Barbara Walker | Portland, Oregon | 1935-2014

Connection was everything to the late Barbara Walker (1935-2014), one of Portland’s most ardent and influential champions of parks and open spaces and the walking and bike trails between them. A native Portlander, Walker got her start in 1968 as a parks activist in 1968 trying to stop a development by her home on the edge of Marquam Gulch. For 15 years, she and her neighbors lobbied, bought land, and ultimately raised $1.6 million to dedicate the Marquam Nature Reserve in 1983.

Over 40 years, with similar tenacity, Walker played pivotal roles in creating amenities like Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Pioneer Courthouse Square, and the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade. But as a cofounder of the 40-Mile Loop Trust, Walker exerted her widest impact, tirelessly advocating for  John Charles Olmsted’s 1904 vision of a connected, city-wide parks system. The “loop” now features more than 200 miles of connected trails and bikeways.


April 28, 2003 | The Oregonian
By: Randy Gragg 

The path Barbara Walker has traveled from selfish NIMBY to selfless advocate can be hiked and biked through virtually every part of the city.

It begins in the Marquam Nature Park, where her fight against an apartment complex in the ravine below her house grew into 70 acres of trails and trees five minutes from city center. It travels the 40-Mile Loop, the trail system she helped realize, which has now grown more than 150 miles long and counting. It passes over the bricks she sold to build Pioneer Courthouse Square and across the Eastbank Esplanade for which she lobbied 20 years.

The next trail blazed by Walker may be through the air on the proposed aerial tram between the North Macadam District and Oregon Health & Science University. A staunch advocate of the controversial project, Walker argues that it will reduce traffic on Southwest Terwilliger Parkway and link her beloved Marquam Hill trails to a future riverfront park.

Today, a major symposium that Walker helped to organize on the famed landscape planners, the Olmsted brothers, begins at Portland State University. If the Olmsteds are rightly called the fathers of Portland's park system, Walker can be described as the midwife. Few people have been as pivotal to building new parks and trails in the metropolitan region as Walker, and none of the others served exclusively as a volunteer.

"So many people involved with parks have titles," says Mike Lindberg, who worked closely with Walker during his 17 years as the city's parks commissioner. "Barbara is an inherent, natural part of the parks system itself."

The first park

Now 67, Walker says her advocacy began in 1968 "totally selfishly." She rallied her neighbors to stop a large apartment building planned for a cherished piece of undeveloped property near her Portland Heights home. Figuring their chances were better as advocates rather than opponents, Walker and her allies quickly conceived of a park that would include the property. Soon her living room was covered with maps that linked every undeveloped parcel in the area from Council Crest to the base of Terwilliger Boulevard.

From grandmaster chess moves to Girl Scout sales of pro-park buttons, the group acquired land and raised money. Friends recall how Walker even turned an ice storm to her advantage. For a critical state-level appraisal required for federal money, Walker needed an endorsement from influential Glenn Jackson, the citizen chairman of the Highway Department and thus head of the Oregon state park system. Unable to get him to return her phone calls, Walker trudged through a storm that had shut the city down. She knew the workaholic Jackson would still be in his office -- and likely alone.

Jackson authorized the appraisal, helping Walker and her cohorts launch a $1.6-million campaign that paid for most of Marquam Nature Park, finally dedicated after 15 years of work in 1983.

"Barbara epitomizes the phrase, endless pressure, endlessly applied," observes her longtime ally, urban naturalist Mike Houck. "Doggedness and persistence are her hallmark."

Finding a calling

Born Barbara Farrow, Walker grew up in a 1910 cottage half a mile from where she lives today, which, in turn, is mere blocks from where two of her three sons live now. She describes her upbringing as "not poor but not wealthy." She attended The Catlin Gabel School and Smith College on scholarships.

Graduating in the late '50s, she recalls difficulty finding a satisfying job. She had lived for a year in Geneva, Switzerland, spoke fluent French and had written a thesis on the emerging European Common Market, but she didn't know shorthand and couldn't type rapidly. Washington, D.C., and Montreal beckoned. But as a self-confessed nester who hates moving, the attraction back to Portland proved too strong.

She worked odd jobs, and describing herself as "old for the time to be unmarried," she dated and became a society columnist for the Oregon Journal. Stretching items about socialites into digressions on history and women in politics, she titled her column "Meanderings." On a blind date to a Leonard Bernstein concert at Portland's exposition center, she met Wendell Walker. They got stuck in a traffic jam on the way, but hit it off.

"We went out every night for the next year, and we never went to a movie," Wendell Walker recalls of their courtship. "The only thing about her that has changed is her hair got gray. She's always been go-go."

"It was the wisest decision I ever made in my life," she says of her 41-year marriage. Her husband's unstinting support and his success in a logging and lawncare equipment business gave her the freedom to volunteer.

"He reinforces everything I've tried to do," she says. And then she notes an important line item in any public advocate's budget: "And he's paid my parking tickets for 40 years."

The Olmsted vision

During the campaign for Marquam Park, Doug Bridges, then the Portland parks superintendent, gave Walker a copy of the Olmsted 1903 "Report to Park Board." Backed by a two-generation family legacy of urban planning and park design stretching from Manhattan's Central Park to the Stanford University campus, the Olmsteds created a blueprint for how parks could shape Portland's future.

Like many before and after her, Walker was captivated by the Olmsteds' clear, comprehensive vision for everything from how roads should be designed to what kind of people should be on park boards (women got a strong vote).

But most of all, the Olmsteds' argument that a connected parks system is manifestly more useful than parks in isolation, "just rang my bell."

In 1981, two years before the Marquam park was dedicated, Walker turned to what she calls "the southwest sector" of her next campaign. Walker recalls a Parks Bureau employee plotting the brothers' planned connections on a map and measuring them. The 40-Mile Loop was born as she and like-minded advocates formed the 40-Mile Loop Land Trust. With the same chessmaster moves used in the Marquam campaign, the group acquired land and easements now connecting 150 near-contiguous miles of greenway trails.

But, most important, there was strategy.

"Early on, you have to institutionalize the idea," Walker says. "Get it in every comprehensive plan there is."

Lindberg, for instance, recalls Walker's successful effort to get the entire Central Eastside added to the 1988 Central City Plan. It was an early move in Barbara Walker's plan to build the Eastbank Esplanade.

"Barbara's always been mindful that you can win the battle and lose the war," says Ethan Seltzer, director of Portland State University's Institute for Metropolitan Studies, and a key player in some of the loop's major wins while working for Lindberg. "That's what's given her such incredible credibility: She never sacrifices the long-term vision for the short-term gain."

A nose for common interests

An avid user of the trails she advocates, Walker nevertheless has an allergy to bee stings that could kill her in minutes. She abandoned shots that could build her resistance because they took too much time. Yet, few friends fail to remark on her near-superhuman patience for sitting through arcane planning meetings and winning over people who disagree with her.

"She has this uncanny ability to read between the lines and articulate the common interests that will bring people around," says Zari Santner, Portland's current parks director. Walker's eloquent speeches on how the Eastbank Esplanade would bring hundreds of thousands of people into the loop, Santner recalls, helped bring the project back from death many times.

Not every stand she's taken has ended in handshakes. Her support for the controversial Oregon Holocaust Memorial in Washington Park, she concedes, "made me more enemies than I made friends anywhere else." Her successful charge to build a paved, handicap-accessible path to the top of Powell Butte -- a year before Americans With Disabilities Act would require such trails -- was bitterly opposed by orienteering enthusiasts demanding the butte remain trailless.

Early on, Walker and Houck saw the powerful benefits of using the 40-Mile Loop to link urban natural areas with trails. Yet they have sparred on issues ranging from how close trails should be to wildlife habitats to property rights over river setbacks in North Macadam.

"There are some places that just shouldn't have trails," Houck says, adding that his good friend "believes in voluntary cooperation efforts that I think are naive."

"I'm the stick," Houck says. "Barb's the carrot."

To Walker, respect for property rights is essential to building consensus. Connectivity is a matter of social equity, drawing everybody, "whether you own bank or dime," into the park system. And habitat preservation, to Walker, can take unusual forms.

Walker, for instance, sits on the board of Portland Aerial Transportation Inc. Her support of the tram derives from her college days in Switzerland. Riding high above villages in the Alps, she was amazed at how "the character of everything below was preserved."

Contrary to those living below the proposed route of Portland's tram, she thinks the device will have the same preserving effect on the neighborhood and Terwilliger Boulevard -- which she takes care to note is "the only boulevard we have actually designed by Olmsted himself."

"I am for connectedness -- not just literal, but psychological and social," she says. "It's as wonderful to see the backbone of the city as it is a blue heron rookery."

Walker has made sure that Portland has both.

Article courtesy of The Oregonian/Oregonlive, where Randy Gragg wrote from 1989-2007. He is now executive director of the Portland Parks Foundation.