It’s no secret that as Landscape Architects we are always looking for new ways to engage people in landscapes. Many of the projects we do focus on getting people involved in their environment in a new way. In the early spring of 2010, Hoerr Schaudters David Gianneschi, Brett Weidl, and I volunteered to create an urban, educational garden for the organization Smarty Pants Are Leaders (SPAL) in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.

Their mission for the garden: to teach children the benefits of urban agriculture and to instill in them the understanding that tending for a garden helps one find responsibility, passion, and ultimately, themselves.

Our design for the garden created three distinctive areas to support SPAL’s curriculum:

  1. The PLAY area is the garden’s exploration and discovery center. It includes a willow tunnel, pathway, log seating and an area to hang art in trees.

  2. The GROW area is space to explore all aspects of plant growth with places to cultivate seeds and plant the garden

  3. The LEARN area is a central meeting space where all gather to discuss and share what they have learned during activity time. Brick banding in the center designates a ‘stage’ from which students and leaders can present ideas.

Three months of preparation included creative thinking for cost-effective and sustainable resources; hours spent developing the garden on paper and then physically constructing it; a wealth of donations from landscape contractors and restaurants; and a ton of volunteer elbow grease. In the end, we created a truly unique space.

Even more rewarding, we took advantage of what was available to us and repurposed nearly every element in the garden. We used stumps from felled trees to create our seating; recycled Chicago brick to define spaces; painted buckets, pizza sauce cans, and old drainage pipe to create ground and vertical planters; and used live willow to create not just a garden ornament, but a highly-trafficked tunnel in the garden.

A successful design is only gauged as such by the way it is used and the way it is perceived. At SPAL’s fundraising event this past August, a year after installation, the garden showed us all how teamwork wins. Vegetables are growing wildly, flowers are blooming, the seating shows signs of heavy use and the willow tunnel is all but spent, with visible signs of fatigue brought about by the playful feet of children. They even ate their first apple off of the espalier apple tree and had a celebratory release of ladybugs into the garden!

Many thanks to Smarty Pants are Leaders for giving us the opportunity to be a part of something so enriching and rewarding. This project was proof to me that passion for what we do as landscape architects supersedes budget, transcends expectations, and rejuvenates the creative gene inside each and every one of us.

Here is a shout-out to all the volunteers and contractors we worked with:

Our very own (till last week!) Morgan Caputo

Mid America Water, Inc.

Hirsch Brick and Stone

Eiserman & Associates

Kemora Landscapes

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