Portland Walking Tours

Nature in the City: Parks and Green Spaces in Downtown Portland

March 10th, 2016

Portland is a green city. We mean that literally. Green spaces are so accessible and plentiful, even downtown, that nature feels very immediate. Parks are an integral part of our day-to-day life here … in fact there are over 275 of them – accounting for over 37,000 acres! It’s easy to find one and sometimes they are even just a few blocks away from each other. Oh how lucky we are!

Some parks have been around for a while and have interesting histories and stories attached to them. Some are newer kids on the block. Some have water features. Many have public art. Whatever your fancy, the juxtaposition of urban surroundings and green oases in Portland is just plain wonderful. Here’s the lowdown on some of our downtown favorites, and may we add that on our Best of Portland walking tour, you will see and learn much more about a number of these parks and (teaser), even see the world’s smallest park!

Chapman and Lownsdale Squares


Photo courtesy of brx0 on flickr

These two side-by-side squares in front of the Courthouse were named after notable gentlemen who settled in Portland in the mid-19th century. Back then, only men could gather in Lownsdale, while women and children were segregated to Chapman. In keeping with the gender distinction, Chapman even features all female gingko trees! And while significant statues representing war memorials and the Oregon Trail are in the squares, it is a huge elk fountain between the two that is talked about the most. Its inaccurate rendering and position blocking traffic has been the subject of much controversy. Go visit it and see what you think!

Pettygrove Park and Lovejoy Fountain Park


Photo courtesy of brx0 on flickr

These two parks, only 300 yards apart in the South Auditorium District, make up a sequence of urban renewal spaces created by the famous landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. Pettygrove Park is known for its gentle mounds of grass and shady trees covering stonework paths, and has a large copper statue of a reclining woman set in a reflecting pool. Lovejoy Fountain Park is defined by its urban feel of concrete with a fountain cascading down over irregular steps. What’s really cool is how these parks were named. As we all know, Mr. Pettygrove and Mr. Lovejoy were the two gentleman who famously flipped a penny in 1845 to determine what our fair city would be called. The exact same coin was brought out by the Oregon Historical Society in the 1960s and flipped by the mayor at the time to name these parks! History repeats itself with a twist. We love it.

Keller Fountain Park


Photo courtesy of radcliffe dacanay on flickr

This is the culminating piece to the 1960s urban renewal plan of “choreographed spaces.” It took half a million dollars to build this fountain in 1970 and it was worth it! Watching and listening to 13,000 gallons of water per minute rush over its concrete terraces and platforms is a truly awesome experience. We can easily see how the designer found inspiration from a book on the waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge. The fact that you can take it all in from so many levels and angles makes you feel a part of it and confirms that there is nothing like it in the city. Refreshing . . . magnificent . . . memorable . . . you will find your own word for it when the water turns back on sometime in March or April. And just across the street is the Keller Auditorium where you can catch a wide range of performances, from a touring Broadway show to our local ballet company. Nature and art truly go hand in hand in this part of Portland.

Tanner Springs Park


Photo courtesy of jeveleth on flickr

Wetlands in the Pearl? Whaaat? Yes, it’s true! In fact, what is now known as the Pearl District used to be a wetland and lake, and it is no accident that things have come full circle as the park was designed in 2005 to pay homage to the area’s past. Restful, reflective, serene . . . when you hear these words used to describe the space it makes sense that it would also be called “The Pearl’s Library.” And what a library — a resident heron, turtles, and other creatures inhabit the unique ecosystem complete with tall native grasses, salvaged mature trees, and babbling brooks. As you you look up and see the attractive high rises in the streets surrounding it, you realize more than ever that this is truly what nature in the city is all about.

Jamison Square


Photo courtesy of Lightpattern Productions on flickr

This square could not provide a more different experience than its neighbor Tanner Springs just a few blocks away. Especially popular with children and dubbed “The Pearl’s Playground,” it was the first park to be developed in the neighborhood in 2002 and is a lively area. In the hotter months when the cascading fountain creates an urban beach with shallow tidal pools, you will hear much laughter and see a lot of joyful activity. In typical Portland fashion, art has also been included: sculptures and four artistic totem poles that cover streetcar poles make this an all around great place to spend some time.

The North and South Park Blocks


Photo courtesy of Chris Phan on flickr

The Park Blocks are some of the oldest dedicated public spaces in the city, dating back to the 1800s when both areas were residential. The South Park Blocks, encompassing 12 linear blocks, were once surrounded by a fashionable neighborhood inhabited by wealthy owners of grand mansions. They provide a graceful green space in the middle of the Cultural District and are now surrounded by the Portland Art Museum, Oregon Historical Society, Portland Center of Performing Arts, and Portland State University. You can see some great public art including statues of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln as you stroll through them or sit on one of the many benches. The flagship market of the Portland Farmer’s Market occurs year-round at the south end of the blocks on Saturdays in the PSU area, and on Wednesdays another branch of the market takes place at the north end near Shemanski Fountain.

The North Park Blocks in the Pearl District are smaller at 5 linear blocks, and didn’t quite provide the ritz factor like their southern neighbor did in the past, but contributed something very important to the city: its first official playground! Boys and girls were separated back in 1906 … sounds familiar right? Today when you visit, you’ll enjoy a modern playground as well as a basketball and bocce court. Two sculptures that capture a sense of whimsy also are guaranteed to delight: Dog Bowl by famous Weimaraner dog photographer William Wegman has water bubbling out of it as a nod to our famous Benson Bubblers, and a 12-foot bronze Chinese sculpture of a young elephant on its father’s back is also a popular favorite.

Join our Best of Portland walking tour to learn more interesting facts about Portland and even see some of the parks we talked about in this article! Tours begin indoors under Pioneer Courthouse Square (701 SW 6th Ave) every day of the year. Click here to purchase advanced tickets!

Article by Natasha Kelly


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