Groundwork RVA’s Green Team demonstrates with the installation of a “Pocket Park” on North 25th Street that youth can have a transformative impact on the fabric of a city. Young leaders from Armstrong, George Wythe, Richmond Community and Open High School exemplify the crucial role urban teens play in modeling community-led revitalization in the beautification of a vacant property in North Church Hill. Science Matters joined the group to film “build day” on March 30, 2016 and talked with students about their experiences exploring careers such as landscape design, park construction and community engagement.
North 25th Street is the backbone of Richmond’s East End District. This historic corridor has seen waves of working class citizens move through it over time, and with the end of the streetcar system in the 1940s, commercial development ebbed and vacancy took hold. Recent decades, however, have brought about a resurgence of activity along North 25th Street, from new businesses, to lighting and intersection improvements, to street art helping to make this corridor a hub for community gatherings.
With the East End Transformation initiative by the City of Richmond and the Better Block program, brought to North 25th Street by BikeWalk RVA, and numerous civic efforts such as National Night Out, residents and local organizations are bringing innovation and outside-the-box thinking to the process of revitalization. The North 25th Street Pocket Park, a project lead by the Groundwork RVA Green Team of Armstrong High School and funded by Bon Secours Health System, showcased a hands-on effort of community engagement, landscape design, and park construction. As the Green Team leaders explained in a letter to City of Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, “By being a part of the Green Team, we aim to transform the community into a better place. We seek to do so by taking an ordinary site in Church Hill and making it extraordinary.”
The site selected for landscape transformation is located at a prominent point at the corner of North 25th Street and Venable Avenue, where the neighborhoods of Church Hill and Union Hill meet at a wide grassy lot shaped like a pizza slice. This is a well-traveled bike and bus route with new restaurants and bakeries located at the Venable intersection. The property of a neighboring business owner, the site had been vacant and littered with bottles, cigarette buts, and plastic bags when the Green Team, twelve students from Armstrong High School, arrived in March of 2014. With a measuring wheel and sketchpads, the youth created a site plan, their blank slate that they would take to neighbors and gather their input. What would people like to see on that triangular lot? What would they like to do?
The Green Team delved into community engagement with assistance from Storefront for Community Design director Ryan Rinn and graduate students in VCU’s Master of Urban & Regional Planning Studio I course, instructed by Professor Meghan Gough. The students learned about concepts such as “stakeholder group,” “gateway,” and “passive park.” In interviewing stakeholders, from the resident sitting on her porch across the street to East End City Council Representative Cynthia Newbille, students learned about a variety of priorities for the parcel located at the threshold of Union Hill, Church Hill North, and Church Hill neighborhoods. The Green Team met with the Union Hill Civic Association, the boundaries of which defined the north side of the site, with Unity Civic League of neighboring Fairmount, with East End Vision representing the devoted and longtime Church Hill residents, Mount Olivet Church staff, bus riders and pedestrians.
In the meantime, the Green Team learned about the fundamentals of landscape design from local landscape architect Sarah Shirley, a Storefront for Community Design volunteer. Sarah taught the group about topography and scaling, about street furniture and plant species, and finally, about creating a landscape budget. Green Team students developed multiple site designs, which they presented to each other and to their small stakeholder group. Ultimately the youth decided upon three captivating design options. These plans would be presented at the culmination of their engagement efforts: a community-wide workshop held at the East End Family Resource Center in collaboration with the Youth Health Equity Leadership Institute.
The “Community Greening” workshop was a successful effort in collaboration. After Green Team leaders presented their three site plans, VCU’s MURP graduate students helped facilitate community feedback sessions, which allowed residents to dialogue with the young designers. Over forty residents – as well as Mayor Jones and Dr. Newbille – attended the workshop and provided valuable feedback. The priorities? People wanted to (1) Have a place to meet; (2) Have a place to eat; and (3) Have a place where they could listen to live music. This information – the outcome of weeks of civic participation – gave the Green Team the data they needed to transform their gateway into an extraordinary place.
Fast forward several months, and the Green Team was busy building benches that made up the “passive” part of the design that would facilitate neighbors meeting informally. With the essential components of the park created, seven small trees committed by James River Nursery, and a variety of flowering shrubs set aside at Colesville, the Green Team was ready to roll during their Spring Break.
Students from George Wythe, Open, and Community High joined the Armstrong Green Team for the big build-out on March 30th of 2016. All the partners who lent a hand along the way – Storefront, VCU, Backyard Farmer, Richmond ToolBank, and the 7th District office of City Council – came out to help in the beautification project. Pickup trucks were unloaded of trees, tools, and mulch, and the transformation was underway. Youth dug postholes for benches, cut away sod, and placed seven-foot trees in an amphitheater formation. The Green Team helped place shrubs artfully at the edges of the site. Passers by asked questions about the project and shared slices of pizza with the youth. That high school youth were visibly taking charge of remaking their neighborhood seemed to elevate the spirits of curious onlookers. In a few short hours, the work was complete and the lot on North 25th Street was transformed into a welcoming gateway to the East End.
Article by: Giles Harnsberger, Executive Director, Groundwork RVA