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Westhaven Park Community Garden

Kirsten Westergren 
Placemaking Principle #9
: Start with the petunias

photo by Kirsten Westergren

Complete with night-light installations and fruits and vegetables of all kinds, the now green 100’x130’ lot in the middle of the Westhaven Park housing development represents the fundamental concept and purpose behind a successful community garden.

Located on the near west side of the city on the site of the former Henry Horner homes, Westhaven Park is a 547-unit mixed-income housing community that is pioneering commercial development along Lake Street and, according to its developers, weaving its community “back into the fabric of life in Chicago.” The development began in 2003, and its properties are now 97% occupied. Because of shifts in the economy, however, plans for a condominium development along Washington Blvd., a stone’s throw from the United Center, were put on hold and the lot was left vacant. Although the space is still intended for more housing once the economy improves, residents decided to put it to good use in the meantime by transforming it into a community garden.

Throughout 2009, residents and condo owners met with the Neighbors’ Development Network and Interstate Realty Management (IRM) to discuss the plans. This led them to the simple, yet important, action highlighted in Placemaking Principle #9, which is starting with the petunias—or rather, the perennials in this case. In the fall of 2009, neighbors simply planted the first group of perennials as a way of testing out their long-range plans for the site. Since then, workshops and funding from GreenCorps, Brinshore (Westhaven Park’s developer), and various local schools (Brown, Dett, Suder) have contributed to the garden’s growth. Its 23 raised beds now provide an abundance of tomatoes, collard greens, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, kale, herbs, celery, and other organic vegetables.

photo by Westhaven Park

But the transformation of the lot didn’t stop there. In fact, the vegetable garden only makes up one half of the public space. In the summer of 2010, the non-profit arts group Architreasures hired a group of teenagers at Westhaven to work 20 hours a week for six weeks designing and constructing the park portion of the garden as a part of Architreasures’ goal to reduce social isolation by building public spaces. They created custom planters for flowers and grassy areas and a children’s sandbox.  In addition, the teens helped build beautiful multipurpose cedar boxes that were inspired by artist Pete Stam’s idea of combining fun social events with art and sculpture. As the focal point of the space, these boxes serve as seating, planters, and even night-lights. The youth also interviewed a number of residents to gauge their thoughts on gardens, community, and art. The insights they gathered were used to plan the space, and the boxes displayed some of their favorite quotes, such as “Gardens help people get to know each other” and “The garden makes the community look alive.”

The space continues to be used for special events, as the residents have organized picnics and dinners, a movie night, a carnival, a talent show, and more.  Even though Westhaven’s apartments are a physical improvement to the previous public housing units on the site, many returning residents have lamented the loss of the tight-knit community that existed in the old Henry Horner homes. Further, many of the new Plan for Transformation sites have struggled to create authentic communities among groups of people who may appear, at first glance, to have little in common. The community garden’s encouragement of social interaction, then, is a positive and necessary component of the development. According to Resident Services Coordinator Lisa Young, the garden is “the most tangible way in which people of all spectrums connect together.” Social activities and work on the space has nothing to do with one’s demographics or housing type, so it facilitates interaction among those with the common goal of caring for the garden. Lisa believes that interactions happen organically there, and the connections made go beyond surface level.

Saturdays are typically work days for the wider community, and the basic policy is that whoever works on the garden gets to reap the benefits of it. The high beds for the vegetables especially

Garden beds of varied heights allow residents to stand or sit as needed while planting and weeding.

photo by Westhaven Park

 enable involvement among seniors and residents in wheelchairs. Former Horner resident Ms. Butler, for instance, an elderly woman who uses a wheelchair, is one of the most active gardeners. Her contribution and commitment demonstrates that the upkeep of the garden and the community building it engenders is really about motivation.  In fact, many residents have been so motivated that they’ve started mini gardens on their own balconies as well.

While the community garden is ultimately temporary, the residents have high hopes and future plans for its betterment. Their next push is to get funding for a sprinkler system. Residents and coordinators would also like to encourage more children and youth participation by getting nearby schools involved in the planting of the garden and potentially even educational projects like writing children’s books about gardening. The garden may not last forever, but the relationships forged there and the community it has created will long outlast it. 

photo by Westhaven Park