“Touching” is not a word usually applied to Government publications, but it’s an appropriate one for “Memoryscape,” one of the case studies in Restorative Commons: Creating the Health and Well-Being through Urban Landscapes. This U.S. Forest Service publication, one of Library Journal’s 2009 Notable Government Documents, is an attractively packaged and well-illustrated collection of thought pieces, case studies, and interviews focused on the idea that biophilia – the basic human need for contact with nature – can and must be fostered in urban settings. As Oliver Sacks says in his Foreword, “I would even suggest that a sort of subtype of biophilia may be hortophilia, or a special desire for gardens….In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.” I know that whenever I pass an urban common garden, it always evokes positive feelings in me, even though I’m not a gardener myself. A walk or hike in a park definitely takes me out of myself and my problems, and it seems to work that way for most folks I know.
All the more pressing then, is the need to make nature and gardens available in such places as Rikers Island (a jail), Red Hook (a blighted urban neighborhood in New York City), Fresh Kills Park (a landfill), and Bosnia-Herzegovina (the site of horrific ethnic cleansing in the 1990’s).The essays and interviews in Restorative Commons describe the innovative garden/landscape projects in these places and others, along with the stories of the people who are running the programs and those benefiting from them vocationally and psychologically.
And then there’s “Memoryscape,” about the place in Westfield, Massachusetts known as “100 acres.” Brian Murphy, his brother Harold, and many of their friends used this area – an area of trees, dirt roads, and wildlife – as their “romping grounds.” Brian was killed at the World Trade Center, and Harold used his skills as a real estate developer with an interest in open space conservation to have 30 acres of this urban landscape permanently preserved. He takes his brother’s kids there to show them their dad’s “place” and, aside from a planned trail, it will stay as it is, rusted train trestle and all, so they and future generations can romp there, too. There are informal 9/11 memorials like this in the Boston and LA areas, where the planes took off, in the Greater New York area and adjoining suburbs, and in the DC area, too. (We could see the smoke from the Pentagon from our office windows that day).