10,000 Spledid Suns: Proving that nature can thrive in an urban environment

On a patch of grass near the Providence River blooms a sea of sunflowers, the highlight of Adam Anderson’s annual 10,000 Suns public art project. I recently met with Anderson to talk about his project and learned why he puts this show together each season. For him, a lot of the excitement comes from the process of making it all happen. He said, “Most of it is the anticipation, seeing people work. Then [the flowers] fade away.”

As we talked, we watched two people meander into the sunflower patch and pull out their phones to take pictures. “I made the rows wider this year to try and avoid some selfie deaths,” Anderson said, describing the way Instagrammers sometimes walk into the tight rows of flowers to get the perfect shot, only to break several flowers. Others intentionally break off the head of a flower to take home, cutting the flower’s life short. “Whenever I see people take a flower, I turn it into a teaching moment,” Adam said. 

The lesson? These flowers aren’t planted for the sole enjoyment of the first person who walks by, but for the enjoyment of the whole city — depriving others of the full experience of this project smacks of entitlement. And as the flowers fade into the fall and lose the attention of beauty-seekers, they gain the attention of wildlife because their seeds provide a food source for birds.  

These flowers serve a third purpose — cleaning the soil in which they’re planted. Though the land beneath them has held flowers and grass for years, it still is filled with toxins from the industrial buildings that used to stand there. Luckily these sunflowers reach deep into the soil and pull the toxins out. So please, don’t pick these flowers; they have a job to do.

The city provides an interesting backdrop to the sunflower field. The juxtaposition of the jagged city landscape behind the organic flower skyline is humbling. As Anderson puts it, “You’re forced to reconcile nature and the city.” 

This is a theme in Anderson’s landscape design work. A short walk from the sunflower field is another project he and his team completed this summer, called Living Edge, a beautiful path with trees and flowers that line up perfectly to frame the Superman building. There are fallen log benches, information plaques about the project and beautiful views that encourage visitors to recognize that nature and industry can coexist.

So go take in the beauty of these urban landscapes before they’re transformed by the season change, and let the sunflowers cleanse your soul as they cleanse the field they grow on.

For more information on Adam E. Anderson’s projects, go to at designundersky.com

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