Category Archives: portland

John Yeon: Modern Architecture and Conservation in the Pacific Northwest

Those not hailing from the Pacific Northwest may be less familiar with John Yeon, one of the influential figures in architecture and conservation and the development of a unique brand of regional modernism.  If you don’t know Yeon, or you want to learn more, you will be pleasantly satisfied with the recent volume from Oro Editions by Marc Treib, “John Yeon: Modern Architecture and Conservation in the Pacific Northwest”  The life and arc of Yeon’s career is carefully documented with many images and illustrations spanning his diverse and influential career.  And while I knew of and about much of his work, the detail unlocked a greater understanding of the key themes of regionalism, materiality, landscape, and conservation that are just as resonant and relevant today.

As introduced by Treib, Yeon is best know for his residential design, embodying the concept of ‘regional modern architecture’ and designs shaped by “sensitive siting, planning, masses, use of wood, and accommodation of contemporary living” the epitomy of which is the Watzek House completed early in his career in Portland in 1937.  This style “set the bar for many of the region’s houses that followed in its wake.”  The exterior rooflines juxtaposed with Mount Hood in the background, and the amazing interior wood detailing ground this as a touchstone worthy of exploration.

Beyond being a residential designer, Yeon, who was largely self-taught, brought a passion for many causes surrounding conservation and planning throughout his career, becoming a vocal advocate for landscape preservation, sensitive roadway design, scenic areas, all stemming from his regionalism of a different sort, his roots in his home place.  As Treib mentions,

“John Yeon lived in the present, held a deep appreciation for the past, but was always concerned with the future.  He understood and was troubled by the threats that development posed to the Oregon landscape and actively sought to confront and mitigate the problems they caused.”

This included work in the Columbia River Gorge, now an officially designated Scenic Area, and his purchase of land now known as The Shire, which “became a test ground, a playground, a retreat for the architect, and a tool to inspire key activists and funders of his preservation efforts.”

The area is now the John Yeon Center for Architecture and the Landscape, operated by University of Oregon and providing a legacy appropriate to Yeon’s passion for study and education specific to the region.  “The Shire is a center for Pacific Northwest landscape studies while being preserved as an example of landscape design. It provides an educational site for the study of landscape preservation, design, ecology, and management creating opportunities for individuals and study groups to engage in research and discussion of landscape architecture, planning, conservation and preservation issues associated with the Columbia River Gorge, the Pacific Northwest region, and the nation.”

The book explores in detail many of these topics, and provides lots of in depth discussion on Yeon’s self-taught architectural vocabulary, his innovative use of materials, his advocacy and conservation efforts, as well as his life-long love of art and collecting.  It also focuses on his pursuit of architecture as a relatively solitary endeavor, and his eschewing both formal education and working for larger firms to pursue his own path. Coming from an affluent family, he had perhaps some unique opportunities to travel at a young age,  which influenced his thinking around architecture, and access to some clients that gave him opportunities beyond his age and experience.

That said, his intuition as a designer, along with his evolution among established Portland architects like A.E. Doyle (whose office Yeon worked briefly) and contemporaries such as emerging talents like Pietro Belluschi offered some structure and assistance on projects.  As Treib mentions, “It is evident that in the early stages of their training, an exchange of ideas and influences passed between Yeon and Belluschi”.

The interior and exterior relationship of Watzek house is thoroughly modern, and Yeon’s feel for exterior environment is deft.  The courtyard and pool engaged the house on all sides, as Treib outlines:

“The Watzek house and landscape were conceived as an interrelated unit, but within that unity, Yeon played an intensified landscape of native species against areas — such as the courtyard and the zone outside the living room — that stood out as designed spaces.”

The use of the borrowed native Pacific Northwest landscape seemed to fit the design more than the actual design plantings, which in a residential context makes sense, with some plantings strategically employed for functions like screening and directing views, or to create and reinforce outdoor rooms.  The strong connection of architecture and landscape influences my design aesthetic, embodied in the formalism of the Watzek house portico, where Yeon “projected the interval between the portico posts as lines of paving stones set within the lawn, in effect, using rows of stones to echo the rhythm of the house architecture in the softest of voices.”

These concepts were not unique to Yeon, but still define much of regional modern design today, and at the time, much like his architectural style, were fresh and new.  Architects will also appreciate his experimentation with ‘ventilators’ which allow for user control of interior environments.  I also appreciated the deep dive into the Watzek house, as well as some of his subsequent work with the use of plywood as a building material, and the experimentation with modular designs strategies, all of which referenced his favorite and most regional of material, wood, but showcased the level of design detailing Yeon became famous for, using 1:1 drawings to investigate specific joints and interfaces of materials for functional and aesthetic reasons.  The sophistication of this is seen, for instance in the Cottrell House (below).

Also significant were the other plywood houses were the epitome of regional style, 9 of which were built in the Portland metro areas, like this super simple Speculative House in North Portland, built in 1939.

This also started sporting the Yeon blue-green paint he became famous for, most visibly applied to the 1948 Visitors Information Center located along Waterfront Park.

Yeon did venture beyond Portland to build a few houses in California, which is documented in the book, and he did live and work on the Oregon Coast (along with but most of his work was close to home and predominately residential.  And while he was known early for Watzek house, Treib posits that “the Swan house could claim first place as the most cohesive representation of Pacific Northwest regional modernism”

The book moves from residential architecture and design to art collecting and museum work which occupied much of his later life, along with the active conservation work mentioned previously.  This aspect will be enjoyable to those passionate about and interested in the history of Northwest environmentalism, as Yeon was a heroic figure in many of the fights for beautiful and ecologically significant places we enjoy today.  Chapter 7 highlights much of the work on the Oregon Coast, and the Columbia River Gorge, where Yeon served by appointment on the State Parks Commission at the age of 21 and fervently fought even then, using his own funds to buy land that was threatened, again owing to his not small amount of privilege.

He wrote letters on scenic beautification of highways, making cogent arguments on the impact of road designs that did not follow the contours of the land, and the need to plant wide enough areas to allow for visual impact and survivability.  As Treib points out “This knowledge of forestry and road design for a twenty-one year old is impressive, as is the young man’s confidence in lecturing men with decades of experience beyond his own.”

The early work on sensitive siting of roadways, such as the alignment of Highway 101 on the Oregon coast in the 1940s, evolved through the work in the 1960s dovetailed with larger interest in roadside beautification with work from designers and advocates alike striving for a more beautiful landscape experience and a more sensitive approach to road design, perhaps harkening back to the approach that Frederick Law Olmsted took a century before.  Yeon’s work focused this larger trend, with an eye towards the particular landscape experience, as Treib summarizes:

“Yeon was an evangelist for the Oregon landscape.”

The Shire was the major reflection of this trend, where Yeon fought against the wind and elements of the Gorge to shape a partly natural and partly designed space.  “Yeon’s design for the landscape, developed over decades, lovingly integrated land and water.  The tightly mown, and level-edged paths played effectively against the high grasses that blanketed most horizontal surfaces.  Paths traversed meadows, climbed outcroppings, and skirted the river — all aesthetically considered.”

The final chapter sums his focus on spending more time on projects benefiting the social good, and while he still did some residential work.  He fought for more scenic highways near Multnomah Falls, and championed designs for the Portland Waterfront Park, as well as holding the torch for a Pacific Northwest modern style that influenced architecture today.  It’s interesting reading the last chapter on how Yeon grappled with the concept of regionalism, and his role in defining it.  While the Watzek house and other residential designs were regional in form and material, he still presented that “the very existence of “a Northwest regional style of architecture is debatable”.  The connection to the land is an important factor, as well as the connections between folk architecture.

“We like to think that the visual character of the landscape shaped the vision of its inhabitants so that they conjured up [and] translated the spirit of the place into forms which were habitable.  Possibly people and landscapes have so modified each other that it is impossible to tell from the resulting composite regionalist landscape which influence is the primary one.  When we see this … phenomenon from the past, it is perhaps strongest where the inhabitants were unsophisticated — for knowledge of a broader world caused a seepage of alien influences which diluted the special regional flavor.” (251)

This concept of regionalism is perhaps the most compelling part of the narrative of the book and the life of John Yeon.  Regionalism as a stylistic element, but also regionalism as a way of living and loving the place you inhabit.  An amazing life makes for good reading, and Treib does a great job packing a lot of diversity into an easy to absorb story.  As a man with that took a unique path, John Yeon benefited much from his privilege to have the freedom to pursue his passions in a less formal way could have become a path of self-indulgence.  He was an artist, but his passion for the Oregon landscape and his life-long pursuit of it’s protection made him a true, regional hero.

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Introducing Hidden Hydrology

Regular readers of the blog know of my long-time passions of both Vegitecture and Hidden Hydrology, which both dovetail nicely into the larger themes of Landscape+Urbanism.  While the L+U blog has been relatively intermittent, I’ve been hard at work developing a new website and blog for the Hidden Hydrology project. The goal is to culminate the work in some form of publication, but regardless, it seemed time to focus on that element in it’s own.  I’m also giving a talk at the Washington ASLA conference in Spokane later this month (April 21), so excited to share more to a broader audience.  Simply put, the project is summarized as:

“Exploring lost rivers, buried creeks & disappeared streams. Connecting historic ecology + the modern metropolis.”

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Without going into too much detail that may be gained by going to the site itself, the project is broken down into four sections.  The first section gives a quick overview of hidden hydrology and links to some of my original inspirations, including Anne Whiston Spirn and David James Duncan, along with an early, evocative map of Portland, along with the amazing historical ecology around the book Mannahatta.

A bit longer summary gives some context for the endeavor:  “At the basic level, hidden hydrology is the buried, piped and disappeared waterways that flow under our urban areas.  Development has driven underground these surface streams that used to weave through our cities – and with them we’ve lost the connection to natural systems, and robust ecological habitat that urban waterways can provide.  Beyond just focusing on pure daylighting and restoration, the exploration, mapping, and study of hidden hydrology offers new ways to conceptualize a range of interventions that reconnect us to our history and offer glimpses of solutions for the future.  It’s a broader concept of ‘restoration’ that looks through lenses of art, landscape architecture, urban ecology, and planning to define ways to celebrate, connect and regenerate our places.”

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The second section are links to many of the resources available, including precedents, projects, and resources from around the globe.  While linking to the other pages, I’m also providing links to some of the posts, including a diverse mix from Rome to London, San Francisco to Lexington, Kentucky.  The range of projects isn’t limited to projects, but encompasses art, mapping, poetry, literature, dance, stream daylighting, films, community engagement, and history.

A couple of highlights, including the project “Ghost Arroyos” in San Francisco:

Or the cool mapping work of David Ramos in DC at Imaginary Terrain.

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The third is an ongoing exploration of themes in a more expanded format, the site is built aroud a blog that has delved into some of the resources, and projects, but also allows for some rumination and coverage of original project work.   Of the 25 or so posts to date, many have covered cities and projects, expanding to case studies and deeper investigations.   These include projects inspired by hidden hydrology (such as Town Branch Commons in Lexington, top below), as well as historical maps and photos referenced in a literary context (Iain Sinclair’s ‘Swimming to Heaven’), and more in depth historical ecological studies (San Francisco Estuary Institute) to show a few.

1854 — The Corporation of London workmen repairing the Fleet sewer, south of Fleet street under the direction of Mr. W. Haywood. The sewers carried 87,000,000 gallon of water daily in 1854. — Image by © CORBIS

The diversity is what surprised me, to different tendrils which weave beyond just mapping but into a multitude of subjects.  An early post on the site, is illustrative of this concept, and is still one of my favorites, focused on the novel by Ben H. Winters, Underground Airlines and it’s use of the hidden hydrology of Indianapolis to tell a futuristic narrative of modern day slavery.

An excerpt from the novel explains this in a bit more detail.

“I cleared the trailer park and passed a jumble of picnic benches and playground equipment and stepped carefully down the slope of the ravine and swung the heavy beam of my flashlight along the creek.  Now it was clear, with the water swollen by the rains, the direction the brown water was still flowing.  The black mouth in the base of the shallow hill was an entrance, not an exit.  This low little trickle of mud water was a kind of rivulet, a poor cousin of a creek, and this spot behind the motor court is where some long-ago engineer had diverted it.
The creek was called Pogue’s Run. I’d found it on the map. I’d looked up the story.  This small waterway was discovered at the turn of the century – the eighteenth turning into the nineteenth — discovered and named and recorded, penciled in on early maps, when the city was not yet a city — when it was a gathering of huts, a stopping place on the way to other places.  The small river was inconvenient for the city fathers and the grid they’d drawn.  So they did just as Mama Walker said: they ran it underground.”

Beyond the fringes of hidden hydrology include some diversion into the very cool Atlas of Oblique Maps, a fascinating set of historical climate maps from the 1850s, and the ever popular Fisk maps of the evolution of changes to the Mississippi River.

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The fourth, which is more of a long-term is projects, is still in nascent stage, but offers the potential to showcase original work around Hidden Hydrology, specifically in Portland and Seattle, but encompassing some other miscellany as well.  Currently it highlights some early presentations, as well as base-mapping of the Cadastral Survey for each city, the springboard for further analysis.

The Mississippi maps inspired me to use some of the documentations to animate the changing course of the river within the valley over the last 4000 years.  These more

 

There’s a ton of great information out there, yet it’s an area of study that seems relatively untapped and full of potential.  If you’d like to contribute, know of some great case studies, and have the bug for historical maps, and how these can inform ecological design today, give a shout.  In the interim, check out the site and follow @hiddenhydrology on Twitter.

And stay tuned for some more explorations here at L+U related to urban ecology and habitat, and more posts on some recent vegitecture, as I am working on some related projects and doing some more focused research in these realms.

 

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Google Timelapse

The announcement Google Earth Timelapse has created a bit of a stir, with a number of videos exploring landscape change of natural and urban systems.  From their site:

“Timelapse is a global, zoomable video that lets you see how the Earth has changed over the past 32 years. It is made from 33 cloud-free annual mosaics, one for each year from 1984 to 2016, which are made interactively explorable by Carnegie Mellon University CREATE Lab’s Time Machine library, a technology for creating and viewing zoomable and pannable timelapses over space and time.”

I’m a bit disappointed with the resolution – as it is not able to zoom in to a district level at a scale that provides appropriate level of detail.  That may be surmountable by using Google Earth Engine and delving into the API and programming tools.

There’s also a series of Datasets that are available from the Google Earth Engine that would be interesting to explore also, including maps for aerial imagery, geophysical data, climate/weather and demographics.

I used the Timelapse Tour Editor to quickly make a few maps of Seattle and Portland – with an eye towards  For Seattle, I wanted to focus on the development of South Lake Union, where Amazon and other development has been most pronounced in the past decade or so.  It shows how much redevelopment has occurred there, as well as throughout the downtown core (mostly visible with white roofs).

These are better by clicking the title and viewing in full size, as the grain for urban areas is pretty bad. 

South Lake Union and Downtown Seattle

For Portland, I wanted to zoom in on the inner Southeast area, around Division Street, which was been subject to a fair amount of density in recent years.  The inability to zoom into that level of detail makes this a bit less instructive, but does show the level of development north of downtown, and across the river the ‘fingers’ of density on transit mixed-use streets (which is what provides for vibrant, walkable urban neighborhoods that make Portland, well… Portland.

Portland

Lots of fun exploration planned for this.

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TopoView for Historic USGS Maps

The USGS tool TopoView offers access to digitized maps from 1879 to the current day – which is an amazing resource for looking at landscape change over time.  Using an online mapping tool, you can access maps from 250,000 scale down to 24,000 for the entire US , including Alaska and Hawaii.  The maps are downloadable in multiple formats, including JPEG, KMZ, GEOPDF, and GEOTIFF and are full size scans – so render in reasonably high resolution.

A sample of some maps (sized down from the original resolution) from the north section of Portland, ranging from 1897 through 1961 shows the difference in land use and geography – as well as indicates the shifting graphical standards of USGS maps over the years.  I especially like seeing the urbanization patterns, movement of industrial lands into areas like the Columbia Slough and the (d)evolution of Guilds Like in the NW Industrial area.  I hope to add these to the layering of historical mapping that we’ve already developed.

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Portland – 1897
usgs_pdx_1905
Portland – 1905
usgs_pdx_1940
Portland – 1940
usgs_pdx_1961
Portland – 1961

There are definitely more maps I wish existed – in different sizes – but as referenced on the site, the maps were created to highlight different features of land use – so it wasn’t fully consistent.  Per the website:

“In 1879, the USGS began to map the Nation’s topography. This mapping was done at different levels of detail, in order to support various land use and other purposes. As the years passed, the USGS produced new map versions of each area. The most current maps are available from The National Map. TopoView shows the many and varied older maps of each area, and so is useful for historical purposes—for example, the names of some natural and cultural features have changed over time, and the ‘old’ names can be found on these historical topographic maps.”

For more info – a short video walks through the usage of the TopoView features.  A resource worth more exploration for sure.

Hidden Hydrology at UERC Conference

I recently gave a talk at the great annual conference Urban Ecology Research Consortium of Portland/Vancouver (UERC), which focuses on ” advance the state of the science of urban ecosystems and improve our understanding of them”.   I was really excited to be chosen to present (i had done a poster presentation in past years), and it seemed a great way to introduce the Hidden Hydrology of Portland and what work has been done to date.

Much of this has been covered on the L+U blog – but there’s new ideas worth exploration, and some new momentum to realize some of the site-specific installations discussed here.  A short visual recap:

Background

My first experience with the concept was stumbling over the ‘Disappearing Streams’ map produced by Metro.  Not sure of the vintage – but I remember seeing this easily in the late 1990s, and it’s stuck with me for years.  Not actual streams but modeled topography generating basins – the concept is pretty simple – show what streams existed, and highlight those buried, piped, channeled in red, which is predominately on the inner east side and downtown.Slide2

A bit of digging yields a great set of maps, the Cadastral Survey of 1852 provides amazing detail of a nascent Portland, with stream corridors like Tanner Creek still intact running through downtown Portland, and other ecological resources (wetlands, lakes) as well as trails and early city grid (seen to the right)

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A few folks share this passion, such as David James Duncan, who talks of disappeared streams in his book ‘My Story as Told by Water’ (2002) and historical account from folks like  fellow Tanner Creek nerd Tracy Prince, who has authored some great accounts of the areas in Goose Hollow and Slabtown, evoking origins of place names, connections to hidden creeks, and tying this together with the rich history of Portland’s development.

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Many layers interact in painting the picture of hidden hydrology. Photos are another great resource – with historic scenes of sewer creating, as well as floods and other historical events.

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Beyond the Cadastral Survey, a wealth of maps exist, ranging from the mid 1850s through today – which paint a temporal portrait of the path of waterways over time – such as Tanner Creek, here shown still in existence in 1866.

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And through an illustrative Aerial Lithograph here in 1870 – again showing the Tanner Creek drainage from the West Hills through the north portion of downtown.

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Map Making

Using these tools we can start to craft maps that take the historical and overlaying information – in this case a composite of Cadastral survey mapping, amended with other information, notes, and annotations – a layered history in map format.  These could easily be hosted online (a future plan) for additional input and integration with stories, photos, experience.

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The process of extracting this information from the survey – shown here in a few steps – involves 1) referencing the historical layers, 2) adding streams and other water bodies, 3) adding additional info such as wetlands and other topographic featueres, and 4) georeferencing and overlaying the historic with the current day mapping.  A reverse map regression that allows us to create an interesting connection between then and now.

Animation of overlay process – (c) Jason King

Because the Cadastral survey is based on the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) – the township, section, range geometry (see the faint orange lines in the map above allow the historic and modern to overlap with reasonable fidelity through cartographic rectification.  The maps then, overlaid with GIS data – then digitized into shapefiles with linked data – start to allow us to provide some more detailed analysis – such as for instance, correlating basement flooding in proximity to old streams?

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Interventions: Tours

The second part of the talk focused on interventions – as the maps are compelling, but the ability to use them for actions are key, both in terms of expanding the validity of our interventions, but also to connect folks everyday to their hidden nature.

My colleague Matt Burlin and I have been talking about tours of the Hidden Hydrology for some time – so recently took the field maps for Tanner Creek and traced them from up towards the headwaters near Washington Park Zoo, down through the west hills and through downtown.

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There are portions that still exist – albeit in a somewhat degraded form – but the visceral thrill of seeing this stream was compelling – The immersion in the sounds and experiences of these remnants is worth further visits.

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And as you get to the urban sections, the natural remnants make way to a creek completely hidden – save a subtle topographic cue and some cultural interventions of markers and Tanner Springs Park, before getting to the current outfall location in the Willamette, near Centennial Mills.

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Interventions: Art

How do we interact with that which is hidden, bringing lost layers of history back to the surface.  Some great art installations provide inspirations that could be applied to hidden hydrology, for instance the Freen The Billboards project (which used fixed viewfinders to overlay images on billboards)…

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Could be applied in zones to allow one to click through a series of images that show the stages of current, mapping, routing, and location of historical waterways – in this case a simple illustration of how this would work for Tanner Creek.

Viewfinder_Animation
Animation of ‘Viewfinder’ slide (c) Jason King

 

And drawing from the functional aspects of utility locates with the community artistry of intersection repair…

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…one could imagine a meandering Tanner Creek weaving its way through downtown and northwest Portland streets, taking the idea of a couple of markers in the sidewalk to a much higher level of engaging and awareness in the underlying historical systems.

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Image of Tanner Creek – Locate (c) Jason King

 

Thinking beyond a map or a kiosk with some informational interpretation, the array of interventions together provide multiple ways to engage, and coupled with technology could yield self-guided walking tours, vivid sound maps, and immerse multi-media experiences.

Neighborhsheds

On a larger scale, the idea of Hidden Hydrology inspires thinking about community and our connections to each other.  The concept of Neighborsheds, which i coined in the mid 2000s and presented at the ASLA National Conference about – involves using these natural drainages to redefine neighborhood boundaries.  By rethinking political or cultural boundaries defined outside of natural systems, we can reconnect to our place in new ways.  This knowledge is perceptual on one hand – but can engage folks in shared commitment – because if you’re in the neighborshed, all of your actions become innately connected in you cumulative impact downstream.

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Urban Ecology

Finally, for me the concept of the Hidden Hydrology is tied to the larger ecological history.  There is no better project to illustrate this that the Mannahatta Project  (read more on a post here) which in it’s broader incarnation as The Welikia Project, takes the notion of historic mapping and blends field observations of biotic and abiotic factors in a rich and illustrative composite that is both rigorous and compelling.

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My call to action, to create this detailed historical ecology for Portland, blending historical mapping with history, archaeology, anthropology, ecology, and other disciplines to paint a vivid picture of this historical ecology.

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Beyond being fodder for art and culture, defining neighborsheds, or ways of engaging in urban exploration and wayfinding – there are some key opportunities available with this information.  This can be inspiration for design interventions, can guide decisions about habitat, ecology, water, runoff, vegetation, and other factors, not in a general sense but in a block by block, historical watershed and stream basin scale.

The overlay and congruency with the hidden streams and our subsurface pipe systems is no accident – each are governed by system conditions of gravity.  One is surficial and the other is hidden, so opportunities for making adjustments to the gray systems can be augmented with opportunities to use the green systems – with potentials for daylighting, integration of green stormwater infrastructure, and replication of pre-development hydrology.  These decisions aren’t just based on current conditions (i.e. paved, permeable, landcover), but can be guided by understanding and modelling the pre-development hydrology – the best guide to how a particular basin wants to act by referencing how it worked before we altered it.

Finally, the concept of a pre-development metric is used for many things – to set stormwater management goals, to measure runoff in site and basin scales, and to set targets for sustainability for ecodistricts and other planning scale efforts.  The return to the ‘native forest’ is a generalization of the pre-development condition, and also becomes a technological construct.  Rather than pre-development condition, let’s thing of historical ecological function, which begins to not just provide us with numbers to meet, but also blends the vegetated, the ecological, the habitat, the cultural with the historic sounds, smells, textures, and colors the historical places before we forever altered them.

We won’t restore these to their natural state in all but a few selected places, but if we can restore, through metaphor, interaction, and intervention, the experience of these places, blended artfully with what they are now – places to live, shop, play – we reveal these hidden layers of inspiration to the urban experience.

A short video of the presentation is in development – and a longer follow-up, brownbag session is in the works – so look out for details.

UGB – to grow or not?

A perpetual discussion in Portland revolves around the Urban Growth Boundary and the ability of the Metro region to remain compact while accommodating population growth.  Proponents of density say we have plenty of room to infill without expanding, while others say expansion is the only method for having adequate land for economic development.  Debate ensues.

A recent story on OPB, Report Shows Portland May Already Have Enough Room To Grow discusses a new report from Metro on growth management with and influx of approximately 400,000 residents, with 200,000 housing units and 10,000 acres for jobs.  This can happen within the existing boundary, or become the catalyst
A history of boundary expansions shows how the edges of the original UGB have been added to, most notably the addition of Damascus on the outer east side.  metro1

Commuter trends are another big issue – as regional transportation infrastructure is a key to accommodating growth – and also justify expenditures in transit and other transportation alternatives.  (plus these cool infographics  by Ryan Sullivan from Paste in Place make for a lot more interesting visualization than the typical charts and graphs and gis maps.)

metro3

The process is complex, and the report is a pretty good primer for anyone looking at how to manage growth, density, and the myriad factors involved in modern urban planning.  The relatively massive size of Portland’s Metro Area (compared to other areas) and low density makes infill and redevelopment a key component of meeting increasing demand.  While there is perhaps not tons of visible vacant lands ready to build, there is lots of potential density as seen in the potential for mixed use in the inner core.  This will, as it has recently, challenge longer time residents who continue to bristle at density (such as development on Division).  It also means that density needs to be done well, and that it also needs to be supported by viable transportation options.

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There is also the need to rethink types of development – such as industrial lands – which has typically demanded large parcels (a constant complaint of those saying there is a lack of industrial land).  While some industries do require these larger parcels, there are new models for more decentralized, modular, and mixed use industry that can be woven into (rather than be zoned separate from) adjacent residential and commercial areas.

The need for livability and economic development means living close to work, and also living in communities with access to nature, places for active and passive recreation, and a number of amenities that make a place desirable.  While quality of life in some areas of the country suffer and prices skyrocket, is there possibilities to again, much like the innovative thinking that was the genesis of the urban growth boundary in the first place, for Portland to lead in how to do growth right?   Could density increase and, gasp!, the UGB actually shrink?

The report shows that a significant amount of growth can be accommodated within the existing footprint, so that’s a step in the right direction.

Hidden Hydrology Origins 3: Disappeared Streams Map

Originally published on Terra Fluxus – 01/21/2011

Over the next week, I have been outlining some of the inspirations and precedents related to the idea of Hidden Hydrology of Portland, as this project has been shaped and has evolves across many years to it’s present incarnation.  As I mentioned in the preliminary overview, one of the main inspirations was the map of ‘Disappeared Streams’ that was produced by Metro.  My first encounter with this map was during a presentation at DaVinci Arts middle school, as part of the preliminary planning for what would become their beautiful water garden.  At the time I was working with local non-profit Urban Water Works – and the students were showing off many of their water-related side projects, including hand-made flowforms, studies of water movement, and mapping.   One student had a GIS application that was showing the disappeared streams – which has stuck in my brain every since.  Metro now publishes it in map form – available at the Data Resource Center – along with many other great maps.

As I mentioned there are a few methodological caveats to this map – as it is not a historical representation of actual streams, but looking more specifically at locations of potential water routes.  From the map, some of this language:

Development patterns in the Metro region have historically resulted in piping, culverting, or filling of streams and stream beds.  A computer mapping program was used to evaluate the terrain in the region, and to generate areas where major streams (those draining 50+ acres of land) may once have existed.  While this does not represent an authoritative analysis, it does visually describe the effects of urbanization on the regions natural systems.  This exercise indicates that an estimated 388 miles of previously existing streams are now underground.”

The coding of the map is pretty striking (the choice of ‘blood’ red I think fitting) when viewed as a whole (above) particularly noting the core area of Portland that has been denuded of streams over the course of 150 years (below, closeup of City of Portland), where flatter areas were developed for Eastside residential, and margins on the Willamette filled in for industrial development.

You can also get a close-up view,including the central business district – seen in closeup below.  Notice the existing pattern, where streams are kept somewhat intact in the west hillsides (topography being somewhat of an antidote to piping), then quickly buried when they reach the urbanized area.  Tanner Creek, one of the hidden streams we will be studying closer, is captured as it originates from the Oregon Zoo and cuts through the northwest corner of downtown.

A relatively simple map that is more evocative than accurate, but does much to reinforce the ideology of what is hidden beneath our developed urban areas.  As I mentioned, it has stuck with me (and I’m glad Metro still has these available).  One of the stronger and original inspirations for the project, it continues to entertain and inspire investigation into our hidden hydrology.

Hidden Hydrology Origins 2: David James Duncan

Originally published on Terra Fluxus – 01/19/2011

Another inspiration for the Hidden Hydrology of Portland is the writing of David James Duncan (author of a couple of my favorite books, the Brothers K amongst the best).  In a book of essays from 2002 entitled ‘My Story as Told by Water‘ Duncan tells some stories with a Portland area spin about his youthful explorations in the area.  The idea of oral histories providing an additional layer to mapping and other on-the-ground study is intriguing, as the narrative is both informative and evocative of what these lost urban waterways meant, and what was lost along with them.

image via Wikipedia

Early in his childhood,  he mentions growing up on Mount Tabor (the volcanic outgrowth in East Portland – not the biblical version, seen above between downtown and Mt. Hood in the image), and his quote worth discussing hints at the disconnect between the modern city and the natural processes which shape and feed these places:

“My birth-cone’s slopes were drained by tiny seasonal streams, which, like most of the creeks in that industrialized quadrant of Portland, were buried in underground pipes long before I arrived on the scene. … I was born, then, without a watershed.  On a planet held together by gravity and fed by rain, a planet whose every creature depends on water and whose every slope works full-time, for eternity, to create creeks and rivers.  I was born with neither.  The creeks of my birth-cone were invisible, the river from somewhere else entirely.”  (p.4)

The water system from early in Portland’s history, was stored at high points like Mount Tabor and piped to surrounding neighborhoods.  This shot from 1912 shows one of the reservoirs that are still in operation today (for how long, is a good question).

image via Vintage Portland

The artificiality of the watershed is evident in Duncan’s discussions, as he makes do with building creeks using the hose and the power of gravity (much to his mothers chagrin) – using with water delivered to reservoirs and coming to his tap, as is common in many cities, from distant locales while burying the remnant hydrology that exists.  A map of the water system shows the existing Bull Run watershed in relation to Portland.

Continuing this discussion on Johnson Creek on a youthful visit, showing the degradation of some of the existing waterways that has been occurring for many years.  “It was just one of Portland’s dying creeks.  Really, one with a much-needed but long-lost Indian name.  Johnson Creek was now its anemic title.  But it was twenty-six miles long, hence a little too big to bury.” (p.10)

image via OregonLive

It’s heartening to see the restoration of the creek, which is one of the few to remain on the east side in some natural form, through the work of a number of local groups such as the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, and recently there were reports of dead coho salmon found 15 miles upstream – which is significant as it is the furthest upstream anyone has noticed these species in many years, and a testament to the work on restoration and improvement.   Something Duncan would appreciate, no doubt.

image via OregonLive

While water and rivers was of importance to Duncan, the main driving force for him was fishing – which drove the explorations to the wilds of the city.  After leaving Mount Tabor, the family moved further east towards Gresham, and lived for a time on Osborne Road, the future route of I-205.  Duncan mentions the lure of possible fishing holes, but the inaccessibility:   “A spring a quarter-mile from our new house flowed into a series of backyard trout ponds for neighbors, but these ponds were picture-windowed, guard-dogged, private.  The closest fish-inhabited waters to my house, so far as I knew, were the Columbia, three miles due north.”  (p.17)

The story continues around the small town of Fairview, under Halsey Street, where Duncan spotted a kid and discovered a hidden world amidst the underbrush:  “…the shocking thing, the magical thing, was that he was standing knee-deep in clear, lively creek water.  A creek surrounded on all sides by briars so dense I’d never noticed it before.”  (p.17)   Later in the same spot, he saw  a guy catching a trout there “a secret trout stream” and found his new exploration spot, as mentioned “Fairview Creek, it turned out, was five miles long, two-thirds wild, and amazingly full of life.” (p.18)  See the location on the far right edge as it interfaces with the Columbia Slough watershed.

Following the course, he found gravel pits headwater at Mud Lake that were stocked rainbow trout, near the Kennel Club, a pond with bullheads, and always adventure in the streams. “In the plunge-pool below the Banfield Freeway culvert, I caught a thirteen-inch Giant Pacific Salamader that stared straight into my eyes, flaring and hissing like something out of Dante Volume one, till I apologized, cut my line and released it.”

The approximate area is interesting to see and compare – although the historical imagery from Google Earth (which is awesome btw) only goes back to 1990, there’s a telling transformation in a twenty year time-span (although still a fair amount of stream left intact with development.  I remember this area, as my mother used to live just North of the Salish Ponds park (south of Halsey) and we took the trails through behind the Target and over into Fairview, which is a real gem and one of those places that, like Duncan, you may walk by many times without realizing it’s there.  I’ve highlighted Fairview Creek in Blue.

The same area in 1990 where you can see the residential development along Fairview Creek

The denouement to this story of youthful exploration comes after a few years of fishing these urban creeks and streams:

“At six-thirty or so on a rainy April morning, I crept up to a favorite hole, threaded a worm on a hook, prepared to case – then noticed something impossible: there was no water in the creek. …I began hiking, stunned, downstream.  The aquatic insects were gone, barbershop crawdads gone, catfish, carp, perch, crappie, bass, countless sacrificial cutthroats, not just dying, but completely vanished.  Feeling sick, I headed the opposte way, hiked the emptied creekbed all the way to the source, and there found the eminently rational cause of the countless killings.  Development needs roads and drainfields.  Roads and drainfields need gravel.  Up in the gravel pits at the Glisan Street headwaters, the creek’s entire flow had been diverted for months in order to fill two gigantic new settling ponds.  My favorite teacher was dead.”   (p.22)

A case of disappeared streams, captured in a moment of time from someone that was there.  The sadness in this loss is palpable, as it isn’t just a line on a map, but a leaving & breathing part of someone – both their history and their essence.  This sort of study of writings offers many opportunities for exploration through history, and can reveal much about a place in the past.  Combined with oral histories from residents and other qualitative study, it offers a dimension that maps just can’t on their own.  Thus looking beyond the map to the history is vital and inspirational going forward.

(all page references are to:  Duncan, David James. My Story as Told by Water.  Sierra Club Books, 2002.)

Hidden Hydrology Redux

Last week, I had the honor recently of presenting at a conference with one of my idols of landscape architecture, Anne Whiston Spirn.  Aside from stimulating conversation, she presented the old and new of her work from The Granite Garden through her ongoing work on the Mill Creek Project in Philadelphia, i was reminded of the tenets of persistence and the need to not work behind the scenes, but to continue to strive outwardly to make ecologically driven, research based, green and livable cities.  As many know that is inspired in me through work with water and watersheds, but also storytelling and ways to make evident that which is lost or merely hidden.  That inspiration comes many sources, but very much from the work of Ms. Spirn.

To capture my work and continue it in some form – i transferred some posts from the early days of my firm back in 2010 that formed the foundation of an ongoing work that is gaining more momentum in recent weeks, and worthy of a dusting off.  Partially as the blog is an archive of work and things i want to capture and remember – partially it is an opportunity to rework and re-frame these issues in a new time with some new energy.  Some folks will have seen this before in various forms – to others this might be new.  Over the next few days, i will repost some of the inspirations, starting today with the introduction – followed by some origins gleaned from others through the readings and explorations.  In all, it the various threads of this perpetually wandering generalist may be coming together to form a web, and with luck and work, a tapestry.

Hidden Hydrology – Portland Series Introduction

Originally published on Terra Fluxus – 12/21/2010

In the next year, TERRA.fluxus will be initiating a multi-phase project to explore the Hidden Hydrology of the city of Portland as the main research activity for the near future.   I have been fascinated with this since my first glimpse of the Disappeared Streams map published by Metro (will get my hands on one soon and give a glimpse) and it’s eventual configuration into a 2006 ASLA Presentation on ‘Neighborsheds for Stormwater Management‘ as an preliminary exploration of the concept.  The particular Metro map highlighted ‘historic’ streams that had been buried and piped through development of the City of Portland over the course of the last 150 plus years, showing existing as blue and those ‘disappeared’ in red.  While many westside creeks still ran free, the entire eastside was vivid red, long covered by roads, industrial buildings, houses, parks, and more.   While the methodology on that particular map was suspect (relying more on topographic analysis than hydrological markers), there are plenty of sources for historic waterways in maps, photos, and on-site investigation.

Thus the focus of the project, utilizing multiple sources to gain a more complete understanding of the underlying hydrological history of the area, with an aim towards using this information both in traditional planning and design manners, but also as the touchstone for a series of speculative works.

Portland, of course, has always been, and still is, a river city.   We live around waterways and bridge lifts, and relying on water for our recreation and port traffic, as well as giving us the overall image of our city.  Tucked along the banks of the Willamette and its confluence with the Columbia,  the history of water mirrors the history of urbanization, from the initial settlement patterns and grids of the 1850s up to modern conditions.  The early, or ‘pre-development’ snapshot is best captured in this compilation map of the 1852 Cadastral Survey, which was created right after the incorporation of Portland as a city in 1851.  This map, and others (a great collection of which can be found at the Bureau of Environmental Services site), will play parts in analysis throughout the project.

You can spend hours looking at this map, and placing the vision of this early city compared to it’s eventual form.  While Portland’s rivers and streams are beautiful – they are also highly troubled, with dual issues of industrial pollution and combined sewer overflows working in tandem to create issues for native fish (and people), landing many of our major waterways on lists of the most polluted rivers.  The idea of hidden hydrology is evident not in the still visible (although they are intimately connected), but those ‘urban’ waterways that over the years have changed from open streams and creeks to become piped as ‘infrastructure systems’ to deal with expanding growth of the metropolis.   Thus we look at the slow erasure of natural topography and hydrology at work in a political sphere, and begin to see what remains of this palimpsest.

The most urban example is found in Tanner Creek, the historic downtown river that wound through downtown for over fifty years, remaining intact (in form if not in quality) through urbanization, as seen in this 1881 illustration looking at downtown towards the northeast.

The proximity of this creek to development (and the Tannery) led to pollution and sanitation issues downstream, so as with many urban creeks, a period of modernization happened, in this case the 1917 implementation of the Tanner Creek Sewer project.  This forever buried the main stem of this historic creek through the heart of downtown in brick vault sewer (many of which are still functioning, or have recently been replaced).


:: images via Bureau of Environmental Services

While the historic are interesting in their own right (and there are ample sources of material to digest so more to come on this), the interaction of the new and old is both dynamic and informative.  Moving to the Southeast Quadrant, we can isolate the more detailed Cadastral maps (the survey developed the township, section geometry used today, thus giving us the ability to overlay old and new with a measure of precision).  The coverage through the 1850s and 60s is quite extensive, and will be useful when reconciled with the existing GIS coordinate systems.  An inverted version of the original survey maps gives an indication of their density of information.  The study area will be in the upper right hand quadrant of this township scale map.

A series of maps utilize GIS layering along with historical mapping underlayment to create a modern ‘routing’ for a stream in the lower Taggart basin.  First a section of the historical map (1852) was analyzed for hydrologic features (river, stream, wetland, etc.) based on the map features present at the time of the survey.  These are accented to show their location for referencing to other maps.

The topography and street grid are overlaid to show the relationship of water features to current configurations.  The addition of hillshade allows for fine-tuning of hydrological features to match remnant topographic that has not been leveled or erased through development.

Following this, the combined ‘hybrid’ map is reconciled into a workable base that is accurate to the historical location of ‘urban streams’ as well as current urban form.  Additional layers are added, and the iterations of analyses are only limited by time and usefulness.  Groundwater, soils, historical aerial photos, vacant lands, floodplains, and vegetative cover are just a few that spring to mind from glancing at Metro’s stock of layers.   I am also already other gathering data for a planned comparison with BES Subwatersheds, which mirror directly the configuration of subsurface pipe infrastructure that replaced these open channels sometime in the last 100+ years.  While our technology allows us to perform feats unbelievable to the 19th century Portander in lifting, pumping, and moving materials, there is still an inherent consistency and efficiency of using gravity to move water and waste that still makes these historic systems relevant as blueprints for existing conditions.

The other idea is to use this information for potential projects and interventions – looking opportunistically at the relationship of these systems over time and space.   To kick of this aspect, the next phase of analysis for this area will also be to ‘ground-truth’ the map hybrids – through a series of documented urban explorations (in the spirit of the Center for Land Use Interpretation perhaps?), along with further refinement, historical research, and analysis throughout 2011.

Stay tuned for more info after the new year.

Old + New – Photos

An interesting idea from some of the coverage of Memorial Day, which is a good time to remember the past.  The Guardian and the Photography Then and Now, which includes interactive before and after images – essentially exact matching shots of the old and new through historical events.  This weekend, they posted some interesting photos of WWII, juxtaposed on top of google street view.  For instance, the remnants of bombing in London (top photo) and the Germans on parade down the Champs-Elysées in Paris (both 1940).

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It got me thinking that the ability to apply the same process to the historical hydrology.  Aided by digital tools and a good eye, you can quickly do a photo match (or map illustration match) and with some minimal tweaks of perspective, provide this unique perspective of old & new in terms of water.

This power can also be applied to the concept of hidden hydrology, as this very quick example below, inspired by the photos above, gives a taste for the potential of this on the historical maps, overlaid with google earth imagery at an approximate perspective.  A bit more difficult when you are looking at a broad perspective, but still possible.

One of the interesting illustrative maps of Portland, this small snapshot of a much larger artists illustration (1879) of the aerial view looking from the West Hills toward the east, across the downtown and with the routing of Tanner Creek bridged but not quite yet buried.old

With a few minor tweaks, you get a reasonable photo match.  In a subsequent version, I’d try to include more  of the current Google Earth view, to give it a bit more of the surrounding context, but you get the idea, and each photo will have it’s own character and story.

new-old

The water course of Tanner Creek could potentially be traced along the historical photograph, as it weaves through the West Hills towards the northwest into the Willamette River.

new-old_stream

And more of the remnant of the water course as it would have flowed through the current pattern of City.  A stream or creek isn’t just a monothematic band of blue either – it evokes an ecology of plant and animal life, as well as the story of use (and misuse) by early settlement and subsequent piping and erasure.

new_stream

Aside from being an exercise purely to show the old and new – this can also allow us to look at the maps of Tanner Creek from the 1850s and see if this illustration aligns with these – both as a ‘field verification’ and supporting evidence.  Imagine the creek weaving through downtown, by PGE Park, Jeld-Wen Field, Providence Park, and etching lazy meanders through the condos of what is now the Pearl District before draining into the Willamette near Centennial Mills.