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If you’ve ever found yourself stuck in snarled traffic on the Banfield, or encountered a stop-and-go nightmare on I-5, you can probably see the value in shorter commutes. If you’ve ever hiked through the green splendor of Forest Park or strolled along the top of Mt. Tabor, you know our city offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy nature on foot. If your idea of a pleasant afternoon is sauntering around the cafes and boutiques on Alberta or Mississippi or in the Pearl, you know how important walkability is to the vibrancy of a neighborhood. In fact, today’s younger people put more emphasis on walking than ever before.
A recent study by the National Association of Realtors has shown that millennials (ages 18–34) actually prefer walking over driving by 12 percentage points, making them the most pro-walking generation ever. In fact, millennials also increasingly want to live in neighborhoods where they can easily walk to restaurants and shops, and where they can have short commutes to work. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why so many people are moving to Portland, and why they’re choosing to live in the city rather than the suburbs.
This is encouraging because modern living can often mean sedentary lifestyles. With screens in front of our faces for so many hours of the day, and with our virtual lives sometimes taking precedence over aspects of our physical ones, it’s easy to forget the value of simply taking a stroll. There’s great wisdom in walking. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates said that “walking is man’s best medicine,” while transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau chimed in that “the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Meanwhile, travel writer and poet Gretel Ehrlich declared that “walking is also an ambulation of mind.”
For those more into concrete facts over philosophical abstractions, studies have clearly shown the benefits of walking. Those who walk briskly for 30 to 60 minutes a day tend to lose weight even without any other lifestyle changes. Walking for 30 minutes three to four times per week has been shown to improve symptoms of depression, and walking six miles a week has been associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. Walking can even help prevent colds, as researchers at the University of Massachusetts have found that people who walk every day get 25 percent fewer colds than those with more sedentary lifestyles.
With the incredible walkability in much of Portland, there’s little excuse to keep you from getting out there and stretching your legs. Sure, you can just walk around your block or to the local grocery store, but to really get the most out of walking in Portland, a little homework can go a long way.
Most people have to choose between walking in the city or walking in the woods. Not so in Portland. We’re home to the largest urban forest area in the country. On the city’s west side, just a stone’s throw from downtown, Forest Park offers an incredible 70 miles of forested trails. The 30-mile Wildwood Trail gets the most attention, as it links the Pittock Mansion, the Audubon Society of Portland’s 150-acre Nature Sanctuary and Washington Park. The views between miles nine and 11 are perhaps the trail’s most scenic. If you want to leave the car parked in your driveway, Macleay Park offers the best access for those arriving on foot, bike or public transportation, as many of the other trailheads are only accessible by car.
Nearby you can find Hoyt Arboretum, a hilly 189 acres that serve as home to over 2,000 species of trees and plants — the most of any arboretum in the United States. Hoyt offers 21 trails that span some 12 miles, through trees that are sectioned off in such a way that the various twists and turns in the trail can yield vastly different arboreal experiences. With many trees labeled by species and with a plethora of information at the visitor center, Hoyt Arboretum can become an outdoor classroom in addition to being a very pleasant wooded spot to walk within Portland’s city limits. The experience varies greatly by season, of course, with loads of color in the fall and some truly breathtaking varieties of magnolia blossoms in the spring.
On the far southwest side of town, just north of Lake Oswego, you’ll also find Tryon Creek State Natural Area. It serves as Oregon’s only state park located within a major metropolitan area. The park consists of over 650 acres of second-growth forest, and it features eight miles of hiking trails through vivid foliage and diverse animal habitat. The park also includes eight bridges and a wetland boardwalk, three miles of bicycle trails and over three miles of horse trails. There’s a nature center that displays interpretive exhibits, and guided hikes are available as well.
The west side of town isn’t the only place where you’ll find wooded walking fun. Mt. Tabor offers both challenging inclines and long, winding stretches to make your walk in the park as leisurely or as rigorous as you’d like. The views from the top of Mt. Tabor, an extinct volcanic cinder cone, are spectacular, offering a counterpoint to the views from west-side outlook spots such as Pittock Mansion. The entire park is closed to motor vehicles on Wednesdays, offering walkers more of an opportunity to safely stroll along the paved roadways, and many rougher trails branch off through the more forested areas of the massive park.
If you’re spending time in the Sellwood neighborhood, the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge really should not be missed. The 140 acres of reclaimed marshland provide a home to some 150 species of birds, and the area is especially gorgeous around dusk, when frogs chirp and ducks swim along Oaks Bottom Lake, and the lights of Oaks Amusement Park glitter in the distance. In 1988, the park became the Rose City’s first wildlife refuge, and it now serves as one of the more relaxing recreational spots in the city.
What makes Portland such a great city to explore on foot is the fact that our shorter city blocks (typically 200 x 200 feet) keep everything compact. With such vibrant neighborhoods as the Alberta Arts District, historic Mississippi Ave., the Pearl and other hotspots along S.E. Hawthorne, S.E. Belmont, East Burnside and N.E. Broadway, there are plenty of boutiques, theaters, cafes and other shops to explore within a short walking distance.
One of the more festive walks may be the Waterfront Loop during the summer. The Waterfront Loop/Eastbank Esplanade is a three-mile route that’s popular among cyclists and joggers, but also offers views from both sides of the river between the Steel and Hawthorne Bridges. During the summer months, the west side of the riverfront is packed with festivities including the Rose Festival’s CityFair carnival, the Waterfront Blues Festival and of course the Portland Saturday Market.
And Portland is rife with city parks that offer paved walking trails. One of the most popular is Laurelhurst Park in S.E. Portland. Acquired in the early 20th century from former mayor William S. Ladd, the nearly 27-acre space became the first-ever park listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Featuring paved walkways and some unpaved trails, the park is popular with walkers and joggers alike and the small, manmade Firwood Lake is a pleasant spot to see ducks.
If it’s variety you crave, Portland’s 4T experience (trail, tram, trolley, train) offers a unique journey through the city. Walkers who can manage a steep hike up from the Oregon Zoo to Portland’s highest point at Council Crest Park are then directed down to OHSU to catch the Portland Aerial Tram for some breathtaking views of the city. A trolley (streetcar) can be taken to explore downtown and the MAX light rail will deliver you back to the zoo, where you started.
While Portland may be more walkable than other cities, there are areas of town where the lack of sufficient sidewalks remains an issue. East of 82nd Ave. has historically been an especially difficult place to walk. In fact, some streets don’t have sidewalks at all, which has led to a number of pedestrian fatalities in recent years. Many people living east of 82nd are working-class families, and there’s a high concentration of the city’s children and elderly living in this area. Access to a personal vehicle isn’t always a given, making the dearth of safe walkways a major concern and an impediment to building strong neighborhoods.
Part of this problem is rooted in the origins of that area of town. East Portland used to be primarily a farmland community. By the 1950s, developers began building apartment complexes in these wide open spaces, but the roads in the area were not built with pedestrians or public transportation in mind. Efforts are being made, however. In 2012, the East Portland in Motion strategy by the Portland Bureau of Transportation was adopted by the City Council. This strategy specifically targets improving sidewalk and crosswalk conditions east of 82nd Ave., and the city has allocated $47 million to be spent there between 2012 and 2018 to do just that.
Not everyone uses only their feet when going for a walk. For people with disabilities who rely on mobility devices such as power wheelchairs, ensuring that trails and other walkways are accessible is of primary importance. However, in the past there was a reticence on the part of city administrators to label certain trails as “accessible,” due to liability concerns. As a result, there was not a lot of useful information available to hikers with disabilities about whether trails could provide access to power wheelchairs and other mobility devices.
In response to the ensuing frustration, Access Recreation was born several years ago. Its committee has worked to develop “uniform guidelines for minimum information that should be provided about hiking trails and outdoor recreational facilities, that would benefit hikers with disabilities.” The driving force behind Access Recreation has been a desire to provide people with disabilities the information about trail conditions that they need in order to be able to make their own informed decisions about whether a trail is accessible to them.
In 2014, Metro awarded Access Recreation a Nature in Neighborhoods grant that would allow them to conduct 24 trail assessments and create 12 videos. The AccessTrails.org website was a result of these efforts, and the site provides detailed photos of trail conditions, amenities, signage and other characteristics that allow anyone (with or without a disability) to learn enough about the many nature trails in the city to decide whether a particular trail is right for them.
Walking is about independence, after all. Whether we do it with our feet or with assistance from a mobility device, moving ourselves where we want to go is empowering, enjoyable and healthy for both body and mind. With more young people moving to cities, the demand for more walkable neighborhoods is only going to increase. We’re ahead of the game in many respects, but we must continue to make strides to ensure that all Portlanders have access to a brisk, safe walk.