A beautiful linear park through poor neighborhoods boosts health equity

Suanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

Parque Oriental, a linear park currently in construction, is becoming a major contribution to health equity. Stretching 2.5 miles along a steep valley whose stream runs into the Douro River it borders some of the poorest neighborhoods in Porto, Portugal, and connects the neighborhoods with the business district along the river. 

Until recently it was an abandoned valley with steep 30 foot high cliffs and highways cutting it off from the adjacent public housing. Now, under the direction of Mayor Rui Moreira and visionary leadership of landscape architect, Sidonio Pardal it is becoming accessible with numerous inclined ramps, a biking and walking route, and places to play, relax, exercise, picnic, and enjoy nature.

Pardal passionately believes that the park must attract people by its beauty, and by the variety of ways it can be used by people of all ages. The park must also be ecologically sustainable, preventing all runoff through design details. And he has a unique way of achieving these goals.

He created a series of ramp ways zigzagging down the steep slopes, with beautiful stone retaining walls, every inch of which is carefully set with cut stones and natural boulders, and with holes filled with small flat layered stones. Pardal collected these rocks, boulders and stones from different sources, their colors blue and grey and beige. Some are small, easily set by a stonemason; others weigh many tons and required cranes to hoist them exactly into place. All were selected by Sidonio, and not wanted at the quarry so the cost was basically in transportation. His task was to assemble them like intricate patchwork quilts, creating attractive colorful patterns and varied textures. 

He built into these walls unexpected vista points where the view was especially pleasing, and incorporated into the stonework benches and ledges to sit on, with projecting stones to serve as footrests, accommodating sometimes one or two people, sometimes a group of friends or a family. 

The walls are intricately three dimensional, sometimes with projecting stones that seem to encourage climbers old and young. Eventually large parts of the retaining walls will be overgrown by bushes and trees and you won’t so easily see the care with which these stones were set, but they will still be there to be rediscovered.

Along the paths that lead through trees to open clearings are what seem like intimate natural rooms defined by boulders and trees, inviting a shady picnic or close friends.

The paths lead to an open green valley. This used to be too steep to climb and created a lot of runoff. The valley has been reshaped to create a gentler incline. Now, an intricate network of rivulets each lead into a small depression, allowing small pools of rainwater to be collected and seep into the ground. The larger of these depressions are marked with a semicircle of rocks, warning of possible pools and moist ground. In the dry weather these are foci for groups or children’s play. At the bottom of the valley are larger pools and marshy areas fostering biodiversity.

Along the small river is a major bike and pedestrian route provides a new, natural connection between the poor neighborhoods and the more commercial River Douro area. 

Pardal’s design inspiration came from the work of the British landscape architect Humphry Repton. But while Repton worked on a smaller scale for private clients, Pardal’s parks are all for the public.

Pardal previously created the city Park that runs down to the ocean at the more affluent west end of Porto. This is a massive park, designed with the same sensitivity to detail, creating vistas and enclosed spaces, lakes, and green swards. At the upper end it begins as a heavily wooded area for city festivals, with restaurants and beer gardens, and gradually stretches down to the ocean through duck ponds, lakes, lawns and finally to sand dunes. 

Now, thanks to the leadership of Mayor Moreira and the vision of Sidonio Pardal the poorer east end of the city will have an equally magnificent park easily accessible from the public housing that rims each side. This will be a massive contribution to the health and wellbeing of those who live there.