The Union & Mechanic Community Gardens project entails an effort to design and construct community gardens in an underutilized, formerly derelict alleyway in concert with new affordable housing being built on several vacant lots on a block at the intersection of Union and Mechanic Streets in North Lawrence. Born out of a multi-year, multi-project partnership between Groundwork Lawrence and Lawrence CommunityWorks, a local non-profit community development corporation, the project provides an opportunity to explore creative and low-impact redevelopment solutions for vacant lots and underutilized spaces in Lawrence.
The Union & Mechanic block is located in Lawrence’s poorest and most densely built North Common neighborhood, an area rife with two and three-family homes, vacant lots and a correspondingly high need for active and passive open space. Five lots in the Union and Mechanic block had lain vacant for over fifteen years and had long been utilized during that time for parking, car maintenance, illegal dumping, and squatter community gardening. In keeping with its mission to construct high-quality affordable housing for low-income residents of Lawrence, CommunityWorks sought site control of these vacant lots and engaged local residents in public forums, or charrettes, about how to best reuse the land. By 2002, it had become clear that residents in the neighborhood desired more affordable housing opportunities and saw great potential for housing construction on these vacant lots. As a result of those discussions, CommunityWorks formulated plans for infill redevelopment of the lots. To avoid displacing the squatter gardeners who had occupied two of the vacant lots with raised garden beds for the past seven years, Groundwork Lawrence worked with Lawrence CommunityWorks to develop a conceptual plan for reclaiming the entire alleyway running through the Union and Mechanic block and along these vacant lots so it could be reused as community garden space, thereby freeing up all the vacant lots for redevelopment.
Schematic Figure of the Gardens
Groundwork Lawrence raised funds to manage the design and construction of the alleyway community gardens, and found funding that allowed for the gardens’ design and construction, as well as simultaneous exploration (and use where possible) of creative stormwater management solutions. To do so, Groundwork worked with Landscape Designer David Buchanan principal of Stillman Land Restoration and Design to develop a palette of Low-Impact Development (LID) strategies that could be implemented on-site so that each redeveloped lot and the garden alleyway could capture and percolate surface water on-site, rather than designing the site to rely on the city’s already burdened stormdrains and sewer system for stormwater management. David completed a sun/shade analysis of the alleyway, and used the information to determine the optimal layout of the garden beds. Groundwork then facilitated a charrette, or public design process, with the squatter gardeners to determine what amenities and layout options they would find most useful for communal gardening. At that charrette, the gardeners also agreed upon tenets to follow for long-term operation and maintenance of the gardens. These agreed-upon principles allowed Groundwork to develop an Operation and Maintenance Plan for the gardens and the LID features used on-site, which Groundwork has used to manage its growing citywide network of community gardens and gardeners. In honor of Earth Day in April 2006, the Union and Mechanic Community Gardens were constructed by resident volunteers, as well as volunteers from Lawrence’s local YouthBuild chapter, and the Timberland Company, whose business model includes paid time off for employees to complete volunteer community service projects. Later that summer, Groundwork Lawrence became a Land Trust, one of few urban land conservation organizations in the country, and took ownership of the Union & Mechanic Communty Gardens. Since construction was completed, Groundwork has served as the primary steward of the Union & Mechanic Community Gardens, the first of a growing garden network across the City of Lawrence. You can see photos of the construction and veggie filled beds here