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Mobile Garden on the CTA

For the past couple of years I've been following Joe Baldwin's dream of installing a flatbed garden on a CTA train that would traverse the city for a month. His idea is rather simple. Build a raised bed that's attached to a Chicago Transit Authority train and plant it with native plants and let the train carry the garden throughout various Chicago neighborhoods. You'd think such an idea would be either really easy to implement or impossible to given the bureaucracy of a big government agency. The truth is that his dream is almost on track and the only thing holding him back is money. The CTA and the USDA have given the idea their blessing, all he needs is a big corporate sponsor to underwrite it. But for five hours in August of 2010 he gave Chicago a glimpse of what a mobile garden would look like during Art on Track.

A few days before Art on Track Joe contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in volunteering helping install the garden and of course I said yes. How could I possibly say no to being part of installing a garden in a space Chicagoans had never seen before? The morning of the event a handful of volunteers turned up and transformed this standard L cart into a garden in just a few hours. Prepping involved covering every part of the train that would be "planted" with a plastic tarp.

Three hours and one lunch break later the CTA cart looked like a tropical jungle. It took 400 square feet of sod to cover the floor and seats.

In the middle of the project Joe got word that the owner of Tu Bloom Designs in Chicago had heard of the project and wanted to donate plants. Soon there were even more plants and flowers filling out the garden. The gardeners at Green Roof Growers provided and example of a self-irrigation planter made out of plastic buckets, the Morton Arboretum provided some perennial grasses, Joe's friends and family donated plants. The mobile garden this day exemplified the way "real" gardens grow. Friends, family and people you hardly know hear that you're starting a garden and all of a sudden you have helpers and plants for your garden.

The mobile garden circled the Loop in Chicago and for five hours attendees of Art on Track boarded the train along with passengers who were surprised to see a garden pull into their train station. People sat on the sod seats, took photos, and were amazed by how much cooler the inside of the planted train was compared to the rest of the carts. There were also lots of comments about the earthy smell created by the sod and plants.

Left: Planted Mobile Garden Seats: Right: Self-watering container

Left: Planted before passenegrs. Right: Mobile Garden Filled with riders

Plants used included: Sod, native grasses, tomatillos, ornamental sweet potato vines, ivy, spider plants, kale, zinnias, rubber trees, coleus

The mobile garden even displayed mock ads for supports of the garden. Does the logo in the ad on left in the picture above look familiar?

Here's a video of garden that I filmed on my cellphone. Yes, the quality isn't the best, but I was trying to mimic the look and feel of viral videos of people being less than civil on public transportation. Perhaps you've seen videos of amorous couples, bigotry, and violence on YouTube that take place on trains and buses. Well, this is a part of people you don't regularly see in those videos that take place on public transit. Happy, civil people; transported to another time and place where conversations, laughs and sharing positive experiences with strangers was normal. That to me was the most impressive thing about witnessing the mobile garden circle downtown Chicago for five hours.

While building the mobile garden on the CTA train cart Joe commented on how he's been living with this project for three years. It sounded as if he'd decided if the garden wasn't a reality by 2011 he'd have to move on. His non-profit, NoisiVelvet, is an arts advocate and a lot of his time these past couple of years has been devoted to this idea of a garden. At the end of Art on Track I overheard him telling someone that watching people ride and interact with the mobile garden had given him a new sense of urgency to keep going. I hope he does and that a corporate sponsor comes forward. I don't know if gardens make better people. I do, however, have first hand knowledge of gardens make for nicer commuters. To learn more about Joe's idea for the mobile garden visit his website TheMobileGarden or visit NoisiVelvet for information on arts advocacy projects.


  1. I loved this when you posted it on fb, and I still love it now. The actual whole native plant train sounds even better, though. Glad Joe didn't abandon the project.

  2. @Kerrie, That was pretty much the reaction of everyone who saw the garden that day.

    @Monica, The native plant garden he wants to do sounds cool, but I think even if his ideal version of the garden comes to fruition this one will be my favorite because it is so interactive. When that one happens I'll make sure to give you a warning so you can see it in person.

  3. I agree about the interactivity, I think this iteration has changed parts of the proposal...

  4. @NoisiVelvet, That's cool. So are you going to put a lawn chair so people can ride in the flatbed? ;0)

  5. Fantastic! Just goes to show that plants make any place better! :)

  6. @MBT, no. But two lucky CTA employees will look like mobile gardeners, but really be the security of the flat car - and I'll be encouraging any of our adjacent train car partners to go to the wall with spectacle when creating a teaching moment ~

  7. Holy Cow! I wonder if they could do something like this on the MBTA? I think Boston could using something like this on all lines.

    Thank you for the lovely comment on my blog.

  8. Super cool. veri interactive.

  9. That is really neat, original and relaxing! robbie;-)

  10. Impressive job! The garden really looks like any garden we have here in the tropics - green and lush. The commuters are so fortunate. They see and feel greeneries and breath good air while travelling.



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