A “citizen naturalist" on St. Paul’s East Side
On a spectacular fall afternoon, Neil Cunningham led me through a planting of native Minnesota hazelnut and plum trees, grasses, and elderberry bushes—not the kind of scenery you’d expect to find across the street from a Burger King in a lower-income neighborhood.
But in a way, that’s the point.
Neil Cunningham points to fruit on a native plum tree.
The postage stamp prairie and a greenhouse on the East Side of St. Paul, Minn., are home to the Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture’s biological control program. The greenhouse was built more than a decade ago so that department staff could develop and provide technical expertise on habitats that were attractive to certain insects, or bugs that could keep other bugs in check.
Over time, Cunningham has helped expand that mission
Providing a community connection to plant and insect knowledge
Through an open-door policy and the relationships that Cunningham has cultivated, the greenhouse has become a public space. Neighborhood gardeners know that they can come to the greenhouse with questions—and answers. “People from Korea, Sudan and Mexico have all told me this is edible and can be bought at markets in their home countries," Cunningham said, pointing to a self-seeded groundcover (aka weed) on the boulevard outside.
This summer, when he found some local kids harvesting unripe vegetables from the small garden at the back of the greenhouse, Cunningham said he was glad they had discovered the place. If you’re a little cynical, you might imagine someone in Cunningham’s position saying that because it sounds politically correct, while privately labeling the kids vandals.
But I can tell that Cunningham is sincere. Rather than scold them, he used the encounter to ask the kids if they knew what the vegetables were (they didn’t) and then explain how they could (eventually) be eaten. He hopes the kids will come back.
Greenhouse staff raise vegetables for their own study of insects, and as a tool for educating visitors.
“Every young person I have worked with has surprised me in some way"
It’s clear after just a few minutes with Cunningham that interacting with young people fuels much of his passion for the work of the greenhouse.
“Every young person I have worked with has surprised me in some way," he says. A few years ago, Cunningham accepted an unpaid intern from Harding High School. “That student put into action a method for rearing insects that we had never tried before, and it worked," says Cunningham.
The greenhouse staff raise and study insects, including bugs that are useful in an urban environment.
Several interns later, Cunningham worked with high school student Chang Xiong through the Youth Apprenticeship Project. Xiong brought first-hand experience with digging wells, which he had learned to do while living in a Thai refugee camp. “I was just kind of going through the motions of setting up rain barrels," recalls Cunningham, “but after meeting someone so young who’d been without something as basic as tap water, they took on a whole different importance." Xiong had also raised fish, knowledge that Cunningham says is cutting edge in urban agriculture. “He had such rich experience, we were essentially mentoring each other," says Cunningham.
Chang Xiong worked at the greenhouse as a Youth Apprentice.
This fall, Cunningham is recruiting four greenhouse interns from local high schools. He and other staff will also be visiting and hosting school groups, and presenting at science fairs.
Culture change through the power of relationships
Cunningham’s work has been “a quiet struggle at times because not everyone is convinced that the greenhouse is worth the electricity [it takes to run it]." Cunningham believes in its value because “rather than give people a brochure, we can show people living plants and insects and how they contribute to an abundant biodiversity. We can be proactive [in protecting this biodiversity]. We can change things."
All of these things are true, and should give hope to those of us who want clean air to breathe and food to eat.
But there’s more behind Cunningham’s conviction that we can change things: an understanding of the power of relationships.
When Metropolitan State University built a new library and parking lot a few years ago, they “chose to plant some very interesting things" in the space next to the greenhouse, land owned by the university. Why would the university plant native plum and hazelnut trees, rather than the default grass turf? Because Cunningham has developed relationships with the university’s facilities staff and has helped them understand and value what the greenhouse does.
By connecting with people, and valuing his work for the public, Cunningham is contributing to the common good.
The nearby Community Design Center is another organization Cunningham and other greenhouse staff have built a relationship with. THAT CDC aims to connect young people to the civic life of their community, in part by engaging in urban agriculture.
This post is the third in a series on "citizen professionals," or people who use their expertise to work with and coach others in making contributions to the common good. Check out This "coach" helps athletes develop skills for life, active citizenship.