Native Seed Farm transforms vacant lot to urban prairie garden

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Owner: Chicago Botanical Garden

Design: Archeworks

Location:
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By Kareeshma Ali, assignment editor

Not long ago, a lot on the southern tip of Bridgeport was in as desolate a state as the other 75,000 vacant lots in Chicago. But now when one walks past the corner of 29th St. and Halsted Ave., they will see splashes of color, modest walking paths and perhaps even human activity acknowledging that this plot of land does, in fact, exist.

This newly transformed vacant lot is now the Native Seed Farm, owned and operated by the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG). In an effort to regenerate the prairie, the most endangered ecosystem in North America, the CBG is growing and collecting native plant seeds from the Midwest region to preserve them in various seed banks around the globe. This initiative is part of the Millennium Seed Bank Project, a global cooperative between countries to preserve their native plants.

While on the surface the project tackles the issue of environmental degradation, the CBG has a far greater agenda. Through collaboration with the CBG’s Windy City Harvest program, this project also provides job training to young men leaving the Cook County Boot camp Program, an alternative sentencing program for first-time offenders. Additionally, the CBG reached out to Archeworks, an alternative design school in Chicago, to facilitate the physical and programmatic design of the space. Through a series of charrettes with the boot camp inmates, Archeworks students developed a design that not only serves as a functional production space for CBG, but also promotes environmental education, community gathering and walking.

The soon-to-be lush garden acts as a transitional space in many ways. It provides a soft buffer between the quaint residential streets of Bridgeport and the harsh industrial conditions directly south of it. The garden also inspires a mental transition from decrepit vacancy to a communal place while creating opportunities of social re-entry for ex-convicts.

One boot camp inmate even saw the job opportunities as a catalyst for greater social change.

“I think it’s really important, not only for me but anybody else who has children, for them to see their parents to do something good, doing something to help the community,” said the inmate, whose identity by law is required to be anonymous. “That makes them want to get involved from a very young age.”

While such heavy collaboration efforts might seem like an anomaly for a small plot of land, this pilot garden has the potential for much bigger social, physical, mental and economic opportunities. The
Native Seed Farm lies quietly as a glimpse of the potential that is percolating in the gaps of Chicago neighborhoods – it is a modest expression of the power of awareness, dialogue and creativity.

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