Physical changes happening in parks are an ideal opportunity for community involvement, and residents can have a tangible impact on their neighborhood by contributing ideas about park design. The Capital Projects division of the Parks Department designs new parks and plans renovations for existing ones. The opportunity for input into Capital’s design process is the scope meeting. At scope meetings, Parks staff, the designer, elected officials, residents, and community board representatives come together at the site to share ideas about the future park or park to be transformed. The designer gathers ideas from everyone present and incorporates them into the park’s design. Volunteers and community organizations are welcome to attend scope meetings and contribute their ideas.
Volunteers from Dred Scott Bird Sanctuary in the South Bronx participated in scope meetings and had a profound impact on their park.
Parks acquired property on Grant Avenue between 169th and 170th streets in 1995. Inspired by Ann Adams and supported by former City Councilman Wendell Foster, residents Troy Lancaster and Jim Beer founded the Dred Scott Bird Sanctuary (DSBS) as a GreenThumb garden on the undeveloped parkland in 1996. Nobody believed that there could be a bird sanctuary in the Bronx, but Troy and Jim planted to attract a variety of avian species, and many colorful birds started to make their homes in Morrisania. The sanctuary is now thriving: music of songbirds carries into surrounding streets, and the garden, full of fruit trees and flowering vines, is a green refuge from the city streets. Troy says that his neighbors are impressed that the birds in the garden are “as pretty as birds you see in a pet shop, but they’re in your community.”
Soon after the founding of DSBS, Parks de-mapped the block of Grant Avenue running through the parkland and made the area into a unified park. With such large-scale projects, parks are built in stages, and Troy and DSBS member Robert Garmendiz attended scope meetings for each phase of design. Their Outreach Coordinator, Maria Luisa Cipriano, informed them when meetings were taking place and encouraged them to attend and share their ideas. As longtime residents and the most persistent presence in the park, DSBS members were uniquely qualified to describe the uses that Grant Park should accommodate. Robert went to a scope meeting where the idea of building a baseball diamond was presented. He pointed out that there was already a baseball diamond at a high school across the street, that building one on the hilly site in question would be time consuming and expensive, and that seniors in the neighborhood needed a place to sit and stroll. A passive recreation area with meandering paths, benches, and trees opened at the site in 2006.
Local participation in park design gave the community facilities it needed and encouraged neighbors to take responsibility for caring for Grant Park. Troy went to a scope meeting and explained that children in the neighborhood needed a place to play. A playground was completed in 2003. “You can build a park and if there’s no community involvement it’ll be trashed in three months. Our playground is three years old and it’s beautiful,” observes Troy.
The playground is packed with local children in the afternoons, after schools let out. Troy opens the playground in the mornings and locks it up at night, and now when he comes to close up around 8pm, people know that it’s time to leave and head towards the exit without being asked. Park users know and respect Troy because they see him caring for the park, whether he’s planting in the Bird Sanctuary or picking up trash in the playground. Troy says, “we need the Parks Department and they need us.” Parks has built beautiful new facilities in Grant Park, but it is up to volunteers like him to care for them.
The final phases of construction will begin soon: the block of Grant Avenue bisecting the park will be closed, and more recreational features, including a soccer field and an amphitheater, will open in the next few years. Getting involved in Capital projects requires patience, but the DSBS volunteers are not discouraged by the time it is taking to see their vision become a reality. Robert appreciates that the process “has given us time to grow and get smarter.” They’ve learned that, with any new park feature, “you don’t want to build it and then leave it empty,” and so are using this time to plan programs for the park. They may use the amphitheater for graduation ceremonies, promoting education in their community by staging these celebrations in a beautiful public setting.
Ultimately, the involvement of volunteers in shaping the design of a park empowers the entire community. Troy and Robert say that their neighbors are still incredulous about the street being closed and turned into park space. Once the park is finished, Robert is confident that “people will see that they can do it, too. They can change their neighborhood. It’s hard work, but things get done eventually.”
Visiting DSBS today is like entering a magical space, a “sanctuary” from the hard, gray concrete and asphalt of the city. Jim and Troy allowed the design of the garden to develop organically: they laid out winding trails and planted native trees and flowers, letting nature determine what would grow there. Some of the trees were donated by the New York Botanical Garden, which has encouraged and supported DSBS since its inception. Jim recalls that they put things in the ground and waited to see what wanted to live there, cultivating the plants that thrived and learning to avoid the ones that struggled. The result is an informal yet artistically composed landscape full of unexpected treasures, such as an array of fruit trees and bushes most people would not expect to find in the Bronx. Blackberries, raspberries, apples, peaches, plums, cherries, currants, and elderberries all bloom in the garden, and they are plentiful enough to feed the birds and the neighbors, who stop by the bird sanctuary throughout the summer to ask for ripe fruit. The fruit, grown without pesticides, is cleaner than anything found in supermarkets and introduces people to the benefits of eating locally grown foods.
With the support of City Councilwoman Helen Foster, the volunteers of DSBS are laying out ambitious plans for the future of the garden. They hope to install new walking paths and benches, solar panels for electricity, a chicken coop, and a system for collecting rainwater in a naturalistic pond so that the reusable water will become another component of the Dred Scott ecosystem. They also want to erect a geodesic dome. Heralded by visionary architect Buckminster Fuller as the shelter of the future, these domes are lightweight and sturdy, and they can cover a large area with few building materials. The dome is an open frame that can be covered to provide protection from the rain.
The dome will be just one component of an environmental education program based in the park, sheltering students from the rain and also introducing students to innovative design. The education program, called the DSBS Learning Center, is the brainchild of teacher and DSBS member Patricia Grant. Patricia plans to start the Learning Center in the summer of 2008. A group of fifteen five- and six-year-olds from local elementary schools will spend five weeks in the garden during July and August. Patricia will introduce the children to nature, teaching them about birds, flowers, and trees, allowing them to enjoy the beautiful green space of the garden, and, most importantly, teaching them that they are responsible for respecting and caring for the earth. The curriculum will follow New York State Learning Standards and the impact of the program on the students will be carefully measured and documented. By instilling the value of conservation at such a young age, Patricia hopes to have a lasting impact on the future of these children and the neighborhood they will inherit. Troy explains: “We want to put these kids in more green and less gray. If we can put these kids in the green, we’ll make good citizens.”
Although it has been in existence for more than ten years, people are still shocked when they hear that there is a thriving bird sanctuary in the Bronx. The volunteers at DSBS hope that someday the garden and its avian inhabitants will become a popular attraction. They dream of the day when buses will bring tourists to visit, seniors to sit and enjoy the birds, and students to learn about the environment.