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Jared Kennedy | 11.23.2014

Barbara Walker was the driving force behind some of Portland's most important greenspaces. She passed away last month at the age of 79. Walker began her public advocacy work when a developer planned to build a sizeable condominium project on the ravine that runs alongside Oregon Health and Sciences University. Together with some friends, she convened a cohort of engaged citizens who were able to create the Marquam Nature Park and trail system. This was just a start. Walker ran with the momentum and was the driving impetus behind Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Pioneer Courthouse Square, the Springwater Corridor and the 4T system, a 40-mile loop that connected all of her projects together with public transit routes in between.

I had the luck to meet Barbara Walker nearly six months ago. As she told her story and I told mine, we kept sharing the same memories, separated only by our 46-year age gap. The Marquam Trail ran through the backyard of the house I was born in on Sherwood Drive in Southwest Portland. Amazingly, this house was also once the house of Barbara's grandparents. She would often stay there, and rather than walk on the streets to get downtown, she and her neighborhood friends would walk the ravine through the woods. The Marquam ravine runs from the top of Council Crest all the way to downtown Portland. It was this very ravine that she cared so much about that led her to advocate for the creation of the Marquam Nature Park and the other projects she took on after that.

I spent my childhood walking on the Marquam Trail, playing in the forests, and often marveling at Portland's foresight to create such large pockets of nature right inside the city. I have often credited the Marquam Trail for instilling in me my love of the outdoors. I took it for granted that they were always there, and had always been protected. It wasn't until I met Barbara that I learned all of these places that made my home so special were the work of such a few dedicated Portlanders, largely following Barbara's lead. 

As kids, my sister, brother and I thought monkeys and alligators lived in the woods behind our house, and we always hoped to see them, largely because my parents enjoyed using the trails to tell fantastic stories that to us were surely real. Barbara reminisced that the very place we called "the monkey cage" was once a brick drainage pipe. "I loved that brick drainage pipe," she told me. "It was the most beautiful drainage pipe I've ever seen." Together, as we talked, we walked that drainage pipe in our minds, knowing the twists and turns of the Marquam Trail system by heart.

Barbara Walker's legacy is felt today. Incredibly, having made such a large impact on Portland, she wasn't a prominent public figure. And that's just the way she wanted it. She rarely took the credit for her work. Even her children were surprised to learn the impact she had on Portland. "She always told us kids not to care who took the credit," said her son, Ian, "--that you can get way more done if nobody worries about that.”

So, as we approach Thanksgiving, I'll be thinking of Barbara and everything she did to help make Portland a city like none other. And may we all take on the drive to continue her work.

A public memorial service will be held at the Portland Art Museum on December 17, at 3 p.m. Her family has asked that, in lieu of bringing flowers to this service, people donate to Portland Parks Foundation.


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