Bus Stops, Community Gardens and the Importance of Place-Making

The bus stop at 1717 South Pleasant Valley Road in Southeast Austin.

The bus stop at 1717 South Pleasant Valley Road in Southeast Austin.

From the looks of it, passerbys wouldn't have known the southeast Austin bus stop at 1717 South Pleasant Valley Road was a major transportation hub for Austin's low-income public transportation users. In fact, most passerbys wouldn't have known it was a bus stop at all. Situated at the intersection of a major road, the area's main grocery store and several apartment complexes, the unremarkable bus stop included just two benches for sitting — no shelter from the elements or shade from the sun. 

But that started to change on May 14, when volunteers from Keep Austin Beautiful, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Local Plant Source, Travis County Master Gardeners and other organizations came together to create Mi Jardin, a community garden featuring rosemary, lantanta, coneflower, cherry sage, Mexican oregano, black-eyed Susan and other native Texas plants. 

Volunteers work on the Mi Jardin community garden in southeast Austin.

The community garden is the first step of a long-term plan to turn the neglected but well-used bus stop into something more than just a bus stop: a community meeting place in which members interact and engage with the space around them. 

"The goal is to really change people's perceptions of what a bus stop can be, what that experience can be. It really can be a destination itself, it can be a hub," said Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA, who won a design competition hosted by Capital Metro and American Institute of Architects Austin DesignVoice that challenged teams of architects, engineers, contractors, designers and community members to design a bus stop shelter that expresses community values and follows Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) Network principles.

A rendering of the Mi Jardin transit-oriented pedestrian plaza, as envisioned by designers Melissa Henao-Robledo and Sara Partridge.

SEED Network is focused on public interest design and place-making. Its mission is to ensure that every person lives in a socially, economically and environmentally healthy community. Principles include conserving resources, minimizing waste, generating ideas based on the specificity of the place, building local capacity, community involvement and promoting social equality and public discourse, among others. 

Robledo and co-designer Sara Partridge envisioned a colorful, architectural and multi-purposed bus shelter that will harvest rain water and slowly irrigate the community garden and landscape and provide shade to public transit users. The shelters' canopy shape is inspired by the community's Latino culture and the flowing dresses of flamenco dancers. The name itself, Mi Jardin, is a Spanish acrostic for its mission: for Juntos (united) Acequia (communal irrigation) Recreacion (recreation) Diversidad (diversity) Innovacion (innovation) Naturaleza (nature). 

The bus stop, which Robledo and Partridge now call a "transit-oriented pedestrian plaza," is one of the busiest pedestrian spaces outside of downtown Austin. It's located in the East Riverside community of young, low-income adults, many of whom are students, immigrants, Hispanic or African American. The bus stop's pedestrian hybrid beacon is the most used pedestrian beacon in the entire city, according to the Mi Jardin mission statement. Now, the many passersby have the opportunity to interact with their environment and to take care of it — or at least appreciate it in a more relaxed way.

The Mi Jardin community garden at 1717 South Pleasant Valley Road. 

The Mi Jardin community garden at 1717 South Pleasant Valley Road. 

Though Capital Metro is providing $30,000 to go toward the new shelters, more money is needed and efforts are underway to find major investors to make the full vision come to life. THe goal is to have the shelters in place by the end of 2017. Still, Robledo said she is thrilled and excited with the project's beginnings and how it's come together so far. The Mi Jardin team used a neighborhood-based crowdfunding tool called IOBY — "In Our Backyards" — to raise more than $1500 for the community garden block party. The party included a seed bomb workshop hosted by the Gensler design firm, a miniature mock shelter based on the Mi Jardin design created by Wetzel Engineering Inc and an art panel project where community members could share their ideas for the shelter's panels. 

"It was wicked awesome and really great to see how everyone pulled together. It was super emotional seeing everyone do the work," Robledo said, adding that IOBY was critical not only in collecting the funds, but in understanding how to successfully crowdfund for community-based projects. "IOBY's philosophy is completely in line with ours, and if people want to do small projects in their own communities, they can contact IOBY and IOBY will walk them through the process."

Mi Jardin is just one of more than 50 established community gardens in Austin. Churches, neighborhoods, retirement homes, senior centers, apartment complexes, non-profits, schools and more are turning to gardening to build community, reconnect with the earth, establish affordable and sustainable local food sources, enhance health and well-being, help the environment and reap all the physical and mental benefits of gardening. 

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Although Mi Jardin is relatively small, there's room to grow, and the questions, hopes and ideas that resulted in this one community project can spread to others. How can we continue to transform our bus stops to encourage greater use of public transportation, greater community-building and a greater, more optimistic sense of place? 

The Mi Jarden project is really a place-making project. It's not just a a bus stop, it's not just a garden, it's not just a shelter. It's a step forward in creating a better, livelier, healthier, happier environment and landscape for Austin's diverse middle and low-income residents — the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, immigrants, students, contractors, teachers, police officers, mechanics, musicians, hair stylists, landscapers, artists, road workers, clerks, cyclists, writers, nurses, firefighters, veterans, servers, care takers, cooks, baristas and others who work every day to keep Austin great — and weird.