Editor’s Note: As trails manager for the Portland Trails, Jaime Parker gets and sends a lot of emails. At the bottom of each, his signature includes the Latin motto “Non Sibi, Sed Omnibus”. It means,”Not for oneself but for all”, and it’s a good indication of how strongly Parker feels about his job and about the making the community stronger, by connecting trails—and thus people. Parker, a Massachusetts transplant, started working for Portland Trails shortly after moving here in 2001.
IP: You were a contractor in the past. What brought you to Portland Trails?
JP: I did contracting for years, in various places, and also started doing a lot of materials recycling and salvage because I was seeing whole houses getting thrown into Dumpsters. I couldn’t abide. I also have a background in resource management and a Masters certificate in planning and development. All of the quality of life, livability and walkability stuff that Portland Trails does, peripherally almost, has become something that I’m really excited and impassioned about.
IP: Can you describe Portland in just a few words?
JP: Vibrant, walkable, scenic and community-oriented. That’s what brought me here and I think what keeps a lot of people here. It’s a nice, gritty city. It’s got a town feel but the amenities of a city.
IP: Are you here to stay?
JP: Yeah. I love having all the amenities right at hand.
IP: What do your boys think of your job? Do they know what you do?
JP: Yeah, we’re past the point where they want to do my job. For a while, they definitely did. I still get them out on the trails, but it’s a hard sell these days. They’re seven and nine, so they’re too cool for that. Generally they think [my job] is cool. They know the city in a way a lot of kids don’t, because we explore. I get bored with the Eastern [Promenade] and the Back Cove, so we’re going farther afield and trying to find the little nooks and crannies that I haven’t explored yet. We’re always bushwacking through some undiscovered urban oasis. And it’s amazing—there are a lot of them. I recently walked for the first time between Forest Avenue and Warren Avenue. There’s this huge open space there that was proposed for development a few years back, before it fizzled. I’d seen it from Google Earth but had never been there, so when [my sons] had a birthday party to go to at Happy Wheels [Skate Center] on Warren Avenue, I parked at Riverton [School] and we bushwacked through. The boys just wanted to get there and go roller skating. “Why are we going through the prickers and the mud?” and I was like, “It’s just over here, I’m pretty sure.” We came out really close to Happy Wheels… It worked out. I explore the city and feel I know it pretty well. All the areas of the city I’ve been to most of the trails and any large open spaces.
IP: How do you find out about these places?
JP: Through conversations. People are always talking about their little neighborhood trail. For me, the connectivity—that community connection—is the most important part of what we do. I’d say for every mile of formal trail there’s probably two miles of informal trails out there.
IP: Is there the idea that if you don’t build the trails, someone else will? If you do, at least you can monitor it and do it properly.
JP: So many times [trails] get severed. Particularly back in the urban renewal days when they were truncating streets and giving away rights of way, we lost a lot of opportunities and if we’re not careful, can still miss them. That’s one of the motivations, to sort of inventory what’s out there and to look at it from a systems perspective, a network perspective. If we can identify priority corridors or linkages, for example, there may be one-hundred yard trail that links one cul-de-sac to another, or one neighborhood to another. That could be just as important as a two-mile section of trail out by a river that really is just recreational.
IP: So there’s less of the big flashy sections of trail like [the Starbird Lane trail], and more of the opportunities to connect existing spaces?
JP: As far as the obvious big open spaces go, we’re aware of those and we’ve gotten most of them. We’ve achieved what we’re going to achieve. There’s no more big open spaces in Portland that aren’t either protected or developed. It’s getting down to those linkages. It’s the diversity of the system that makes it such a great and functional and beautiful system.
IP: Why is this trail system so important to Portland?
JP: [Portland’s] a different city than any other city in the country. In an age where everything’s becoming homogenized and commodified, Portland is unique and the trails of Portland are part of what makes it unique. It helps people appreciate what we have. There’s all kinds of reasons. For children, all the research that points to the negative effects of not being connected with your environment. By getting kids outside and exploring their world we’re sort of pushing back against that culture of fear that keeps people inside, and plugged in and disconnected from their immediate environment. If kids can have access to these places, whether it’s the little woodsy shortcut to school or an excursion with the family or a field trip out to the Fore River Sanctuary, providing that access is hugely important. And it’s the same for adults as well. It’s important for us to have a connection to our environment.
IP: Do you think that people outside of Maine, and outside of Portland, have a concept of Portland as a walkable city?
JP: Yeah, I do. Absolutely. Every other month there’s some new article in some national publication talking about just that. It’s got mass appeal, and this is a part of it, that’s for sure.
IP: Is there anything that should be happening in Portland? Predictions?
JP: It would be great if we could improve our transportation system. And as development occurs, if we can steer that development towards a pattern that’s more human scale. The built environment is hugely important. It would be great to see some more small-scale organic development.
IP: What’s an example of that?
JP: The counter example is what we’re often soliciting— these mega-developments like Ocean Gateway, It would great if we could see smaller lots and more human-scale development. I like density, but it’s nice to have a mix of types of development.
IP: What are you carrying with you today?
JP: My trusty Felco snips. Between the snips and this folding Corona flip saw, I can do 90% of the trail work that happens out there. Maybe it’s 80%. The snips are for walking along the edge of the trail–the White Pines are notorious for spreading right out into the light–so we just always prune it back to keep the trail corridor clear. Anything that’s bigger than that, I often skip the chainsaw and just use this folding saw. Whenever I go down the trail I usually have those two tools and some other implement, depending on what I think’s going to be out there.
IP: Pretty basic tools.
JP: Yeah, for the maintenance. When we’re constructing new trails we use skid steers and excavators and dump trucks. Some of our trails are ten feet wide and paved and others are single track out in the woods. Sometimes it’s as simple as running a brush cutter and snips and you’ve got yourself a trail. Sometimes it’s a little more involved.
IP: You’ve got gloves in your back pocket?
JP: A hat and gloves. Because you never know. And safety glasses.
IP: If the weather’s nice, do you skip the office?
JP: I wish it were that cut and dry. I do a lot of the permitting and planning for these trails. Not every nice day, but certainly we try to be opportunistic. It’s a flexible schedule, to a point. If the weather’s good, I try to be out.
IP: When are you busiest?
JP: Pretty much now. Between getting the trails ready. Typically after winter you’d have a lot of deadfall. We try to hit all the trails and walk them at least once and try to open them up. Any new trails, this is the time of year we try to crank those out as well.
IP: If people using the trails see something they don’t like, do they call you?
JP: Typically, yeah. We get calls all day long and some come to me. We have a great stewardship network. We get a lot of positive feedback. If things are amiss, then we get that too. But it’s rarely controversial. It’s usually constructive feedback.
IP: What’s your current favorite place in the trails system?
JP: I like the trails on Munjoy Hill, but that’s just because I can walk to them and use them frequently. The Loring steps and the Eastern Promenade trail are my go-to, everyday kind of trails. They’re in my neighborhood so I’m partial to those. Out and about a little further, we’ve been spending a lot of time out on the Presumpscot River Preserve, which is off of North Deering. We’ve had a contract with the city to do some rehabilitation of some trail sections , rebuilding some bridges. Every time I go down there I’m reminded how beautiful it is. The vistas are stunning in there. You’re ten minutes from downtown and you feel like you could be in the White Mountains. It has that really natural feel.
IP: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this interview?
JP: I’d be de-rooting and cutting some drainage. Every time you walk the trails you find something new to be done. Whenever I take a walk I make a mental or physical list.
IP: It never ends.
JP: It never ends.
IP: When do you get up and go to bed?
JP: I usually get up between 6 and 7 with my kids. I’m usually on the trail by 8. I work till 5-ish, but there’s plenty of days where I’ll work later. I work weekends occasionally. I’m always at work, in a sense. I really live and breathe this job, in a good way. I’m always thinking about it, because I live in the community that I work in and somehow it’s all related. If I’m taking a walk downtown—my wife and kids will tell you this—to a fault I’m thinking about how it can be improved from a pedestrian and bicycling standpoint. I’m always thinking about it from the perspective of someone who walks on a regular basis in the city. How could it be more inviting? When I cross Franklin [Arterial] it’s hard to not notice that it’s really not pedestrian friendly.
IP: It helps to walk, doesn’t it?
JP: It really does. You can sit in a room and look at plans and talk about it, but just being out there and experiencing it is the best way to really get to the core issues of what works and what doesn’t. You see people and talk to people and everywhere there’s trails. Little shortcuts through the edge of a parking lot where you’ll see that little dirt strip. To me, that stuff is fascinating: migration patterns. I think it’s really important to notice those things. It takes quite a bit to wear down a path through the grass, so you know that many people are following the same course on a daily basis.
IP:So when you make formalize a trail, you’re just facilitating the will of the people.