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Washington School Neighbors: Creating Spaces for Social Connection

Eric Smith and Lisa Kasten

Report from the field: A visit with Lisa Kasten at the WSN garden

It's a chilly, yet sunny April day when I pull up to the corner of Maple Ave. and West 10th St. As I park the car, I look across the street, and I find my attention captivated by an oasis of lush green that stands in contrast against a backdrop of houses and concrete sidewalks. This inviting space is a pocket park and community garden conceived of, and built, by the residents that call the Washington School neighborhood home.

At Great Lakes Urban we talk about how neighborhoods are more than just a place on a map. They have a function, a role, to play in society. Strong neighborhoods are producers of wellbeing, and the Washington School Neighbors (WSN) garden--which sits on a lot that had been vacant for years because of an underground stream--is a visible reminder of this fact.

Co-creating a space to nourish body and soul, to grow food and social connections

As I walk over to the lot, I see someone waiting by the shed. It turns out to be Lisa Kasten. Lisa is the neighborhood's community connector, and she serves as the Executive Director of Washington School Neighbors (WSN), the organizational structure that ensures progress toward the vision residents have of a flourishing neighborhood. Practically as soon as we meet, Lisa sets about sharing photos and telling me the story of how the park and garden came to be. And that's something you learn quickly about Lisa. She's passionate about her neighborhood, and very committed to the residents in her care.

One of the ways Lisa stands out is her commitment to the principle of co-creation. Projects like this only last over the long haul when they are born out of the collective imagination of neighbors, when they engage people's individual gifts, and when a lot of people's fingerprints are on their implementation. The WSN garden fits all of these criteria. Residents designed the project and provide labor and supplies to keep it up. WSN and the Community Foundation of Holland/Zeeland funded the project, including the land purchase, and the City of Holland assisted with soil and material needs.

Reciprocity: the art of giving and receiving from out of our abilities, resources, care

Of the many stories of contribution that Lisa shared, however, one stood out to me. At one end of the park is a metal figure (pictured below) that adds whimsey and charm to the space. The sculpture was donated by a resident just down the street who wanted this work to be enjoyed by others, in part, as a testament to his brother's talent. You see, his brother lives with the "developmentally disabled" label, but standing here in this space today, I realize that we are all "abled," just in different ways. Abundance, it appears, grows when we all give and receive out of our abilities and resources and care.

So, here we are with a park that invites families and neighbors to gather, to connect, to share life together. We have a garden that produces a bountiful harvest for the residents of the Washington School neighborhood. Is there any better example of a neighborhood living into its function, its role, as a producer of wellbeing?

We hope you will join us in saying "bravo" to Lisa and the dedicated WSN team. Learn more at

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