Greens For Our Winter Blues

Winter seems to last forever in South Dakota. What if there was a way to still enjoy a nice day at the park, even in the cold months?

By Abigail Flanegan

The sun and sunlight are commonly associated with happiness in our culture. If someone is friendly and laughs a lot, they have a sunny disposition. Smiles are drawn onto suns, and a mother might tell a grumpy child to “go outside and get some sunshine.” It turns out that this mother is scientifically supported. A study found that people have higher levels of serotonin (basically the happy chemical) on sunny days than they do on cloudy ones. But if your day is full of clouds, no worries. Regardless of the weather, any kind of exposure to nature can boost your mood, lower stress levels, and even make you more empathetic. Whether the sun is smiling or not, a stroll through the park can do you loads of good.

There seem to be loads of reasons to get outside. What’s stopping people? Why are people still confined to their sad fluorescent environments day in and day out? For many people who live at latitudes like ours here in Rapid City, the enemy is a hard one to evade. From about November to what’s sometimes May, winter holds our plans in his fist. A walk through the neighborhood sounds like a lovely idea until we’re actually outside and we realize it’s negative ten degrees with six inches of snow on the ground. Winter keeps millions of people indoors every year, where the benefits of sunlight and nature are inaccessible.

This is where my proposition comes into play. Every day as I drive home from school, I see the rectangular beige outline of the Family Thrift that now lies grim and vacant on Mt. Rushmore Road. That’s not a beautiful sight, nor does it make good use of a prime city-center lot. I think that it would be in the best interest of Rapid City to build an indoor park, a glass conservatory where people could come and relax and enjoy all of the mental and physical benefits of being outside all year round. This structure would be regulated by the Parks Department just like Sioux or Founders parks are.

The startup cost looks large on paper, but it would be completely worth all of the positive aspects it would provide our city.

The inside of the building would be a large, mainly informal conservatory. Rather than having the formal-gardens type layout of the Como Zoo Conservatory in St Paul, this conservatory would be filled with aisles of biodiverse greenery, lined in between with cobblestones and with lots of small nooks full of comfortable chairs and tables. The conservatory would also have space available for year-round school gardens to educate elementary and middle schoolers about the importance of plants and healthy foods. Students or professionals could take advantage of the cafe-style tables to study or work remotely surrounded by sunlight and soul-enriching greenery. It would provide a beautiful environment to refresh the soul of our commuity.

“But wouldn’t it be super expensive?” you might ask. Yes, it would pose a considerable cost, but Rapid City has recently proved its willingness to spend large amounts of money on community buildings when the Monument was built. This conservatory project would be of considerably less cost that the Monument. I would argue that an indoor park like this would benefit the entire city, as an attraction for off-season tourists while also being a refuge for locals. The program that would potentially be the source of the money for building this conservatory would be the Rapid City Vision Fund, which currently gets over $26 million dollars annually to fund projects that the committee believes would benefit the city. Twenty-six million dollars would more than cover the startup cost of the conservatory. The startup cost looks large on paper, but it would be completely worth all of the positive aspects it would provide our city. The costs associated with running the conservatory could be kept down by the addition of a membership or entrance fee and by renting out the conservatory on weekends as an event space. Starting a coffee shop inside the space could also bring money into the conservatory.

Again, you might find yourself wondering, “Wouldn’t it be humid and muggy to sit in?” The plants in the conservatory would have to be chosen with care by a horticulturalist as ones that can thrive in an environment of about seventy degrees fahrenheit and fairly low humidity. Native plants could be a great option for this. Tropical and non-hardy plants would have to be avoided, but I don’t see this as a huge issue. Although indoor irrigation always produces some humidity, dehumidifiers could be installed to keep the air pleasant.

“Do indoor plants have the same benefits as going out into nature?” They do! Studies show that any form of connection with nature has health benefits. Even looking at pictures of greenery can be good for your mind. While the less wild your environment is, the less pronounced the effect will be, landscaped parks and indoor plants have their own benefits After all, could you go study on a remote trail out in the hills for an hour before your next class? Not usually, but you could pop into a local greenhouse space.

Although my plan might not ultimately be set into action, I believe that our community is in need of a way to lift spirits during the long cold months, and that such a need should be taken seriously. Maybe for some that solution is bringing along a potted plant to the office, or taking a walk even when it’s cold. But however you can fit nature into your life, you can’t ignore its importance, and neither should our city council.