A Zen Garden in the Middle of Downtown

After writing about crowdsourcing community improvement earlier this week, I started thinking more and more about the space in the picture below.

A vacant lot in downtown, just west of 300 West.

In a comment on that post, I was told that the city faces some budgetary constraints and other issues with respect to developing this spot. So, working within those constraints I tried to think of an idea that would be cheap and genuinely beneficial. And because the city was already considering installing gravel, it occurred to me that it could easily become a kind of zen-inspired garden. This was actually an idea that came up on the Jane Jacobs walk earlier this year, and I think it’s because we’re almost building zen gardens already.

But almost building zen gardens doesn’t quite cut it and this space is generally unused, despite some furniture installed by a guerrilla urbanist.

Consequently, I wrote up the idea below last night. I emailed to to Paul Glauser over at the city, then made a few modifications (mostly for clarity) in order to include it in this post. It’s also worth mentioning that I don’t think this proposal is perfect. In fact, it leaves many readily apparent problems intact. But my hope was that it balanced a miniscule budget with the need to have a useable, inviting space.

Wasatch Zen Garden: A gravel-based zen-style pocket park modified for interactive use and designed with minimal xeriscaped vegetation, a pathway, and benches. And maybe art.


1) The city lacks money for irrigation and paving.

2) Gravel is a cheap, reusable alternative.

3) However gravel, on its own, would create such a tiny improvement in the space that it hardly seems worth installing. After all, who uses gravel-only spaces? My feeling is that the goal isn’t appeasing community demand for a park, it’s prompting actual usage of the space.

Elements (see picture below):

1) A gravel base, much like the one immediately west of the convention center plaza, but raked as in a zen garden.

2) A stone pathway. I think this is key; it would ideally invite usage in a way that benches — like those in the pocket park south of the Wells Fargo building — don’t on their own. Buying 30 or so square-foot stones is more costly than not buying them, but without them there’s nothing to invite usage. The idea is that users move through the space, not just passed it.

2a) If stones are too expensive, we could go to wilderness areas and find them for free.

3) Small pockets of xeriscaping, perhaps each roughly three square feet in size. Though perhaps not traditionally part of a Zen garden, these would help break up the space, cut down on glare, and provide visual dynamics. They would also help guide users along the pathway. I believe there are native plants that would not require irrigation.

3a) If plants are too expensive, I will buy a packet of seeds and donate it to the city.

4) Benches would give users a place to sit. They can also be reused if/when this space is redeveloped.

4a) If benches are too expensive, underused benches from other parts of the city (I can identify a few) could be repurposed for this space.

The building in the green box has been demolished, leaving a vacant lot. The city is considering putting gravel in this spot, so I think it’d be worth investing just a little bit more money and making this a usable space. The various letters represent a hypothetical arrangement.

5) In my email, I also suggested installing art, ideally sculpture. I won’t get into all the details here because I don’t think it’s a must-have element. However, my feeling was that the city could find inexpensive art — probably from students — that would cost far, far less than the pieces installed recently at the Frontrunner station. Art would also provide additional programming for the space and give people a larger incentive to use it.



Filed under arts, Development, Downtown

4 responses to “A Zen Garden in the Middle of Downtown

  1. laura

    This is a great idea! I think student artists especially could get involved if the city promoted the idea with UVU and maybe BYU as a public arts competition.

  2. Pingback: Why It’s Good to Live in a Medium-Sized City | (pro(vo)cation)

  3. Pingback: Art in a Vacant Lot | (pro(vo)cation)

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