reveal — but not attempt to replicate — its wetland past. Tanner Springs offers a science lesson in stormwater recycling along with a hit of art and nature. All the rain that falls on the park drains to a cleansing biotope, then to an underground cistern for irrigation. This is the first city block in Portland where the sidewalks drain onto the site rather than into the streets and storm drains.

The park has been criticized in the Portland press recently because people can't wade, play on the lawn or bring their dogs. But Tanner Springs is just one in the series. Its fragile ecosystem is a place for quiet contemplation. Jamison Square is more active, and the third park, not yet finished, will be called Fields and feature grass, trees and play areas for both people and dogs.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance write.r Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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