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The Key Ingredient for Creating a New Public Space? Community Engagement

A look at the lasting impact of a 2019 AARP Community Challenge project in Wilmington, Delaware

Wilmington, Delaware 7

Photos by Laura Semmelroth

The 7th and West Community Greenspace turned out beautifully. Scroll down to see what it used to look like. (The gardener pictured above is wearing a mask due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

“The highlight of the project has been the positive community reaction to the park and garden. The green space has become a staple in the community, and the neighbors have embraced the opportunities the garden presents.”

Laura Semmelroth

“Vacant” and “rubble-strewn” were all words used to describe the empty lots in the West Center City neighborhood of downtown Wilmington, Delaware. Although the neighborhood had experienced disinvestment for decades, it is home to a vibrant community of residents and business owners.

Building on years of community input and engagement, the Wilmington Alliance (then known as the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation) created a plan to turn the vacant lots into a vibrant public greenspace. 

In 2015, the organization received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to plan four public spaces and host community engagement sessions about what to put in them. Among the targeted spaces was the corner of 7th and West Streets — a 17,000-square-foot, nine-parcel brownfield location requiring soil removal, remediation, landscaping and more.

Wilmington, Delaware

Photo By Laura Semmelroth

The vacant lot before the community-driven efforts to improve the space.

The Project: 7th & West — A Community Green Space

“We asked the neighborhood's residents what type of programming they were interested in to ensure there was local buy-in," explains Laura Semmelroth, the Wilmington Alliance's director of creative placemaking. "We prepared the spaces with ambient lighting to make the park beautiful but also with enough security lighting to make it safe."

AARP Community Challenge

AARP Community Challenge

Click on the image to learn about the AARP Community Challenge.

Residents said they wanted a community vegetable garden. One-third of the space is now used as a garden. The rest — which features a patio, pergola and landscaping — is an open area that can be used for gatherings by local partners, including artists, churches and other groups.

AARP Community Challenge Grant funds financed 11 raised garden beds, two large beds for blueberry and raspberry bushes, and a shed for storing garden equipment. The shed has lighting and also hosts a community bulletin board and an outdoor countertop workspace for gardeners. The new greenspace opened to the public in November 2019. 

The alliance was also able to bring on a farmer-in-residence to help engage neighborhood residents and support the park’s new gardening infrastructure. The farmer lives in the neighborhood, so has existing relationships with residents and local businesses. 

Wilmington, Delaware

Photo by Laura Semmelroth

Fun signage at the lot explained what was in the works and welcomed the community to their new space.

The Results: New Programming and Support During COVID-19

“The farmer-in-residence has been crucial to the park’s success and has really made the community garden work,” says Semmelroth. Shortly after the park’s opening, residents signed up to garden all of the beds and the new gardeners began learning from the farmer and the University of Delaware’s Cooperative Extension program.

“The highlight of the project has been the positive community reaction to the park and garden," says Semmelroth. "The green space has become a staple in the community, and the neighbors have embraced the opportunities the garden presents.”

The 7th & West park is the largest programmed green space in the neighborhood. It's also a welcoming, green and healthful public space where the community can enjoy both planned events and spur-of-the-moment activities, giving the area, Semelroth notes, "the gathering spot it has long craved." She adds, "The increase in livability can have a dramatic effect on residents, such as older adults, who might have been socially isolated due to a fear of crime.”

The garden and its adjacent park space saw decreased usage during stay-at-home orders stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, residents did use the garden during the spring and summer, and the food harvested from the garden was shared with the neighborhood.

Semmelroth says the AARP Community Challenge grant helped the effort qualify and receive grants from other sources. One such grant funded the park's pergola and helped the alliance aquire additional funding to complete the entire $1.3 million project.

Wilmington, Delaware

Photo by Laura Semmelroth

The garden with a summer crop.

Advice for Replicating the Project

First and foremost, change has to come from residents, and building trust is critical. The garden and programing was requested by people who live in the neighborhood. “If I hadn’t walked and talked this neighborhood for years, we would have never gotten the input and buy-in from residents,” says Semmelroth.

The Wilmington Alliance works closely with neighborhood organizations, including the churches. Partnerships with the local and state government also helped make the park possible. “The city has been a great and supportive partner and the state was a huge partner because we had to redevelop a brownfield," says Semmelroth.

The best aspect of the work to replicate, Semmelroth declares, is the farmer-in-residence. “The farmer is the cheerleader and guide for first-time gardeners. The farmer teaches people how to plant, when to harvest, what to cook — and the farmer can console the new gardeners when things don’t quite grow as planned."

Wilmington, Delaware

Photos by Laura Semmelroth

Getting from the before (top left) to the after top (right) took many years of work — and some funding from AARP. The arrows indicate the same building location but from slightly different views. Closer views of the raised-bed planters (above).

Written by Mike Watson, reported by Evey Owen
Published in October 2020 based on the project’s after-action reports, media coverage and an interview conducted in July 2020.

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