The Green Line
I’m a trained sculptor and, for the last 25 years, I’ve made my living by making art. Somewhere along the line my interest in making things – making art – grew into a love for saving things, reusing things, restoring things, reviving things. So when I won a competition and became a member of a design team that was tasked with creating a new trolley station, I was eager to apply my “green” aesthetic.
Planned, designed and constructed by the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB), and San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System includes a light rail trolley network that traverses 54 miles of the busiest transportation corridors in San Diego County. However, as more people moved into San Diego’s east county, congestion on the freeways dramatically increased inspiring MTDB to add a trolley line extension in 2005. The Green Line, as this extension is called, includes four new stations and filled a 5.9 mile gap in the trolley network. MTDB projects that the Green Line will generate 11,000 new trolley trips a day and attract 2.5 million new trolley riders per year as a result of the increased capacity and connectivity.
When MTDB initiated the development of the Green Line, they hired four separate teams of design experts to create four unique trolley stations. For the 70th Street station in La Mesa, Parsons Brinckerhoff and KTU+A Landscape Architecture and Planning were chosen to provide architecture, engineering and landscape architecture services while I was selected to create an original public artwork that transcended the typical add-on of a statue or fountain, something that would actually become integrated into the site.
The site for the 70th Street trolley station, widely surrounded by parking lots, trailer parks, billboards, restaurants, condominiums, car dealerships, gas stations and other tell-tale evidence of suburban sprawl, began as an asphalt lot in a former river bed, bordered on one side by a water-carved cliff and the Interstate-8 on the other. Construction of the I-8 had dwarfed the site and made it into an inconspicuous haven for homeless encampments and the once glorious river had been reduced to the debris-choked Alvarado Creek.
Seeing the burden of neglect imposed on this patch of land by the development of the surrounding cityscape, I felt compelled to restore it to some of its original, natural beauty. I wanted to reclaim this land for itself as well as for the San Diego commuters who would soon be using the trolley. I also conceived the idea of providing a habitat for animals, insects and birds. Creating a natural oasis amid the crisscrossing chaos of urban life became my goal, environmental stewardship became my message, native plants became my primary medium.
To begin conceiving a “green” artwork, I assigned some parameters to my creative process. First, I wanted each of my choices to be based on sound environmental practices. Second, I wanted the artwork elements to be beautiful as well as inspiring enough to compel future designers to follow a “green” philosophy. Third, I wanted to create a self-sustaining ecosystem where all the natural elements at the station could exist and thrive harmoniously. As my brainstorming continued, new goals emerged. I thought about promoting public transportation as a choice not just a necessity and as a means for minimizing environmental impact. What could attract more riders? What would be interesting to people who wait at this same station day after day? What could they do in the 15 minutes between each trolley arrival? I thought about educating these riders, possibly 2.5 million in one year, about environmental stewardship. I asked, “What would I do if I were waiting?” I concluded that I would investigate my surroundings. These musings were the basis for the artwork elements that I finally installed at the trolley station.
I began my art installations at the core of the station: the platforms. The platforms of the station itself were installed in a pattern that roughly mimics the actual path of Alvarado Creek which now runs underground in this area. Along the platforms, tall lamp posts for illuminating the station at night were installed, each with a concrete base that I sandblasted with a quote. Thirty six quotes in all, some are philosophical, some are straight facts, others pose a question, but all are intended to spark conversation and introspection. Another art element that references the history of the river is a handmade historic map case which shows the locations of Native American villages along the river banks. In addition to teaching about the historic uses of the river, the presence of the map case conceptually links the old waterways with the current transportation methods and corridors. High efficiency LED lights which cast a blue hue have also been strategically placed to mark the location of the underground creek.
In my design, I specified that certain areas on the concrete surface of the station platforms should be embedded with thousands of tiny recycled glass chips, which add an attractive sparkle, demonstrate how creatively recycled materials can be used, and, hopefully, will inspire people to recycle their glass containers.
For the comfort of trolley customers, I designed benches. The base of each bench is composed of river-worn cobble stones that I rescued from the site during the early phases of site preparation and construction. The use of the cobble stones demonstrates the environmental benefits of reusing a naturally occurring material and acts as a symbolic link to the origin of the site as a river bed. The seat of each bench is made of a high quality recycled plastic “lumber”.
To reward any commuter’s investigation of the station with a discovery, I placed a sculpture titled “Train-Like Apparatus” in a largely hidden location among the foliage. The sculpture is made with parts of old train track switching equipment that, when moved, rotate a wheel upon a Native American acorn grinding stone, a metate, which was found on the project site. Painted on the switcher is an interpretive image of what Alvarado Creek looked like one hundred years ago.
Among the 40 original art elements located at the 70th Street trolley station, the highlight is the presence of native plantings and the handmade metal plaques that I made to accompany certain species. Native plants were placed at this station with the intention of educating the public about the beauty of natives and the history of their use by Native Americans and other local inhabitants. I also wanted to restore the land to its original environment, not just landscape it. I aimed to create a peaceful green oasis for both humans and animals in this harsh urban setting.
Southern California, the San Diego area in particular, is home to an amazingly diverse native flora. I selected the native species based on several criteria: local nativity, plant community, availability, and ethnobotanical uses. I specified plants that were appropriate for the trolley station customers and operators: few thorns, no branches that would grow to a height that could conceal spaces, plants that could exist at our elevation, hearty plants that could withstand abuse from the pedestrian traffic, nothing that dropped colored berries onto the hardscape. Some of the plants and trees I selected include: deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), elderberry (Sambucus mexicana), coastal sagebrush (Artemesia californica), white sage (Salvia apiana), arroyo willow (Salix lasiolepis), western redbud (Cercis occidentalis), lemonade berry (Rhus intergrifolia), bear berry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi Point Reyes and another common name in kinnikinnick), holly leaf cherry (Prunus ilicilifolia), strawberry, (Fragaria chiloensis), blackberry (Rubus ursinus), coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), sycamore (Plantanus racemosa), matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri), San Diego sedge (Carex spissa), rose (Rosa californica), and coffeeberry (Rhamnus Californica).
The plants, purchased from Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano and Las Pilitas Nursery in Escondido, were installed with local, stabilized, decomposed granite with cobble stone mulch in order to conserve water. Soil amendments were added to counter the heavy excavation done during the construction of the station. However, fertilizer wasn’t added in the interest of promoting a natural mycorrhizal soil environment.
To emphasize the educational aspect of planting natives, I created bronze, brass, and aluminum markers, or plaques, which I securely anchored into the soil next to specific plants. To take these plaques beyond their traditional shapes and roles in gardening and landscaping, I provided text about the uses for each plant in addition to the species name and I created a new, handmade style for these markers. My hope was that the handmade quality of these plaques would convey the spoken word or something passed down over time. I did not want the plaques to appear or read like something from a text book, but rather like something from a historical family story.
The native plantings have already inspired new stories. I was recently surprised and delighted during an inspection of the site when a commuter approached me excitedly with an acorn from one of the newly planted coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) in her hand. She told me that she had never seen a real acorn; she had only heard about them on TV in association with squirrels. She was so thrilled with her discovery that she took the acorn home to display on her coffee table.
Proper maintenance of the plants will ensure that they remain the main source of interest, education, and peaceful respite at the 70th Street trolley station. I discovered that many seasoned landscapers and landscape maintenance personnel are unfamiliar with the appropriate methods for caring for natives so I collaborated with the staff at Las Pilitas Nursery to write a native plant maintenance manual for the station operators to use as a guide. The manual emphasizes the fact that native plants, unlike ornamentals and exotics, usually do not require additional fertilizer after planting. The manual also includes tips about the proper frequency and amount of irrigation required during both the establishment and post-establishment phases.
Even with the availability of my plant maintenance manual, the frequency and scope of maintenance efforts may be limited by the same budget constraints that many government agencies are faced with today. To counter these possible shortfalls and to further community engagement with the site, I am currently working to organize local residents to participate in the upkeep of the plants at the station. I have recently been in contact with a group of local Native American basket weavers to talk with them about performing some of the pruning especially of the deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) as that is commonly used in basket weaving. Lorene Sisquoc, my primary contact, has indicated that many of her fellow weavers have had difficulty finding deer grass untreated by pesticides. My hope is that the station will become known among locals as a place to safely harvest this grass, as well as other natural goodies. In the spring, the station will yield a crop of organic strawberries (Fragaria chiloensis). Blackberries (Rubus ursinus) will follow in the summer. Hobbyists might enjoy collecting the elderberry to make yellow dye and even gourmets might like the rose hips (Rosa californica), lemonade berry (Rhus intergrifolia) and white sage (Salvia apiana).
My involvement with this project is going on seven years, two of which
were dedicated to the construction alone. In this time, I have reflected
on some of the success and failures I experienced. If I were to be
involved in a future project to design and develop another native plant
habitat, I would continue to emphasize that the project is more about
creating an ecology than about gardening or landscaping. While many
capital projects initiated by government agencies have a requirement
to award jobs to the lowest bidders, I would lobby for hiring a landscaping
crew based on their knowledge of native plants, not on the lowest bid
since the success of a native plant habitat depends on the knowledge
the landscapers have about caring for each species. I would conduct
much more hands-on research before developing a design. In this case,
I could have learned that standing water was present in some places,
if I had performed my own digging on the site. I would learn more about
how the landscape will be maintained before developing a design. If
the operating agency cannot provide adequate maintenance for certain
species, the design should be adapted before planting begins. I would
continue to collaborate with professionals in other disciplines such
as geologists, ornithologists, photographers, engineers, musicians
and basket weavers. Lastly, I would be sure to tell many people about
my commitment to using native plants for my projects. I discovered
that this word-of-mouth sharing was very effective in generating support
for this project as well as in influencing others to consider using
native plants for their projects.
Nina Karavasiles is an artist, organic gardener, and vegetarian cook. She lives off the grid in Warner Springs, CA. Her website is http://www.ninak.info.