Places of Grace

By Dawe, Nancy Anne | American Forests, November-December 1991 | Go to article overview

Places of Grace


Dawe, Nancy Anne, American Forests


When one of the attornyes with a prestigious Boston law firm leaves his office these days to go to lunch, he doesn't head to a posh restaurant. Instead he walks to Post Office Square Park, a 1.7-acre green gem newly created above an underground parking garage in Boston's financial district. "It's a place for people to celebrate the city," the attorney says, "and celebrate this exquisite urban space."

Across the continent, office workers in Portland, Oregon, literally "take the hills" for their noon break--the hills of Terwilliger Parkway--to bike, job, or walk. Originally established in the early 1900s as a scenic drive on the edge of downtown, Terwillinger Parkway is now a popular recreation resource. Not only downtowners but also residents whose property abuts the parkway and medical eprsonnel from a nearby medical complex "are all proud and protective of it," says Mary Anne Cassin, a designer for Portland's Bureau of Parks and Recreation.

Down South, at Atlant'as Fernbank Science Center, three adolescent boys peer into a display case of stuffed wildlife specimens indigenous to Fernbank Forest, which adjoins the science center. One boy says, "Hey! Let's go out back where this is all real."

Americans love the special places in their urban forests--green oases inw hich to rest and reflect, learn about the natural world, gain inspration, or finding healing. Coast to coast, north to south, urban greenspaces are as numerous and varied as wildflowers in a meadow. They do not have to be formal parks. Even a well-shaded street can be a balm to the urban soul.

They range from old, historic places like Savannah's 20 live-oak-laced squares, to new ones like an Austin, Texas, memorial tree grove--"For the Love of Christi"--started by grieving parents who lost their 19-year-old daughter to a drunken driver. Some are as small as a few seedling trees planted in an inner-city Chicago schoolyard; others are as large as the 7,000 acres of natural, undeveloped land in the 26,000 acres of parklands within New York City's limits.

There are no "best" urban forest locales--only those that are unique.

Just walk the woods of Atlanta's Fernbank Forest on a steamy August day with David Funderburk, the science center's coordinator of maintenance operations and horticulture. As you walk, you'll be grateful for the leafy canopy that keeps the forest five to 10 degrees cooler than the mid-90s temperatures of the surrounding city.

"Fernbank Science Center is unique because we are owned by the DeKalb County school system," Funderburk says as we walk the mile-and-a-half forest trail. The school system owns the four acres where the science center is located and leases the surrounding 65-acre Fernbank Forest. As far as Funderburk knows, Fernbank is the only urban forest in the nation leased "as a living laboratory" by a public school system. "We get our funding from county taxes," he adds," and instruction is our primary reason for existing."

Named for the abundant native ferns, Fernbank Forest was under private ownership until the mid-'30s, when it was taken over by Fernbank, Inc., a nonprofit, private educational organization. By 1966, when the DeKalb school system arranged the lease agreement, the forest was in "a state of disrepair, having been used for years as a playground by anyone who cared to visit," says Funderburk.

After a staff was assembled, a fence was erected with a security gate where visitors msut sign in. In 1967 Fernbank's dirt trails were paved, allowing use even during rainy weather and providing wheelchair access. ("We were well ahead of our time on this," says Funderburk.)

Each year, biology and horticulture courses are offered to 250,000 students ranging in age from kindergarten to graduate school, and to public groups such as Cub Scouts and senior citizens. What's more, from 2 to 5 p.m. Sundays throuh Friday and 10 to 5 on Saturdays, visitors may walk the trail and enjoy the beauty of this unspoiled woodland. …

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