Speaker: Connections key to greener cities

Park Foundation awards nearly $80,000 to local jurisdictions at luncheon

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



Mike Houck

Growing a greener future is a matter of making connections.

“Too often, folks think of nature as being out there, 50 miles away,” said urban naturalist and educator Mike Houck during his keynote address to a Parks Foundation of Clark County luncheon Thursday.

Decades ago, when Houck first got busy with environmental and conservation issues in the Portland area, conventional thinking about links between nature and cities was that there weren’t any; the urban growth boundary was there to keep density in and greenery out, period.

That can lead to a malady called “nature deficiency syndrome,” Houck said, with symptoms such as children who are incapable of play without electrical sockets nearby.

Such thinking has changed radically. Nowadays, a livable city means a green city, with easy access to nature in every neighborhood and plenty of provision for non-electrical, human-powered play. And Houck has gone on to work with the Audubon Society of Portland and OMSI and to found the Urban Greenspaces Institute and the Coalition for a Livable Future. He is the co-author of “Wild in the City: A Guide to Portland’s Natural Areas,” which includes a 50-page chunk about Vancouver and Clark County, he said.

Houck’s talk was a quick rundown of regional efforts to bolster urban greenery and create “the best park system in the world” — a system that spans the Columbia River so every park and trail in Clark County is recognized as part of a rich, wide-ranging network. What started with fact-finding missions to sprawling projects like the East Bay Regional Park District, east of San Francisco, has blossomed into millions of dollars in voted bond sales and thousands of additional acres for parks in Oregon, he said. There’s also an ambitious bistate regional parks and trails plan by an organization called the Intertwine Alliance, pulling together parks and conservation officials from both sides of the Columbia River.

One of the Intertwine Alliance’s new projects is a blog that you can check out at The Nature of Cities.

Human touch

Little progress that’s been made on urban greenspaces in the Portland-Vancouver region would have been accomplished without human connections, Houck said.”The most significant thing is the people,” he said — recalling many greenspace visions and plans developed over Blue Heron ales at the Bridgeport Brew Pub in Portland.

The rest of the Parks Foundation program drove home his point. For one thing, there were awards for three local parks champions who’ve made Clark County a greener place:

• Don Cannard, a volunteer who spearheaded the creation of the Chinook Trails Association and a “vast array” of other trails projects, won a Leading Eagle award for his leadership.

• Vicki Vanneman, a Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation staffer for 10 years and 32-year veteran of the field, won the Tributary Award for her commitment to addressing the needs of the underserved and her advocacy in securing funding for youth, teen and senior services and programs.

• Milada Allen, longtime leader of the Felida Neighborhood Association, won the V-Formation Flyer award for extraordinary volunteerism on behalf of Felida and sister neighborhood groups. Allen said she didn’t realize until later in life that her childhood park was really an educational laboratory — the place where she and her young friends learned organization, communication and cooperation.

All of the winners paid tribute to the award namesake, Florence B. Wager, who is fighting cancer but was on hand for the ceremony.

“Endless pressure, endlessly applied,” is how Parks Foundation executive director Cheri Martin summed up Wager’s influence on the local parks scene. “She is unfailingly polite. She is also unrelenting.”

“I could never receive a more personally meaningful recognition than one named for Florence B. Wager,” Vanneman said.

Unmet needs

Finally, just under $80,000 in grants was distributed to local jurisdictions by the Parks Foundation. This was against a backdrop of deep budget cuts, layoffs and departures across all parks and recreation agencies. Pete Mayer, director of Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation for three years, will step down next week and his interim replacement, hired last week, changed his mind and turned down the job. That surprising news emerged hours before the luncheon, and Mayer joked that his replacement would opt for something easier, like tolling the Columbia River Crossing bridge.

“To say that this year has been a rough year would be a bit of an understatement,” Martin said.

“It is painfully obvious that … there are so many unmet needs in our communities,” said Washougal Mayor Sean Guard.

“You know it’s old equipment if I grew up playing on it,” said Camas Mayor Scott Higgins, regarding a new playground grant for Forest Home Park.

The Parks Foundation’s Community Grants program, aimed at backfilling community parks needs that public budgets can’t cover, started in 2009 and has been growing rapidly ever since; this year’s $80,000 in grants more than doubles last year’s total. Here are this year’s grant award winners:

• Battle Ground: Summer playground program, $6,000.

• Battle Ground: Establishment of a parks volunteer program, $2,000.

• Camas: New playground equipment for Forest Home Park, $15,000.

• Ridgefield: New trail signage, $2,500.

• Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation: “Everybody Plays!” recreation scholarship program, $13,563.

• Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation: Evergreen Park summer playground program, $11,000.

• Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation: Design and printing of Lewis River-Vancouver Lake Waterways Trail Guide, $10,000.

• Washougal: Cedar View trail construction project, $2,920.

• Yacolt: Skate park phase one, $16,760.

In addition to individual gifts, this year’s grants were underwritten by a number of companies and sponsors, including Waste Connections, Riverview Community Bank, Tidewater, United Way, Veolia, Audigy Group, Banner Bank, Northwest Playground Equipment and the Murphy family.

Learn more about the Parks Foundation.