Landscape Architect Explores Nature’s Role In Urban Development

Sep 18, 2017

If you’ve made your way to the outskirts of downtown Providence lately, you may have noticed thousands of sunflowers growing on empty plots of land by the riverfront. The pop-up garden is highlighted in this year’s “Design Week RI,” a series of events showcasing the state’s design sector. RIPR’s Ximena Conde visited the sunflowers, and found an exploration of nature in the urban landscape.

Manuel Muller and his friend Naomi Vinbury were sitting in a field of about 10,000 sunflowers on a recent Wednesday afternoon, eating cheese and crackers, and a rose hip jam Vinbury made. The two picnickers were not in a country field, but instead enjoying a view of the Providence skyline over the sunflowers’ yellow heads.

Muller and Vinbury were just a couple of the dozens of people who visited “10,000 Suns,” a project consisting of two parcels of empty urban land taken over by towering sunflowers. The flowers ranged in height from four to seven feet tall, covering two short blocks near a highway and a gas station.

Credit Ximena Conde / RIPR

“10,000 Suns is what I call a botanical performance interim park,” said landscape architect Adam Anderson, the creator of the project, which is now in its second year.

Anderson designed “10,000 Suns” for land that used to lie underneath a highway and is now waiting to be developed, part of Providence’s effort to reinvent itself as a center for technology developers and creative types. Anderson sees the project as a meditation on the relationship between man-made structures and nature.

“I wanted to get people to think about the possibility of what landscape can do, as transforming a space that was unused in a very simple way.”

A graduate of the landscape architecture program at the Rhode Island School of Design, Anderson chose sunflowers partly because they’re affordable. They’re also strikingly beautiful, and they can clean once toxic soil.

“This is also a Brownfield site,” Anderson explained, adding that sunflowers are “bio-accumulators.”

“So they actually suck toxins out of the grounds,” he said.

They also attract hundreds of bees.

“Before it was just grass, and it’s sort of, you know, lifeless. I think someone said, ‘a lawn is something deprived of sex and death.’”

Credit Ximena Conde / RIPR

With rows of flowers in full bloom, the area looks nothing like a lawn. Walking from either end of the site, the flowers look like they’re part of large, full fields, but they’re actually scattered in nine separate circles with paths scattered in between them.

“As you approach a little closer, you begin to meander,” Anderson said.

Naomi Vinbury, the woman who made the rose hip jam, cut small slices of cheese while sitting in the center of one of the biggest sunflower circles.

She and a friend made the trek from South Kingston before she left Rhode Island for the summer.

“I saw the little spot here within the beautiful flowers with the chairs, and I thought before I go back to California, I want to have a picnic within that little spot with the sunflowers,” Vinbury said.

But not everyone comes by “10,000 Suns” on purpose.

Manuella Bottcher and her husband were visiting Providence from Berlin and passed the sunflowers while on a walk.

“We’re coming back and taking a picture of those flowers because they’re really beautiful,” Bottcher said. “It was, how you say? An accident.”

Bottcher knew nothing of the project, but she seemed intrigued.

“It brings some nature to Providence,” she said.

This bit of nature will disappear with the arrival of cooler temperatures, although its creator, Adam Anderson, says he’d like to make it an annual project. The land is under the control of the Interstate-195 Commission, which is working to redevelop the former highway parcels and could sell them at any time.

Editor’s Note: The project “10,000 Suns” is featured in this week’s “Design Week RI.” Event organizer Design X RI is an underwriter for Rhode Island Public Radio.