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Maintenance of Eco-Art Restoration Projects

by Mary Arnold (2005)

This is part of the Toolbox for Managers
My career for two decades has been working with communities, nonprofits, conservation agencies, and local governments on the development and implementation of natural resources conservation projects, including the revitalization of urban watersheds and parks. I became the first executive director of the nonprofit Teaneck Creek Conservancy, Inc. in January 2003. My mission at the Conservancy has been to help a family foundation, artist in residence, community groups, and local governments implement community-based plans to transform a historic dumpsite at the intersection of I-80 and the New Jersey Turnpike into a new county park.

Restoring Park
Plans for the park -- mandated by a license from Bergen County -- include a trail system, wetlands research and restoration, outdoor environmental and cultural education, and eco-art. (Photo: Ariane Burgess)

Plans for the park -- mandated by a license from Bergen County -- include a trail system, wetlands research and restoration, outdoor environmental and cultural education, and eco-art. This is the first time I have worked with artists, eco-art, and public art in outdoor settings. I would like to share with readers -- park managers, nonprofits and government agencies involved in open space preservation and development and watershed restoration projects, and artists -- some thoughts about the value of including artists in such projects and techniques for creating more successful and sustainable projects.

After working for two years on the Teaneck Creek project, I am sure that I will never again work without artists. Artists have significant resources to bring to interdisciplinary project teams, including sensitivity, perception, empathy, and expression that can channel community forces and clearly convey impressions and interpretations to all. Scientists, engineers, landscape architects, public officials, residents, funders, and my other essential project partners do not (often) have the artist's gifts of expression and exciting energy. The artist's ability to think creatively, engage participation, and produce visually evocative artwork that envisions a new place provides significant power for successfully implementing projects. The artist in residence at the Teaneck Creek Conservancy, Richard Kirk Mills, is a resident and public official in Teaneck, NJ where our project is located. His work at Teaneck Creek has been sponsored by grants from Perry and Gladys Miller Rosenstein, Teaneck residents who lead their family's Puffin Foundation. This artist in residence has been working on our project continuously for four years. Without his vision, passion, capacity to enchant, and creative communications -- both through artwork and verbal presentations -- this difficult project would never have gotten off the ground.

It is important to find a good fit between artist and project. It is my observation that some artists' visions obscure their ability to clearly see a landscape in context. I say this with the utmost respect for the inner vision that is a critical element in sustaining creation and a creative career over a lifetime. I am speaking here from my own experience about the elements that make projects in environmentally sensitive areas feasible, fundable, successful, and sustainable.

In the case of Teaneck Creek Conservancy, it is the park's natural resources that give it special value. This place is not your typical urban park, with mowed lawns, ball fields, asphalt paths, and harmful populations of resident Canada geese. Visitors to Teaneck Creek are always amazed when they enter our little Eden -- an urban wilderness 10 minutes from the George Washington Bridge. The Conservancy provides a rare experience of direct contact with the natural world in an urban hub. We offer a mini-holiday in wilderness just a few minutes from home that can be experienced and enjoyed easily and often. Only by conserving and enhancing natural resources, making them accessible via limited access trails, and sensitively placing human creations in the landscape, will we be able to create a sustainable naturalized aesthetic, facilities, and a supportive and congenial constituency for the park.

The wetlands of Teaneck Creek provide scarce wildlife habitat in a watershed that is 95% impervious urban development. Our 46 acres shelter fox, deer, turtles, frogs, fish, ducks, woodchucks, rabbits, birds, and other wildlife. The Conservancy successfully applied for listing as a Priority Restoration Site to the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary Program, based on the site's habitat value as rare freshwater urban wetlands. The listing laid a foundation for permits and funding. So far, we and our partners at Rutgers University have obtained $330,000 in grant funds for detailed site investigation and applied research concerning the site's hydrology, sediment functions, and air quality, as well as the preparation of state permits for a 20-acre wetlands restoration that we anticipate will take place in the 2007 - 2008 timeframe.

The emphasis on natural resources conservation and enhancement also is embedded in the project's unique "Greenfields to Brownfields to Greenfields" aspect. We are cleaning up a dump and restoring urban wetlands at a time when the purpose of most "Brownfields Revitalization" projects is commercial redevelopment. Because of this unique project element, once we obtain permits, Teaneck Creek will attract additional funding for wetlands restoration.

Restoration of dump site
We are cleaning up a dump and restoring urban wetlands at a time when the purpose of most "Brownfields Revitalization" projects is commercial redevelopment. (Photo: Ariane Burgess)

Putting natural resources at the "head of the parade" is what made it possible to actually get state permits to do the project. The 46-acre Teaneck Creek Conservancy is part of a 1,200-acre county park. Other areas of the park were used as a sanitary landfill. Although many plans have been made since the 1950's for using the whole park for recreation, it has proven too difficult to get state environmental permits to do so. It was a real possibility that state environmental regulators could have made the Teaneck Creek Conservancy deal with solid waste issues -- the dumped concrete debris and dredge material on the property -- prior to granting permits for the trail system. If Teaneck Creek had been forced to work on permits for the solid waste issues first, the project would have died. It was only because we used the lightest possible design touch on the landscape and triggered only the lowest impact permits that we were able to move forward with the project.

For all these reasons and more, I have from the start of design and implementation been trying to institutionalize the principal that natural resources must inform the design and placement of human creations in the landscape. Also we are a very new organization with very limited staff and volunteer support. I have tried to convey all these facets of our project to artists with mixed results.

Artists look at our landscape through the vision of their aesthetics, the types of art they are producing, where they want to take their art, and, if they are eco-artists, some degree of knowledge of the natural world. It is interesting to observe to what degree artists also consider what resources actually exist, the actions they might take that would be of greatest benefit to the revitalization of the resources, the inherent aesthetic of our site as a rare naturalized area in an intensively developed urban region, the ethics of environmental restoration, and the feasibility of their conceptions in the context of park plans and state regulations and permitting. At our place, the Phragmites australis seem to grow 12' high overnight when the weather warms up. Our permits do not allow us to use mechanical equipment larger than a track hoe. We cannot place structures or other fill in wetlands, creek, or transition areas. In the piles of concrete rubble scattered over our site, a chunk less than 2' x 2' weighs more than 50 pounds and it is studded with rebar. Our precious undeveloped acreage is located in a crowded urban area where every sliver of vacant land is covetously eyed for development as a building site or ball field. Such a project requires artists whose artistic visions reflect the complexity of the project within the context of its landscape and communities, as well as the artists' unique creativity and inner vision.

As I have experienced it at Teaneck Creek, eco-art and place-specific public art sited outdoors possess the inherent power of a connection to humankind's innate response to the natural world. Art that has real connections to a place -- whether it illuminates, interprets, provides animal habitat, or simply gives aesthetic pleasure to those who encounter it in the landscape -- has special powers to teach and delight. However, the experience of art in a park, like all other amenities in outdoor public venues, must be created, placed, and maintained mindfully or it will not last.

Is there a creative professional who has never had the experience of finding a past project in some state of ruin? Whether it is an artwork that has been vandalized, a once restored park filled with trash and invasive vegetation, or a streamside trail impassably overgrown by project plantings, encounters with our degraded projects impart a sense of failure. Awareness of the sources of failure and of actions creative professionals can take to promote successful maintenance is essential to creating projects that have the potential to endure.


Make Maintenance Everyone's Job

The conventional maintenance model is that maintenance is something that someone else -- a parks or public works department, community, owner, or other responsibly party -- does after creative professionals complete a project. When the work of "producer" and "talent" -- artist, engineer, architect, project manager, curator, landscape architect -- with a client is done, after the project is in the ground, we move on to our next projects and maintenance begins at the project site we just left. Using this model means that when we find a ruined project, others who had the responsibility for the maintenance of our creation did not appropriately cherish and care for it after we did our job. But if we are honest, encounters with our ruined creations also impart a sense of personal failure. We think of the project looking just as we had envisioned it at the ribbon cutting, in contrast to its current degraded state. We scour memory, searching for what was left undone. We come to understand that projects are more likely to last when maintenance is everyone's job.

Make Maintenance an Integral Element of Project Scope and Design

Successful maintenance is built into projects from their inception. At the very least, it is the responsibility of creative professionals to attempt to include elements that promote longevity in the scope of the project and design. The issue of maintenance should be elevated to the status of being an actively shared concern of all stakeholders, and an integral design element from the proposal stage through planning and implementation.

Utilize Interdisciplinary, Place-Specific Knowledge

In the best projects, we are brought in to draw out the dreams of those who employ us, and those who will use and enjoy what we create. We work in concert with other disciplines, exploring as a team indigenous landscapes and local communities. We give form to their ideas through a community-based plan for the places where we work. Lack of engagement with a project site, stakeholders, and host communities will result in lack of knowledge about local history, natural resources, community and organizational support, and other elements that could be sources of the project's eventual destruction. Maintenance failures may result from selecting inappropriate materials, e.g., planting vegetation that is destroyed because it grows too high and poses a security risk to visitors. Other failures result from lack of institutional ownership and support -- e.g., project maintenance falls in a crack between two government agencies engaged in a turf war and the place we created becomes an unusable jungle. The more perfect the project team's understanding of the site and its context, the more complete the utilization of interdisciplinary, place-specific knowledge, the more likely it is that solutions can be devised within the scope of the project to provide adequate resources for long-term maintenance.

Engage Clients in a Long-Term Maintenance Perspective

It is the responsibility of creative professionals to provide a comprehensive, long-range vision of the project that includes maintenance as a critical element and to engage clients in supporting that vision. Clients who want to ignore long-term maintenance issues in the project scope, design, or budget need to be diplomatically warned that they are inviting project failure and possibly public embarrassment. There are situations where the lack of critical resources or support makes failure appear so inevitable that turning away work may be the most ethical and practical course of action, if an intention of the creative professional is long-term maintenance of their work on the site.

Form Partnerships and Include Maintenance Before Submitting Grants

While it is impossible to guarantee successful long-term project maintenance at the front end of a project, there are ways to stack the deck in that direction. One example is when project funding must be obtained from a private foundation or government agency through a grant. Applicants whose proposals are most competitive and successful in gaining such funding are those who take advantage of the application process to create a detailed work plan that includes goals and objectives for maintenance. In many cases, a maintenance plan is a required part of the application or a condition of the payment of funds to the grantee. The application process also gives the creative professionals leading the project an opportunity to identify and engage stakeholders whose support will be critical for long-term maintenance. A classic mistake is to obtain a grant without first gaining the active partnership of other stakeholders. Long before a grant is submitted to a funder, stakeholders need to be converted to partners who say what they need from the project and what they can give, approve the final form of the grant application, and provide a letter of commitment stating what their contribution will be and its monetary value. This is an opportunity to ensure that at least one entity with the capacity to do so signs on the dotted line to provide long-term maintenance in the event the project is funded.

The bonds that funders, local volunteers, and organizations form with creative professionals, projects, and sites are critical to creating projects and maintaining them after professionals have left the scene. Artist Ariane Burgess who created the Conservancy's Turtle Peace Labyrinth, was most mindful and sensitive to all aspects of the project site and context. The Conservancy's patrons hand-picked this artist because of her ability to work performatively with communities to create new civic places for personal contemplation and peaceful gatherings. They supported her work financially at a level that was just sufficient to ensure the services and materials -- including an assistant for a week at the start of the project, deer exclusion barriers, plant materials, and hand tools -- required for the project. Ariane Burgess is an extraordinarily gifted and intuitive community organizer and teacher with a special depth of personal concern and professional capacity that involves volunteers and other creative professionals in finding the way to create an appropriate and sustainable project. Led by our "Labyrintista," we became personally involved in the creative process, strenuous outdoor work that recycled concrete rubble (dubbed "New Jersey Rubblestone" by our artist in residence) into the artwork, and the labyrinth site as it manifested itself as a degraded wetland and new public place in all seasons over the year-long period required to create the artwork. These crucial, multi-faceted relationships, while personally transformative for all who participated and for the project site, also laid the foundation for long-term maintenance for the whole park. The cadre of volunteers and staff that created the labyrinth project with Ariane, and the element of maintenance for this one park amenity have snowballed into the creation and rollout of a maintenance plan and a "CreekCare" volunteer program for the entire park.

In New Jersey where I live and work, we have come to limits of our capacity to pave over lands and pollute water resources while still sustaining human communities and public and economic health. Our state is in the vanguard of open space preservation and watershed protection, with the recently passed legislation that created the Highlands preservation area as the most recent example. Privation has become a blessing, providing the motivation and political will to protect natural resources that still are good and to "recycle' and reuse formerly degraded lands and waters like those at Teaneck Creek Conservancy. Scarce natural resources also promote the design of publicly accessible open space for multi-functionality, combining natural resources conservation and enhancement with a landscape that facilitates positive human uses, as in Jeroen van Westen's and Ariane Burgess's work. These integrated designs bind surrounding human communities and citizens to the environment and the project, making positive use more likely, creating mechanisms for finding and addressing problem uses, and identifying and cultivating stewards who care for the place out of self-interest as well as the public-interest, which is so much harder to generate and sustain.

Memorialize Maintenance

Another way to try to ensure long-term maintenance of a project is through a contract, memorandum of understanding, or other official document that memorializes the project's purposes, goals and objectives, and partners' roles and responsibilities. Such a document can be a guide for artists and others professionals who submit proposals or are brought in to work on a project. It also can be a reminder for staff and board members as they develop projects and programs over time. A memorandum of understanding signed with a government entity, even with the inevitable escape clauses, is a statement of purpose and commitment that can give project advocates the moral high ground or bully pulpit that may be needed in the future to ensure that the project is adequately maintained according to the principles under which it was created. This can be particularly important for maintaining projects in environmentally sensitive areas, where future development pressures, political pressures, or the engagement of insensitive or inadequately informed creative professionals could destroy the project.

Plan, Staff, and Train for Maintenance and Security

Appropriate long-term maintenance and security plans should be developed as part of a general management plan for the project site. Preparation of these plans should be part of the creative professionals' scope of work for new projects. Plans should be in writing and kept updated by staff. Particularly for environmentally sensitive sites, it is important to have the input of environmental professionals -- e.g., a wetlands scientist -- who can devise plans that meet state and federal regulatory requirements, and enhance habitat and other natural resources. For some projects, wildlife predation is an issue that requires a plan, e.g., at the labyrinth to manage deer damage that otherwise would destroy new native plantings. Once plans are in place, volunteers, department of public works personnel, or others who will maintain projects need to be engaged, trained, and supervised to maintain the project site according to the plans. For projects in public parks, without personal engagement in a project and adequate training, public works personnel with lawnmowers can undo months of painstaking planning and weeks of backbreaking work by volunteers. Even with the best planning and paid maintenance, there is a critical mass of positive public engagement and use, and security that are needed to maintain creations that are placed in the landscape, as well as positive experiences for volunteers and visitors. The US Department of the Interior National Park Service has useful information on its website about developing management plans.

Create Only What You Can Maintain

The capacity to maintain facilities should keep pace with implementation. Placing facilities, plants, artwork, or other project elements in the landscape before adequate maintenance and security exist, invites waste, discouragement, and loss of project momentum. Don't create it unless you can maintain it. Restoration plantings are one example -- the rule of thumb being, "If you didn't remove the invasive vegetation first or you can't water it during the first growing season, don't bother to plant it."

Teacreek Logo

I will close with a quote from artist Ariane Burgess, who included with her beautiful photograph of volunteers working on the Conservancy's Turtle Peace Labyrinth, a perfect summary of this essay:

"We have to help one another get out of the old paradigm, thinking that we can just throw money or paint as a solution. And starting now we have to find ways of showing people how maintenance is not maintenance. It is a way of relating with nature."

Mary Arnold, MBA, is Executive Director of the Teaneck Creek Conservancy Area of Overpeck Park, Bergen County, New Jersey, USA

© 2010