We have adjusted our work to pandemic times, experiencing challenges but also opportunities. Here’s an update on Autumn Ridge Apartments in Brooklyn Park.
Working at Autumn Ridge: Year Three, in a Pandemic
Rich Harrison believes in nature therapy. An avid practitioner himself, he takes every opportunity to simply pause and experience the natural world around him. So he was thrilled when he noticed a woman closely examining some plants in a garden at Autumn Ridge Apartments in Brooklyn Park recently.
“She was taking pictures. You could see her observing the bees and the life that is in that planting bed,” Harrison said. “That is part of what this work is all about.”
Harrison, co-director of landscape design for Metro Blooms, has been managing a landscape redesign at Autumn Ridge since 2017. It was our first project in a program — now with several sites — that engages residents in affordable housing communities to be meaningfully involved in making their green spaces more sustainable and inviting. The program brings in raingardens, habitat for pollinators and healthier tree canopy. It also improves the quality of outdoor living, with amenities such as benches and play areas.
Typically we engage residents to help shape the direction of a redesign — the idea is to make sure the people most impacted by the work are part of the decision-making. With help from residents acting as project stewards to promote and help out with activities, we organize events that open up conversations with community members. We discuss sustainable practices like raingardens and native plantings and how they play a part in creating a more functional landscape. Residents tell us how they spend time outdoors and what changes they would like to see that would improve livability. They draw their walking routes on a bird’s-eye map, identifying where people spend a lot of time; vote on plant preferences; and weigh in on amenities such as benches and play areas (new playground equipment, installed in 2018, was a priority at Autumn Ridge). The community’s input helps us prioritize where to put in stormwater management practices and landscape improvements that would have the greatest impact environmentally and make the space more inviting. Later there are opportunities for those who want to get their hands dirty at planting events.
Due to social-distancing, we have had to scale back on these activities. But we wanted to continue engaging the community in a positive way. One way to do this was providing employment. Previously, project stewards received gift cards in exchange for their time. Now, given the pandemic’s impact on the economy and our internal goals of equitably compensating project partners, we identified on-site work opportunities as a way to meet a need during a time when people were losing jobs.
“We wanted to bring investment to the community, and try to support them during this very challenging time,” said Yordanose Solomone, our equitable engagement director.
Solomone conducted an interest survey among residents. Autumn Ridge publicized the opportunity via social media channels, surveys and through email. In the end, seven residents were interested, and two have been working with us to install new raingardens, with additional opportunities to be paid for planting later this fall. Solomone hopes that this work experience will foster future benefits — maybe cultivating a stronger connection to the local landscape that the residents working with us helped to create and care for.
Compared to the previous two years, where large raingardens were installed in more prominent locations, Harrison said work this year was focused on the interior of the property, where we installed several smaller raingardens. We’re also creating a more diverse tree canopy. In the spring we removed 18 ash trees, which are susceptible to infestation by the emerald ash borer. The trees will be replaced by more resilient species such as hackberry and serviceberry.
These days (mid-August), some of the gardens are amazingly beautiful. Harrison experienced one of his nature therapy moments around the anise hyssop in full bloom, something he hopes others like him and the woman he saw taking pictures can experience through this redesign: the opportunity to stop, just for a moment, to smell the flowers and see the bees.
“We all come from different world views, from different experiences. I don’t know for sure what she was thinking,” he said. “I just know that she was taking a pause to observe nature — and that’s a good thing, for anybody.”
Generous support comes from many partners including owner Sherman Associates, the City of Brooklyn Park, the Metropolitan Council, Hennepin County, African Career, Education and Resource Inc (ACER), the Shingle Creek Watershed Management Organization and Blue Cross Blue Shield Center for Prevention.
— Aleli Balagtas, Metro Blooms Communications Coordinator, email@example.com