The transformative potential of the Urban Flower Field

On a sunny mid-summer Saturday morning, a crowd gathered in St. Paul’s new Urban Flower Field to drink lemonade and paint field stones. Over 100 people wandered down from the corner of 10th and Robert streets to walk around the space, now greening up as wildflowers germinate across the site.Blog post 1-1

The Urban Flower Field is a collaboration between Public Art St. Paul, artist in residence Amanda Lovelee, and a research project by Hunter Gaitan, Liz Scherber and Adam Kay of the University of St. Thomas. The research is focused on assessing whether plant biodiversity can help in the remediation of contaminated soils, a process known as phytoremediation. In 96 plots that spiralout from a central patio, there are eight different species of wildflowers planted in mixtures of 1, 2, 4, or 8 species. Throughout the summer we are assessing whether the more species-rich plots remove more soil contaminants.

The Urban Flower Field is on a bustling corner of downtown St. Paul at what was once the Pedro Luggage and Briefcase Center. Pedro Luggage was founded in the early 1900s by Carl Pedro Sr., an Italian immigrant to St. Paul. It was run by his grandchildren until it was closed in 2008. The family donated the land to the city of St. Paul in the hope that the space would be transformed into a park.Blog post 1-2

Plans and financing for a permanent park take time. During this transition, the city of St. Paul sought an idea to transform the site from an abandoned lot to a community gathering space. The city commissioned Public Art St. Paul Artist-in-Residence Amanda Lovelee to make this transformation.  And she did! The result is the Urban Flower Field, a cross-pollination between art and science.

During the opening event Saturday, June 28th, we had an opportunity to conduct some preliminary research on how the local population perceived the space. Survey participants answered one of three questions written on colorful pieces of paper which were then hung on a clothes line to decorate the space (just another clever way we combine art and science at Urban Flower Field!). The three questions asked of participants were:

1) What was the general impression of this space before the project?

2) Do you feel this project will have an effect on how this space is used by the community, If so, how?

3) In your own words, how would you describe Urban Flower Field?

Blog post 1-3Although there were a limited number of participants, the responses were categorized and sorted after the survey.  We hope to repeat this assessment throughout the summer at future events.

From the responses, it is clear that the general impression of the site before the Urban Flower Field was that it was “boring” and “unhappy”. Other responses made it clear that the Pedro Luggage business was treasured by the locals. We were able to talk to one man who fondly remembered sneaking into the basement of the luggage center to sleep when he was working there as a boy. Additionally, we were able to meet Carl Pedro’s grandchildren and great grandchildren who attended the event, one of whom said “The Urban Flower Field would be a dream come true for my Grandfather”.

From the responses to the second question (Do you feel this project will have an effect on how this space is used by the community, If so, how?) most commented that the space could be used for social purposes, such as building relationships, networking, community gathering and that “members of the community will show it off to their guests from out of town”. Others appreciated the potential for adding more beauty to downtown, and the potential benefits of having a green space. One participant responded, “I hope it will build collaboration with residents & natural spaces!”. Although most of the responses were about human uses, one of the responses focused on the environmental health aspect of the research by saying “Yes-the project will help make the soil viable”.

In the responses to the question about a description of Urban Flower Field, the most commonly used adjective was “lovely”. Responses largely commented on the aesthetics. However there were some responses about how the space was “transformative, mind-opening about the future of the site” highlighting that the space is in transition.

Although the sample size is small, the study indicates that the community is excited about having a green community gathering space in downtown. We look forward to collecting more survey responses, and seeing how the impression of the space changes over time as more plants grow and more events take place. Right now the space is a frequently visited lunch spot during the day, and some nights you may be lucky enough to enjoy an impromptu African drum ensemble performing during the evening. (For more upcoming events check out:  http://www.publicartstpaul.com/urban/ )

About the author: Liz Sherber is a recent Biology and Business graduate from the University of St. Thomas