August 12, 2020
An Activism Success Story
Six years for approval, four hours to install
Seems like so long ago. On September 30, 2014, Human Access Project organized a “Swimming Hole Discovery Tour” on the Willamette River in Portland to influence the City of Portland’s 2030 Planning Process. This was the fourth year of HAP’s advocacy and we were slowly but surely building a base of interest - people who saw value in increasing access to the river’s edge of the Willamette River. At this time, the idea of swimming in our river was broadly considered a strange joke at best. Our work today is still very hard but it was a steep uphill battle to get any momentum started.
In 2014, the Central City 2030 plan was setting goals and direction for the city for the next 25 years. The first draft of the plan had no more than one mention of swimming in the river – this was a big problem and needed to change. We didn’t want a planning document to limit our dreams and our work for the future of our river.
By 2014, in our short four years of activism, we had learned from prior efforts that if an idea was not in a planning document it made visions and dreams much harder to realize. HAP needed to influence this planning process to integrate our vision into the city’s vision. Problem was, HAP may have been too new of an organization to be taken seriously. The planning department was politely dismissing us.
Undeterred, we developed the idea to have a Swimming Hole Discovery Tour. We approached Portland Spirit (a sponsor of The Big Float) to support the “Discovery Tour”. Portland Spirit owner Dan Yates was all about it. He donated a boat and we sold out our “tour” in three days - 150 tickets in all. This demand compelled Portland Planning officials to attend, take notes, and get feedback from the participants. Understandably, it took a group of that size for city officials to realize there was a community who did think human access to our river was important. It was an emerging idea, but HAP was a virtual unknown as an advocate for river access.
As a Board, we had an advance recon boat trip and put together a map of places to visit. The biggest surprise that struck our Board – LIKE A LIGHTING BOLT - was the Kevin Duckworth Dock. Like most Portlander’s, we had all walked or ridden bikes by this dock for years and overlooked it. From the river’s edge this dock looked very different.
We saw that the Kevin Duckworth Memorial Dock had the makings of a world-class swimming hole with a U shape for protected swimming. It’s 300 foot long – overlooked and underused. There was only one thing missing – ladders.
All in all, the Swimming Hole Discovery Tour was a great success. We identified six spots from the tour which all eventually got incorporated into the 2030 plan. But the real thrill was stumbling on and dreaming of what could become of the Duckworth Dock.
From that Swimming Hole Discovery tour in 2014, HAP became stalwart stewards and protectors of this dock. We followed all policy developments around the dock and kept an eye on anything that might prevent its potential use as an outdoor, urban public swimming and fishing spot. We worked with landscape architectural firm MIG to do a downtown dock study and created a visioning document for the dock.
In 2016 a proposal was brought to move the dock from downtown to Swan Island. It almost happened. If HAP had not intervened to fight this nonsensical plan, this public dock would have vanished from downtown.
There were other obstacles. Usage of the dock was restricted by the Oregon State Marine Board (OSMB) which only allowed use by motorized boats – no fishing, swimming, or non-motorized boating. It was also not a priority for Portland Bureau of Transportation who manages the dock.
This past fall, five years later, the stars aligned with OSMB and PBOT, our persistence paid off. OSMB saw the value in expanded uses of the dock, PBOT agreed. A new agreement was formed where OSMB would allow fishing, swimming, and non-motorized boating plus a drop off pick up point for the most northwestern 50’ of the dock.
Human Access Project secured funding from GoLloyd which paid for the majority of the cost of materials, engineering and installation of ladders. In early July 2020 this vision became a reality when eight elegant ladders were installed on the Duckworth Dock in less than four hours. The Kevin Duckworth Memorial Dock is now ready for swimming, fishing, non-motorized boating and other public use.
The work of Human Access Project is cultural change – within the entire community of Portland and inside government bureaucracies that are sometimes hesitant to change or pursue new ideas. The hard work of activism is relationship-building - 90% of our work is getting adults to cooperate with each other and align together around ideas.
But when it comes to culture changing activities, nothing comes easy. The simplest, easiest ideas are a challenge when breaking down the institutional barriers that prevent the most obvious things to occur. In this case, it took six years of patience, nudging and persistence to get approval for eight ladders that took less than four hours to install.
Human Access Project privately fundraised to pay for planning, materials and installation of the ladders. No public investment from the city was requested or received.
But this story is not over – more work lies ahead to make the Duckworth Dock a star Portland attraction and world-class swimming amenity. Thank you for your support by using and loving what is now, in our opinion, Portland’s best place to swim downtown.
As a side note, four of the places we identified have been activated since that 2014 Discovery tour: Kevin Duckworth Dock, Fire House Dock, Audrey McCall Beach and Poet’s Beach. Plus, we successfully advocated for the addition of a swim ladder at the Holman Dock (south of Hawthorne Bridge). We have had these successes together, with your love and support of our river. There is much work ahead to improve these places we have started. They will continue to evolve and improve by you using these places, promoting these places and taking care of these valuable river edge places.
The riverlution rolls on! Thank you for being a part of it.
Return to WILLAMETTE RIVER ADVOCACY Main Page