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Forest Park fallacy

Boosters' claim of 'largest forested city park' is long outdated
by: David Plechl, Portland’s Forest Park still earns many superlatives; it’s just hard to call it the “biggest.”

Next time you take those out-of-town relatives hiking in Forest Park and you're about to tell them Forest Park is the largest city park in the country - stop. It isn't. And you probably suspected as much all along.

The Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence has just released its national survey of city parks. Portland does very well in a number of categories. But Forest Park is far from the country's largest city park - and is not even the 'largest forested natural area within city limits in the United States,' as Portland Parks and Recreation claims on its Web site.

Forest Park is the 14th largest city park, No. 10 if the list is restricted to municipally owned parks (as opposed to state, county and national parks within city boundaries).

And as for the city's Parks and Rec claim, well, that may depend on what you classify as forest. But even with the strictest interpretation, Forest Park loses out to Jefferson Memorial Forest in Louisville, Ky. (a johnny-come-lately city park, mind you, called Jefferson County Memorial Forest until Louisville merged with its surrounding county in 2003), and Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis (which has the nerve to allow a golf course amid its forest).

Forest Park as No. 1? 'That urban myth goes back to 1948,' said Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence. 'It was the largest park, but not anymore. But don't feel bad, because people in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park think it's still the largest park, and that was true until 1896.'

Now when it comes to dog facilities, Portland truly can claim top status. Not only does Portland rank first in the country with 5.8 dog parks per 100,000 residents, its competitors are barely within barking distance. San Francisco ranks second with just a little more than half of the dog parks per capita we've got.

Dog parks are the fastest-growing issue in urban parks, according to Harnik. 'The whole dog park thing is brand-new. This is like racing out of the starting gate,' he said.

Baseball, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be getting much of a lead here. Portland ranks second to last among the 17 cities in its population-density class for baseball diamonds per capita. Thank goodness for Dallas, the only city on the list below us. Football country.

Portland ranks second in its class for the number of park district soccer fields per capita, ninth for playgrounds per capita, and right in the middle of a large pack with its six golf courses.

Overall, the Portland park scene rates very high, according to Harnik. We're second in our density class for park land as a percentage of city land area. Harnik said the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade has become influential among park planners, with talks of floating walkways achieving buoyancy in planning sessions around the country.

And though it happened 28 years ago, Harnik says the city's replacement of Harbor Drive with Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park was something of a watershed in park land history.

'It has made people sit up and take notice,' Harnik said. 'Putting in a highway alongside a river is not the only way to design your city.'

Harnik said Portland also receives high marks for the city's use of volunteers in its parks.

'Some cities are very reluctant to get too involved with volunteers,' he said. 'But so many people in Portland are environmentally oriented and want to help, and the parks departments gives them a way of doing that.'

Now, maybe one of those volunteers could get to work making a clarification on the parks bureau's Web site.

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