By Martha Berthelsen and Lauren Woodfill
On January 15th, 2018, a major five-year project came to fruition with the grand opening and ribbon cutting of Unity Park on the Richmond Greenway. Encompassing two parts of the Greenway, at 16th Street and 4th – 8th Streets in between Ohio and Chanslor Avenues, Unity Park is a reflection of the community with playgrounds, art installations, community vegetable gardens, fruit tree orchards, pollinator gardens, bioswales, rain gardens, and medicinal herb gardens for all to enjoy. This park is yet another incredible story of collaboration between community groups, led by Friends of the Richmond Greenway (FORG, which includes The Watershed Project and many other community groups*), neighbors, activists and the City of Richmond to develop the Lillie Mae Jones Trail on the Richmond Greenway.
The Watershed Project has been creating habitat gardens and bioswales on the Richmond Greenway since 2008, but the story has roots further back and brings together many players. The Greenway was once the Santa Fe railroad track, moving trains through Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood. Beginning in the late 1960s, long time Richmond resident and community activist Lillie Mae Jones and the group CYCLE (Community Youth Council for Leader and Education) initiated the vision of transforming the disused railroad track into a walking and cycling path with community gardens, public art installations and more. This vision sparked a movement to create Unity Park on the Greenway, one that The Watershed Project is proud to participate in.
The design for Unity Park has been driven by the community, and the final park is a reflection of the multifaceted uses of public spaces. Extensive outreach to neighbors solicited ideas, which included elements as diverse as children’s playgrounds, an event stage, sports facilities, public art, a Farmer’s Market, a creek, and gardens and more gardens. Others raised issues of security and flooding, especially on the northside of the trail. Community design teams formed in 2015, in which neighbors and activists, including our Green Collar Corps, came together to begin to solve the complex puzzle of how so many ideas could fit into the space and budget.
The member organizations of the Friends of the Richmond Greenway (FORG) took on the task to make these ideas into reality. While other community groups focus on food or recreation, The Watershed Project tackled neighbor’s desire for more natural space and the complaint of flooding, caused by aging and undersized drainage infrastructure.
With the help of volunteers, students, and neighbors, we have designed and created wildlife habitat gardens that will restore ecological services — such as pollination and pest control. We use our garden as an outdoor classroom and field trip destination for learning how to attract predators of garden pests, from lady bugs to tiny parasitic wasps to insect eating birds.
Our bioswales reduce flooding and clean runoff from streets by improving the landscape’s ability to filter and absorb water, just as a natural watershed does. Long meandering swales, layered with gravel, soil, and at the top, native plants, clean stormwater and eliminate toxins all while providing habitat to wildlife and pollinators.
Unity Park is truly a symbol for the power of collaboration, perseverance, and yes, unity. After 30 years of planning, the former railroad track has finally transformed into the community space Lillie Mae Jones and others had long envisioned. The shared vision of serving our community and building a fantastic park has sustained this amazing collaboration, and The Watershed Project is proud to have played our part.
We invite you all to come by and enjoy this incredible new park!
Thank you to Friends of the Richmond Greenway and the City of Richmond!
Friends of the Richmond Greenway (FORG) members include: 4AM Realty Richmond, Artisan Hub, C.U.R.M.E, C.Y.C.L.E, Dirt World, EcoVillage Farm, Garden of Huchiun Aguesto, Groundwork Richmond, Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council, Pogo Park, Rich City Rides, Richmond Arts and Culture Commission, Richmond Friends of Recreation, Richmond Progressive Alliance, The Watershed Project, Urban Tilth, West County DIGS.