Cornell volunteers unpave paradise and put up a garden for residents of an Ithaca nursing home

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ITHACA, N.Y. -- "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," singer Joni Mitchell lamented in the 1970s. Three decades later, they are demolishing a parking lot and paving the way for a paradise.

Thanks to the efforts of a Cornell University environmental psychologist, her colleagues and students, the Cornell Public Service Center and the Tompkins Cortland County Builders and Remodelers Association (TCBRA), a garden is being created in a former parking lot for residents of an Ithaca nursing home.

"By transforming bleak asphalt into lush green vegetation, we hope to not only improve the quality of life for elders who reside at Lakeside Nursing Home, but also to document how a natural environment at a long-term care facility may encourage social interaction, foster social networks and feelings of belonging and sustain social support," says Nancy M. Wells, assistant professor of design and environmental analysis (DEA) in the New York State College of Human Ecology at Cornell.

First, Spencer Paving Co. donated its time and trucks to remove the asphalt. On Saturday, April 26, dozens of Cornell students joined Cornell Cooperative Extension horticulturists and volunteers from the local builders association in a "blitz build" to generate a tool shed, fence, window boxes and a trellis for the garden. The plans also call for three raised planting beds, large trees and several picnic tables with umbrellas. In coming weeks, trees, shrubs and perennials will be planted.

The students came from Cornell Public Service Center's Elderly Partnership, Dickson Residence Hall where Wells is a faculty fellow and from her "Environments for Elders" undergraduate class (DEA 472).

The garden is the brainchild of Avery DeVenanzio, a Cornell senior majoring in English, whose proposal won a 2001 Cornell Robinson-Appel Humanitarian Award and allowed DeVenanzio to build several raised beds for the project. Brian Howell, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and co-director of the Elderly Partnership in the Cornell Public Service Center, followed DeVenanzio's lead by securing a Community Partnership Board Grant. Wells then forged a partnership with TCBRA and its president, Dean Shea of Sunny Brook Builders, Ithaca. Howell consulted with other local experts, including Cornell alumna Mari Mitchell, B.S. '98 (landscape architecture), M.S. (design and environmental analysis) '03, a local landscape architect who drew up the garden plan. Students from Wells' class worked to coordinate construction and sought donations of food for construction workers as well as gifts of trees, bird baths, bird feeders, planters, perennials, top soil, compost and a wheelbarrow. Charles Mazza, an extension associate in Cornell's Department of Horticulture, is spearheading the soil preparation and plantings.

"The project also is a valuable and rare opportunity to explore the impact of a garden intervention program on nursing-home residents," says Wells, who studies the psychological effects of views of and access to nature. With funding from the Cornell Applied Gerontology Research Institute, which is part of the university's Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center, Wells is collecting data, before and after the garden project, from the elderly residents, many of whom live in rooms overlooking the site.

"I hope to better understand the mechanisms though which social integration and sense of belonging are fostered by a nearby, green natural area," says Wells. "We'll also be trying to determine, for example, to what extent active participation in the space is necessary or whether passive appreciation or observation of activities in the space will have beneficial impacts. We will also seek to determine what features of a green garden space are particularly effective or appreciated."

The project will continue throughout May with planting/soil preparation days on Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m. (rain dates on Fridays) and another building blitz.

The building of the garden also is supported by a Cornell Faculty Fellows in Service grant and the Community Partnership Board, which is funded in part by the Public Service Center and the Student Assembly Finance Commission

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