On Returning: Tanner Creek

A not so great photo of Tanner Springs I took in 2014, showing it maturing. This reminds me: I should get back down here soon. –Shawn 5/31/20

Any time I leave Portland for more than a couple weeks, I notice changes when I return. Most often they are subtle, like India-4-U on SE Hawthorne at 34th now charging $2 for their Friday Samosas (used to be $1.50). But sometimes they can be larger and more exciting. And what could be more exciting to the Urban Adventure League than a new park?

And this new park isn’t something carved out of an undeveloped parcel of land somewhere east of 82nd, no. This one is in the heart of the city! It’s in the old railyards area that now is “The Pearl”, where cranes work overtime building the new towers. Thankfully, some folks had the foresight to allot some of the land to parks before the developers had their way with it all. The first park that went in is Jamison Square, the popular kids wading area (in summer) at NW 10th and Johnson. Now the second park square is open.

Tanner Springs Park is at NW 10th and Marshall. It’s unassuming if you pass it quickly on the Streetcar, since it is sunken, mostly below street level. But when you get into it, it’s quite a marvel. The western half is at street level, grassy. From there it slopes down into a small lagoon with a walkway hovering over it. Surrounding the lagoon are native plantings, the type you would see along the Columbia Slough or any marshy lowlands. And into the lagoon flows a small creek, fed by a spring that resembles a manhole. This my friends, is Tanner Creek.

Well, not really. But it’s the closest approximation we’ll get in the urban core. Tanner Creek used to run through this area, starting around Canyon Rd/US 26 in the vicinity of Washington Park, tumbling down the valley of Goose Hollow, and then bending around PGE Park to hit a diagonal northeast towards the Willamette. Henry Weinhard set up his first brewery alongside this brook. But progress loomed, and just like every other urban stream in the city (with the exception of Johnson Creek in far southeast and some of the brooks running in the hills of outer SW), it got buried, diverted into pipes.

The area that Tanner Springs sits in was once Couch Lake, a shallow swampy body of water. It got filled in for the railyards. And while we’re at it, don’t forget about Guilds Lake (rhymes with “childs”) northwest of here, site of the Lewis and Clark Exposition. Also filled in for railroads and industry, but ironically, they kept the name. (Just like Swan Island isn’t actually an island anymore. In fact, Guild’s Lake got filled in by the silt and earth dredged up in the Swan Island reconstruction project of the ’20s. But I’m going on a tangent here, aren’t I?)

Tanner Springs was designed to evoke the spirit of the wetlands that the Pearl was built on. It’s a very unique park, unlike anything else in the city (or possibly the country.) Portland has its share of “wild” parks, like Forest, but these parks are basically the real deal–places relatively untouched by (white) man, or at least left fallow for decades to be naturally reclaimed by nature. This is the first time a fragile, natural ecosystem was intentionally created.

Besides the wetlands, the part that impresses me the most is the brook. It’s surrounded and guided by cobblestones, and carefully designed for the sound it makes–a babbling brook. I never thought I would see something like this in the heart of the city. And the water for the springs is fed by Tanner Creek itself! (The park is also designed to filter and reuse the rainwater that naturally will collect in it.)

The park was designed by German landscape architect Herbert Dreiseitl who specializes in incorporating water into park settings. Here’s what he has to say: “A very strong idea of our concept is, that what would happen if we peel back the skin of the city? And if we look back in time and space down and see what’s under there. And suddenly we find the old forgotten wetlands.” Very approps.

It’s a quiet peaceful place, designed for contemplation. No dogs allowed! Will the residents of the city get into it? I know I’m sold. Hopefully they’ll start “daylighting” some of our other lost streams…

7 thoughts on “On Returning: Tanner Creek

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  1. hey shawn. megan and i went to the “opening” event of this place. we love it. great concept, and it somehow manages to draw your mind away from the cement and opulence that is the pearl.we heard that there was a lot of fussing over whether this was too weird or too whatever, so the parks folks would like the city to hear positive feedback about this “experiment”, especially if one wants to see more of it. i for one, am thrilled at the idea of more parks that arent just a square patch of mowed lawn with a few trees. (then again, i would take that over cement.)oh, and we have been kinda holed up with the tail-end of The Cold, so i have been non-existent this weekend. lets pick things up next week…

  2. Wow, I’m surprised y’all are so positive about the place. Perhaps it’s just because it was after dark, but when mykle and I discovered it one evening while waiting for a rock show to start at Slabtown up the street, we were both kind of disturbed.Don’t get me wrong, it’s better than no park, I guess. It just seems so… contrived, and precious. The way they’ve made it look old and worn, artificially aged, and the postmodern style of it.I don’t hate it, it’s just that it sort of gives me the willies. But this is just par for the course for that whole neighborhood. Changing super fast, and all for the benefit of rich yuppies…

  3. Steev, you have to realize that I’m a sucker for such things as bringing back a creek (however limited) to a block of an urban neighborhood! Yes, it’s contrived, but every formally planned park is contrived–man is creating an artificial environment. Some do it better than others. Some designs become accepted over time. Laurelhurst Park is totally contrived, though people feel its a natural environment. I do agree that Tanner Creek suffers from postmodernism (which I’m not particularly fond of), but that’s what all those high-paid architects are doing these days. I also agree that it matches the character of the monied Pearl, but if it was in another ‘hood I think it would work. As for its nighttime creepiness, I was just over there (it’s 7pm) and it didn’t seem so bad…Jon, glad you liked it. I also like how Tanner Springs draws your head away from the ‘tude of the Pearl. It’s sorta weird, the Pearl now contains some of my fave areas for mid-day downtown loungin’: Tanner, Jamison Square, and all the spots around Union Station. Now that’s what’s creepy!And I thought you already had The Cold! What gives? Mainline that vitamin C!

  4. A nice post and i'll have to remember to check out the park in more detail the next time i'm down there. Where did you hear/read that bit from Herbert Dreiseitl, the architect?

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