Tanner Springs Park is the expression of a Portland community’s sense of place through reconnections with nature and history. A contaminated city block is transformed into a tranquil park with oak-prairie and recirculating wetland. The endangered oak savanna and upland prairie habitat of the Willamette Valley with its natural sloping characteristics to lowland wetlands are recreated here. Oregon White Oaks dot the upper area, grading down below street level to a pond. Streams of water recirculate between the pond and upland pool. The park is a sustainable closed bioswale where rainwater from sidewalks and streets filter within its boundaries. This experimental wetland’s success relies on people to maintain it and keep water contaminants to a minimum.
The focal point of the park is a wetland pond and art wall. A meandering boardwalk connects two sides of the park and a path to the prairie. The art wall, designed with undulating reclaimed train rails, is a historical reminder of the area’s railroad use. Cobalt-blue art glass panels, hand-painted by Herbert Dreiseitl’s “abstractions of lost wildlife,” are cut into the rail ties. Paths of basalt blocks reclaimed from ship ballasts and street cobbles create textural paths through oak-prairie habitat and over waterways. The coalescing of art and nature is so inspirational; people are drawn to the space for performances, weddings, photography, and nature viewing.
This wetland footprint is a microcosm of what the Willamette Valley was before the settlers came to Oregon. Tanner Springs Park sits where a wetland and lake fed by a creek meandering down from the South West hills.
We could not tell Tanner Springs Park’s story without paying tribute to the Kalapuya people, who were the stewards of the oak-prairie landscape that nurtured this area for 10,000 years. Their use of fire and agricultural practices maintained the open habitat for the oak-prairie plants and animals to thrive in. Plants such as camas, wapato, and oak acorns are only a few of the more than fifty plants they harvested. With pressure from settlers, the Kalapuya rapidly declined from disease and displacement. The oak-prairie declined in tandem. Today fire suppression, wetland drainage, development, agriculture, and exotic invasive plants have reduced the habitat to less than 10% in the Willamette Valley.
The plant blooms at Tanner Springs are our seasonal reminders of the Kalapuya’s love of the land. In spring, camas blooms punctuate bright blue flowers across the prairie. In summer, wapato throws white blooms with arrowhead leaves up from the pond. In fall, oak acorns distributed by birds and squirrels pop up in odd yet perfect places all across the prairie. Along with other tribes, they were the quintessential sustainable stewards who we have to thank for the beauty here.