Holden Arboretum, Cleveland Botanical Garden seeks to diversify audiences, break down racial barriers


CLEVELAND, Ohio – The 2014 merger of Holden Arboretum and the Cleveland Botanical Garden was one of the most dramatic cultural rescue stories of the past decade.

He joined the large, financially healthy arboretum, with its 3,500 acres of woodland in Lake and Geauga counties, at the 10-acre Botanical Garden, a beloved University Circle institution struggling on the brink of collapse under the remaining $ 10 million debt from an expansion of $ 47.8 million. and renovation completed in 2003.

Now operating under an umbrella organization called Holden Forests & Gardens, the two institutions are ready to take on their next big task: How can they expand, diversify, and connect audiences across the urban-rural chasm that divides American communities by race and class ?

Beyond that, how should they make physical changes to the garden and arboretum that support a larger, more diverse and more actively engaged audience?

To answer these questions, they embark on a new eight-month master planning process led by New York landscape architect Thomas Woltz. His name should sound familiar to the Clevelanders who follow the city’s lakefront developments.

Woltz is the lead designer of the innovative proposal made public by Haslam Sports Group – owners of the Browns – to extend the Downtown Mall north through the rail lines and the Ohio 2 Shoreway to attractions around North Coast Harbor. , including the FirstEnergy Stadium.

Woltz, owner and co-founder of Nelson Byrd Woltz, was already familiar with Cleveland from his work for the Browns when he learned of a tender from Holden Forests & Gardens last year.

Jill Koski, president and CEO of the organization since 2017, said she was impressed that Woltz made a 900 mile round trip over Thanksgiving weekend to visit the arboretum before applying for the post.

She was even more impressed that Woltz, who has designed projects from New York to New Zealand, responded to Holden’s expressed desire to diversify his audience by making Cleveland’s ThirdSpace Action Lab a key part of his team.

Founded in 2018, ThirdSpace describes itself as a grassroots research, strategy and design cooperative created to “disrupt the vicious cycle of divestment and displacement that negatively impacts the vitality of low-income communities of color.”

The organization, based in the Glenville neighborhood just north of University Circle, conducts training sessions offered by the North Carolina-based Racial Equity Institute, and provides advice on organizational strategy, collaborative design, impact investing, community events and solution workshops.

Koski, Woltz and Evelyn Burnett, CEO and co-founder of ThirdSpace, said in an interview with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer that they see Holden’s planning process as an opportunity to go beyond traditional associations. white upper class. aroused by the botanical garden and the arboretum.

And they see a huge cross-fertilization opportunity between the garden and the arboretum, located 42 km east in Kirtland.

On the contrary, the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on communities of color over the past year and the national calculation of systemic racism have added urgency to Holden’s planning process, Koski said.

“The pandemic has taught us that people want and want and need to go out into the garden and arboretum,” she said.

Still, Holden Forests & Gardens is aware that physical and psychological barriers limit access and enjoyment at its two locations.

First, there is the question of admission: it costs $ 15 per adult and $ 10 per child at the botanical garden and arboretum.

Beyond that, for example, said Woltz and Burnett, the environments around the two institutions send subtle “stay out” messages to people of color.

Woltz described the arboretum as “a massive forest in the middle of what looks like a country of horses. It’s absolutely gorgeous but there are a lot of visual cues that don’t necessarily say everyone is welcome.

At University Circle, which is flanked by the low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods of Hough, Fairfax and Glenville, residents fear being profiled by police when they simply go out for a walk, Burnett said.

She cited the example of Ward 9 Councilor Kevin Conwell, who was arrested and questioned while walking on Ford Drive in March 2018 by a police officer from Case Western Reserve University. Barbara Snyder, then president of the CWRU, called Conwell to apologize and the university then expressed regret.

(University Circle Inc., which serves the city’s cultural, medical and educational district, has commissioned implicit bias training for its own police force and has organized many free cultural events and programs aimed at ensuring that Neighborhood residents feel welcome at University Circle institutions. “We recognize that the education and medical arts districts nested within city neighborhoods need to be inclusive and accessible to all,” said the president of UCI, Chris Ronayne).

Holden cannot solve all the problems of perceived bias through a master plan, but he “very courageously takes up a challenge much greater than himself,” said Burnett. “I see a team ready to roll up their sleeves and do this job with honesty and integrity.”

At its two locations, Holden Forests & Gardens is looking for ways to create a sense of deeper engagement and enjoyment for all visitors.

At Holden, that could mean making first-time visitors more comfortable exploring its 15 miles of trails or creating experiences that share scientific research done by staff members.

At the Botanical Garden, Koski said it was imperative to make the institution more welcoming. The 2003 expansion, designed by Boston architect Graham Gund, a son of Cleveland industrialist and philanthropist George Gund II, has a largely hidden entrance to East Boulevard and Wade Oval Drive through gardens.

Once inside, she said, visitors pass through much of the interior space before reaching the site’s exterior gardens or the interior exhibits of its Glass House conservatories focusing on the flora of Madagascar. and Costa Rica.

“When you walk in I want everyone to know immediately that you are in a space filled with life, plants and trees and at the moment we are not sure if this is your first impression,” Koski said. .

Koski said she also wants conservatories to become more flexible and efficient, so they can encompass changing displays that encourage repeat visitation. Today, she says, it’s easy to say, “Well, I’ve been to the Glass Houses before.

The botanical garden has been threatened for seven years by a lawsuit launched by Jeptha Wade’s heirs, who donated land to the city of Cleveland in 1882 for what eventually became Wade Park.

They claim the Botanical Garden violated the terms of Wade’s gift by erecting a fence around its 10-acre site and charging for admission. The lower courts disagreed, but the plaintiffs appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which could decide the case this year.

Removing the fence would seriously damage the garden, Koski said. Woltz pointed out that removing the fence would expose the gardens to deer and create safety concerns along the edge of a ravine that runs sharply down from East Boulevard on the east and north sides of the garden.

Koski said she hopes the garden wins. And Woltz said he was excited about the potential to redesign parts of the landscape to explore biodiversity, soil health, food, climate justice, climate extremes, and more.

“You can have beautiful gardens and landscapes that start to address these pressing topics of today,” he said.

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