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Several years back, Bruce Zaretsky came to a crossroads in his career and decided it was time to be more deliberate about how he gave back to his community. Here's a look at the result: Project Scion, which brings green spaces to rough urban neighborhoods.
Several years back, Bruce Zaretsky came to a crossroads in his career and decided it was time to be more deliberate about how he gave back to his community.  Here's a look at the result:  Project Scion, which brings green spaces to rough urban neighborhoods.
By Bruce Zaretsky

Back in June 2012, the publisher of WaterShapes was kind enough to write a blog about our work with Project Scion, a program Zaretsky and Associates (Rochester, N.Y.) was helping to develop as a means of bringing green spaces to rough urban neighborhoods.

At that stage, it was still a dream:  We had just launched into our first round of funding through kickstarter.com and had no clear sense of how things would go – that is, whether we’d gather enough financial support through the funding network; elicit the donations we needed from suppliers; gain the confidence of residents of the first neighborhood we’d targeted for an urban garden; or count on volunteers whose direct help we’d need in converting a vacant lot into a local oasis.

As it turned out, the responses were universally positive, and since 2012 we’ve done three projects and have a few more on the drafting table.  It has proved to be a massively satisfying pursuit, so full of potential on so many levels – and we don’t see an end in sight.

THE BIG PICTURE

A long time ago, a close friend gave me a plaque inscribed with a quote from George Bernard Shaw made famous by Robert Kennedy:  “Some men see things as they are and ask, Why?  I dream of things that never were and ask, Why not?”  

I’ve always believed in that sort of approach to my life and career, but back in 2012, I’d reached a point where I felt that I’d given just about all I could in the form of 16-hour days, a physically beaten body and the expenditure of all the creativity I could muster.  Still, I felt a need to look around and ask, “Have I really done all I could?  Have I actually made the planet a better place through my work, my passion, my heart and soul?”  

I took comfort in thinking that most of my thousands of clients through the years would utter a resounding “Yes!” in response.  But it also occurred to me that those clients had the wherewithal to pay me for my creativity and technical acumen:  They’d laid out good money for those pools, those travertine patios, those high-quality light fixtures and even for our custom glass work.

I’m certain many of you who are reading this can relate:  As watershapers, landscapers, designers, builders, masons, lighting experts, tile people and more, we work in a world where what I call “Monopoly Money” is the currency and our work is not what can be described as essential.  Indeed, we largely serve a luxury market, and I for one have benefitted substantially from the resources those clients have been willing to expend on their pools, decks, gardens and more.

The point is, back there in 2012, fresh out of a horrible recession that saw my clientele barely lose a step while the rougher parts of Rochester truly took it on the chin, I looked around and started asking “Why?”

The issue, of course, was extreme poverty.  Current statistics revealed that more than 42 percent of the population of Detroit was living in poverty, while San Bernardino and East Los Angeles in California had more than 30 percent of their populations living below the line.  In my own town of Rochester, fully half the children lived in poverty.  The “Why?” was obvious – and it led me to some illuminating self-examination as I wondered if I had done enough to make my town a better place, let alone the whole planet.

It started me thinking that I needed to make a stand and, better yet, use what I knew as a landscape designer and contractor to help lighten the load on people who had so much less, and not always as a result of their own personalities, actions or capabilities.

STEPPING UP

This was how, four years ago, my partner Sharon Coates and I – along with our whole company – teamed up with a close friend and colleague, Pietro Furguiele of Waterford Tilling, and decided we’d try to make a difference.

In short, we launched Project Scion and came up with the tagline, “Coming to a Vacant Lot Near You.”  It was our goal to venture into the heart of the worst inner city areas and do the best we could to change things for the better by enlisting local residents, community activists, police officers, fire fighters and anyone else who might be willing and able to help build something together.  

We made a video, launched our first Kickstarter campaign and went out into the community to gather support.  Our first nibble was significant:  When we were able to pull in a local community-support organization known as the Charles Settlement House, we made the city’s government take notice.  Then, with the help of the government’s local quadrant leader, we were able to tour a specific area, review candidate lots (and residents) and chose a worthy site.

Going in, we figured the design we developed wouldn’t much resemble the spaces we’d devised for our clients through the years.  We didn’t have a budget, for example – no budget at all.  But then we started noticing the similarities, too:  With our usual design clients, for instance, we’d work up agendas that included lists of desirable features and outcomes.  I don’t suppose we should have been surprised, but it turned out that our urban clients were every bit as interested as our paying clients in wanting comfortable gathering spaces, pretty trees and shrubs, nice waterfeatures and safe access.  

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We definitely had to feel our way through the first Project Scion effort, figuring how best to approach the community, gain their support and earn their trust as we began to bring a desolate urban block back to life as ‘The Orchard.’  It all clicked right from the start, fortunately, and the outcome exceeded both our dreams and ambitions.

In other words, we thought we were getting ourselves into something unknown and entirely new, but what we discovered is that people are people and we were able to stick to our usual thought that gardens are for people – meaning we could proceed along quite familiar lines.

When we started working on site, we saw that just about the only difference was that our urban clients had no idea that this type of design even existed.  They also didn’t know that anyone could make a living doing what we did.  In fact, some seemed shocked that we could make money planting trees and setting pavers.  We also learned that they had no real choice but to focus on trying to keep their kids off the street and safe and on putting food on the table despite the limitations of minimum-wage jobs.

As our conversations continued, we recognized that they had a tough time seeing beyond a narrow set of daily realities and necessities; that they were about survival rather than potential.  Our sessions with them as we planned to alter their environment were simply amazing – moving beyond belief, emotional and filled with glimmers of hope.

Ultimately, Project Scion showed them two things:  First, there are people who do care about them.  We could easily see that they were in crisis and they could see we wanted to help.  Second, we were showing them and their kids that landscape design and installation is a career, a creative, goal-oriented job that has great potential.  By the time we were done, we had a sense that some of them saw what we were doing as a way to break out of the poverty cycle that oppressed so many of them and their children.

MOVING FORWARD

To refer to this work as soul-satisfying is to understate the case by miles.

Our very first garden – known as The Orchard to reflect the area’s historic roots as a fruit-producing landscape – caught the eye of Food Link, a local organization that feeds city residents with healthy foods and, where possible, plants community gardens and teaches area residents how to raise their own food.  

In the months that followed completion of our first project, we were invited back to numerous block parties, gardening classes and events.  At every step, we recruited local people to care for the space and, for instance, make sure garbage was picked up.  One amazing result:  Local drug dealers who once had made the empty lot a base of operations moved away as a show of respect for the families now using the park.

Our second project, called The Gateway, took root in another section of the city.  As with The Orchard, we met with community members, enlisted their help and even got local fire fighters and police officers to help with the installation.  The benefits of having young neighborhood kids working side-by-side with their perceived adversaries were beyond counting.

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By the time we tackled our second project, ‘The Gateway,’ we knew the process and everything went smoothly on our end.  Much more important, the community had seen what we’d already done and came together in ways we never could have anticipated as they made the space their own.  At this point, we have the sense we’ve only scratched the surface – more than enough encouragement to keep us going for years to come!

Laying pavers, planting trees and eating pizza brought these people together in unprecedented ways.  In the case of The Gateway, there had been an active drug house across the street.  The owner of that house worked on the garden with us alongside his daughter – out there every day, digging, mixing concrete and mulching.  

My lasting vision of that installation came as I was driving away after the dedication when I saw this man and daughter playing checkers on a play table we’d installed in the garden.  Tears flowed freely that day.  And, when I came back a year later, that man’s crew was keeping the park maintained and cleaned up – and I, as an outsider, felt completely safe and welcomed as I walked up to say hello.

Since then, we have built gardens at a shelter for battered women and, as I write, are planning a new oasis in another section of the city.  

We are fortunate to make our living by creating beautiful and, sometimes, extravagant spaces for our clients.  But now I believe that we, as watershapers, landscape designers and others in related trades have a place on the front lines, helping to alleviate suffering and poverty in our cities.  We have the ability, the connections and the drive to be able to make this happen.  

So why not ask, “Why not?”

To see Jim McCloskey’s blog on the early days of Project Scion, click here.

 

Bruce Zaretsky is president of Zaretsky and Associates, a landscape design/construction/consultation company in Rochester, N.Y.  Nationally recognized for creative and inspiring residential landscapes, he also works with healthcare facilities, nursing homes and local municipalities in conceiving and installing healing and meditation gardens.  You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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