Synthesis Post: Identifying and Creating Place

There was a day this summer when the first half of the new Hugenot Bridge was completed and the last car passed over the old Hugenot Bridge. However, that car was not the last thing to pass over the bridge before the construction crew began demolition. Instead the bridge was blocked off and opened up to pedestrians, to come and walk the bridge one last time. Chalk was provided and countless people wrote what they loved about the bridge, how many times they had passed over it, how large a part it had played in their lives, and so on. Then there was this message:

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(too many pictures so I can’t post mine)

Anyone who has been to my Facebook knows that this picture has been my cover photo since that day. This message was the moment I too realized what I loved about Richmond, Virginia, or RVA as we affectionately call it. I love the old buildings covered in murals, I love the former industrial island turned into the jewel of the James River Park System, I love the canal walk, and I love the refocusing of the city around the James River.

As I read through my blog posts for this synthesis post I identified two distinct themes: identifying and celebrating forgotten spaces, and healing a space to create a new place of significance and community. In my first posts I discovered and treasured the forgotten space where water flows into the Westhampton Lake near K lot. In another post I reflect on the decaying infrastructure remaining on Belle Isle and how it serves as a symbol of the James River Park System. Finally I recounted my experience volunteering at William Byrd Community House and how I felt I was healing the earth to create a beautiful place of community. These two underlying themes of my post reflect important topics of our class and Earth Lodge as a whole.

Creating place is often an intentional process that begins with identifying a space and looking at its possibilities. You can identify a forgotten corridor of trees and think of what a great reflection spot it could be, or you can identify a vacant lot and envision a garden and community green space. In our readings we have learned a great deal about the importance of green space in urban areas, particularly small parks. To some, small parks may seem like just a small area, but when you look at the larger picture small parks help create corridors between larger wilderness areas to facilitate habitat development and animal migration. To borrow a phrase from my econ classes, there are external benefits to parks and green space that should be recognized in order to increase our demand for them in our communities. When we recognize the external benefits of a space we can begin the process of transforming it into a place of value and significance.

In this vein someone had to see the opportunity for recreational spaces along the James River, even on places like Bell Isle with old infrastructure lying around. By envisioning the James River Park System as a living interactive monument to the past as well as gateway to the future, visionaries like Ralph White have created an exciting system of parks unique to our city. Instead of fencing places off or spending thousands of dollars of costly cleanup, time and energy were put into turning the spaces surrounding old bridges, factories, and pipelines into beautiful, natural green spaces. This duality of old and new, industrial and natural is what fascinates me about urban agriculture and led me to volunteer at William Byrd Community House.

William Byrd Community House is an old library in the Oregon Hill neighborhood, near VCU downtown. The library has been turned into a community resource, providing preschool programs, after school programs, a resource library, a food bank, community garden, farmer’s market, and an urban farmlet to help enrich the community. On the farmlet WBCH grows fresh food to supplement the non-perishable food donated to the food bank. However, the farm area is not the only green space associated with WBCH. Matthew, the farmlet manager, works hard to create shady green spaces filled with edible plants for the children to experience a small piece of nature. In addition last week I worked with him to create swales on an eroded bank to help the sun baked soil absorb more water and prevent runoff. The experience reminded me of our class, particularly when Matthew mentioned several street swales he had seen in Portland, Oregon, identical to the ones in our reading. He sees his job as not just growing food, but repairing the land surrounding William Bryd Community House to be a bright urban green space in a sea of concrete. We planted cuttings of several plants from the James River that provided excellent sources of food for migratory birds and butterfly larva. Seeing his vision of transforming William Byrd Community House into this meaningful community space provided inspiration for the future of Earth Lodge in Atlantic House.

When we first considered the idea of moving to Atlantic House I was excited about the community aspects of living in a house together. However, after that initial excitement of redesigning the inside of Atlantic House, we began to envision how we could transform the surrounding land. We could plant an herb garden to accompany our new kitchen, and even better, an organic garden with composting bins beside it. After my experiences at William Byrd I have begun to think of how we could plant native berries and other plants that might attract wildlife to the area. We can improve water absorption in soil so even more plants can grow around the house or do countless other projects.

How else can Earth Lodge become a force of revitalization and enrichment upon the land we live on? One of the biggest issues of the environmental movement is the belief that an individual’s actions don’t really matter, but Earth Lodge can become a space to prove the impact that individual actions can have in transforming the Earth, one place at a time. Unfortunately, I will not be one of the lodgers living in Atlantic House. It may be up to next year and future generations to create a beautiful place, but we can still envision a future for Atlantic House so it can fully live up to the name Earth Lodge.

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