Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Public Raingarden Bulldozed

(See followup post for an update.)

You know, it's been a beautiful summer, and I really don't feel like being upset. But this past Thursday, on August 7, the raingarden at the Princeton Housing Authority's Spruce Circle on Harrison Street was bulldozed. Just like that. Gone. For six years it provided beauty to passersby, and food and habitat for wildlife. This time of year is peak flowering, with Joe-Pye-Weed, cutleaf coneflower, boneset and swamp milkweed providing color and feeding pollinators that find precious little to feed on elsewhere. In an urban landscape dominated by trees and turf, the raingarden offered an oasis for the dwindling numbers of monarch butterflies that come our way each year.

When I discovered the destruction, the sign was still there. It would have been thoughtful if the head of maintenance, whoever that may be, had read the sign first, to find out what the garden's function was, and who planted it. The next day, the sign too had been ripped out.

I called the Housing Authority, and was told by an assistant administrator, who could not have been more indifferent, that anything planted on their property is under their control, and can be destroyed at will. I explained that it had been planted and maintained for six years by volunteers, and asked if she might feel any regret? She said she would be lying if she were to say she did. Since I had called a few minutes after the office closed, she said she was doing me a favor by answering the phone.

It's true the housing authority has control over its property, but not completely true. That land is public land. It's not owned by the recently hired maintenance supervisor. The raingarden was approved in 2008 by the executive director, Scott Parsons, and the Princeton Housing Authority board. It was faithfully maintained by volunteers. Such decisions can't be reversed on someone's whim, or so you would think.

Having planted a lot of raingardens on public land, in three different towns, I've developed a thick skin. The first time one was accidentally mowed by a new and uninformed employee, in Durham, NC, it felt like a punch to the gut. I discovered, however, that gardens are resilient. They grow back from a mowing. So two years ago when I came upon a man trimming the Harrison St. raingarden with a chainsaw, I calmly explained that the wildflowers are not a hedge, and we joked about it later. But bulldozing represents a new level of ignorance and indifference.

One of the ironies is that I had just received an invitation from Princeton's mayor to a Volunteer Thank You Party. Well, the raingarden was a volunteer of sorts, doing everything right. In addition to the interest, beauty and habitat it provided, it also capturing runoff from the roofs to reduce downstream flooding. What a nice thank you it received, from a bulldozer. 

And here, flashing back to 2008, is an example of community volunteers doing everything right. When Curtis Helm told me about his idea of planting a demonstration raingarden at Spruce Circle, I helped choose the spot and facilitated the permission process. Curtis carefully regraded the soil to hold just the right amount of runoff, so the water would seep into the ground after a day or two, feeding the plants but killing any hapless mosquito larvae before they could mature. By tempting mosquitoes to lay their eggs in ephemeral water, a raingarden actually reduces the urban mosquito population.

Surrounded by buildings and streets whose imperviousness displaces nature and contributes to downstream flooding, and whose emissions contribute to destabilizing climate, the raingarden acts as a buffer, welcoming nature and slowing the water down. In a time of increasing extremes, we need more raingardening, not less.

Curtis arranged a generous donation of plants from Pinelands Nursery, and paid for the sign with his own money. The raingarden was part of a Green Home and Garden Tour that year. Photos of the garden were used in presentations at conferences, and also appear in the Rain Garden Manual of New Jersey (pp. 14 and 50), which is accessible on websites in NJ, Connecticut, Maine and elsewhere. When Curtis left town to take a position with Philadelphia's parks department, I weeded the garden each year and made sure the roof downspouts were still feeding it water.

It takes a certain breed of person to keep a garden going, year after year. So many distractions in life, so many demands, and the weeds take advantage. There are some successes in Princeton. The gardens that serve as an attractive entryway to the town pool and the recreation building thrive because of the volunteer t.l.c. of Vikki Caines, a rec. dept. employee, and the Dogwood Garden Club. But other gardens have recently lost their longtime stewards. The splendid gardens at Riverside Elementary are losing Dorothy Mullen after so many years of devotion. The Barbara Sigmund memorial park on Hamilton Ave. lost Polly Burlingham's stewardship, in part due to a lack of volunteer help. Other plantings have gone for years without adequate attention. The memorial dogwoods at Princeton Battlefield languish beneath a tyranny of freeloading vines while acres of ahistoric lawn get mowed. The Harrison Street Park plantings got a burst of volunteer attention their first year, but then most of those gardens were left to the weeds and the unskilled grounds crew.

The lack of botanical training for employees charged with caring for our public spaces has always been hard to fathom. Princeton has an arborist, but no one versed in plants that happen to lack cellulose. Usually, the lack of training expresses itself through the steady decline of any planting other than trees and turf. But now we find that this lack of knowledge and training has expressed itself as a willingness to destroy even those gardens well cared for by volunteers.

What we end up with is "greenery", for example this mound of invasive Japanese honeysuckle vine that suffocated whatever shrub was planted there long ago, and now survives by being sufficiently boring and mindless.

The Princeton Housing Authority has been incommunicado this week as it moves into new offices. Their executive director only works one day a week, and has yet to reply to requests for information. All indications, however, suggest that this was a pointless act of destruction.

So, really, what does Princeton value? Does it value the time, passion, knowledge, and energy its volunteers give to the community? Does it value the stream--Harry's Brook--that this raingarden was aiding by holding back runoff? Whoever destroyed this garden thought no one would care, that the Housing Authority Board and town council would simply make excuses or look the other way. We'll find out soon whether the town rebuilds this raingarden, or if public spiritedness is to be turned into a slurry of mud headed towards Harry's Brook.

Update, 8/14: The Housing Authority's executive director, Scott Parsons, responded soon after this post was written. He explained that there was a misunderstanding with his maintenance staff, but that there wasn't much that could be done. He apologized for the misunderstanding.


  1. Beautfully put. I firmly hope we can replant!

  2. Dorothy Walker8/12/2014 7:56 PM

    I saw that the rain garden was gone since I look at it most of the times I drive by it on Harrison St. I expected that it would be replaced by new plantings, although I had no idea why this was necessary. This was a terrible thing to happen.