Miami-Dade County

A garden grows in Brownsville: Miami’s wasted, ugly spaces transformed by creative citizens

One of the Miami Foundation’s Public Space Challenge winners envisions a North Coconut Grove pocket park designed to be resistant to storm surges and sea rise.
One of the Miami Foundation’s Public Space Challenge winners envisions a North Coconut Grove pocket park designed to be resistant to storm surges and sea rise. The Miami Foundation

A community garden that will turn a barren Brownsville lot green.

A bayfront pocket park in Coconut Grove that will be resistant to sea rise.

A neglected North Miami alley that will be transformed into a “Gathering Lane” with murals, shade trees and seating areas buffered from busy Northeast 125th Street, much like the charming ruelles of Montreal.

A maze sculpted by local artists from debris fished out of Biscayne National Park waters that will inspire visitors to change “their relationship to single-use plastic.”

An underutilized community center in Liberty City that will be enlivened by a stage for children “who otherwise wouldn’t have the space to make believe.”

These and other wasted and ugly places will be reborn through the vision of local citizens whose projects were selected as winners of the sixth annual Public Space Challenge. The Miami Foundation chose 22 proposals out of more than 500 entries to share $305,000 in seed money.

The goal of the Challenge, which grows in popularity each year, is to fight blight, activate emptiness, knit together fractured communities and enrich residents’ quality of life. The projects align with Miami-Dade County’s Parks and Open Space Master Plan, which aims to have “a great public space within walking distance of every Miamian.”

“Compared to other metropolitan areas, Miami has lagged far behind in park space per capita,” said Jordan De Leon, programs associate at the Miami Foundation., which has invested nearly $1.5 million in enhancements since 2013. “The Public Space Challenge empowers Miamians to take control of their own public spaces and have a say in how Miami will look 10 to 20 years from now.”

The cities of the world are defined by their public spaces, large and small – New York’s sprawling Central Park or congenial Paley Park or repurposed High Line; the banks of Canal Saint-Martin in Paris; the markets of Istanbul; Campo Santa Margherita in Venice; Trafalgar Square in London; Millennium Park in Chicago; Mission Dolores Park in San Francisco; Boston Public Garden and Boston Common, and Plaza Hidalgo in Mexico City. Miami has lots of potential, still unrealized.

Debris Maze
The Debris Maze would be sculpted out of trash fished from Biscayne National Park to raise awareness about plastic pollution in oceans. The Miami Foundation

De Leon said the stories behind the people whose initiative drives the Challenge are “just as amazing” as their ingenious ideas.

“These are examples of how residents follow their passions and strengthen the bonds of their communities,” he said.

Brownsville residents Iqbal Akhtar and Zafreen Jaffery grow a garden in their backyard that is admired by their neighbors. Their idea is to convert a nearby vacant lot abused as dumping site into a community garden with vegetables, herbs and pollinator flowers.

“Currently and within a 12-block radius of this vacant lot there are no grocers that sell fresh produce,” said Akhtar, describing the area as a “food desert.”

The garden would teach local adults and kids about urban farming, provide low-cost food to low-income households and promote healthy eating habits, Akhtar and Jaffery said. They’d launch the project with a vegan and soul food cookout.

Brownsville Community Garden idea submitters
Zafreen Jaffery, left, and Iqbal Akhtar want to convert a vacant lot and dump site in their Brownsville neighborhood into a community garden. The Miami Foundation

Miami Dade College students came up with “A Forest in the City” – the installation of vertical gardens in solar-powered planters in concrete-blanketed areas of downtown.

A Forest Within the City 2
Miami Dade College students want to transform this stark space into a lush urban forest with planter towers. The Miami Foundation

Another winner plans to turn the little-used plaza at the Kendale Lakes Library into an outdoor performance space.

“West Kendall has been isolated since its inception with very few opportunities for anything besides shopping,” Dori Martin wrote on the Challenge website. “Having a place for families to gather safely, enjoy music and meet neighbors and make friends is truly what a neighborhood should offer.”

Vacant land at the Robert Is Here Fruit Stand and Farm in Homestead would become a public art space, starting with a typographical sculpture installation by artist Jessy Nite and the O, Miami, poetry festival.

North Miami photo 2
This bare alley in North Miami would become a “gathering lane” like the ‘ruelles’ of Montreal with shade trees, murals, seating areas. The Miami Foundation

Other proposals:

Construct and hang artistic birdhouses in a dozen Miami Beach parks, reinforcing the city’s role as a bird sanctuary.

Turn beach walkers into trash collectors with conveniently placed “Fill-A-Bag” stations stocked with reusable burlap bags, plastic buckets and compostable garbage bags, starting on Key Biscayne beaches.

Fill a Bag Idea submitter Manny Rionda
Manny Rionda with one of his Fill-A-Bag prototypes for collecting trash on beaches. The Miami Foundation

Aja Monet’s “Liberty Speaks: Stories of the City” idea would give children more opportunities to “express their free, theatrical selves.”

“The current landscape at the Belafonte Tacolcy Center in Liberty City yearns for activation and reinvention,” she said in her proposal. “Currently it is a vapid canvas of land; our idea reimagines this community center as an interactive stage” with sound-responsive pavement.

Install a network of free-standing little libraries designed by local artists in Overtown, Little Haiti, Lemon City and Liberty City so that more families have free access to books.

Beyond Literacy Pop Up
Mini-libraries would give more families free access to books. The Miami Foundation

In Miami Springs, make the green space and gazebo in the center of the main traffic circle accessible with crosswalks. And revamp an old, unattractive boat ramp on the Miami River into a nice spot to launch your kayak or have a picnic.

In Coconut Grove a “Resilient Living Shoreline Micro Smart Park” would “showcase big solutions” to storm surge and sea rise by replacing the seawall damaged by Hurricane Irma with a stepped design and mangrove planters. And, in another section of the Grove, the green space encompassed by four lots at the intersection of Palmetto and Plaza streets is on its way to becoming a park that is badly needed in the South and West Grove. The adjacent Charlie’s Woods is already a neighborly gathering place for potluck dinners and outdoor movies.

In Little Havana, place sidewalk decals that would encourage fitness games such as hopscotch and direct people to the nearest park.

In Miami Gardens, team teenagers with military veterans to create an urban garden and bee-keeping apiary at Trinity Church.