Friday, June 17, 2011

The wild downtown

In a recent column in the Lincoln Journal Star, local historian Jim McKee noted that Lincoln's first high school, built in 1870, was considered by some parents to be too remote. The worries: grassland fires and bear attacks. The Pershing Auditorium now occupies that site, on Centennial Mall (as that segment of 15th Street is called) between M and N Streets, in the heart of what is now considered downtown Lincoln. There has been much discussion about tearing down the Pershing, which is showing its age and about to be made redundant by a new civic center, but no one worries much about grizzly bears or "the red buffalo" anymore.

On the other hand, the downtown area does have some patches of green. Some of the little sidewalk oases are full of roses and tulips and the like, but more than a few utilize native grasses (notably side-oats grama and prairie dropseed) and wildflowers. These I especially appreciate, as I've recently started working downtown. Although I've had jobs that took me downtown (Baltimore and Atlanta) on a regular basis, never before have I actually worked in a downtown high-rise building, and it's taken some getting used to; the little squares of prairie grass (like the peregrines soaring overhead) help to make the concrete canyons tolerable.

[Outside the Great Plains Center, Seaman the bronze Newfoundland waits patiently among native grasses while bronze Lewis and bronze Clark get directions from a bronze Otoe man. The Jefferson medal (originally in bronze) is a nice touch, don't you think?]

The urban environment presents unique challenges, but the folks who manage these little spots deal with the same fundamental paradox that confronts farmers, gardeners, and land managers everywhere else: the simultaneous difficulty of getting some things to grow and other things not to grow. I'll admit to having surreptitiously yanked a couple of weeds out of the ground myself: most pedestrians wouldn't recognize prickly lettuce or western salsify or common purslane growing among the prairie plants, and wouldn't much care if they did, but their presence offends me. While the concept of "ecosystem integrity" is essentially meaningless when applied to such tiny patches of "prairie", there's an aesthetic consideration I find it difficult to ignore.

One neat spot I've discovered recently is this "green roof", planted by the Arbor Day Foundation (which has its headquarters in Lincoln) and visible from the patio of the Qdoba restaurant next door:

This garden [more here] is a work in progress (I was having lunch at Qdoba a couple of weeks ago when some of these plants were being installed, but of course didn't have my camera with me that day) and I'll be interested to see how it develops. These are, presumably, tough little plants for a tough environment. If this garden helps reduce the thermal extremes on this building, well and good; if it inspires other organizations to do the same, even better; but it's already helping by softening the edges of the city for people like me.

Related post: In the city

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