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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Connecting to the river

October 16, 2009

UMC students and Eric Castle install pavers.

UMC students in Eric Castle's Landscape Installation and Maintenance class beautify the entrance to the Sixth Street Park in Crookston.

Photo: John Zak

UMC students help develop new park area in Crookston

By Rick Moore

In fall 2003 the city of Crookston suffered an unlikely natural disaster. A section of embankment along the Red Lake River gave way, leading to the loss of a motel and a number of homes. Various factors led to the "slope failure," including a low water table level and some heavy rains that added weight to the top of the bank.

Six years later, the area now known as the Sixth Street Park has a new life and a new look, thanks to students from three classes at the University of Minnesota, Crookston (UMC).

When the city received funding about a year ago to renovate the area, it contacted UMC for help. There, Eric Castle, an assistant professor in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Department at UMC, immediately saw an opportunity for students in his various classes.

First, students in his Land-Use Planning class investigated how other communities developed park areas. Heather Herrig, a student in that class and a senior in natural resource management, says they examined different looks for the park, including one that would be more educational, with interpretive signs; one that would be kid-focused; and one that would have a more natural look.

The students then presented their findings at a "charrette"—which Castle describes as "a design brainstorming process" involving Crookston community members—and various design ideas emerged.

"We had students summarize those ideas, and then the Landscape Design class took those ideas and came up with three different design scenarios," Castle says. "Those three preliminary designs were presented to the city."

The final design approved by the city contains an array of features including a contemporary gazebo structure, a fishing pier, benches, and a walking path down to the river.

"As you get down next to the river, you don't hear the cars and you don't see the houses," says Castle. "You hear the river."

This fall, yet another of Castle's classes is involved with the Sixth Street Park project—his Landscape Installation and Maintenance class. For the past month, those students beautified a main entryway to the park, installed a seating wall and pavers, and planted trees, shrubs, and other perennials. "It's a very visible corner," says Castle, "so we wanted to dress it up and make it an asset rather than a visual liability."

For each of Castle's classes, the work has taken the form of a service-learning project, where community service becomes an essential part of the educational experience.

Real-world experience and a new park for the city

Ultimately, while the UMC students gain hands-on experience in their field, their work serves a greater purpose.

Castle points out that the Red Lake River is an inherent part of Crookston's identity, but there aren't many places in town where people can connect to the river.

The new-look Sixth Street Park helps to change that. Beyond the entrance visitors will discover an area of transition, both for the eyes and the spirit. The grass next to the highway now yields to a buffer zone of natural prairie grasses, courtesy of Castle's students.

"As you get down next to the river, you don't hear the cars and you don't see the houses," he says. "You hear the river."

"It's nice for the community because there's another green space for people to enjoy," adds Herrig.

Mike Field, a senior majoring in environmental landscaping and turf grass management, has been in all three of the classes involved with the park project. He appreciates what the experience means, both for his own career (he already operates a 50-client landscape maintenance business) and for the city.

"It was a lot more than just digging a trench or doing manual labor," Field says. "We turned this barren landslide area into a nice park that's easily seen by [people driving by]. It's nice to spruce up the landscape of the community."

"It's a project and an assignment that they'll remember," adds Castle, especially down the road as returning alumni. "They'll drive by and see what's happening with their park."