By Kate Frazer
On a biting cold day this winter, 18 landscape architecture students visited Rochester’s Joseph Avenue neighborhood to photograph buildings and sidewalks, measure street trees and document vacant lots. They picked up payphones to check if they were working and noted storm drains and crosswalks (or the lack there of). Although they received some inquisitive looks, their activities were with good reason.
At the turn of the last century, Joseph Avenue was bustling with markets, bakeries and clothing stores. American chestnut trees lined the sidewalks. Magnolias and crabapples were nestled in front yards. But on this winter day, the neighborhood seemed bare and abandoned. The trees looked unhealthy, overshadowed by vacant lots and boarded up buildings.
As with many neighborhoods around the United States, the Joseph Avenue corridor began to change in the late 1940s as discriminatory housing policies, termed “redlining”, led to plummeting property values, drove new construction into the suburbs and made home ownership in the neighborhood very difficult.
But residents say Joseph Avenue is still “a front porch neighborhood”. There are street festivals, magnificent murals and a new arts center slated to open in an historic synagogue. People know each other’s names. Newer businesses like Bobo’s Chicken Shack and older ones like Sniderman’s Hardware anchor the community. The parking lot of the Lincoln Library is always full.
That was certainly true later that January day as a team from The Nature Conservancy joined the students, city officials and interested members of the community for one of several public sessions held this winter to discuss the future of the neighborhood.
The idea for the collaboration began when Dr. Neil Scheier, president of the Joseph Avenue Arts and Culture Alliance, approached the Conservancy as his group explored ideas for repurposing many abandoned lots. Intrigued by the question of what role nature might play in Joseph Avenue’s future, we looked to Nature Conservancy trustee, Emanuel Carter, a landscape architecture professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry.
Before long, an undergraduate class, led by Professor Carter and visiting instructor, Jocelyn Gavitt, was meeting with property owners, neighbors and municipal officials.
Building healthy cities is one of the Conservancy’s biggest priorities. Cities are home to more than 62 percent of the U.S. population and cover 3.5 percent of the country’s land area. Nature-based solutions in cities have the potential to improve quality of life for people while also helping to fortify communities against extreme heat and flooding. What’s more, a growing body of evidence suggests that having a little bit of nature—parks, urban forests and community gardens—inside cities improves air quality, reduces stress and increases people’s health and mental well-being.
“There’s a concept called ‘forest bathing’ that describes both the mental and physical benefits that nature offers people,” explains Carter. “When you are in a forest, your blood pressure goes down, your heart rate goes down. Even the smallest green spaces can make a big difference.”
While the collaboration on Joseph Avenue is in an early phase, we’re using our experience in places like Louisville, Washington, D.C., and Birmingham as a guide. Many of the students’ initial designs for the Joseph Avenue corridor incorporate nature-based solutions, but further exploration is needed to ensure any projects the team pursues reflect the desires and needs of the neighborhood.
“These designs are the beginning of a larger conversation,” says Nature Conservancy scientist Darran Crabtree. “By taking the time to understand the needs of both people and nature here, we hope to help improve the well-being of residents and the urban environment in which they live.”