A Waterfront Designed by Portlanders

A Recap of Our “Wishing for a Wonderful Waterfront” Discussion

Earlier this month, we set out to reimagine our relationship with the Willamette River. During our Design Week Portland event, 75 people from around Portland weighed in on one question, “What makes for a wonderful Willamette?” Our expert panel helped by offering their perspective, ideas and even warnings, and we came away excited for the possibilities.

In the end, we submitted the feedback to The City of Portland for inclusion in the Central City 2035 plan.

First, meet our panelists:

  • Jelly Helm, branding guru of Studio Jelly, and founder and director of Wieden+Kennedy
  • Willie Levenson, ringleader of the Human Access Project and organizer of The Big Float
  • Micah Camden, restaurateur and owner of Little Big Burger, Blue Star Donuts and Boxer Ramen
  • Mike Houck, field ecologist at Urban Greenspaces Institute
  • Jerry Johnson, regional economic development consultant and founder of Johnson Economics
  • Chet Orloff, writer, professor, and director emeritus at the Oregon Historical Society
  • Lauren, radiant 8-year-old who knows her way around downtown Portland
  • Noya, brilliant 10-year-old with a passion for design arts and graphic novels

Before breaking into visioning groups, our panelists laid the groundwork for the conversation, helping guests understand the benefits and challenges our waterfront presents.


Panelist Mike Houck describing the conditions of the river


Our riverfront has a storied past as a hub for navigation and industry, as well as prostitution, pollution, crime – and now revitalization. In an attempt to prevent flooding, a seawall was constructed starting in the 1920s, separating Portlanders from the Willamette both physically and mentally.

Historian Chet Orloff said that the public is only now beginning to understand the value and quality of our river.

Jelly Helm believes that while the Willamette may not be highly regarded, its cultural prominence is on the rise. Instead of trying to rebrand the river to make people like it more, we need to first get people to use and love it. Then the river will naturally develop a positive identity.


The Willamette River has a reputation for being toxic, and the ongoing problem of human and industrial waste are to thank for that. In 2011, the East Side Big Pipe was completed, reducing (but not eliminating) raw sewage from entering the river during heavy rains. And a Superfund site between Swan and Sauvie islands will take years to clean up. Ecologist Mike Houck said that despite million-dollar efforts to tide pollution, a healthy river is still far out on the horizon.

He urged a balance between “human access and human assault.” The river needs to heal, provide habitat for native fish and other wildlife, he said, and that’s not possible with an inundation of human contact with the water.

Willie Levenson, the creator of The Big Float, which saw 1,500 people on tubes in the Willamette last year, is optimistic that that exact concept – humans accessing the water – will boost sentiment and respect for the river. In a follow-up to the event, Houck told us he’s hopeful that more conversations like this one will help inform city policy around conservation and public use.


Restaurant economics is the only commercial sector that’s growing in Portland right now, according to analyst Jerry Johnson. But while our appetite for new cuisine may be insatiable, we have an ironic history of failed restaurants along the Willamette. Still, guests agreed that food is a hugely absent element of our riverfront.

So what would dining along the river look like? Micah Camden, a restaurateur, said we shouldn’t overthink it – start with what appeals to people’s gut. His business approach of ‘salt, sugar and fat equals money’ underscores the simplicity of good food and good dining experiences.

Whether it’s adding food carts or brick-and-mortar restaurants along the river, Portlanders will undoubtedly be satisfied.

Lauren and Gauri sketch ideas offered by the crowd

Lauren and Gauri sketch ideas offered by the crowd

After the paneled discussion, guests gathered around our designers to distill thoughts from the evening and turn them into tangible solutions. SERA’s own Gauri Rajbaidya and Travis Dang transformed these ideas into rapid waterfront renderings. Here’s a list of improvements envisioned:


Food, art and recreation by 8-year-old Lauren


A night market with movie screening on the river

Seaplane tours and rotating chefs


Beaches, water-level promenades and open swimming

  • 5 mph zones from Sellwood to Fremont bridges
  • floating swimming platforms
  • habitat restoration near Poet’s Beach
  • waterslides
  • wayfinding from downtown, directing people to the river
  • bridge pier viewing platforms
  • informal canals into the city (mimicking old stream routes)
  • rotating wine/food pop-up business stalls at James Beard Market
  • water taxis from the Pearl District to South Waterfront (or even from Sellwood to St. Johns)
  • Portland Art Museum branch along the river
  • Naito Parkway transformed into a calmed boulevard
  • boat rentals
  • floating fish market
  • underwater habitat viewing
  • river-level trail on West side, similar to East Bank Esplanade
  • green roof patios on warehouses in the Central Eastside Industrial District for viewing the river
  • seaplane tours and docks
  • fishing pier
  • amphitheater improvements that deter geese and offer more programmed events
  • habitat restoration both in water and on shoreline
  • boat-up floating market
  • art walks along shore and in-water
  • swimming so easy and safe that children will jump off a dock just like they would in a neighborhood pool
  • stepped seawall to allow gradual transitions between the land and river
  • movie viewing under a bridge or projected onto the water, and
  • more places to play, gather, dine,
    and entertain.

Our fast-paced discussion shone some light on a few facts. We as Portlanders have high hopes for our river. Advocates for conservation and recreation must listen to each other. And, above all: food. There should be culinary options along the waterfront every day – not just during Saturday Market.

We owe many thanks to our panelists, guest and staff who brought this event to life. We were wowed by the turnout and participation.

Now, what does a wonderful waterfront look like to you? What have you seen in other cities that would work here? Let us know in the comments!

Leave A Comment