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Pocketparks aims to beautify St. Louis, one vacant lot at a time

The DUC Park located at 923 Locust Street is named after the pocket park’s sponsor, Downtown Urgent Care.
The DUC Park located at 923 Locust St. is named after the pocket park’s sponsor, Downtown Urgent Care.

Samantha Lee Smugala’s first attempt at leading a nonprofit has been a successful one. Earlier this year, she launched Pocketparks, a project devoted to beautifying empty lots across the region.

Since then, she’s collaborated with many organizations around town that want to amplify her efforts, including the Cortex Innovation Community, Seeds St. Louis and the Regional Arts Commission. Most recently, the Downtown St. Louis Community Improvement District granted Pocketparks $10,000 to further develop the DUC Park located at 923 Locust St. (named after the pocket park’s sponsor, Downtown Urgent Care).

Lee Smugala joined Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air to talk about how the parks help address the city’s vacancy problems. She also discussed upcoming plans to get the pocket parks ready for the holiday season and future expansion efforts.

“Street activation is so important. And I've been telling a lot of people this: I really believe that cities get their personality from public space. And people walking around the city, activating it, making it safer — it really changes the entire vibe,” Lee Smugala said.

She traces the idea for her efforts back to a couple of years ago, when she was exploring the city while running through it.

“I found myself pausing, snapping a photo on my phone. And then I would go back and start sketching concepts on top of it, whether that was a new farmers market or an empty building with a new facade or a vacant lot into a little park,” she said.

Pocketparks aims to beautify St. Louis, one vacant lot at a time.

She posted those sketches online and received a lot of positive feedback. She then put her interior design background to use and worked with other urban planners on making Pocketparks a reality.

There are currently four parks underway. Two are downtown, including one at Laclede's Landing.

“Then we have one in the West End neighborhood, which is near Hodiamont. And that one has some beautiful sculptures from the apprentices at STLArtworks … and then our fourth park is a collaboration with the Cortex. This year, it was an urban sunflower field, and we're about to make the announcement that we're coming back in 2022 with another partnership to do natural prairie and some other fun, exciting things,” she said.

For the upcoming colder months, Lee Smugula said, there are plans to install light “activations” at the parks.

“To still kind of keep the park active and increase safety, we're going to be installing some solar lights throughout the parks. And they're going to be fun colors and holiday themed, so when people are walking by after work or walking home from the bus stop, it's something that they can pause and enjoy and experience as they're walking through,” she said.

The nonprofit is also looking forward to purchasing its first property in the coming months from the Land Reutilization Authority.

“The city does have a lot of resources, and working with the vacancy collaborative, we're working on additional resources for people who want to create their own little pocket parks or renovate buildings,” she added.

“As long as we're sustaining and providing value, we're doing our job. Because we're not just coming in developing, we're also maintaining and activating. And so if it's five parks, if it's 25 parks and in multiple cities — which would be amazing — that's great. But as long as we're providing value, I think we're accomplishing what we set out to do.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.