The Cornerstone Group is hard at work on our newest project in Prospect Park. We believe that every stage of the demolition, design, and building process has value. If we design sites that will ultimately have public plazas with gardens and events, how can we use our parking lots and vacant, pre-construction lots to grow gardens and hold events prior to construction even beginning? In living out this belief that the means is the ends, we pursued a partnership with Prospect Park Community Gardens to transform the demoed Boeser Sheet Metal factory lot from an eye soar into the community garden of the future. We wanted to share some of what we are learning in this living laboratory.
1) Who is in the room?
We want to create a garden that honors the mix of communities that are in and around our site. Since our site is so close to the U of M, we thought a lot about the ways student gardeners, many of whom might be new to gardening, might want to plug into this garden. Since students are transient and have busy lives, we knew that the traditional community garden model where a gardener gets a plot to use how they wish might not work for this demographic. We wanted to offer something new. It is important to think about the people you wish to serve and the barriers that might exist to their participation and address those barriers in the design itself.
2) Welcome Innovation
After identifying who we wanted in the room, we started to talk about what models could help address the issues specific to students like transient lifestyles and lack of experience. We turned to the FairShare garden, which is in its fourth year in the southeast Como neighborhood. They use a communal approach to gardening, where everyone shares in the responsibilities and the harvests, with a core leadership team that facilitates weekly work sessions. These sessions allow new gardeners to learn tips and tricks from more experienced gardeners. We welcomed this innovation and will try our hand at in on our site. Another student leader has come forward with enthusiasm and passion for hydroponics. By allowing him to have full reign of the design, building, and running of the hydroponics section, his leadership will help many people learn about this technology and its application in urban contexts.
3) Shed individualism
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In the spirit of Paul Wellstone’s phrase “We all do better when we all do better”, we are excited to have the models we use encourage connectivity and relationships. If a person participates in the garden share model, they might leave with a more diverse, consistent harvest, and new recipes for how to prepare the food they have helped grow.
4) Bring on partnerships
Hydroponics. Garden Shares. Dye Gardens. Bees. Art. No one person knows how to do all of these things, which is why partnerships are essential. Joey, the student taking on hydroponics, is partnering with some of his professors to finalize the design for the hydroponic beds. Kathy, an experienced community gardener who just moved to the neighborhood and wants to meet her neighbors is getting to know Stephanie who oversees the FairShare Garden, so she can take the lead on our garden share design. The Textile Center and Weaver’s Guild is stepping forward with expertise and volunteers to plant and tend native plants that can be used to create natural dyes. They will hold classes and events in the garden and work with students in their summer camps to decorate our fence. Beez Kneez, a local producer of super tasty honey has agreed to bring their hives to our site. And The Cornerstone Group and Springboard for the Arts are working with local residents and artists to dream up creative embellishments to the basic infrastructure of our site like tool sheds, benches, and fences, and also planning arts-based community events that will bring more people together on the site. Mutually beneficial partnerships deepen and broaden possibilites.
5) Aesthetics Matter
We will work with artists to make sure our site is colorful, welcoming, and a place people want to spend time. We know this community garden will manifest TCG’s mission of transforming the ordinary spaces that surround us into extraordinary places that inspire us.
6) Convene to achieve
Our rag tag crew meets regularly at the Overflow Café to figure this puzzle out together. Our meetings ramble then focus as we get to know each other and our working styles. The meetings are facilitated by Del, a neighborhood volunteer coordinator of Prospect Park Community Gardens who is lovingly called Farmer Del. His leadership is critical and he sends out agendas and notes that keep us rolling. In planning something new: the more communication, the merrier.
7) Living is learning and learning is living
Here at TCG, we are learning that everything starts somewhere. You don’t have to be an expert to make things happen, but you do need passion, commitment, and a vision that guides your decisions. We know that our garden site will be a work-in-progress that will help us grow as it grows. Learning is a living process. Our job is to work hard, tend, nurture, and trust that what is planted wants to grow.