Freshly planted trees garnished with hostas and lillies look beautiful to those who slow down to notice, but for the Green Hill Terrace residents who planted them, the effort is not just about beautification. It’s about survival.
Unified by their community spirit and logo-bearing, tan-colored polo shirts, the members of the Green Hills Garden Club (GHGC) in the Beverly Hills section of Westville took to their latest mission with all the fervor of gardening commandos. Working under the guidance of Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies student and Urban Resources Intiative (URI) intern Mariana Lo, the volunteer group could be seen on a recent Friday afternoon in various stages of their planting operation, working the tree belts at the intersection of Lawncrest Road and Green Hill Terrace.
The base of a freshly planted dogwood tree had just received a final topping of earthy, brown mulch. Around the corner on the grassy strip that separates the sidewalk from the curb, another part of the team peered into a large hole that had been dug in preparation for a wispy honey locust tree. It wasn’t quite an iceberg, but the tip of a boulder protruding from the bottom of the hole signaled its massive size. Various strategies to loosen the rock proved fruitless. Plan B meant re-digging; shifting the hole over a few feet to improve the prospects for a successful transplant.
Representing eight households at present, The Green Hills Garden Club was formed around two months ago. Group members have been helping one another improve their properties through greening and gardening efforts, sharing materials, expertise, tools and time.
House by house, garden club members are re-imagining their properties; creating curb appeal with the goal of calming traffic, improving safety, and attracting buyers for some of the vacant properties along the street that have deteriorated and languished.
Green Hills Garden Club member Susan Beck, said she and partner, Tess Beck, who designed the club’s shirts, have taken an environmental approach to their home’s landscape, eliminating most of the grass in favor of bee-friendly perennials and other plants not requiring chemical fertilizers and high water use.
Other members have been expanding and improving garden beds using more traditional landscaping methods and plantings that the group hopes will be literal traffic stoppers. Some of the club’s improvements are now posted to a new GHGC Facebook page. Other independent city garden clubs posted on Facebook include Westville Garden Exchange and New Haven Garden Exchange to name a few.
During a walking tour with Green Hills Garden Club members, Audrey Senior, who lives just at the curve of the otherwise straight road, recounted how in 2012 a driver lost control of her car, plowing into Senior’s front porch, an area that had been occupied by her husband moments before the accident. Another garden club member, Sharon Darden, a parent of two children, said that a number of families are afraid to let their children play outside because of the constant threat posed by speeders, many of whom use their street as a cut-through between busy Whalley Avenue and Fountain Street. Some garden club members raised concerns that speed bumps, such as those used on nearby Lawncrest Road, are not without problems including noise and difficult snow removal issues. Group members said they prefer more stable, creative approaches, such as “bump-outs,” that stand the best chance of slowing traffic and minimizing accidents.
Responses to a survey sent out to gauge neighborhood concerns by Upper Westville Alder Darryl J. Brackeen Jr. were unambiguous: Speeding traffic and safety topped the list as quality of life concerns. Brackeen said he has been making good on a promise to move the issue forward through a collaboration with city government: “I’m delivering on empowering leadership within the neighborhood so folks will advocate for themselves.” Brackeen also questioned why sufficient money has not been budgeted for critical, residential roadway improvements. “We need the money” Brackeen said.
One of the first people contacted was Community Greenspace manager Chris Ozyck. “The greens and browns,” trees/plants, soil and mulch, provided free to the garden club for the public portion of the road, are part of the mission of the URI Community Green Space program which provides support to grassroots community groups who are “revitalizing parks, streetscapes, and vacant lots; building community; and fostering stewardship of public lands.” Work done on private property is not covered by URI programs. At present, there are 42 active, volunteer community planting groups throughout the city and another 20 groups that provide stewardship of planted areas. “It’s easy to build, but hard to maintain” noted Ozyck.
Doug Hausladen, New Haven’s transit chief, said he is working to address Green Hill Terrace traffic issues.Traffic concerns are often brought to the attention of City agencies by alders expressing citizen concerns and through formal application to the city’s Complete Streets Program.
Hausladen said his department is studying successful traffic-calming initiatives around the country with an eye to providing short-term, cost-effective, creative solutions here. His department will look at data-driven studies and remedies to prioritize spending before engineered infrastructure improvements are made. “I don’t have five to six billion dollars around to rebuild the entire city,” Hausladen said. He said he anticipates work will go forward soon on temporary traffic-calming measures at 15 to 25 city intersections, with money already set aside under the Complete Streets budget.
As traffic concerns and related issues funnel through city government, community groups like GHGC continue to find their own cost-effective strategies for improving their city streets while building community and strong social networks in the bargain. They may be our best hope for solidifying our future as a liveable city.