Urban Greening for Youth
Urban Greening for the Future: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden – Groundwork RVA Partnership Empowers Youth to Transform Richmond.
Urban greening: “I want to make a difference in the community,” said DarQuan, a rising senior at Huguenot High School, about urban greening. DarQuan is one of the nine students participating in the Sustainable Landscape Management Program, a collaborative effort between Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and Groundwork RVA that seeks to educate youth about sustainable landscaping and urban greening.
I got a chance to interview these bright and brilliant youth recently when they toured Lewis Ginter, learning about and choosing the plants that they would like to incorporate into their urban greening project at the Six Points Innovation Center (6PIC) in Highland Park. We walked and talked while it was so hot and humid outside that even the occasional breeze and the cooling shade couldn’t stop us from sweating. It was under the blazing sun that DarQuan told me about the heat island effect, something he has just learned in class as part of the program and saw for himself as the group drove around Richmond taking temperature at different locations. He shared with me how he is experiencing it first hand in his own community. “You don’t want buildings and everything taking over everywhere,” said DarQuan. “You still want to have some green in the city. So sometimes you have to do it, you have to act on it and plant stuff out there.” That sentiment was echoed by several other students who enrolled in this urban greening program. Each stressed the need for more green spaces in their neighborhoods, around community centers, and along the roads.
“If your neighborhood looks nice, it’s going to make you feel nice,” Chamek Francois, a graduate of George Wythe High School, chimed in. “If you are going home to a neighborhood and you see nice plants, it’s going to change your mindset.”
These teens would like do more for their community, but they didn’t know where to start.
And that’s where the Sustainable Landscape Management Program came in:
Funded by a grant from the Robins Foundation to provide outdoor education for teens, this one-week project was led by Youth Programs Developer Heather Veneziano and Community Engagement Coordinator Duron Chavis, along with Green Team Manager Kendra Norrell from Groundwork RVA. Together, through a series of guest lecturers and hands-on activities, they taught these teens the steps needed to have a sustainable site, as well as how to engage the community to talk about food deserts and the dire need for urban gardening. The project culminated in a volunteer action day led by the youth, where they worked with volunteers from Capital One, to beautify the area around 6PIC with self-watering wooden boxes that they constructed, planted with coneflowers, black-eyed Susan, tickseed, mint, lavender and daylilies — plants selected by the students.
“Our desire was to bridge the gap with the students to teach them the importance of urban greening while also paying attention to the history and issues of the community they are in,” said Chavis. “By introducing them to long-time residents and organizations that work in Highland Park, we were able to explore how real people would be impacted by the work.”
The youth participating this program are from local public schools around the Richmond area. With little to no previous experience with urban gardening, they were eager to learn, applying their curious minds to the exploration of not only plants, but also the community surrounding the area. Each day of the project was a new adventure, focusing on different aspects of sustainable landscaping and urban greening. In the morning, students met with local experts and educators at 6PIC and after that they walked around the neighborhood and talked to the people who live, work, and ran their businesses in the community. They were able to engage with and learn from the very people who need green space, fresh food, and a beautiful sight to come home to — the core members of this community.
“The 6PIC area, Highland Park, is a new neighborhood to me, so I was a little scared of how people may treat me and if they’d respond back to me,” said Ii’Jeana, a rising senior at Open High School and a third-year groundskeeper at Groundwork RVA. “But after we finished, I realized that Highland Park is a neighborhood similar to mine! We both have trees, stores, and people.”
In order to understand food deserts, the students went out on a scavenger hunt at a nearby convenient store just to see what they could, or could not, get there. They were introduced to the staff and interns of Grown to Go, a Shalom Farms mobile market program that serves the greater Richmond area by selling fresh, organic, and local produce to community members who have limited access to healthy food. They also got to taste tomatoes picked straight from the vines, learn more about organic produce and compare prices as they crossed off items on their grocery list.
On the last day of the program, the students visited Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden to explore our plant collections and view live samples of the plants that they’d get to choose to incorporate into their beautification project at 6PIC. For some, this was the first time they’d visited Lewis Ginter, and their faces brightened up with awe and excitement. They would check out any peculiar-looking plants, rub their fingers against chocolate mint leaves just so that they could carry the refreshingly calming scent with them as they walked around, and make goofy jokes about the Four O’Clocks and Naked Ladies.
After finalizing their landscape design plan, these urban-gardeners-to-be were ready and excited for the big day when approximately corporate volunteers from Capital One came to 6PIC to help the students make their greening projects a reality. The youth took on leadership roles, bringing into action all that they learned during the one-week program, leading the Capital One volunteers in implementing their design, transforming the whole surrounding area.
“I learned team work makes the dream work,” said Ii’Jeana of the experience. “I was happy and pumped that all these volunteers wanted to come out and help make these planting beds, but I wasn’t really sure how it would work out. I’ve never led that big of a group, so I was a little nervous. But, once things started rolling, I got the hang of it and the Capital One volunteers were all so eager and cooperative. They really made the experience what it was to me!”
“Working with our community partners, our hope is it inspire the next generation of community leaders,” said Veneziano. “Giving them the tools and skills to go out into their community and see the possibilities, the 6PIC project is more than a beautification project, it is about seeing the possibilities, listening and working with their community to make a change.”
Not knowing each other before, they joined this program, made new friends, became a team, learned new things, and most importantly, left the program with a clear sense of what they could do to beautify their own communities. “At Open High we do a senior community project and for my senior project, I want to cut down this grassy area and plant nice flowers and stuff there,” said Ii’Jeana. “I didn’t really know about the importance of greening until I joined this program, and now I think that’s what I’ll do for my senior project.”
“Nobody is going to sit around and have their community just torn down for not taking care of it,” said DarQuan, who wanted to do more for his community. “If you act on it, people will follow. If they see a bunch of teens out there doing things, they want to come out and help too. If people start to make a change in their community and help out, people will tag along and help.”