Safety through oasis on the Midtown Greenway

Donovan Harmel, manager of Vera’s Garden, leaves a legacy of beautification and community placemaking

Donovan Harmel
Donovan Harmel is ready to pass on responsibility for managing Vera’s Garden, which he has cared for since 2001. Submitted photo

After 18 years of pouring love and spilling sweat along the Midtown Greenway, Donovan Harmel is ready to step away from his role as manager of the much-beloved Vera’s Garden. Named in honor of the former Vera’s Cafe on the corner of 29th & Lyndale (a building now occupied by Lago Tacos), Vera’s Garden was the brainchild of some local gardeners with a few extra plants and a desire to find them a community home.

The result is an impressive project of neighborhood beautification, one that attracts visitors to rest among the flowers and invites Greenway travelers to slow down during their morning commutes.

Vera’s Garden broke ground less than a year after the first section of the Greenway opened to foot traffic in 2001. Harmel and his fellow gardeners worked with the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority (HCRRA) to draw up plans for the space and put together a lease agreement (Vera’s Garden leases the plot for $1 per year).

Over time, Vera’s Garden became known in the gardening community in Minneapolis and beyond. In 2015 the Southwest Journal declared it an “oasis on the Midtown Greenway.” In 2016 it was a featured stop on an annual garden bloggers tour bringing together writers from across North America. As the Midtown Greenway Coalition noted in a recent newsletter, Vera’s Garden “is considered by many to be the most beautiful garden in the entire Greenway.”

While Harmel spoke modestly about his contributions, he suspects that Vera’s Garden has had reverberations down the rest of the Greenway. “I think it has helped get other beautification projects going,” he said.

Chris Durant, a longtime friend, is less modest when he reflects on the impact of Harmel’s commitment to Vera’s. “It started from just an idea to an amazing oasis that has really pushed other people to get involved in doing stuff along the Greenway,” Durant said. “I see [Harmel] as inspirational.”

Vera’s Garden is more than just a project of beauty. It’s a piece of infrastructure that impacts how people access and interact with communal space.

Public safety has always been part of the discussion when it comes to the Greenway, prompting concerns over who is using the trail and how. Even when Vera’s Garden was first putting together a proposal for the lot, Harmel remembers opposition to evergreen trees out of fear that people could hide behind them.

But Harmel did his research. He actually called a lead gardener with the Central Park Conservancy to ask about safety disparities between evergreen and deciduous trees and found no evidence that a safety disparity exists.

A bench in Vera’s Garden
A bench in Vera’s Garden offers an oasis to enjoy early fall colors. Photo by Mira Klein

Harmel also built relationships with academic greenspace researchers, including Dr. Frances Kuo, founder of the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Kuo has been a longtime leader in studying the connection between increased greenspace access and safer communities. Her research has demonstrated, for example, the relationship between urban greening and reduced aggression.

The City of Minneapolis and HCRRA, two entities that share operation and maintenance responsibilities over different portions of the Greenway, agree that gardens, landscaping and other beautifying infrastructure can have big impacts on user experience of the Greenway and can help connect the trail to the surrounding neighborhoods.

In 2015, Hennepin County Community Works and the Minneapolis Department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) jointly published a report on East Lake Street/Midtown Greenway placemaking and urban design. This report features proposals for public art installations and landscape designs along the Greenway, all with access, connectivity and user experience in mind.

Over the last several months, Greenway-affiliated organizations including HCRRA, the Midtown Greenway Coalition and the office of Minneapolis City Council Member Alondra Cano (Ward 9) have all noticed an uptick in the perception of safety risk, particularly with respect to homeless encampments and drug activity. New fencing has gone up in response, both under the Bloomington Avenue Bridge on the Greenway and under the I-94 overpass along the Blue Line Trail in Cedar-Riverside. All the while, the trail has been quiet with respect to city and county involvement in placemaking and intentional design, as recommended in the above report.

But when it comes to creative placemaking, official bodies aren’t necessary to lead the effort. Vera’s Garden is a perfect example of this creative spontaneity.

And sometimes, this spontaneity is more defiant. “If people want to go someplace, they’ll go there, whether there’s fencing or not,” Harmel said.

The same is true for an informal cattle trail down to the Greenway trench from 29th Street. The trail was constructed for hillside maintenance purposes, explained Curt Gunsbury, owner of Solhem Companies, which operates the nearby Lyndy Apartments. “It’s not designed to become public access to the Greenway, although we assumed it would become one,” he said.

According to Harmel, not only is fencing a waste of money, but it could pose a danger in and of itself. Recently the HCRRA opened up a gate in the fence that separates the Greenway from a HCRAA-owned access road to the south. The fence gap, located across from Vera’s Garden between Garfield and Harriet avenues, provides a new entry point for visitors coming down to the trail from the street above. “People were climbing over [the fence] before,” Harmel said. “It was more of a danger for someone to get hurt.”

Gunsbury understands that the Greenway fencing is important for HCRRA to maintain access to the property they operate. “But as you can imagine, it’s hard to limit access to a trench that runs through a densely populated area,” he said.

Luckily for Greenway users, Harmel has put in 18 years of dedicated work to create an accessible space of respite and safety, a small example of community placemaking come to life.

Vera’s Garden is on the lookout for a new garden manager. If you are interested in learning more or volunteering with the garden, please email Donovan Harmel at [email protected].

Check out the next Green Digest for a deeper dive into community safety and infrastructure along the Midtown Greenway.