November 8, 2023

What Was Once an Empty Lot Is Now a Neighborhood Garden

STIMULATING THE SENSES: A new Sensory Garden in downtown Trenton has turned a vacant lot into more than just a place to grow vegetables. Plants that appeal to sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing were part of the plan.

By Anne Levin

A vacant lot near Trenton’s Battle Monument has been transformed into a public garden designed to appeal to all of the senses. Architect Ken Hill’s vision for the site stems from his desire to incorporate sustainability into the projects he creates.

Hill, a Lawrenceville native, is an alumnus of Trenton Climate Corps, which is supported by AmericCorps. The latter provides training and employment in climate resilience and green infrastructure careers, and is managed by Isles, the Trenton-based community development organization.

Hill, who had previously worked for a firm in Cranbury designing buildings for the pharmaceutical industry, was looking for a career change. He joined Climate Corps last March.

“I’m interested in sustainability. There is a lot of opportunity around, and I think Trenton has a lot of potential for being developed in terms of existing buildings and lots,” he said. “There is a lot that can be done more sustainably in connecting the existing urban fabric.”

After joining Climate Corps last March, Hill was tasked with thinking about a topic of interest related to climate change mitigation and developing it as a project. “Seek out the money, make the plan, and figure out how to get the job done,” he said.

He designed the Sensory Garden at the corner of Montgomery and Olive streets, where plans to create a parklet in the front of the lot were already underway. He wrote a grant proposal to the New Jersey Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Commission, securing a $5,000 grant for the project. Working with Isles’ staff, he was able to identify plants for a sensory area and a pollinator garden. They worked together to clean the lot, mulch the space, and build containers for the plants. The city provided the mulch, and the grant paid for the additional materials and staff time.

The garden has separate beds to stimulate all five human senses. “Native vines such as honeysuckle and wisteria have been incorporated to create natural screens from neighboring buildings and parking, enhancing the sensory experience,” reads a release from Isles. “Beds along the lot’s edge have been reserved for native pollinators, attracting bees and other beneficial insects, bolstering the local ecosystem.”

Trenton artists Raven George and Dayanna McKay painted a mural visible from the street. The parklet adjacent to the garden has planters, Adirondack chairs, and a picnic table. An old phone booth has been turned into a musical instrument by artist Wills Kinsley, adding an interactive element to the mix.

The garden opened to the public officially on October 24, with a community event that featured food from Isles’ incubator garden, hot apple cider, and games for kids provided by T-Recs, Isles’ mobile recreation unit.

Designing the Sensory Garden was Hill’s first step into changing his career. “Since 1995, I have been doing the production of construction drawings for many different building types,” he said. “I recently got a graduate certificate in sustainability. I’m trying to transition to more sustainable projects, and this was a great first step to take.”