Botanical wonders of Alcatraz

One of the endless plant oddities and delights growing wild on the island of Alcatraz
One of the endless plant oddities and delights growing wild on the island of Alcatraz

Hear the name “Alcatraz” and one most often thinks of criminals swimming across the San Francisco Bay to potential freedom after a horrid extended stay in one of the country’s most notorious prisons. While obviously the prison has long been closed and the island is now a national park and tourist destination, what many still don’t realize is that the island is positively brimming with plants and gardens.

When the prison was still functioning, both prisoners and workers alike tended to gardens around the island. Some of these gardens have been restored, while others have been allowed to become wild again. Yet, rather than try and restore the island back to what it had been pre-settler, the Park Service is allowing these plants to do what they want to do – creeping over crumbling walls, populating rugged hillsides, and in general fixing a toehold on an island of tough conditions and no source of fresh water. At this point, the plants are as much a part of the cultural history of the island as the buildings themselves and the waves of people and animals that have inhabited it.

To find out more about how you can go on a docent-led tour of the gardens and wild spaces of Alcatraz, click here.

Get your vote on

Downloadable GOTV postcard designed by Prairieform's John Kamp
Downloadable GOTV postcard designed by Prairieform’s John Kamp

Very simple post today: The earth needs us all to vote on November 6. We can plant as many gardens and landscapes as possible, but policy also plays a pivotal role in making sure that our planet stays healthy for the long haul. You can download a printable PDF version of this postcard here. Instructions on how to mail it to registered voters can be found there below the image.

Place It! landscape workshops

New flyer for Place It! landscape workshops, designed by Prairieform's John Kamp

New flyer for Place It! landscape workshops, designed by Prairieform's John Kamp
New flyer for Place It! landscape workshops, designed by Prairieform’s John Kamp

While we’ve been working with Place It! Interactive Planning for some time, we are now launching a new set of workshops with a specific landscape focus. Through these interactive model-building workshops, participants are able to explore memory and ideas of place and belonging. From there, participants work to build what they would like to see in a landscape, all the while trying to infuse those memories of place and belonging into their designs. The result is design recommendations for design teams and municipalities that not only have greater depth than what would come out of a conventional outreach process (re: merely asking people what they want) but also are the result of a more inclusive and welcoming process, as in these workshops there is no right answer, and everyone has a chance to share, not just the most vocal of the crowd.

We’ve already done landscape workshops for new parks in Oregon, Texas, and Minnesota. And we’re in the midst of doing more. Contact us!

When a forest isn’t a forest

A prairie savannah in what had recently been forest in Phil Hardberger Park, San Antonio, TX. Photo from the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy.
A prairie savannah in what had once been forest in Phil Hardberger Park, San Antonio, TX. Photo from the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy.

We so often think that forest is the natural result of just letting nature be and that to see forest is to see an indication of a healthy ecosystem. Yet we forget that many ecosystems are actually not forest-based at all, or else they are a mix of forest and other types of ecologies, such as grasslands and prairies. Years of fire suppression and mismanagement in the US have actually allowed many formerly grassland and savannah (mix of grassland and forest) ecologies to become completely dominated by forest, which is then often dominated by one or two species that have simply outcompeted everything else.

This scenario was very much the case within what is now Phil Hardberger Park in San Antonio. Years of fire suppression, grazing, and dairy ranching on the site had turned what had once been prairie, prairie savannah, and some forest, into basically all forest. So embedded had the forest look and feel of the area become that within the local narrative of the place people simply saw it as natural and having always been there. Recently, when the site was to be re-envisioned as a park, designers and ecologists had to contend with vast stands of juniper that had worked their way in and basically choked out native grasses, oaks, and perennials.

This foresting of places that were never forests to begin with is nothing new in American history. In fact, much of California was grassland before European settlers arrived. In his book, Trees in Paradise, Jared Farmer writes that settlers coming to the Far West wanted to “complete” the land by foresting it. “They forced grasslands and wetlands to metamorphose into fields, orchards, and garden cities,” he writes. To use a term of the time, they “emparadised” it. These longstanding efforts, combined with years of fire suppression, have transformed parts of California into hybrid manmade-natural tree-dominant ecologies that didn’t exist prior to the arrival of the Spanish some 450 years ago.

Of course, the lessons we can learn from these examples are not that trees don’t have their place in spaces where perhaps they once didn’t grow. Our urban and suburban landscapes are brimming with things that didn’t used to be there – pavement, right angles, roofs, to name a few – so to make the case that trees shouldn’t be there because they weren’t there before doesn’t really hold water. Not to mention that we need street trees more than even, given the realities of the urban heat island effect and climate change. Yet when it comes to our less urbanized and wilder spaces and places, rethinking the role of the tree in ecologies that were not ever forest is a much-needed endeavor. To restore these places back to prairie or Savannah is a way of ensuring that they are able to grow and evolve in a way that ultimately reaches a balance, so that one species – such as juniper – doesn’t become so dominant as to prevent biodiversity from flourishing. As a result, intense, long-term maintenance of the space does not have to be a prolonged and expensive reality.

New essays on parks

parks, greenspace, Los Angeles, Grand Park, City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts
Hot pink meets tawny gold in one of our favorite new parks, Grand Park, in Los Angeles

A new collection of essays on city parks has just come out featuring the likes of Candice Bergen writing about their favorite spaces and respites from modern urban life. It is entitled City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts. The ever-increasing attention on and interest in city parks no doubt corresponds to an increase in urbanization across the world. In America’s larger cities, a house with an ample yard, while once attainable and the norm to many, is increasingly becoming an unattainable luxury. Sidewalks, and city parks great and small are becoming the new front yard of the 21st century, in many ways out of necessity. For more information on the book, click here.