Berkeley flatland citizens have turned those odd “traffic calming” circles that the city plunked into various intersections a few years back into showcases of gardening art and dedication. Volunteering their time, energy, skills, and plants, they’ve created something more than beauty: these breaks in the asphalt function to catch, slow, and filter rainwater before it hits the storm sewers, to filter pollutants as do all urban plants, and to nurture the local wildlife so many of us fail to notice.
“These 16- to 20-foot wide areas serve as ‘breathing holes’ for the street surface below,” writes Karl Reeh, president of the LeConte Neighborhood Association. “With watering and abundant plant life, these small but conspicuous gardens can play a major role in both the quality of life above and the quantity of biological life both above and below.”
What happens when a circle garden is vandalized? Do the neighbors who invested so much of their time, energy, and love have any legal recourse? Unfortunately, that’s not just a hypothetical question.
Early last month, someone—he was seen in the act, but his identity remains uncertain, and no arrests have been made—trashed the garden at Russell and Ellsworth. He reportedly claimed he was just pruning the plants to make the intersection safer for bicyclists, and was verbally abusive to residents who tried to stop him. Although there’s a long-running neighborhood feud in the background, it’s not clear what triggered the April incident. But it’s having some interesting consequences.
The bicycle-safety angle is one of many ironies in this story. Dave Campbell, president of the Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition, says he really likes the planted traffic circles.
“The main thing they do for bikers is to slow down traffic and create the incentive for motorists to choose alternate streets if they’re cutting through an area,” Campbell said. “The vegetation creates a visual look that doesn’t entice motorists to go down that street.”
Campbell said he had heard no concerns from bikers about the circles as hazards, and no specific feedback about the vandalized circle.
As it happens, that garden, planted and nurtured by LeConte resident Andy Liu, was a thriving butterfly nursery. Liu had filled it with the larval-food plants preferred by most of the butterflies that occur in Berkeley: fennel for the showy black-and-yellow anise swallowtails, mallows for the painted ladies, milkweed for the monarchs, pellitory for the red admirals, and other plants, most of them California natives. So far, 21 species have laid their eggs in the circle.
Most of these food plants were lopped short or stomped flat. Many of the mallows, including some uncommon species, were killed. Dozens to hundreds of butterfly eggs, larvae, and chrysalids were destroyed, and adult butterflies were killed in the act of egg-laying. A whole generation was lost.
Police told outraged witnesses there was nothing they could do, as the traffic circle gardens had no legal protection. A closer reading of the law produced alternatives, though, and the neighborhood group is signing a written agreement with Berkeley Parks and Waterfront to get explicit, exclusive rights to plant and maintain the circle.