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Iranian American Brings Love of Nature to Portland's Parks

Portland's forests remind Zari Santner of her childhood home in Iran

Even as a young girl in the city of Shahsavar, near the Caspian Sea, the lush beauty of the local forests moved her.  “I grew up in an environment in which the beauty of the landscape was an important part of our daily lives,” she told the Washington File.

Ironically, she fully recognized her love for that beauty only when, as a student, she moved to Tehran, where, she recalled, “you had to make an effort to have any greenery.”

At the university, Santner decided to translate her love of nature into a degree in horticulture, but soon switched to landscape architecture and garden design, because, she said, “creating the beauty of outdoor spaces is just as important as creating great buildings.”

Her studies eventually led her to the United States and Harvard University in Massachusetts.  There, she discovered the work of 19th century American landscape architect and park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who believed that a city’s parks could make an important contribution to a better society.  “I saw how parks could become manifestations of democracy,” where “people from all walks of life could enjoy public space, regardless of wealth and background,” Santner said.

With her Harvard degree, Santner went into private practice in the Boston area, designing parks that expressed her vision of democracy.  Even though most professional landscape architects in the United States work in state or local government, she thrived in private practice and did not consider public service until she was offered a position in Portland.

Santner’s abilities and energy carried her quickly through the ranks of Portland’s Parks and Recreation Bureau.  Her first major task was to oversee a $60 million improvement project for Portland parks, approved by voters in a local election.  She soon became the head of the Park Bureau’s Office of Planning and Development and remained in that post until 2003, when she was appointed to head the bureau.  She now directs the bureau’s $72 million budget and its staff of 400, which swells to 1,900 during spring and summer.

In her office overlooking the city and the snow-capped Cascade Mountains in the distance, Santner projected a quiet self-assurance as she discussed the importance of Portland’s parks to the city’s livability.  She said the city’s parks boost property values and enhance the city’s environment by protecting aquifers and wildlife habitat.

According to Santner, nothing better represents these diverse goals than the city’s crown jewel, Forest Park, a heavily wooded 2,500-hectare expanse in the city’s west hills that offers kilometers of winding paths where residents can exercise in the clean air.  The trees and ferns create a stillness that screens most pedestrians from anything suggesting that they are near a city, much less in the middle of one.  The park also supports a variety of wildlife, with deer and even the occasional bear spotted in its more remote corners.

In addition to Forest Park, Santner overseas 200 other facilities, including an internationally famous rose garden and scores of neighborhood parks, where a basketball court, a baseball diamond, some trees and a swath of green can serve as the center of a vibrant neighborhood.

When asked which parks are her favorites, Santner shook her head, like a mother being asked which child she loves best, but mentioned Peninsula Park, in the northern part of the city, for “its 19th century virtues,” and Forest Park, which “makes me nostalgic for the foothills of the Alborz Mountains.”

Those mountains and Iran itself are far away, but Santner said she still values her Iranian cultural traditions and her family celebrates the Iranian holidays, especially Nowruz and Shabe’ Yalda, with traditional foods and poetry reading.

Her heritage also has given her a perspective on the United States.  Her Iranian upbringing allows her to “see everybody, regardless of ethnicity, as just people,” she said, adding, “We [in the United States] need to do our best to make people feel comfortable and included.”

At the same time, she believes that American culture and society have much to offer Iranians.

“The unique value of the United States is that if you have an aspiration and work hard to achieve it, you have a real chance of success.”  She said she feels strongly that these opportunities exist for all.

“I worked hard, but I never worried about whether I worked harder than a man or worried about breaking stereotypes,” she said. “Being a woman or an Iranian made no difference. … Portland, especially, takes care to use its creative and well-educated talent.  That’s why Portland is such a wonderful place to live.”

And it is a place where dreams born in the forests of the Alborz Mountains can find their realization in the shadows of the Cascades.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:


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