Celery Fields

I trudged through the newly planted park with a group of birding enthusiasts on an unseasonably hot day for a guided tour of Celery Fields. The site is a flood mitigation project owned by Sarasota County and an interesting case study in changed land use from pesticide laden agriculture to recreation for birders and dirt bikers. The site has significant earthworks- a capped hill contains toxic soil- engineered to be safely contained for a hundred years. From a distance, the landform is an anomalous bump in Florida's flat terrain. The tour revealed an unexpected connection to the Phillippi Creek watershed and views not available elsewhere. The site was converted from spring-fed swamp to celery farm and used for agriculture for many years. Pesticide residues accumulated in the soil leaving behind high levels of arsenic.  Much of the original permeable area of the Phillippi Creek drainage basin is now residential development which has changed the way stormwater behaves in the system. Building impervious areas like homes, roads, driveways, and concrete creates increased runoff and subsequent flooding because water can't percolate into the ground.

Map of the Phillippi Creek Watershed in Sarasota, Florida

Map of the Phillippi Creek Watershed in Sarasota, Florida

 The creek's drainage basin covers a large area of residential development (see image at left) and flooded severely in the past. The flooding prompted the massive multi-phase earthworks at Celery Fields, converting it into a thriving bird sanctuary and engineered wetlands for flood water storage. The mound is a pile of polluted soil that was scraped from the site, mounded and capped with clay because polluted material must be immobilized and it is often too expensive to ship and bury elsewhere.

There are flocks of birds in every variation imaginable- a birder's playground. The walking paths through the marsh areas are best for photographing wood storks, Ahingas drying on every fence post, with Bald Eagles and Ospreys circling above. The wetlands were shrinking in the winter dry season and saltbush, Baccharis halmifolia, was in full bloom- striking up a subtle color conversation between the yellow male flowers and white female ones. Saltbush is dioecious; has male and female plants. The soft duotone flower plumes create a lovely creamy effect in the wetland. We walked this area in a slow ellipse to ascend the mound.

The Male and Female plants of Saltbush

The Male and Female plants of Saltbush


We came to the top of the mound where I could see east towards Myakka State Park and hear rehabilitated lions roaring for lunch at the adjacent Big Cat Sanctuary. I unexpectedly felt light and expansive, peering out at the live oak canopies spread in clumps to the east like perfectly arranged broccoli standing upright on a curved plate. The blue-gray heat haze intensified the depth of field and I felt small on top of the mound with a view of the world bending away from me. Heightened moments of wonder come by surprise and give a glimpse into the sublime.

A site Panorama showing the capped mound and flood plain wetlands.

A site Panorama showing the capped mound and flood plain wetlands.

The project is a testament to nature's resiliency and human stubbornness. We disguise our past mistakes by turning them into sightseeing areas, restored ecologies, or "green initiatives". Brownfield sites present potential work for landscape architects like me, but I feel unsettled by the expectation that designers should remake a place by obliterating evidence of past wrong-doing. Contaminated soil is one obvious "cover-up" at Celery Fields. At the larger scale, the earthworks  mitigate flooding that was caused by increased impervious area from sprawling development. We have engineered our way out of poor building decisions and, in doing so, escaped responsibility for them. I touch the native flowers on top of the mound and wonder: Will we ever be forgiven?