Portland Parks Commissioner Nick Fish Balances Freedom of Assembly with Park Stewardship

By Hannan, Maureen | Parks & Recreation, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Portland Parks Commissioner Nick Fish Balances Freedom of Assembly with Park Stewardship


Hannan, Maureen, Parks & Recreation


Seldom are those who theorize about the role of the public square in democratic societies also charged with caring for public squares. Portland Parks and Recreation Commissioner Nick Fish is one of those people. In an open letter he wrote in October to the Occupy Portland protesters encamped in the city's historic Chapman and Lownsdale squares (excerpted in accompanying article), Fish identifies himself as "someone who spent a legal career fighting for the civil rights of others."

And indeed he has--in his professional life, Fish has represented health care workers and labor unions; and as a volunteer he has worked to create affordable housing in New York City for people with HIV/AIDS, and formerly homeless individuals.

Moreover, Fish's personal history is marked by "privileged relationships with great parks systems," as he describes it. He recounts growing up a block from New York's Central Park, years in Washington, D.C. enjoying the National Mall, and time as a Northeastern University law student exploring the necklace of historic Olmsted parks in the Boston area. And, when he moved to Portland, Fish delighted in the Olmsted origins of its parks system.

Now, even as he and his staff assess the tens of thousands of dollars of damage done to two of those historic city parks, Fish does not dwell on particulars of worn turf, compromised tree roots, and trashed restroom facilities. Instead, he grapples with larger questions about the functions--and limits-of public parks in preserving freedom of speech and assembly.

"The key question," he posits, "is how do we encourage constitutionally protected activity while protecting our parks?" Even in an age rich with social media outlets and connections, he continues, "the public square remains an important element for coming together.... The problem is, our traditional parks are simply not designed for camping."

The first week into the occupation, Fish wrote his letter as an appeal to the protesters to cooperate with parks and recreation professionals. His appeal met with mixed reactions, including criticism from many in the city and a polite reply (but little cooperation) from the protesters. …

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