Saturday, November 10, 2012

Re-Planting Lincoln's Union Plaza

A few months back I criticized Union Plaza--a new dowtown park here in Lincoln--both on my blog and in the local paper. I stand by what I've said, and I'm finally going to go further, looking deeper at what I see to be major landscaping flaws. Lincoln has and is currently undergoing massive "big boy" civic construction--this park is one, the doubling of the downtown haymarket (arena, hotels, etc) is another. The grandeur of our new buildings (and roundabouts) outstrips the awe of our garden and green landscapes, which is a common problem with most cities.

How we interact personally with our green landscapes as we walk them is often an afterthought to hardscapes--it should in fact be at the forefront as an educational and artistic tool demonstrating a city's diversity, creativity, and regional roots. In other words, an awareness of what makes a city a city, how people live within the natural world, and how they depend upon it--in other words, a public park should show how nature is not an escape or recreational weekend destination only, but an everyday service to our bodies, our cells, our nourishment. I find this all lacking to some degree in Union Plaza.

To me, this new park represents centuries of western didacticism. If you straighten the lines--and thank god they are at least curvy and mimic the flood channel--the park soon looks like Versailles. This tradition of overlaying a landscape with perfect geometric lines is not only a sign of imperialistic / hubristic thinking, but in the landscape world of Oehme and Oudolf (the new american landscape) it's simply outdated. To me, when I look at Union Plaza, I see a small space trying to be something big in another century, in another country--I see a king's wealth and order on display. I see Jefferson's grid that destroyed native ecosystems, native wildlife, and native peoples.

I love the idea of this park. I love that people and corporations worked together to make it happen. I love that it can be a place for events and a place to stroll. But I do not want to stroll here. It does not invite me. It does not make me linger. It does not connect me to a place. It does not make me feel peaceful, reposed, transformed and transfigured like a garden should. I learn nothing. Can you see this in just the two above images? It's open, sunny, and monocultured. Who will sit on the slopes of buffalo grass? Why would you? What's holding you to this place? To this city? Very little. Let's look at some other images.

In the above image you see some nice hardscaping--natural places to sit by the water. However, nothing pulls you down to this space, nothing invites you in for a closer look, to linger, to be here.

Here's an example of wasted opportunity for native prairie plants--which is what I'm advocating. Native plants full of color, scent, texture, and wildlife, and requiring very little water or maintenance. Some plants on the upland slopes that like it dry, some that can take the periodic flooding down low. Deeply-rooted plants that won't need supplemental watering and that won't get washed away. See that space between the sidewalk and the wall? Coneflowers, milkweed, sideoats grama, indian grass, sunflowers, salvia, prairie clover, and on and on. Who is going to stop and sit here? No one. Who will walk by this on a rush to get somewhere else, up ahead where the eye is drawn? Everyone. This is a wasted space with no wonder and no power. The same goes for the two images before.

There's a neat amphitheater for concerts and such. But all around it, and all around the parking areas and more, the plants are in uniform and linear distribution. When I see plants evenly spaced and in lines I am incredibly bored. This is what you see "professional" landscapers do--lines of grasses. Rows of one type of flower. The plants don't sing, don't mingle, don't paint a picture--they are forced into unnatural order not representative of our prairie culture and lineage (though, I suppose, they do represent our cornfields quite well).

Perfectly spaced chokeberries. Just chokeberries. So you have two seasons of interest only--a week in spring, and maybe two in fall. All over the park are swaths of beds with simple plantings evenly spaced. Lines and rows. Why? Is this representing, mirroring, contributing to the teachings espoused in the mosaics along some walls?

Wilderness is a philosophy, not a boundary.

But rains held off. Day after day the clouds, as white and dry and puffy
as milkweed seeds, scadded high with the winds.

A planting of barely-monarch-attracting Asclepias tuberosa,
in perfect rows, is in front of this image. I raise 100s of monarchs
a year and see about one egg on tuberosa. Insects in general
also prefer the nectar of other milkweeds in my garden four miles west.
So, there is no wonder, joy, or connection to landscape or nature in this park. Not yet, anyway. There is very little benefit to wildlife. There is no awareness of nature here, no way to teach people about their natural heritage, to connect them with the natural world, and no reason a child would linger here--except for the playground equipment on the northwest edge. This last point saddens me, especially after reading Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods.

What's an altermative? What's modern, sophisticated, enriching, enveloping, what draws in tourists and sets a city apart? The Lurie Garden in Chicago and the High Line in New York. Native plants in waves, wildlife meccas, a destination, a place to linger and meet, a place to connect with each other and the world. A place to wander and wonder.



High Line

High Line
See the difference? FEEL the difference? Union Plaza needs prairie. It needs Nebraska. It needs the Great Plains. Right now it's just another park, ho hum. It could be so much more with a few dozen bags of seed and maybe a "friends of Union Plaza" volunteer organization that goes out each March for a few hours to cut down the prairie plants, as I do in my garden--easy maintenance, four seasons of interest and wildlife value. Lincoln, we need prairie. We need our world and our lives handed to us just as in writing, painting, sculpture, music, and dance--all evidence of a thriving community, just like a diverse prairie brimming with flowers, grasses, and insects. Here's our chance.


greggo said...

I feel you pain.

I read a article in our local paper about people donated money for 100's of trees to be planted in the local 'prairie' park. ? Trees are the main competitors of a prairie..don't get it...and neither do they.

I agree that money was not well spent, I bet it looked great on paper though..

Gaia Gardener: said...

The other thought that I had, looking at the photos and reading your comments, was that waterways were the one place on a prairie that DID have some trees - cottonwoods, black willows, eventually black walnuts, oaks, elms.... How much more inviting that space would be with a few groves of trees, interplanted with beds of prairie wildflowers and grasses. Leave some buffalo grass in between to satisfy the "lawn folks" since it is native, but you are so right - to be people-friendly, this space needs much more diverse and alive plantings!

Les said...

The park looks dull, made even more so by the concrete ditch in the center. It is a shame your voice was not listened to. Perhaps you and the like-minded should start a movement.

scottweberpdx said...

It is definitely a wasted opportunity...I can't believe people can look at that and find it to be anything other than severe and inhospitable.

Benjamin Vogt said...

G--We have a program called ReTree Nebraska. And while there were trees on the prairie and in wet areas, I always think people assume that more trees are always a good thing. Not so. Maybe in cities it is, with the heat island thing.
GG--I like what you're saying and agree. I swing the pendulum all the way over so we can have SOME gains, and your vision is where I'd like to end up. :)
L--That concrete would not be so noticiable with prairie around, in fact, I think it could look quite modern and striking. Maybe they should've stained it? Eh.
S--Severe and inhsopitable is right. And this is supposed to be a place for folks downtown to gather, like on lunch breaks and after work. Really?