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Building Cully Park: Social equity in America’s greenest city

It is a sunny afternoon in northeast Portland, and I am walking through a 25-acre open field, scattering seeds. The Cascade Mountains and the Columbia Gorge rise up behind me; the sun streams through billowing clouds as chains of wild geese fly in a V formation across the sky. All around me, nearly a hundred other Portlanders walk, scattering the seeds of a mix of Willamette Valley wildflowers from the Bosky Dell native plant nursery.

Verde organizer Tony DeFalco.
Verde organizer Tony DeFalco.

Most are residents of the surrounding Cully neighborhood, gathered to commemorate the restoration of this field and its future use as a neighborhood park. Our seed-scattering is just one piece of an afternoon-long Cully Park Land Blessing Ceremony – including prayers, songs, dances, and speeches by members of the community.

As it stands, there’s not much to see here at the future Cully Park, soon to emerge on this former construction waste landfill and sand-and-gravel pit mine. But the Land Blessing Ceremony represents a watershed moment in a long, participatory process of ecological restoration and greenspace development. It’s a sign that a relatively invisible community in one of America’s model cities is finally coming into its own.

Restoration has become a household word here in Portland, which New York Times columnist and Oregon native son Nicholas Kristof has called America’s environmental laboratory. But it’s relatively new to the Cully neighborhood, one of the poorest and most diverse in Oregon. Until recently, living conditions in Cully have been closer to the seldom-mentioned underbelly coined the “Other Portland” – poor, underserved and disconnected to the strong central city and revitalized core neighborhoods, and the green economy that has grown up around both.

According to the Regional Equity Atlas of the Coalition for a Livable Future, Cully suffers from poverty, lack of open space, and lack of food access. Cully is also more racially and ethnically diverse than Portland as a whole: 44.7% of Cully residents are people of color, compared to the regional average of 20.2%. The neighborhood has undergone rapid demographic change in the last several years, with a large influx of Latino immigrants. Access to public and private-sector services has not kept pace with the rest of the city.

But thanks to a strong neighborhood association and a cluster of robust community development organizations, the Cully community is now reversing its fortune through its own initiative, bolstered by innovative partnerships with city agencies, private sector firms and nonprofits.

“The energy is powerful,” relates community organizer Tony DeFalco of local social venture organization Verde. “People are fired up. Finally, something’s happening here.”

Through collaborative efforts to develop the park, improve the local housing stock, and rezone the commercial corridor for walkability and access to services, the neighborhood’s residents are creating opportunities for themselves, and expanding the definition of a green city by making sure social equity, fairness and community participation are part of the mix.

The Living Cully Ecodistrict brings together a group of community partners including Verde, NAYA, the Native American Youth and Family Center, whose Portland headquarters are located right here in the Cully neighborhood, and Hacienda, a local community development corporation (CDC) that provides affordable housing, small business services, and family support. Housing redevelopment, ecological restoration, green street improvements, and more open space acquisition are equally important items on the neighborhood agenda. With schoolchildren, homeless residents, and other community groups actively planning, restoring and building new spaces in the neighborhood, landscape architect Randolph Hester would call this process ecological democracy — participatory urban design that nourishes both people and place.

A veteran of the environmental movement who’s worked in marine conservation and land trust sectors, DeFalco has teamed with his colleagues at Verde, who run landscaping, energy retrofitting and nursery operations — all in the name of bringing economic opportunity and environmental justice to the neighborhood. Yet, to build upon this sense of community will require anticipating and responding to challenges. As Cully grows more attractive, gentrification will loom large on the horizon, as recent patterns of displacement in Portland attest.

Anticipating the threat, DeFalco and his colleagues have built local contracting, hiring and business development into the bedrock of their strategy; as the amenities multiply, so will jobs and incomes. “We need to own the park,” he asserts. “If there’s restoration, we want to put local people to work doing that. If there’s a new community center, we want to build it.”

Verde and partners are now setting their sights on a recent golf course purchase by the Trust for Public Land at the edge of the neighborhood. If some of the 100-plus acres become public space, Cully could suddenly become a park-rich community. And local residents could find opportunities for employment and small business development through restoration and other green building contracts as part of the site transformation. It’s all part of evolving shape of green in places like the Other Portland. “This is where the action is now,” says DeFalco.