Garden Party

Student-led project inspires a Milwaukee neighborhood.

A community garden is a great place to grow a new generation of neighborhood leaders. That was demonstrated recently in Milwaukee’s Lindsay Heights neighborhood, where local teenagers transformed a vacant lot into a vest-pocket park, with help from CALS landscape architecture students.

The project—part of a neighborhood improvement initiative led by Milwaukee’s Neu-Life Community Resource Center—put teens in the driver’s seat, says graduate student Michelle Bowman. Students in Neu-Life’s after-school program planned, designed and raised money for the park, which was constructed during the fall and spring semesters. The job of the UW team, which also included undergrads Dan Schmitt and Danielle Bilot, was to keep the youth focused, spur their creativity and help them transplant their ideas to the garden.

“The first thing we did was ask the kids what they’re interested in,” Bowman says. “We got everything from a fountain to a boat to a lake to art to purple flowers.”

Bowman spread huge rolls of paper and encouraged students to draw and write about their ideas. They took field trips to other community gardens, recording observations in journals. Many of the students’ sketches ended up in the final design of the park, Bownan says.

When it came time to turn the design into reality, students recruited neighborhood kids to don gloves and hoist shovels, hauling bucket after bucket of black dirt and manure to transform the hard-packed urban soil into a rich bed for plantings. They chose a name for the park that reflected their pride: “Lot of Respect.”

“We talked about names,” Bowman recalls, “and one of the boys said, ‘I think this is about respect. Instead of people walking over this lot and throwing trash all over the place and using drugs, we’re going to give this lot some respect.‘ ”

But the Neu-Life kids weren’t the only ones who gained from the experience. Sam Dennis, a landscape architecture professor who advised the CALS team, says Bowman and the university students learned the power of community involvement, an important part of what he tries to convey in his design courses.

“(She saw that) for this to be meaningful for the kids, they had to have total control,” Dennis says. “The process of going through all the steps and seeing it to fruition generates the respect.”