Friday Morning Coffee with John Forti

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From fairy tours to a caterpillar labs, John Forti wants us outside learning and laughing together. He’s making room for this to happen at Bedrock Gardens in Lee, which is undergoing metamorphosis into an artful, playful public garden that’s still a little wild. The magic of great placemaking is that it all feels totally natural.

Finding fun in the Dark Woods

“Every time I go through Bedrock Gardens, I see more. You walk through and it's just this transformative landscape that you get lost in,” John says.

For those that haven’t been, he describes that paths radiate from the 1740s farmhouse and barn, creating “little journeys” through a 37-acre oasis of grasses, forest, stone, water, and sculpture. This is intentional placemaking on an intimate scale, hand-crafted by landowners Jill Nooney and Bob Munger who bought the property in 1980.

“The settings can make you laugh, which I've never really seen in a landscape. Or there’s “the Dark Woods,” which are just these primitive, ridiculously phallic woods. They've got a Japanese tea garden and tea house. And it just ranges. You walk about a mile of pathways through all of these gardens,” John says.

Having previously worked in gardens at Plimoth Plantation, Strawbery Banke Museum, and Massachusetts Horticultural Society, John is inspired by our local and global heritage to put gardens at the center of community. “Everything from my perspective is about how do we fit in to a community, how do we make this work as an enrichment to the life of a community,” he says.

At Bedrock, the recent shift from a private property to a non-profit public garden will soon mean a new parking lot, restrooms and gateway courtyard, and eventually a new children’s forest garden and a “life events” celebration area, emphasizing restorative connections between nature and life transitions as we pass through different phases of our personal lives.

As John plans for these changes, he tells us that he’s as curious about our approach to placemaking as we are about his.

“As a garden historian, what I've really always cared about is not as much how we influence the landscape, but how it influenced us. How living at the mouth of the river, literally the port's mouth, made this town what it is. What it means to have field and pasture and forest and an agricultural past that goes back ten thousand years, and think about what we do to shape it for the community at present that keeps us in touch with those roots,” he says.

Creating space for diverse ages and stages

We got to share with John our experiences designing environments for communities seeking connection, including an opioid recovery center for pregnant women at Hope on Haven Hill, senior communities at Riverwoods in Durham and Portsmouth’s Doble Center, classrooms and offices at the University of New Hampshire, and playful spaces like Puddle Dock skating rink.

“Building connections to people rather than dividing people is what we're interested in, but it’s not always appreciated how much impact basic design decisions can have on how people function in a space,” Alyssa says. “You may know this from how people function in a landscape. It either can encourage people to come together or not. Our focus is on community buildings for that reason.”

Liz points to Madbury Library as a good example of the sweet spot in our practice, work that connects community and landscape in the way that John describes it. Located near a town hall, ballfields and deep woods, the library site remains central to the design, and the community volunteer committee remains central to the workflow. As Brian says, “They are driving the project, and then it's a pretty engaged community even outside of that committee.”

Throwback Brewery is another example, Brian suggests. It sprouted from the iconic but disused Hobbs Farm on busy Route 1 in North Hampton.

“It was a barn and a farm that lived there for centuries before we came along. Then we had the good fortune and the tremendous opportunity to try to interpret Throwback’s vision in the construction and renovation. And now the place thrives and it's evolving continuously. They're growing stuff, they're making stuff, people come in all the time, there are new faces and old faces. There are a lot of good stories of how the place came to be, but just going there and seeing happy people is pretty cool,” Brian says.

Thriving in connection

There are at least a thousand cultivated plant species living at Bedrock Gardens. As any gardener knows, balancing preservation with growth can be tricky. And that’s exactly where gardeners find the fun. John recalls thinking when he moved to Portsmouth that the city was already all built, so there was no new construction that was going to happen downtown.

“Haha! It's been wild how wrong I was about all of that. But it's interesting to watch a town reenvision itself. Sometimes we don't even know what we're creating. Some of it is lovely. Some of it is not. I'm always thinking, ‘how do we morph this into a city that flows?’ And I just love knowing that you're a part of that,” he says. “We're hopeful,” Alyssa says, laughing.

John is doing his part to create flow as well, to be both a steward of heritage and a champion of change by using gardens to grow community.

“We're living in a city and town where everything that's here has endured the ages. And this beast (John points out the window to the McIntyre federal building across the street) that was created just a few decades ago is going to be repurposed. I know what I'd like to see there, but it's not that any of us individuals get to make that decision. It's a fun thing for a community to dream together on a space. And that’s kind of what I'm pulling for at Bedrock Gardens. We get a chance to dream how it becomes a public garden together.”