East Salinas, California

Natividad Creek Park in Salinas, California, has a bicycle motor cross track, basketball courts and a skate park, but the most talked about place for kids is the “Discovery Garden.” Because of a community driven design process which gathered input from local schools and donations of time and materials from surrounding businesses and organizations, this small children’s play area, and the environmental restoration project surrounding it, is developing into a backyard, a schoolyard and a science classroom for the local community.

Project Background

Natividad Creek Park is East Salinas’ largest and newest recreational area. This 64-acre park is adjacent to both a low-income housing project and a middle-income subdivision. One hallmark of the new park is its links to the local community. One of these links was promoted by a non-profit coalition, Return of the Natives Environmental Restoration and Education Program, which obtained approval for a plan, developed with a local landscape architect, to involve Salinas’ schools in the restoration of part of the park’s natural environment.

After city engineers rerouted Natividad Creek into its natural streambed, Return of the Natives, with help from the students and volunteers, replanted 17 acres of the park with local flora, and added interpretive environmental elements into the park redesign. Determined to give city kids an opportunity to learn, respect and connect with nature, Return of the Natives built six greenhouses at local schools, producing over 18,000 plants that the children had seeded, cared for and then replanted into their new regional park at Natividad Creek. There are now over 20,000 native California plants in the park. In addition, Return of the Natives built nature trails, overlooks, educational signage, and what park planners now describe as the “crown jewel” of the park: the Children’s Discovery Garden.

“The Children’s Discovery Garden is like Winnie-the-Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood,” explains Bruce Stewart, director of Return of the Natives, complete with meandering maze-like walks of native brush, bunch grasses and other low growing native plants leading to the many interpretive “treasure coves.” There are about 10 different play areas, each with special design elements for exploration, and each connected by the park’s nature trail. By interlinking all areas, the children can choose what kind of play to begin while still staying together in a special area. Plantings are arranged with view corridors, providing parents sitting at the nearby picnic area with clear sightlines to the activity at the garden. Sand areas such as the large sand “river” basin with stepping stones gives a fun way to jump, skip or “swim” across to another play area.

The Fallen Log area is a tree across sand flats creating a low ‘bridge’ forchildren to crawl over and under. The sand makes the area safe as well as fun to manipulate and allows children to continually mold and change their play space. In fact, the Children’s Discovery Garden, like the rest of the Natividad Creek Park, has been open all during construction. This has the added benefit of allowing the children to make design contributions along the way. For example, “Ant World,” a crawl space where kids can imagine being shrunk to insect size or play hide and seek amongst tunnels and tall bunch grasses, was inspired by a local child who liked to crawl in and out of small spaces.

Other play areas include a sensory garden filled with aromatic herbs of many different smells and feels; a “rainbow garden;” and a Native American culture corner. “Children are free to touch the plants or take home a leaf or two in turn learning to respect the plants,” states Stewart. The Discovery Garden is reaching out even further by exploring ways for Peace Builders, a non-profit group working to help young people break the cycle of youth violence all too common in low-income areas like East Salinas, to get involved with the project.

Funding

Return of the Natives received a $160,000 grant from the California Department of Resources to restore the creek and the surrounding area. Local nurseries donated $5,000 worth of native plants to the replanting effort.

Impacts

Although the park is not yet ‘officially’ open, it is already heavily used by the surrounding community — especially the Children’s Discovery Garden with its focus on creative play and environmental education. An elementary school situated on the edge of the park makes full use of the location. Undergraduates from the nearby University of Monterey and graduate students from the Moss Landing Marine Lab work as team leaders. “We have a kindergarten to graduate school connection” explains Ed Piper, chief planner of the Salinas Parks and Recreation Department, noting that it is not often that kids from a low-income housing development have such ready access to learning about nature.

Rita Uribe, a resident of Salinas and a former teacher at the local school, observed that the teachers, parents and children have a real connection to the plants they are responsible for — often walking by to check up on the growth progress of “their” tree.

Lessons Learned

One key to the garden’s success is its flexibility, however, at first, the parks department was concerned that the maintenance department would be overworked — a typical problem facing creative children’s gardens. But, said Bruce Stewart, the maintenance department has “joined in the spirit,” calling the Discovery Garden a “morale booster.” For example, the park maintenance department delivered a large tree stump they had found in the neighborhood. The children decided to place it in the middle of the “monkey-flower flats.” Now there’s a sand pit at its base and it is a popular spot to climb and jump.

Contacts

Laura Lee Lienk, Return of the Natives Project Coordinator, 408-582-3689

Ed Piper, Salinas Department of Parks and Recreation, 408-758-7209

(Spring 1997)