Last time (part 2), we visited a Chicago rooftop during the summer of 2007, where buckwheat sways in the breeze, collard greens with leaves as broad as a chair seat flourish, and tomatoes and peppers ripen, all in view of a passing elevated train. This time, we visit a state-of-the-art Chicago high school where the windows of a special needs classroom once looked out onto a barren, uninspiring landscape.
Scale Three: Block/Neighborhood
The Northside College Preparatory High School Master Plan: engaging a community through a productive landscape
The Northside College Preparatory High School Productive Master Plan and Teaching Farm (Fig. 3-1) is a unique re-imagining – nearly six years in the making – of what a ‘landscape’ can be. Its five phases are the Joy Garden, the Malcolm Wells Memorial Garden, community agricultural areas, handicapped-accessible pathways of pervious concrete, and a Frisbee field.
I typically visit at least once a year, but after several years absent while working in Haiti, it was a delight to visit this summer (2014). Michael Repkin was able to leave his traditional role as guide in the capable hands of one of the student volunteers who manage this dynamic landscape located between the school and the Chicago River North Branch sanitation channel, a redevelopment of over 100,000 square feet (2.5 acres).
The Joy Garden (Phase 1) started things off in 2009.
The brainchild of the Birman family, who sought to create a contemplative place for students and faculty – especially special needs students – in memory of a severely disabled family member, the Joy Garden was designed by landscape architect Nicholas Petty and the ubiquitous Michael Repkin, converting a brownfield – a 10,000 square foot section of former Chicago Department of Transportation salt dump where standing water created a dreary mudscape – into an urban oasis.
On a summer day, birds flit in and out of trees.
Fragrant mint two feet tall swirls and swishes in the breeze.
Dragonflies and beneficial wasps command the airspace above by day, with squadrons of fireflies taking charge at dusk. An army of crickets provide ground support, with earthworms and microinvertibrates taking to the trenches.
In summer, the Joy Garden projects a slightly forgotten, informal air, belying its multiple functions: this is no “lazy landscape.”
Everything here is at work.
Again, in full disclosure, I was a leader of Urban Habitat Chicago during the implementation of the Joy Garden. I also took part in its construction, so I have a personal connection to the project, and this is why I return whenever I can. In particular, I pieced together donated sod within the vegetated band of a crushed stone fill, a unique onsite stormwater management strategy, which takes the normal length of a similar ‘drainage channel’ and curls it into a more compact and aesthetically pleasing, organic spiraling form (Figs. 3-2, 3-3).
In the early days of the project, UHC members toiled alone, slogging wheelbarrows full of donated fill material around, working gypsum-rich drywall scraps into the highly alkaline, clay-rich soil to reduce its PH, increase its capacity to support life, and accept surfacewater. In 2009, UHC hadn’t yet perfected the community engagement and participation piece that is so crucial with any project situated in – and of – the public sphere. Within months, however, as random, soggy mounds began to take shape into inviting earthen berms, people took note.
Students were beginning to ask questions, and Repkin and Petty began perfecting the answers, shaping them into lessons Urban Habitat Chicago has applied on its projects at smaller scales over the years. These lessons included onsite stormwater management – how the Joy Garden was designed in such a way that not a drop of stormwater would leave the site; the selection of plant species such as Jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke) for production of food, fuel, and fiber; repurposing donated materials into site amenities such as concrete test cylinders used to line paths and drainage channels. These lessons later formed the basis of curricula UHC now designs for Chicago middle- and high schools as part of the After School Matters program.
Students were starting to volunteer, their after-school efforts becoming increasingly tied to coursework. They were applying both the scientific principles – from soil microbes to weather patterns – as well as learning how to implement – everything from planting a tree to pouring pervious concrete to project budget estimating. At one point, students were notified that school was over, and that summer had begun: many volunteered to stay and keep working. As the curving berms and welcoming niches became populated with plants, passersby began stopping, some becoming volunteers. Eventually, students formed a club – The Dirt Actualizers (Fig. 3-4) – to maintain the garden, educate the public on its sustainable concepts and strategies, and guide the direction of future site interventions.
The Joy Garden went on to be awarded a Mayor Daley’s Landscape Awards in 2010 and was selected as one of a few Midwest pilot projects for the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES™) program, helping shape the criteria and metrics for a new sustainable landscape evaluation framework.
And work continued.
The Malcolm Wells Memorial Garden (Phase 2) – begun in 2011 in memory of the recently deceased pioneer of earth-sheltered architecture – expanded on the Joy Garden’s palette of food crops by introducing raised urbanite-ringed planting beds with onsite water filtration using biological methods (Repkin notes that water reaching a drainage inlet – Fig. 3-5 – has been tested and found to be of potable quality). The Wells garden is in turn bordered by an elevated Frisbee field (Phase 5) shaped with tons of donated organic fill material to further increase the site’s absorptive capacity, bordered by a ribbon of handicapped-accessible pathways of pervious concrete (Phase 4), and community agricultural areas (Phase 3) beyond, giving way to a restored prairie.
In 2012, UHC launched the Urban Habitat Chicago Institute, with Northside College Preparatory High School as its primary site, intended to be:
“a coherent educational program geared to provide more hands-on training to an even broader public, with a strong focus on urban agriculture. Key components of the program are multi-level workshop series, and field or administrative internships, all designed to build a functional level of independent capacity in participants.”
Northside College Prep High School has become a destination for more than what happens inside its walls. My hopes are that those walls continue to be permeable, and that the sustainable concepts and practices, which are being put into action remains visible, from both inside and outside the classroom.
Epilogue: applying lessons learned
Experiencing these three fascinating projects at three scales, one must ask oneself a few rhetorical questions:
Have the strategies and principles Urban Habitat Chicago has been developing since 2004 proliferated? If not, why?
Why do not only landscape projects but social engagement programs in Chicago – and other cities – seem to produce relatively few co-benefits?
How can more citizens benefit from – and be engaged in – similar projects?
Why, in 2014, are cities like Chicago still replete with idle urban lots and food deserts?
Has the connection between youth violence and biophilia – humans’ innate drive to relate to other living things – been properly explored?
Without the driving force of dedicated individuals such as those of Urban Habitat Chicago – and of students, faculty, parents, neighbors, clients, and partners over the years – innovative and inspiring projects like those above do not happen.
My hopes are that we as a society will support those organizations that are capable of identifying basic needs, able to develop inspiring solutions in concert with users and communities, and help them forge meaningful connections with their environments.
Happy 10th, UHC!
Here’s to the next decade.
With contributions from Andrew Arbetter and Michael Repkin.