Opposition to South Park Blocks Plan, Green Loop, dominates council hearing

Posted by on July 16th, 2021 at 12:28 pm

Existing conditions. (Photo and graphic: Portland Parks)

A plan to update the South Park Blocks and establish it as a key segment of the future Green Loop was roundly rejected by many downtown residents at a city council hearing Thursday. The opposition came after more than month of misleading and false statements circulating online about the suspected impacts of the plan and the alleged intentions of the Portland Parks & Recreation bureau.

Still Time to Comment

Council will accept written feedback about this plan until July 21st at 9:30 am. Visit the project website for more information and send emails to the Council Clerk at cctestimony@portlandoregon.gov.

The South Park Blocks Master Plan would impact 12 blocks of a linear park bounded by the Park Avenue couplet on the east and west and from SW Jackson near I-405 and Salmon Street to the north. The master plan is high-level, conceptual document that comes with zero dedicated funding and that includes zero completed projects or designs that are set-in-stone. Anything built from this plan would come before council and would have its own public outreach process. And according to Parks Commissioner Rubio and her staff the plan would not lead to removal of any existing trees.

Despite these facts, a vast majority of the nearly 60 people who testified Thursday urged council to vote no on the plan. Almost all of them said they’d lived on or nearby the South Park Blocks for many years. Their top concerns were that the plan would: result in more people using the park; mean less green space downtown; create a loss of what they see as their backyard and personal “oasis”; siphon money away from what they see as more important needs (even though the plan costs nothing); and that it would lead to a much busier corridor and become overrun with bike and scooter users whose disrespectful behavior would pose a threat to public safety.

At the outset of the meeting, Commissioner Rubio attempted to throw water on a fire she knew was about to start: “I know there has been some confusion and different opinions about this, so I want to be clear, passing the master plan does not mean trees are going to be cut down. Rather, the plan outlines a forward-looking tree succession strategy to guide replacing trees when they naturally reach the end of their lifespans.”

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Mike Lindberg testifying via Zoom on Thursday.

Rubio had to address the tree issue because of false claims of “mass tree deaths” spread by many people and groups online. Among them was former Portland City Council member Mike Lindberg. His May 31st Facebook post shows many large trees with yellow caution tape tied around them and a caption of, “In a nod to Portland history the South Parks [sic] Block Master Plan brings back Stump Town; the trees with yellow ribbons are destined for the wood pile.” The post went viral with over 200 shares and 340 comments. Unfortunately it’s extremely misleading. Not only is Lindberg wrong about his claim that the trees will be cut (they won’t be), but the tape was the work of an activist group — not the City of Portland.

The Green Loop, a conceptual idea that was formally adopted by council as part of the Central City 2035 Plan in 2018, also loomed large in the testimony. Also looking to set a tone before opposing voices could speak was Senior Parks Planner Tate White. In her presentation of the plan she pointed out that a new Green Loop path would only significantly impact one block of the 12-block park.

Many of those who spoke out against the plan think bicycle users are incompatible with the park because of the collision risks they’d create. They also oppose the diagonal path for this one block — which is ironic because Parks proposed this design specifically to improve safety. “We want to support it [Green Loop path] happening safely rather than pretend it will not happen, despite [this diagonal route] being an obvious desire line,” said White, during her presentation.

“If you do anything to disturb this urban sanctuary, the Downtown Neighborhood Association and the residents of downtown will not be happy.”
— Darlene Garrett

“The DNA represent a small cadre of their leadership who have quite honestly misled, lied, and intimidated others in order to try to get their NIMBY wishes accomplished.”
— Andrew VanDerZanden, citizen advisory committee member

Denyse McGriff, president of the board for the Architectural Heritage Center and an Oregon City commissioner, testified that, “These blocks are like pearls in a necklace, you can’t just take them apart and still have a necklace.” McGriff also opposed the plan on grounds that, “The Park Blocks are a place of contemplation and are devoid of visual clutter, so why do we need to add more stuff?”

This concern that the plan would make the Park Blocks too busy, and that “activation” of space is inherently a bad thing, was very prevalent among those against the plan. So too was the idea that most bicycle riders are reckless and their presence in the park would have terrible safety consequences.

The block where a new path would be constructed.

One person testified that, “The South Park Blocks were never intended to support vehicle traffic like bicycles in the first place. Such a change would only increase the possibility of accidents for all the users of the park; but especially for older individuals or people with children or pets as they enter or leave the park, so why not find another more suitable alternative for bicyclists?”

Fears of more bicycle riders in the park has animated members of the Downtown Neighborhood Association for years now. The DNA is now leading the fight against the plan and likely helped turn out many of the opposing voices on Thursday.

Andrew VanDerZanden was on the plan’s citizen advisory committee and said in his testimony that the DNA has not acted in good faith since the start of the public process. He spoke of CAC meetings with, “Numerous and constant attempts by the DNA’s representative who dominated conversation, prevented other participants from having their voices heard, and actually breaking rules of decorum.” VanDerZanden said within a few meetings he realized the DNA wasn’t interested in productive dialogue and “That they had come in with an agenda from the outset and they were going to do whatever it took to prevent any changes from being made to the South Park Blocks.”

“The DNA does not represent the whole community,” VanDerZanden told city council, “They represent a small cadre of their leadership who have quite honestly misled, lied, and intimidated others in order to try to get their NIMBY wishes accomplished.”

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A woman who lives in the South Waterfront District was concerned that the plan, “Changes the fundamental character of the Park Blocks from an urban oasis of serenity and beauty to a busy hub of activity and transit.”

“It’s bad enough with pedestrians playing cat-and-mouse with two to three lanes of incoming traffic,” said another person, who described himself as an “avid cyclist”. “With cyclists who are notoriously averse to yielding to traffic or pedestrians — myself included — This will make a very dangerous series of crossings.”

One of the lead organizers of opposition to the plan, the former newspaper reporter Fred Leeson who wrote the misleading “Assault on the South Park Blocks” blog post said, “The bicycle lobby has little interest in the park, other than creating in invasive bicycle route.”

Local resident (nearly every person in opposition stated that they live on or very nearby the park) Robert Wright said that, “Any modifications should be calming, not activating… bicycles, skateboards, e-scooters and electric bicycles will certainly not be calming for pedestrians and those with mobility issues,” she said. “A stroll on the Waterfront Park Trail and the Eastbank Esplanade is a look into this future.”

Resident Darlene Garrett voiced fear that the Park Blocks would attract fast bike riders: “I use the park blocks every day, and I rarely see children or families riding bikes in or around the park. Most of the bike riders that I see living downtown are serious bike riders, they’re commuters. I absolutely believe that there should be a commuter route, and that should not be the park blocks.” (Garrett must not have heard Parks staffer Tate White explain at the outset of the meeting that protected bike lanes already exist and/or are being built on nearby SW Broadway and Fourth Avenue “for faster moving cyclists.”)

“If you do anything to disturb this urban sanctuary,” Garrett warned. “The Downtown Neighborhood Association and the residents of downtown will not be happy.”

Veteran active transportation activist Doug Klotz responded to Garrett’s testimony. “She said that she didn’t see any families and children riding here, and that’s exactly what the Green Loop will provide,” Klotz said. “It provides a space for slow-speed biking, protected space where you won’t be hit by cars. And people who want to ride their bikes faster, they’ll probably use the other routes… Nobody wants to be dodging children going slowly, and most cyclists have a sense of responsibility.”

But Klotz was a lone voice of support for the idea that people can ride bicycles responsibly.

Sue Dell said, “I don’t think it makes it at all possible to mix bicycles and pedestrians. If you look at the East Side Esplanade… I’ve actually seen children hit by bicycles on the waterfront.”

“The parks blocks are very Eurocentric, the narrative is very Eurocentric, very linear… They are for the carriages of the queens and kings to bring their people through.”
— Judy BlueHourse Skelton, Nez Perce/Cherokee tribal member

And Janet Van Wess simply could not fathom a Green Loop path that would be pleasant for everyone. “One of the renderings shows what I assume is a mom walking with her preschool-aged children on the Green Loop perhaps teaching them how to ride a bike,” Van Wess said dismissively. “This would never be able to happen on the real Green Loop, especially as the downtown loop will be treated as a highway for cyclists, scooters and one-wheelers, not as a wheeled tootle through the park.”

One of the people who spoke against the plan is the descendent of one of Portland’s earliest leaders, Josiah Failing. Failing was Portland’s fourth mayor in the 1850s and his great, great grandson Bill Failing said he showed up to represent history. “We have deep family roots here,” Failing said, “I want us to ask ourselves this important question: Does history matter?”

Thomas Wray said, “The South Park Blocks have been my family park for 6 generations”.

But Nez Perce/Cherokee tribal member, Portland State University Indigenous Nations Studies Professor, and South Park Blocks Plan Community Advisory Committee member Judy BlueHorse Skelton said there’s a deeper historical context to consider when we think about the past and future of the park blocks.

“We can’t look at the pictures [of the park] without wondering, where are the indigenous people?” Skelton shared in her testimony. “The park was created at a time when over half of the nation’s population was not participating, were not there, were not at the table. The parks blocks are very Eurocentric, the narrative is very Eurocentric, very linear… They are for the carriage of the queens and kings to bring their people through.”

After Skelton’s words, it was quite jarring to hear the leader of the opposition, Mike Lindberg, say a few hours later, “We don’t think that we really need more scooters and electric bikes to honor the indigenous population.”

While opposition dominated the meeting, there were several notable exceptions. Portland architect and founder of the Next Portland blog Iain MacKenzie used to work at a cafe on the South Park Blocks in the early 2000s. “If there was a plan to harm the park blocks, I’d be here in opposition,” he said, before expressing dismay at the dishonest campaign around tree removal.

Cathy Tuttle, a former parks planner for the City of Seattle said she moved to downtown Portland recently specifically because it allows her to grow old gracefully. “I don’t want to live in a city that forces me to drive to meet my daily needs. My e-bike, keeps me independently mobile… I love the idea of a people-first, Portland Green Loop downtown. This plan is a start.”

Council will likely vote on the plan this coming Wednesday July 21st at their 9:30 am meeting. See the agenda item here.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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Alex
Subscriber
Alex

The similarities between this and MTB access to FP still doesn’t cease to amaze me. False environmental narratives, concerns for users’ safety, claiming the current use of the land is beyond reproach and claiming it is a “sanctuary” the way it is, implying it would cease to be if bicycles had greater access. There is a reason bicycle use is down in Portland and it is exactly because of these tactics from people that won’t be around too much longer. They aren’t saving us from ourselves, they are tying us to poor decisions their generation made and won’t even start listening, let alone accepting, new ideas that serve the next generation in a better way.

Cyclekrieg
Guest
Cyclekrieg

And the fact that Mike Lindberg is involved.

Mike Quigley
Guest
Mike Quigley

I’m amazed that “it’s part of the intergalactic Communist conspiracy” didn’t come up as an argument against.

squareman
Subscriber

Oh, the irony doesn’t drip off of this statement, it flows like a fossil fuel waterfall:

“The South Park Blocks were never intended to support vehicle traffic like bicycles in the first place. Such a change would only increase the possibility of accidents for all the users of the park;”

So much concern over the use of lightweight, slow-moving, two-wheeled vehicles with zero concern over the multi-ton behemoths that could actually kill them and maim people with far more probability.

squareman
Subscriber

Oh and this one:

Thomas Wray said, “The South Park Blocks have been my family park for 6 generations”.

I’ll fix that for him:

My family has enjoyed the use of this public park for six generations. It is not exclusively ours, but we sure have enjoyed it, and I feel like I should be privileged enough to hog it as my own.

qqq
Guest
qqq

Don’t forget the additional irony that motor vehicles didn’t exist when the Park Blocks were created. They were not intended to support motor vehicle traffic because motor vehicle traffic was literally decades away from existing. They clearly WERE intended to support non-motor vehicle traffic because they’ve always had streets on either side of them, and through them.

ChadwickF
Guest
ChadwickF

People who live in cities who don’t like living in cities just never cease to amaze me.

Kyle Banerjee
Guest

In addition, the strong anti-car and pro destination cycling thing is a bit weird given that it creates considerable extra car traffic.

A trip to cycle for a day of fun at Timberline involves more driving than a week of commuting to work for most people. But for some reason, it’s the latter group that’s apparently bent on wrecking the environment.

FDUP
Guest
FDUP

Um, you can cycle from Portland to Timberline if you want to.

Mike Owens
Guest
Mike Owens

None of these statements are important or valid. The city owns all of this, thus do we all. The best use requires appropriate priorities which at present are far and away any and all mechanisms to reduce fossil fuel emissions and the related impacts on health and livelihoods. Full stop. The council must prioritize all such projects above all other priorities. Experts with examples of success from around the world can demonstrate the hollow and harmful nature of many of the obstructionist arguments given here. Should the city or it’s representatives vote against the needs of the whole, accountability can be pursued.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

This group of people will oppose changes of any kind. They are afraid of change in general, and will always find something to dislike. Approve the master plan and move on…

FDUP
Guest
FDUP

I think it’s more about them being comfortable with the status quo and uncertain about what change might bring (of course, change happens anyway at many levels and there’s no stopping that…).

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

This is a reminder that 99.999% of the folks who live in the area represented by the DNA didn’t show up to this meeting.

This is yet another example of Portland city leaders placing the irrational demands of a small, wealthy, vocal extreme minority derail something that would benefit thousands of people.

maccoinnich
Subscriber

To be fair to the City Council we don’t yet know if they’ve let the demands of said vocal extreme minority derail the plan.

FDUP
Guest
FDUP

They didn’t vote today??!!???

maccoinnich
Subscriber

They’ll likely vote on Wednesday when the full council is there.

damiene
Subscriber
damiene

I can basically word-for-word take VanDerZanden’s quotes about the DNA and apply it to my own NA with regards to our neighborhood’s In-Motion plan. I wasn’t the biggest Eudaly fan nor a big fan of her NA code change plan, but honestly, the more I read about and interact with NAs the more I’m moved toward her position.

To the City Council’s credit, they did not enact any of my NA’s proposed changes to our In-Motion plan. It probably helped that my NA, along with some ornery condo owners, were the overwhelming minority wanting to keep up automobile domination.

Kyle Banerjee
Guest

I think folks here tend to be way too dismissive of peoples’ concerns with bikes where there is a lot of foot traffic.

I consistently see bikes passing way too close and way too fast to peds, animals, etc on shared paths. This is a safety issue, and I see peds looking out and yielding to bikes all the time when the ped has right of way. Even when it’s not dangerous, peds constantly having to look out for cyclists degrades the entire experience.

There’s no real issue if people ride slowly and considerately but this is not what happens in practice — wider use of electric power is making this worse. Frankly, I’d be supportive if they banned cycles from most foot paths and parks except little kids, especially when there’s a good bike path nearby.

One of the reasons cars are so popular is because people get their own personal environment. If the very few places people can reasonably go on foot aren’t enjoyable and bicycles and their riders are widely seen as a nuisance, guess how they’ll want to get around?

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

This is a strong argument for high-quality separated facilities for pedestrians and cyclists. Most people in Portland don’t really know about these, because we only have a few examples in the City.

Hopefully the final plan for park blocks includes a high-quality facility with clear separation. Do you think those speaking out against this plan would still oppose it even if that were the case?

Mike Owens
Guest
Mike Owens

Would you like some resources to read about infrastructure and/or the benefits of non-car transportation in urban areas? It’s no longer theoretical, many many examples exist. I’ve lived in a large city in EU with the right infrastructure and can attest to the fact Portland as it exists is nowhere near what we should have in this regard. Separation of peds and non-car mobility is key, possible and overdue.

FDUP
Guest
FDUP

I agree, but motor vehicles are still way more dangerous, and they are still the dominant form of transportation and transportation deaths, so there is some really irrational risk assessment going on w/in the general population. Maybe they are trying to emulate the upper east/west side + Brooklyn NYC residents like Woody Allen, et. al. in their irrational opposition to bike infrastructure.

Alex
Guest
Alex

If you are talking about infrastructure in Portland, then I think the shard paths here are horrible and not great. They don’t work to separate traffic at all and just throw everyone together. If you look at a place like Brisbane, Australia, they do a much better job. They have clear markings and signs for both peds and cyclists on how to act. Peds, pay attention and be alert, cyclists, slow down and use your bell. In pdx, they just blame cyclists for poor behavior and don’t even examine poor pedestrian behavior.

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

The paving of green space in the south park blocks will certainly diminish the quality and south blocks. First of all, the paved roads on both sides of the park are low speed and easily and safely traversed by bicycle. The BikePortland support for more pavement is out of character. Close the circle of the green loop by making Park Avenue car free while keeping the green space intact. The claim that bicycles are compatible with the passive use of the park are disingenuous. Fast riders, E-bikes and e-scooters are already demonstrating incompatibility. Tourist, juvenile and D-bag e-users are already zipping around on the waterfront with arrogant disregard of passive users. Paving a track through the park invites conflicts. The “eat the rich” sentiment (typical BP) that the park blocks are a posh enclave for the private use of the privileged elite would certainly be disputed by PSU students who use the tranquil space that bisects their campus. This is a different issue than the mountain biking in the Forest Park, and this is not about old cranks shaking their fists and shouting at kids to get off their lawn. We have a tranquil space surrounded by population high density and removing the green and installing activity that will vary between active and frenetic will diminish the space.

Mike Owens
Guest
Mike Owens

Not a bad alternative. Car free makes total sense.

JD
Guest
JD

Yep. I’m in favor of leaving the green space as is and focusing more on better and safer access in the existing paved environment. While the opposition might be overstating the issue to a very large degree, routing cyclists through that space will significantly change its nature. And the change will not be positive, in my opinion.

FDUP
Guest
FDUP

All they need to do is close the South Park blocks to driving and parking, repave the street, and make it a bike-only route with commercial deliveries allowed by permit in off-hours.

Torridjoe
Guest
Torridjoe

So you’re saying the meeting was not full of older noncollegiate residents; it was a bunch of PSU students? I don’t think so.

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

College students from around the state, country and world, at PSU, studying any number of professions, have little interest in, Or awareness of the meeting. Are YOU saying that only the people at this meeting are affected by the outcomes?

Maddy
Guest
Maddy

Are you saying that we should disregard the opinions and experience of anyone over 30? We need to check the ageism in this thread

Matt
Guest
Matt

The number of people terrified of bikes is pretty unreal. They must be furious that cars and big trucks will still be allowed.

Hope
Guest
Hope

DNA honestly makes me ashamed to tell people I live Downtown. Wish I could have spoken at the meeting last night but working on comments to the Council now. I’ve lived here for years and bought a condo on the SPB last year to keep enjoying the park, the trees, and the farmers market. The best thing about the SPB is when the whole park is bustling on Saturday mornings with people walking and rolling and I’d take that but more every day of the week (and feel MUCH safer) over the excess of street parking space in a heartbeat. Like how can DNA honestly argue that crossing two travel lanes and four parking lanes to get across the park (today) is safer than the configuration in the master plan??? I’m so disappointed (but not at all surprised) with DNA for pretending that this is about saving trees, because none of them are talking about the many trees that are already falling each winter or proposing any solutions. But most of all, I’m disappointed in every Downtown resident who isn’t (1) aware of the immense privilege we have to be able to live in a neighborhood with clean air, tree cover and colder pavement on hot days, (2) furious that almost the ENTIRE city is worse off by those measures than we are, and (3) eager for any and all opportunities to share some of that with the rest of the city. And it’s not even ours to share because none of it belongs to us! Yes, this is a neighborhood with residents, but it’s also an urban campus, cultural center, a key commerce center for local farmers and lots of small businesses, and pretty soon might be the only damn patch of cool pavement in this city. Those who think we need to preserve the South Park Blocks as some kind of time capsule “sanctuary” only for downtown homeowners and their cars should move away because that’s not what a downtown should be for.

Watts
Guest
Watts

Ironically, Portland has been adopting development standards that eliminate space for the sort tall canopy trees that make the Park Blocks so enjoyable elsewhere in the city. Those trees are gems, and becoming rarer, even as heat intensity is increasing.

maxD
Guest
maxD

Discussing 2 plans as one is confusing. The South Park Blocks Masterplan and the Green Loop plan are separate, but related.
From the Oregonian: “The [South Park Blocks Master] plan describes a decades-long remodel of the park that connects the Portland State University campus with some of the city’s biggest cultural attractions. The 132-page plan, two years in the making, would add new seating, art, plants and a bike path to the leafy strip in the city’s core and redesign the linear pathways.”

This certainly is a cause for alarm. The plan includes a tree replacement strategy that will result in fewer trees, but is being mis-characterized as widespread tree removal. The lies about tree removals has stirred up a controversy obscuring some concerning aspects of the plan: Does the Park need more activation? I think it does not. Does it need more art and more seating? Again, maybe not. Does it need a bike path or a redesign of its historic pathways? I don’t think so. This is highly successful historic landscape, well loved by generations or Portlanders and should be protected and nurtured. Years ago the City added parking adjacent to the Park- that also struck me as totally inappropriate and not in keeping with the intent or character of the Park. I would like to see the Park’s design maintained, the pathway layout preserved, and parking removed.

As for the Green Loop, that is classic Portland doublespeak. They say it is going to be a safe bike bike route, and a place for all ages, and gathering place, but of course bike infrastructure is not compatible with passive recreation. These need good deign and spatial segregation. There appears to be plenty of room for all of it if they close the street to driving and parking, and create a space for bike traffic and expanded park uses exclusively within what is roadway today. Maybe I am missing something, but I read Jonathan’s article, and the article in the Oregonian, and the reporting, the PP&R messaging, and the neighborhood obfuscation all seem to lumping the Parks plan, the Green Loop Plan, and Tree removal together in an unclear and unhelpful way.

maxD
Guest
maxD
JD
Guest
JD

I can tell you from first hand experience that an adopted Master Plan absolutely and significantly drives future decision-making. It sounds good to say all future decisions will be through a separate process, but that future process is often substantially influenced by or resoundingly justified by the adopted Master Plan. And often in an unsurmountable fashion.

Kurt
Guest
Kurt

Not one single valid argument against moving forward. Just a chorus of old farts yelling get off my lawn.

Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
Member

The link to the project website doesn’t seem to work for me.

qqq
Guest
qqq

What a mess. Generally any master planning should look at everything that is relevant to an area at once–you don’t want to create a plan only to have it undermined or compromised by something you hadn’t included in the planning process. But in hindsight, it seems obvious that tying tree management and increased bicycle use into one review was naive.

Clearly what the vocal opposition did was see a) some trees (which they cherish, and rightly so) will be removed or replaced in the Parks Blocks (one of Portland’s most historic and significant public oasis spaces)and b) more bicycle traffic will be brought in. So they conclude that adding bike traffic will kill trees and destroy the oasis. The City needs to uncouple those two things, and move forward.

Fawn Lengvenis
Guest
Fawn Lengvenis

I’m educated as an environmental scientist with a sub focus on urban systems. I’ve lived in Portland my whole life (ugh, I know that’s an elitist statement, sorry). My kids and I have commuted to Portland State for years.

This morning I took the time to read the actual plan. I first approached the plan from an environmental perspective, because I think art and cultural work can be used as token elements to push through bad urban and environmental planning. I was surprised when I ended up really liking the longterm environmental plans for the park blocks. More diversity in trees, with more native trees, and multiple layers of foliage supports biological (insects and birds) diversity. Further, having trees of varying ages will make the whole area more resilient to natural disturbances. I’m a big fan of the conifer trees planted at the end of each block where they will mitigate storm water run off into the Willamette River.

After finding that I liked the environmental plans, I considered the cultural aspects. For years people in Portland have been asking for a fuller acknowledgement of this area’s past. Incorporating the art, opinions and history of indigenous people is just and honest. It could also be something that helps our city heal. Especially the downtown area.

In regards to street safety. I walk through the park blocks weekly. I ride my bike with my children through the park blocks. Because PSU has one of the oldest child care centers, with priority being given to students and low income families, many parents commute by bike through the park blocks. I think most cyclist tend to be respectful in that area because as soon as we lock up our bikes, we’re pedestrians.

Creating access for everyone to green spaces is an environmental justice issue. Plus if we’re going to build our city around equitable transport, we have to create affordable means of transport for people from all over. This includes building for buses (preferable electric) and bicycle infrastructure.

Perhaps this long winded statement should have been submitted to the council, sorry for the rant.