September 25, 2016
Green creep: When wilderness overtakes city streets
by Zack Barowitz
The term “Green Streets” suggests a healthy Wonka-esque utopia of lush boulevards where children and cyclists may pluck ripe fruit from a carbon neutral and bee friendly landscape. The more common reality, however, evokes a dystopian cinematic terrain, perhaps Planet of the Apes.
Sidewalks, whether constructed of brick, asphalt or cement, are subject to cracks and deferred maintenance, weeds that grow in fissures and abandoned tree wells. This time of year many sidewalks have reverted (or re-verdant-ed) to a prelapsarian state of fecund wilderness.
Reversion to grassland is common in abandoned subdivisions, shopping malls, and parking lots gives these landscapes a post-apocalyptic (as well as a post-automotive) charm. But when the affected areas are functioning sidewalks, they pose serious barriers to pedestrians; especially those with physical impairments.
Sidewalks are the lifeblood of any healthy city. Aside from being transportation routes for pedestrians they are critical for storefront business who know that walk-in trade presents a severe advantage over patrons in cars who are obliged to stop and park.
And while there is a wild beauty to overgrown hard paved surfaces, in the case of sidewalks it can be too much of a good thing; and it certainly isn’t to everyone’s taste. Overgrown weeds, bushes, trees nd other plantings that sneak from private yards into the public space pose the biggest encroachments; but for sheer audacity, homeowners who extend their lawns straight over the sidewalk are nonpareil.
So what can be done?
Sidewalk weeds are the responsibility of the abutting landowner. However, as in the case with snow removal, enforcement is likely to be complaint-based. A grey area among the green areas are the tree wells, which may or may not contain trees but almost always contain weeds.
This being Portland we have an ordinance for just about everything including how high the sidewalk overhang can be from a tree on private property (7 feet), but execution is always a challenge. The de facto policy is to leave it up to the individual homeowners: If they want to remove weeds from the sidewalk and cut back the flora from their yard then great; if not, well that is OK, too.
As with street cleaning and snow removal, sidewalk weed management could really benefit from a frontage-fee system. Landowners (including non-profit tax-free organizations) would pay approximately six dollars per foot of street frontage annually (approximately $180 for an typical residential lot) which would cover all services and maintenance of the street and sidewalk in front of their property. Homeowners who currently do all their own weeding, cleaning, and shovelling would end up paying more (as would those who do nothing); but those who are now paying others for the services should see a significant savings.
Not only would a frontage fee provide an economy of scale, but we would know that the work would get done.
What is the smallest street in Portland? While there may be several metrics my vote is out on Peaks Island where the portion of Island Avenue from A Street to Willow Street is about 32 feet, 8 inches. It comes complete with street signs, desire path sidewalk, and a house whose lot line seems to stretch from curb to curb. It must be nice to have a two-corner lot and no neighbors.