Nov 08, 2009
In Portland, nothing says "curb cut" like a leaf-clogged street drain in November. It's time for the city to leave the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" moniker to Minnesota and ensure that our city's sidewalks are accessible when the autumn rains fall.
The skies opened up this weekend and Portland (aka "Puddletown") is literally awash in what's made it famous. November rains are a distinctive part of the Oregon experience. They also bring together a few salient (though little-known by outlanders) ingredients of our Northwest urban experience.
When I first came to Oregon, I expected that when autumn arrived it would be time to hop in the car and head out into the forest for some leaf peeping. That is, after all, what we did back East. But, lo, it's mostly evergreens out there. The underbrush wasn't bad, but forests of raging color there weren't. Portland itself was a different story. This town of gardeners, where just about anything placed in the ground will happily grow, provides a wide and exciting array of color, shape and texture each fall. So we put aside our cars and walk or roll through the dazzling urban landscape.
...Somehow we have not been able to help our motorists avoid the unsolicited thrill of blasting through our scenic autumnal street-lakes. Nor have we solved the problem of leaving pedestrians (particularly those in need of curb cuts) soaked and stranded on their shores.
Photo submitted by cyfacchini to http://photo.accuweather.com
Generally, the Portland weather in September and October is pretty darn nice. It allows us to enjoy the peak foliage in the not too hot, not too cold sunshine. But as the color fades and leaves start to drop, the skies darken and Pacific rainstorms ensue. It is now that Portland becomes the land of street-lakes.
As a general matter, rain in Portland is intermittent and moderate. Like Eskimos with snow, we have lots of words to describe the types of rain we experience. Most are some version of "showers." Often they are interrupted by "sun-breaks." When those Pacific storms start to hit the coast in November, however, we tend to get good, old-fashioned hard rain.
You would expect that Portland would be prepared for, of all things, rain. But that's not entirely the case. The city infrastructure was designed to handle those all-too-common days and weeks and months of showers. But the sewer system was overpowered by hard rain. This caused raw sewage to dump into the Willamette River on a regular basis. Because this release-valve strategy got the attention of environmental officials, we have built two enormous underground pipes to act as overflow areas during peak demand.
But there is something else.
Most of those beautiful leaves I mentioned earlier have headed for earth by November and the rains have helped stragglers to achieve their gravitational destiny. Many land in the streets and are pulled by rain water to storm drains, which their broad, wet masses clog. Since our city planners have carefully assured that all street water will flow toward storm drains, those leaf-jammed depressions soon become lake bottoms. The shores of these newly formed bodies of water extend well into the motoring portion of the streets, curb cuts, and sometimes up to the sidewalks, corners and the entire width of streets.
Although Portland motorists should be well-schooled in the art of puddle-dodging and general rain driving, this is not always the case. Fall rains bring the summer's accumulation of oil up out of the pavement. Wet leaves are not only clogging but amazingly slippery. Water splashing up from our new street-lakes can cause brakes to malfunction. Windows fog over with heavy rain. So the normal complex Portland routine of driving while keeping an eye out for pedestrians, bike riders, speed bumps and fancifully designed lane assignments now has its level of difficulty raised to "high."
Portland is famous for city planning and I am a big fan of what has been accomplished with public transportation, urban design, land use and livability. Comparatively speaking, we're a pretty accessible town. But somehow we have not been able to help our motorists avoid the unsolicited thrill of blasting through our scenic autumnal street-lakes. Nor have we solved the problem of leaving pedestrians (particularly those in need of curb cuts) soaked and stranded on their shores.
We've dealt with the sewage overflow. I say now it's time to deal with the rain drains.
Let's leave the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" moniker to Minnesota.