St. Louis Magazine, The Big THINK
Samantha Lee wants to help activate St. Louis, one tiny park at a time
This story is an excerpt from the June 16 edition of The Big Think newsletter. To read the full article, subscribe to The Big Think by visiting the link below. The full version will be delivered straight to your inbox.
Last fall, Samantha Lee went for a run. Downtown, she stopped at 10th and Locust and looked around. It was a gray day, and St. Louis—and the rest of the country—was bracing for the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Streets were closed off, and businesses looked empty. No one was around.
“I think that most people would probably be sad about it,” Lee says. “But I saw so many opportunities.”
Lee is a designer by trade. She has a background in interior design and has dabbled in everything from graphic design to branding. But she always had a passion for work that would impact the masses. After that run, she started sketching. She thought about doing some kind of programming on the street, maybe a temporary activation event or hosting a dinner outside. But COVID-19 case and hospitalization numbers were climbing.
“‘Let’s throw a big party’—that wasn’t really on people’s agenda,” Lee says. “At the same time, I was learning a lot about St. Louis, our urban development, our environment, and the vacancy problem that we have here. I knew that if I was able to take an underutilized space and activate it, and not burden anybody with that project, it could still accomplish the same thing—helping out local businesses and activating the streets—everything that I was intending to do with an event. Really, it created even more of an opportunity because this was something that could stay there. It was something that could be more of a long-term solution than just a temporary weekend event.”
So the interior designer looked to the outdoors. And she landed on a parks project.
Lee launched her nonprofit, Pocketparks, to reimagine vacant lots into mini parks, with a goal of increasing safety, property values, community pride, and economic development. Her first project? A narrow strip of dirt at 923 Locust, across from the old Farm & Home Savings Association building, the site of that course-changing downtown jog. Now known as DUC Park, Pocketparks’ firstborn is named after its sponsor, Downtown Urgent Care.
With DUC Park and subsequent parks, Lee hopes to transform ugly vacant lots into tiny pockets of paradise, not only increasing a single property’s value, but also creating more economic opportunities within neighborhoods. “That can be customized to whatever that neighborhood’s needs are,” she says. “We can think about this from a high level or a very detailed level. More detailed ways are people using that space to create economic opportunities: a local yoga studio hosting yoga on the lot or a local restaurant wanting to do an outdoor dining feature in the park.”
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Woytus is St. Louis Magazine's deputy editor, covering news and culture. Like this story? Want to share other feedback? Send Woytus an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.