Multipurpose Public Space

The Historical Problem

The Pearl District in downtown Portland, Oregon is an interesting place of old and new. It was once only a creek and lake, fed by small streams from the nearby hills in southwest Portland. In these old times, the forested hillsides provided natural filtration for this water before it reached the downtown Willamette River (Health Parks, Healthy Portland, 2013).

As development occurred, a tannery was built in the area around 1845, and with it came the renaming of the creek to Tanner. The creek continued to flow into the shallow Couch lake, which is still seen near the surrounding Tanner Springs Park today. However as Portland expanded in the 19th century, the creek was rerouted underground to the Willamette River and has remained unseen ever since. This was the case because many warehouses, rail yards and shops sprang up in the area, demanding real estate (Health Parks, Healthy Portland, 2013). 

Where water was once running freely, and with adequate absorption and filtration into the ground, this new found development radically changed that way of water movement in the city. This is commonly seen throughout most modern day cities and is something many are now starting to address because of the excess runoff pollution and flooding events. 

Closed loop water system (Healthy Parks, Healthy Portland, 2013)

Closed loop water system (Healthy Parks, Healthy Portland, 2013)

Solution and Technologies Involved

Through the Pearl District redevelopment initiative in the 1990s, the emphasis was on a network of green spaces for the neighborhood and overall well being of the downtown. The initiative also hoped to counteract many industrial brownfields and water issues facing the city. in 1998, this holistic concept was approved by the city, initiating new green space development projects that Portland is well known for today. 

Atelier Dreiseitl, a renowned German design firm , and Greenworks, P.C., a local landscape design firm, were selected to put forth a design for the Tanner Springs area (Tanner Springs Park, 2013). This place had been designated because of its high industrial use, water issues in the area, as well as its history of being an important water source previously. Throughout 2003, there was a series of public community workshops, so the design teams could draw input from the local public. To tie in with local history, they named it after the local creek and tannery that once inhabited the location, as well as taking some materials from nearby to use as features in the new site. They used 368 railroad tracks and 99 pieces of fused glass insets with images of local flora and fauna as a permanent exhibit off to one side (Health Parks, Healthy Portland, 2013).

 The Pearl District has now taken on an urban renaissance reinventing how we incorporate nature into our modern lives and also how it can purify our landscapes in ecological ways. “Check out the new Tanner Springs Park, a sort of cross between an Italian piazza and a weedy urban wetland with lots of benches perched beside gently running streams” (Laskin, 2007).

The park showcases a closed-loop water system as well, using organic filtration, a biotope segment and ultra violet screening. It slopes downward with an oak savannah prairie with a native grassland, a wetland, and final a collecting pond for any remaining runoff (Tanner Springs Park, 2013). These trees also include Oregon Oak, Red Alder and Maple, salvaged in the region and planted as mature trees (Johns, 2010). 

From the park sign: "All the rainwater that falls within the curb-line of the park is collected and treated within the park - a first for a Portland park. Rather than channeling the storm water to storm drains in the street, all of it is filtered within the park. an ultra violet light system is used, as well as natural soil filtration as the water runs "downstream" through the runnels. No chemicals are used to treat the water in this closed system” (Health Parks, Healthy Portland, 2013).

The project also consists of many recycled and natural materials, such as old Basalt Belgian Blocks (previously cobbling the streets of Portland), beds of mahonia, curved metal benches, all to connect back to a more industrial time this place has been through (Easton, 2007).


Is it replicable in different places where the same underlying problem exists?

There are exceeding problems with storm water in our cities today. Current infrastructure cannot manage levels of water from certain storm events we are starting to experience. This is a clever and good use of green space to tackle the problem. It seems to be serving for entertainment and satisfaction of the community’s need for green space as well as dealing with storm water overflow issues. This will increasingly become more commonplace as cities start to think more about what happened with Hurricane Sandy and Irene over the last few years. 


The main learning objectives?

I think one of the main learning objectives here is that industrial brownfields can be successfully developed for new uses while also maintaining the historical integrity of a place. As old industrial cities begin to reinvent themselves, their working communities, and how their city is built around existing infrastructure, it will be valuable to assess how old infrastructure can be used for purifying our environments as well. 


Public Acceptance of Project

The project has a nice presence, in the center of a more developed area in the Pearl District. Most people I talked to in the area were appreciative for the space, both for its recognition of dealing with storm water but also for providing a unique kind of green space in the area. It is definitely utilized, and has also enhanced the space from what it once was. Portland really is recognized for this type of development, and now I know why after seeing it first hand. 


Financial Assessment

In less than an acre large, 0.92 acres, this park still demands a nice presence. It also was recognized with these awards, ULI Open Space Award finalist 2012, ASLA Oregon Honor Award 2007 (Tanner Springs Park, 2013). It cost a total of $3.6 million dollars to develop (Wang, 2012).


Easton, Valeria. Nature, Artfully Embraced. The Seattle Times. 2006. <>.

Health Parks, Healthy Portland. Portland Parks and Recreation. Tanner Springs Park. 2013. <>. 

Johns, Anna (July 29, 2005). "Amid condos, a spot to contemplate". Portland Tribune (Pamplin Media Group). Retrieved February 27, 2010.

Laskin, David. In Portland, Ore., Where Trees and Imagination Are Evergreen.March 16, 2007. <>.

Tanner Springs Park. Landezine Projects. 2013.<

Wang, Lucy. Landscape Voice. <>.