By Linda K. Harris
A little more than six years ago, the city of Portland, Ore., put together a series of public, interactive workshops that focused on the goal of revitalizing that city by embracing one of its neglected but natural stars, the Willamette River.
The Willamette flows through the neighborhoods and downtown of this growing northwestern city of more than half a million people, part of a metropolitan area of 2.3 million. The Willamette connects with the Columbia River at the edge of the city. But like partners in a bad marriage, the city and its river over decades had become estranged. In addition, the river was so polluted, it was named a Superfund site in 2000.
But that same year, the city embraced the public dialogue process and organized to create a better urban environment by embracing and repairing its relationship to the river. The result was the River Renaissance Vision, which comprised a multi-pronged approach to revitalization.
Yesterday, Gil Kelley, Portland’s planning director and an important player in the River Renaissance, joined the best-practices seminar held at the International Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. Led by City Planning Director Janice Woodcock and Harris Steinberg of Penn Praxis, the clinical arm of the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania, the all-day seminar was part of an ongoing public process that in the next few months will establish a cohesive plan for the revitalization of seven miles of Philadelphia’s Central Delaware Riverfront. The hopes and dreams of residents, developers and industrial workers are being offered up in order to devise a grand plan that pairs long-term vision and planning with short-term accomplishments.
Kelley was one of three speakers who comprised the first group, which addressed the river, its health and how it can be improved as well as the river’s contribution to the economy and well-being of the city’s residents.
“Look and listen to what the land is telling you,” Kelley told the crowd of more than 350 people.
With 17 miles of waterfront property, Portland had its work cut out for it in implementing the River Renaissance Vision. But city leaders with input from the community were determined to reclaim the river for a variety of uses.
“This is the right way to struggle with it,” Kelley said.
Among the priorities that were established for the Renaissance were making the river clean and healthy, promoting a working harbor, developing the riverfront as the city’s front yard and using the river to ennoble the city’s image.
“We set out our goals so that we’re solving for multiple objectives,” he said.
In Portland, eight city bureaus joined together to solve problems and coordinate the aspirations of the people for their city and its river.
“There was a big fear on the part of industrial owners and users that their land supply would be nibbled away,” Kelley said.
The solution was to incorporate their concerns into zoning laws, he said, that would protect their spaces.
One way they were able to protect the shipping industry was to limit retail. “Big box retail is not allowed, for example,” he said.
The industrial use of the Delaware is similarly of concern in Philadelphia, where 1,000 ships call at the Delaware River’s public piers in or adjacent to the seven-mile area being studied by Penn Praxis. Five million tons of cargo arrive each year in the port and generate at least $290 million in revenue, according to the 2005 Economic Impact Figures for the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority.
Jim Paylor, vice president of the International Longshoremen’s Association, spoke as part of the discussion group that followed the three presentations pertaining to the river.
Paylor said that he hoped that the industrial port would be allowed to expand to accommodate what he saw as a growth business. “Three million new containers could be coming here,” he said.
Portland made sure that its harbor benefited from the Renaissance. And it has succeeded, according to 2005-06 State of the River Report that tracks the accomplishments of the renewal project. Two shipping lines have added Portland to their West Coast ports-of-call and, in 2005, imports increased by almost 4 million tons over those from 2004.
Additionally in May 2006, the Portland City Council adopted the Freight Master Plan, which provided for smoother, less disruptive hauling of the goods from the port. For instance, freeway ramps were provided exclusively for trucks. Also, certain streets were designated as truck routes and marked by signs, keeping trucks out of neighborhoods and thus improving the so-called livability factor.
Portland, like Philadelphia, is still struggling with pollution of its river. The problem becomes critical with heavy rainstorms. Sewer pipes are not able to carry away the increased water from the storms along with its usual daily work of carrying sewage. When that happens the rainwater and sewage mix together and overflow into the river.
Volunteers in Portland have disconnected 40,000 residential downspouts, removing 900 million gallons of water from city sewers. The city is also working to improve streets that have inadequate drainage.
Howard M. Neukrug, director of the Office of Watersheds at the Philadelphia Water department, spoke on the panel with Kelley. He said a variety of innovations were needed to solve the problem of pollution – “new visions, roadmaps for change.” Getting rid of asphalt and using porous materials for pavement would allow water to seep into the ground, he said. Urban farms and more urban trees would absorb more water. Using vacant land to make urban parks would alleviate some of the stormwater stress.
The health of the Delaware River is of the utmost importance, said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware River Keeper, another person who participated in the after-conversation on the river.
“We absolutely have to have a healthy river. If we can ensure the health of the river, all these other aspects will be healthier.”
Van Rossum said later that the river had improved a great deal, even if it still could not be given a clean bill of health. For example, she said, “there used to be time when the river was so polluted with nutrient pollution (sewage) that you had a dead zone for 20 miles.” That was in the 1940s and 1950s. There was no migration of fish then.
“You could smell the river from a plane, dock workers got sick, pollution would peel the paint off the boats and clog their engines,” she said.
“Over the last 50 years, that has improved because of legislation, citizen actions, new technology driven by the legislation,” van Rossum said. “Now you don’t have all those things. You have an oxygen sag in the summer but you don’t have that dead zone.”
In the Delaware River, the shad are the indicators of health, and they are getting more plentiful and bigger, but those are not the only criteria for indications of a healthy river.
Fish health advisories are now issued to let the public know what’s inside those fish. There are advisories issued for 26 types of fish in the Delaware, van Rossum said. Those advisories are dealing with the pollutants within, the PCBs, mercury and metals that are discharged into the river, in some cases in perfectly legal cases.
“It’s illegal to pollute without a permit,” she said. But some companies have permits to discharge chemicals into the river, van Rossum said.
“PCBs are banned but some industries are legally allowed to drop it into the river,” von Rossum said. “Contaminants get stuck in the sediment and it gets into the fish. You have a mix of old pollution and new pollution.”
José Almiñana is a principal of Andropogon Associates, a Philadelphia landscape architecture firm renown for its ecological planning and design. Almiñana told the group that 1 percent of the world’s water was all that was available for use. He said 97 percent of the water was too salty as part of the oceans and 2 percent was locked into glaciers. So it’s important not to pollute that 1 percent.
Almiñana laid out five principals for planning for the river’s improvement. They were:
1) Every site is unique, understand it
2) The river is a component of a much larger ecosystem
3) Minimize new floodplain development
4) Provide for public areas and recreational uses
5) Celebrate the heritage and culture of the river
Storm water is a good resource, Almiñina said, and should be managed better.
“There’s no storm water in nature,” he said. “It should be about rainwater management. There’s no better drinking water than that that comes from the sky.”
Setting up standards for green development is important and not that expensive, he said. Roof gardens are an excellent way to capture rainwater. He cited the example of a green roof that repeatedly collected 2,300 cubic feet of runoff. Clean water can also be collected from air-conditioning condensate and inexpensively recycled, he said.
At Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., a plan was implemented that recycles 100 percent of the water used at the school and the system has become part of the school’s biology teachings, he said.
During the discussion following the presentations, Almiñina challenged the group to look afresh at how water is managed.
“This is an opportunity to make a stand and make a new way in developing in Philadelphia.”
Patrice Carroll, a planner who lives in Fitler Square, attended the daylong seminar.
“I thought it was great,” she said. In Philadelphia, she would like to see a lot of public access to the Delaware River, she said, and high-quality open space.
What was Carroll’s favorite part of the seminar?
“Seeing some of the work in Portland,” she said.
Linda K. Harris is a former Philadelphia Inquirer editor and reporter who lives in South Philadelphia.