Tenants help plan a new greenspace near Riverside Plaza. Credit: Hana Ikramuddin | Sahan Journal

Under a stark blue sky and with the temperature climbing toward 85 degrees on Saturday,  residents of the Riverside Plaza apartments in Minneapolis gathered with employees of the local nonprofit, Metro Blooms, to discuss plans for improving the public space around the complex.

In a tent at the corner of Cedar Avenue and 6th Street, Metro Blooms workers, wielding a large yellow legal pad, invited residents to write down their desires for a site near the southeastern edge of the property. Ideas included more places to sit and relax, and the installation of a drinking fountain.

Riverside Plaza, which is popular with Somali families, was completed in 1973 and designed by architect Ralph Rapson in the “brutalist” style. Currently, the space around its buildings is largely made of concrete. But some tenants at Riverside Plaza hope to change that.

On the agenda in the coming months is a new and improved greenspace on Cedar Avenue, which will include new shrubs and plants for pollinators, rain gardens, and a new parklet. Metro Blooms, which partners with communities to build “resilient” landscapes, will begin the project in the fall, after fielding ideas from the community.

They hope to turn a bland, uninviting corner into a place where community members will enjoy gathering and spending time outdoors.

“We started three years ago with community engagement,” said Rich Harrison, co-director of design and the registered landscape architect with Metro Blooms. He said the group has reached out to residents through door knocking and engaged directly with community leaders. 

“We’ve worked with community members over time and asked them what are their needs, what’s their wish list,” he said. Saturday’s event was another way to gather input.

Ali Badri, a middle aged man who has lived in Riverside Plaza for 17 years, said of the space currently, “Nobody can sit here. It’s not good, not comfortable.” He looks forward to a new sitting area with plenty of plants and shrubs. Badri said he came to the Metro Blooms event at the recommendation of his imam.

Badri also expressed concern about crime in the Cedar–Riverside neighborhood and how that might impact the planned greenspace, where he hopes parents can gather to spend time with their children. He suggested that security personnel might be employed to keep the area safe.

Riverside Plaza property manager Mimi Gibson explained that one priority is to make the space near the apartment buildings aesthetically pleasing while also considering environmental concerns, such as control of excess rain water.

“Overall, Riverside is mostly concrete,” Gibson said. “So we need to try and find any spots that we can bring up to make the area look better and environmentally friendly.” Planned rain gardens will catch stormwater runoff, for example.

University of Minnesota art professor Christine Baeumler, who has worked on rain gardens as an artist going back to the 1990s, co-teaches a course on climate change that merges art and science. Baeumler is also the artist in residence at the Capitol Region Watershed District in St. Paul.

Baeumler was invited to Saturday’s event by Metro Blooms and held a listening session in the Riverside Plaza community parking lot near the tent. Baeumler co-runs *Backyard Phenology, a group that collects personal stories about the climate and environment.

“Some people like to plant, some people like to weed, some people like to research pollinators, so there are just so many facets to a rain garden,” Baeumler said. “It’s a wonderful tool for people to get engaged with nature in their own neighborhood.”

Because they contain living plants, rain gardens require an ongoing commitment by a community, she said. They must be maintained after they are installed, which presents an opportunity for a community to stay connected and work together.

“It’s not like a sculpture that you put in a plaza and you walk away,” Baeumler said. “It’s a living system that benefits us as humans, but it also benefits other species and benefits the water as well.”

At the end of Saturday’s event, Riverside Plaza community members gathered on the other side of the plaza property to work on a separate rain garden that was established by Metro Blooms in 2019.

Given this past success, Weli Hassan, executive director of the Riverside Plaza Tenants’ Association, said he’s glad Metro Blooms will help build the new outdoor community space. 

Pointing toward a photo of the rain garden site before it was converted two years ago, he said, “It used to be dirt.” He said that the plants that community members were helping to re-establish in the rain garden will make the space look even better.

The planned community area along Cedar Avenue, near the edge of the complex property, will only make the area feel more inviting, according to property manager Gibson. 

“We want the residents to have an area where they can sit, [especially in the] summertime, and gather together outside,” she said, adding that she wants tenants to be comfortable, rather than having to perch on ledges or other surfaces. “We believe it’s going to be a real nice addition for our residents and the property as a whole.”

*Correction: This story has been updated to give the correct name of the group Backyard Phenology.

Hana Ikramuddin is a summer intern with Sahan Journal.