Who Are Our Parks and Open Spaces For?

Every semester, BCL’s emergent curriculum is anchored in five themes: Community, Place, Sustainability, Civic Engagement, and Social Justice. Every topic, theme, and question can be explored through at least one of those themes. But every now and then, an issue emerges that seamlessly synthesizes all five. When this happens, we take every opportunity to lean in. In BCL9, a confluence of opportunities allowed students to dig deep into a central question: Who are our parks and open spaces for? 

This question was already alive for students. After all, nearly everyone has a local park or green space that they spend time in. It was clear to all of us that these places are contested ground. Who are our parks designed for? Which activities are welcome? Which animals should be present? Which people? What specific demographic groups are represented? We fed students’ natural curiosity earlier this Fall by investigating Waterfront history,  exploring Burlington’s rich natural history, and learning how the city’s housing crisis impacts those at the margins.  Later, students met with Cindi Wight, Director of Parks, Recreation and Waterfront, to deepen their understanding of values, vision, and tensions, city-wide. 

Then, in late October, BCL9 split into three small groups. Each group engaged in a multi-day project, in collaboration with community partners. Although oriented differently, each project was guided by the same question: Who are our parks and open spaces for? Students engaged in hands-on service work; they mediated inter-group dialogue; and they consulted on park design. What follows are brief overviews written by the project’s BCL team leader, and student reflections on these experiences. 

The Community Orchard Project

For the Community Orchard project, students had a chance to apply our larger question to a practical purpose. The home base for the project was a community orchard in the Old North End, co-managed by the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront and the neighborhood it stands in. To gain context, students began at a floodplain forest in the Intervale and learned from Zoe Richards from Burlington Wildways about nature-based climate solutions, a strategy for mitigating climate change that draws on nature as an ally. They also worked with Duncan Murdoch from the Intervale Center, and discussed the idea of “non-native opportunistic plant species” and why certain plants are prioritized over others in ecosystem management. At the orchard, students applied these ideas by planting species that would boost climate resiliency by providing food for the community and habitat for pollinators, and by holding back fast-growing non-native species. Chris Humphrey from the Burlington Parks department led the students in the planting, as well as mulch-spreading and sign painting. Actively aiding in decisions about which plants should exist in a community orchard sparked lively conversation about the priorities of the space, both for human and non-human residents.

In the Intervale, students got familiar with floodplain forest tree species by investigating leaves on the ground.

Orchard plants benefit from pieces of cardboard we placed around them to keep opportunistic non-native species at bay.

Late season bounty!

Planting the native plants required digging a hole, breaking up the roots, and repacking the hole before adding cardboard and mulch.

I remember that there was this man and his child who lived across from the orchard… He brought us some Halloween candy. but he also showed us so much gratitude by coming and planting some plants. He said “ A lot of people don’t realize that this is for our community and people don’t come and take care of this orchard…” If I was not in BCL, I honestly probably would not be thinking about the different values of our community because I would not know where to start. Different people may have values and talk about them, but taking action is what really makes a difference in this community. I want to be a contributor to a good change for our world. Even if that tiny action is planting some trees and bushes it is a lot more than what some people do for our community.

– Hadley

In my journal, I wrote: “I felt happy. I planted flowers and apple trees in Burlington. I feel connected because I walk my dog in this area. I can visit the garden and check on my plants and read the signs I made. It was fun and joyful planting things in Burlington. People will be able to eat the food I planted!” I think when I can do something to make the place better for the people, it is a good thing for our community… Planting the trees helped me to be part of the community.

– Cosmo

Designing the Waterfront’s Future

Earlier this Fall, BCL had a two day residency at the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center. With a home base by the lake, students explored the “long body” of geology, and more recent layers of industrial history. Students in the Future of the Waterfront project had the opportunity to take that learning further, and engage with community partners who are actively considering what the Waterfront should be. They explored archival photographs, in order to understand more deeply the layers of history under our feet. They walked a section of the Urban Reserve with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Biologist, Ryan Crehan to explore the potential for re-naturalizing a significant stretch of shoreline–and bringing natural flood patterns back to the landscape. They met with Zach Campbell, founder and Director of Friends of the Frame, an organization dedicated to bringing public art to Moran Frame. They also did a mini-consultancy with CEDO’s Assistant Director of Public Works, Samantha Dunn, to envision the next phase of Moran Frame. Throughout these collaborations, students grappled with how to balance values, and how an understanding of the past can help shape the future. 

Ryan Crehan, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologist, helped us understand the potential, and the complexity, of re-naturalizing the Waterfront’s shoreline.
Zach Campbell, of Friends of the Frame, asked students about how programming at the site could build community and equity.
The best way to see the Frame’s potential is to walk inside…and to look up. 
Samantha Dunn, CEDO’s Assistant Director of Community Works, was curious about the opportunity and challenge of Moran Frame engaging marginal groups–including youth. 

When talking to Samantha Dunn about the Frame, she stressed inclusivity and accessibility for its future, and hoped to attract all members of Burlington. She’s even leaning towards temporary events at the Moran Frame in order to have many different demographics involved in the space. Clearly, diversity is important to her, but it doesn’t come easily. In my journal, I wrote “Balancing people with nature is a hard task. Balancing a diverse group of people is even more complicated.” We talked a lot about how different groups can feel unwelcome in the future plans… The lack of a paved sidewalk to the Moran Frame excludes many with physical disabilities, teens/young adults are largely uninterested in most events, and perhaps the most complicated is the homeless living mere meters away. Will they be welcomed into the space like everyone else, or shunned because of possible safety concerns? 

There is power in diversity. It is what attracts me, and many others to cities. To discover new cultures and curate a new perspective is one of the most important parts of embracing the world and its offerings. I’m glad that Samantha and everyone else working on the Moran Frame also has diversity as a core value. I’m excited to see its future but also curious to how they will manage all the groups using the space. 

– Vivian

According to Penn State, community engagement increases the probability of a project being widely accepted, creates more effective solutions by drawing on community knowledge, and creates opportunities to discuss concerns. It also improves citizens’ knowledge, helps with problem solving, empowers citizens, integrates people from different backgrounds, and increases trust within a community. These are benefits I’ve been able to see during my time at BCL. [When we spoke] to people in charge of the development of the Moran Frame, I and my group were able to bring a voice from the youth community in Burlington to this project. Our unique perspective provided more knowledge on the wants of the community, [from] a more diverse age range. As a group, this also benefited us since we learned more about how projects happen in our community and empowered us to make change in the future.

– Sophia

Who is Callahan Park For? 

As this semester unfolded, students became more and more curious about human and nonhuman use of public places, especially issues related to people living with homelessness. With the guidance of our partners at Burlington Park, Recreation and Waterfront, we were able to collaborate on a pilot project at Callahan Park that highlighted these issues. There were many reasons why this location was perfect. First, previous BCL classes had consulted on the park’s comprehensive plan. In addition, four of the six students who chose this project grew up near Callahan, so they already had  a personal connection. Lastly, this is a place where tensions are real and relevant–especially in the Southeast corner of the park, which hosts both community gardeners and residents of the neighboring low-barrier shelter.

For three days, students met on-site with Neil Preston and Andrew Romano (Urban Park Rangers), Kenroy Walker  (community organizer), Ben Rodgers (Conservation Field Coordinator), and Amanda Marquis (landscape architect).   We were also joined by several folks who frequent this part of the park, many who live in temporary housing. One of the most avid community gardeners, Elizabeth, came each day to help students understand some of the challenges that she and other gardeners are experiencing.  On our last day, two partners from CVOEO came to explain their work helping folks living on the margins.  Students engaged in these exchanges with deep curiosity and compassion. By working together to prep the outside of the community garden for improvements next year, students were able to help cultivate a deeper sense of community and belonging for all participants, and to help deepen the conversation around who our parks are for.  It was a rich experience that every participant will carry with them. We all left more hopeful that collaboration and dialogue can help guide how neighbors can share space in respectful and meaningful ways.  

Students studied the master plans for Callahan Park with landscape designer, Amanda Marquis, and considered possible improvements for the Community Garden seen in the background.
Discussing who uses the park with community partners, Kenroy Walker, Amanda Marquis, and Andrew Romano.
Outside of the Community Garden, students “sheet mulched,” in preparation for native planting in the Spring.
Working with community helps build community. Thank you, Josh, for helping!

Adam Hall, from CVOEO, said “If someone is getting into one of these housing facilities, it’s not because more were created, it’s because someone has failed the system and got kicked out.” These temporary housing facilities around the city are helping a little but they aren’t decreasing the homeless population, they are just cycling the population through the system over and over again. One person will get a room and stay until their time is up or they make a mistake. When that happens they will be put on the street again…. The cycle will just keep going, and it isn’t a solution but it’s the only thing we have right now that is close to a solution. This problem is going to take a long time to solve and nothing is making it easier. CVOEO and CORA among many other organizations are doing their very best to help with this problem and get people out of these loops but I think we still need to come together as a community and help more. 

– Camryn

All three projects were successful, and we could have left things there and moved on. However, with the design principle of Purpose & Audience in mind, we knew there was an opportunity for further impact. After all, here was a group of young adults who had experience, context, and curiosity about a question that didn’t just connect our five BCL themes–it also connected professionals across a variety of Burlington city departments, local non-profits, and federal agencies. 

It turns out that there is a place in Burlington where the question of who our parks and open spaces are for is both relevant and timely: the “Urban Reserve.”  This parcel, also called “Waterfront North” and “The North 40,” runs from the Sailing Center to Texaco Beach. It’s a significant piece of undeveloped land, but as our students already knew, it’s a complex area. It has a toxic post-industrial legacy, and yet it’s rich in wildlife. It is a beloved section of the bike path, and yet it is home to 10-25 unsheltered residents. It is land where multiple values co-exist, and sometimes conflict. A generation ago, the city  determined that decisions about this place would be made by “future generations.” It seemed apt and fortuitous that a thoughtful, passionate group representing that “future generation” was ready to engage in dialogue about its future. 

As the season’s first cold wind chilled the Urban Reserve, BCL9 gathered with nine community partners at the Sailing Center:

Owen Milne, Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center

Dan Cahill, Burlington Land Steward

Charles Dillard, Planning & Zoning

Sarah Russell, Special Assistant to End Homelessness

Ryan Crehan, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Biologist

Neil Preston, Burlington Park Ranger

Andrew Romano, Burlington Park Ranger

Erin Moreau, Waterfront Superintendent and Harbormaster

Zoe Richards, Burlington Wildways / Conservation Board

Together with students, these partners explored the tensions between Recreation, Conservation, Development, and Equity/Inclusion in the Urban Reserve, and began to imagine a future in which those values were balanced. 

The tensions in the Urban Reserve were obvious to everyone, but each discussion headed in a different direction.
In each discussion group, community partners met students as equals…
…and insights that might not have otherwise emerged began to shift our perspectives.
Each group surfaced new questions…
…and began to transform tensions into possibilities. 
By deliberately mixing up community partners, colleagues who don’t often connect–or in some cases, colleagues who had never met before–expanded their thinking, while building new connections. 

Though our time at the sailing center was limited to two hours, we dedicated that time to dive deeper and learn more about the tensions, values and visions of Burlington’s waterfront Urban Reserve. In the many conversations I had both with community partners and fellow classmates, I was able to understand, react, and address the current thoughts and issues about how to balance recreation, conservation, development, and equity/inclusion in Burlington and its waterfront.

– Nash

I think this experience was really awesome because in BCL we have a lot of different perspectives and we explore those but rarely do we have experts in all those different perspectives. This was powerful because when I asked a question, I would get a really informed answer. This allowed the discussion to go deeper, because Instead of just thinking of all the possibilities we knew what the restrictions were.

– Rosie

Because there were a lot of different people in the room, I was able to get a new viewpoint that I would not have gotten without these different perspectives. Like when we were talking about homeless people, [one of our community partners] mentioned one unsheltered person who does not want to leave the place. I would not have gotten this perspective without this experience.

– Yacin

In my small breakout group we talked about the tensions that exist between equity/inclusion and conservation, recreation, and development. As we talked, we came to the conclusion that equity and inclusion are often ignored or not looked at. My group and I figured that this was because when people are creating something it is really hard to include everybody and there are a lot of steps to be equitable to everybody…To do this we need people to really connect with everyone who lives there. One quote I wrote in my journal is “relationships are the structure for healthy systems.” Having relationships with people allows you to expand and learn which is a big big part of having a thriving community.

– Reid

We talked about how an important way to smooth the tension [and embrace] equity and inclusion is to build a relationship with the people we’re trying to include. I think that this experience deepened my belief that these open spaces should be for everyone but it’s also hard to balance our values. At some point in the process of growing these spaces we will have to set some priorities.

– Scout

In our small group discussion, we reimagined the space as a mostly untouched wetland where animals and the water could reclaim the space. Paths through the wilderness could help people explore natural beauty. It shifted my lens from just considering well off-people to homeless and animal life as well. This experience was interesting because we got to discuss these issues with more informed people whose jobs are the very things we were talking about.

– Evan

Although BCL blog posts typically highlight student voices and perspectives. In this case, it feels appropriate to include the perspectives of community partners as well. 

I am a new parks employee… Working with BCL has helped me immensely. During our time working with BCL I’ve come to see parks as a place for building and developing community, and as a conservation holding for our children and visitors. 

– Neil Preston, Urban Park Ranger

There is potential to do something really interesting in the Urban Reserve, something positive for the lake, for plants and wildlife and for people’s relationship to the greater world.  

– Ryan Crehan, U.S. Fish & Wildlife

I experienced the session with BCL as a deeply powerful grounding. Any integration I have with the management and planning of the Urban Reserve will benefit from much more range after our session on Monday.  Most certainly, the authentic voice and perspective of our youth population should be centered in our vision and programming. I believe there is a way to activate and manage the space so that it is constantly available to adapt with the changing future generations priorities and needs.  The provision that it will be for “future generations” to determine its use is a bit of a riddle–but that riddle may be much more thoughtful than I ever gave it credit for. 

– Dan Cahill, Burlington Land Steward

In my work, I tend to focus less on conservation and it was so interesting to learn more about the history of the Urban Reserve and Waterfront.  I learned about how flooding, soil contamination, and other environmental factors need to be considered.  It also occurred to me that a large number of our most vulnerable community members are forced or pushed to places where dangerous conditions exist and I became curious about the reasons why they tend to inhabit these areas and set up camps. Is it because they choose these locations or because they are pushed there–or some combination of both?

As always, I am struck by the very high-level thinking of students.  Their ideas and thoughts and wonders are such an important voice that sometimes is lost.  I heard today that the future of the Urban Reserve was to be determined by the next generation and I hope that in some way, the voices of all members of the community can weigh in.  I learn so much from these students and I am really grateful to have the opportunity to learn from them and be part of their learning as their ideas take form.

– Sarah Russell, Special Assistant to End Homelessness

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