Community. It means different things to different people. It can be a neighborhood, a city, a club, a civic organization or a collection of like-minded individuals. There are communities built around religion, retirement, lifestyles, hobbies, residence, parenthood, ancestry… the list goes on and on. But the one thing that all communities share is human connection. Communities form when people connect with each other and find they have something in common, whether it’s where they live, their values, shared experiences or a mutual goal.
Santa Fe’s Railyard Park is that connection and interdependence brought to life. The 18-acre park began as a grassroots movement to transform the reclaimed brown field off Cerrillos Road into a thriving and vibrant public space. Thousands of residents engaged in the planning process and advocated its development. The Railyard Park was created by the community, for the community. Together, citizens reimagined the space as a multi-use park that would be devoted to cultural diversity and environmental sustainability.
That vision has been fully realized. The park was completed in 2008, and today Santa Fe Railyard Park is a flourishing public garden, outdoor art exhibit and events space for all Santa Feans. If the Santa Fe Plaza is our city’s living room, Railyard Park is our family room. Couples walk amongst fragrant orchards as children tirelessly cavort in the playground. Families gather for free outdoor movie nights. Students learn about local ecosystems. Residents tend plots in the community garden or pause to inhale the fragrance of the roses. Visitors admire our artistic displays and glimpse our high-desert wildlife.
Behind the scenes, a small group of ecologists, volunteers and community members known as The Railyard Stewards oversees it all. In collaboration with The City of Santa Fe, The Trust for Public Land, The Santa Fe Railyard Community Corporation, and the Santa Fe Conservation Trust, The Railyard Stewards manage the care of the park, while also providing a wide variety of educational programs and community events.
Under The Stewards’ direction, the Railyard Park is far more than a verdant public space. For example, the park offers 10 individual, reservable organic garden plots in which Santa Fe residents can grow crops. The Stewards provide mulch, maintain a compost pile, and from time to time, irrigate the gardens using the 400-year-old Acequia Madre and Acequia Niña (translated as Mother Ditch and Daughter Ditch, respectively) water system.
Another way the Stewards encourage the community to engage with the park is through the Outdoor Science Classroom. This program for students K-5 teaches environmental science literacy and integrates classroom instruction into science activities in the park.
The Stewards also organize The Community Workshop Series. These Saturday-morning workshops are 100-percent free and cover topics ranging from pest identification to fruit-tree pruning, and even cooking with crickets! Linda Shafer, executive director of the Railyard Stewards, says, “We’ve broadened to topics geared toward sustainability and local ecology, and the environment that appeal to a wider audience and reflects stewardship and community.” With regard to the food-related workshops, she adds, “The topic of food is apparent everywhere in our culture, and has created a New American food ethic to grow and prepare better food, resulting in better health and responsibly caring for the earth.”
Again, the arrangement is mutually beneficial for all involved. The workshops support local businesses’ visibility, while residents are able to gain from their expertise. Community values of support and interdependence are the backbone of Railyard Park.
The sense of community even extends to our non-human residents. One of The Stewards’ newest projects is the Native Bee House. Linda Schaefer explains, “Native bees flourish in our dry, high-mountain desert climate, and The Railyard Park is an ideal location for native bee habitats. It offers 28 pesticide-free, cultivated xeric perennial gardens, wildflower meadows, rose gardens and an apple and apricot orchard.”
The 6-foot native bee house was designed by artist Peter Joseph and is filled with 2,000 paper straws, each one hand-rolled by fourth and seventh graders in Santa Fe. With advice from melittologist Dr. Olivia Carril, the bee house aims to raise awareness and educate the public about native bees and their impacts on local ecosystems. With all the attention on the decline of honeybees, The Native Bee House brings focus to the other 1,000 species of bees that are native to New Mexico—including bees in jewel tones of red, blue, green and shiny black; big fuzzy bumblebees, leafcutter bees and even the smallest bee species in North America, perdita minima.
The grand opening of The Native Bee House was held on June 25 to celebrate National Pollinator Week in Santa Fe. The hope is that the bee house will garner support for native bees and protecting pollinators. As an added treat, it’s a fun and interesting addition to the park. Dr. Olivia Carril effervesces, “I love that the bee house is there. My hope is that people will just appreciate the bees. They’re really beautiful, and will make your Railyard experience a little more enjoyable knowing they are there.”
Also on the horizon for the Railyard Park is International Mud Day on Saturday, July 2. Linda Schaefer describes it as, “a day for children and their families to celebrate nature, the glorious earth beneath our feet, and the joy of making a mess by getting really muddy. There will be a mud area in the Railyard Park for kids to make mud pies, mud painting and other creative activities to celebrate nature-based play through mud.”
Sure, that sounds like good clean (or dirty!) fun, but once again there is a larger purpose and a desire to help people—even the smallest people—connect to their world. The Mud Day is actually a test of a Saturday morning Pre-K play program to encourage nature-based play for the youngest Santa Feans. International Mud Day will help the Stewards evaluate what permanent programming can look like for this age group.
Most remarkable of all, the workshops, events, garden maintenance, landscaping and educational programs are all made possible because of volunteers. Right from the outset, Santa Fe’s Railyard Park has reflected the community that created it. The park serves the community, and the community in turn serves the park. The Railyard Stewards oversee the volunteers, which is no small task. In 2015, more than 1,500 volunteers logged close to 3,600 hours of service to keep the park maintained.
Linda elaborates, “We have the Yardmasters, our adult volunteers, who work in the park each Tuesday and Thursday morning; youth-in-service groups that visit the park each spring and summer; we work with local charter schools like the Masters’ Program at SFCC [Santa Fe Community College]; and have worked with nationally based voluntourism groups like Overland Youth Camps and the National Community Conservation Corps.”
If you’re interested in supporting this dynamic and vital part of Santa Fe, head out to the park and volunteer on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, attend the Saturday workshops, or contact the Railyard Stewards for more ways you can contribute.
Planted by our community, the seeds of Santa Fe Railyard Park have now germinated and taken root. The park has been nurtured and tended until it grew into the gorgeous and comfortable family room it was envisioned to be. It’s a calm but lively little oasis where we are all invited to kick off our shoes, learn together, play together and most importantly, connect to one another.
For a listing of the upcoming workshops at the Railyard Park or to find out how you can volunteer, visit railyardpark.org.
Story by Melyssa Holik