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A greener future for Colwood Wetland

Thanks to for-purpose business practices and unique partnerships, North Portland's Cully community is looking a little greener.

From the road it doesn’t look like much: a shallow, wide depression, about ten feet deep, dotted with alder, maple and dogwood saplings poking through a sea of thistle and clover. But what you’re really looking at is urban restoration in progress: one of Portland’s most diverse neighborhoods is in the process of becoming greener. Welcome to the Colwood Wetland.

Along with Ecotrust researcher Brody Abbott and intern Andrew Cawley, I visited this five-acre site as guests of Verde Landscape, a dynamic restoration contractor that’s working to restore the site’s native vegetation. As part of our ongoing research project, Jobs and Equity in the Urban Forest, Ecotrust is working to understand and measure the economic impact of community-based urban forestry of the kind Verde Landscape practices.

Verde Landscape follows a social enterprise model that guarantees living wages and benefits while incorporating on-the-job training, high school equivalency, ESL training, personal finance, and computer skills. The enterprise seeks to maximize its impact by placing its more experienced crew members in living wage jobs at other firms – and even helping them start their own businesses.

Verde Landscape’s manager, Ricardo Moreno, introduces us to Colwood Wetland. The four-year restoration project is in its infancy, he explains; the first saplings were planted in December 2015, along with a mix of native shrubs. It’s the Verde Landscape crew’s job to make sure that the native plants outcompete the weeds.

We stop to chat with two of Verde Landscape’s crew members, Jony and Carlos. As it turns out, both men live just around the corner from this site in the highly diverse Cully neighborhood. Here at the wetland, they’re literally restoring nature in their own backyards.

As we walk into the site away from the road, an entirely different world opens up. Behind us, the Columbia Slough meanders gently through a dense stand of trees, its waters and streambanks home to dozens of native fish and bird species including chinook and coho salmon, cutthroat trout, great blue heron, and great horned owl. Nearby, a dense thicket of shrubs forms the nesting habitat for a population of native turtles. And in its center we find a functioning wetland already supporting a thriving population of mallard ducks. Two years ago, this place was the ninth hole of a manicured golf course. Now it’s part of the Columbia Slough ecosystem.

The restoration work on the Colwood Wetland, though important, isn’t enough. To date, the site remains inaccessible to the Cully neighborhood, due to the rumbling truck traffic of Columbia Boulevard, lack of pedestrian crossings, and a quarter mile of sidewalk-less Alderwood Road. Living Cully, a community collaboration of four nonprofits based in the Cully neighborhood, is working to improve public access to the wetland and adjoining Whitaker Ponds natural area.

The work of Verde Landscape and its partners embodies the triple-bottom-line economy Ecotrust is working to foster and create: restoring natural assets, supporting healthy communities, and building local wealth from the bottom up. These kinds of projects and partnerships are key to unlocking equitable access to natural services and their benefits in urban environments.