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The Draw at Sugar House

Artist Patricia Johanson worked alongside others to create a connecting passage under a major expressway. The result was a work of multi-purpose public art that serves as a leisure space, wildlife corridor, flood defence system, and embodiment of the area’s cultural and environmental history.

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Project Description

In 2003, Salt Lake City, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, invited competitors to submit proposals for a ‘Sugar House Pedestrian Crossing’ across the 1300 East Expressway that would connect the urban green spaces of Sugar House Park and Hidden Hollow as part of the Parley’s Creek trail system, which aimed to provide more routes for walkers and cyclists in the city. This followed advocacy by local group Kids Organised to Protect the Environment (KOPE) who had for a long time worked towards improved pedestrian access and connection between green spaces in the area. They worked with students at the University of Utah to demonstrate that a tunnel under the highway was the safest option for a crossing.

The winning design was by environmental artist Patricia Johanson. Local landscape architect Steven Gilbert had asked Johanson to collaborate on a proposal, knowing about her earlier work such as Fair Park Lagoon, Dallas, and thinking that her involvement would elevate the design to a higher level. 

The design was multifunctional, featuring an underpass beneath the expressway, flanked by two sculptures based on natural forms, which fulfil a wide variety of functions: one is based on the Sego Lily, Utah’s state flower, and functions as an amphitheatre, a diversion dam and space for trees and plants, while the other is based on Echo Canyon, the route taken by settlers of Salt Lake City, and functions as a walkway, bird nesting space, wildlife corridor, floodwall and spillway. The west end of the tunnel is guarded by four ‘witches’, sculptural representations of the distinctive rock formations of Echo Canyon, as described by early European settlers.  

Johanson undertook careful research to develop a design that would respond closely to the location and be meaningful for local residents. She read up on details of the life of Brigham Young, the founder of Salt Lake City, and was interested to read repeated references to his concern to protect water sources and prevent killing of animals for sport while travelling the trail to Salt Lake City. She was keen to speak to these ‘proto-environmentalist’ concerns through her work. 

The design evolved over several years, responding to barriers and complications. The original plan included a wet meadow with a rattlesnake-shaped conduit purifying stormwater run-off into Parley’s Creek west of the highway, but this was ultimately not included as the space eventually granted for construction was not as large as initially suggested. The design for the Canyon was also altered from two walls to one, in response to funding constraints. In 2012, excavations to construct the ‘Echo Canyon’ began but ran into problems with encountering debris from the old coal transportation railway that had been built on the site, leading to the need to re-plan the design of the canyon wall. 

Johanson and Gilbert worked closely with Ryan Allen, the president of Boulderscape construction company, ahead of the construction of the project, reviewing samples, cutting costs, and coordinating the project with engineers.  Ryan and his team also carried out research, such as photographing the canyons that were the model for the rock walls. 

This period also involved a process of building support from local stakeholders and policy-makers for the project, seeking out funding, obtaining construction permits, and carrying out surveys of the area. Parley’s Rails, Trails and Tunnels Coalition adopted the Draw as the centrepiece of the Parley’s Creek trail system and supported the project. KOPE continued to build community support for the project through writing to and arranging meetings with local decision-makers. Meetings were also arranged with PRaTT and representatives of state and city government to finalise details of the design itself.

Various methods were used to gain the support of local stakeholders, including getting articles about the project published in local papers and producing a scale model of the Sego Lily, which was taken to community meetings and local festivals to demonstrate what the final result would look like and how it would function. Community members were encouraged to write to decision-makers in support of funding for the project. 

The Canyon element of the Draw was completed in 2013 but further funding had to be obtained to be able to construct the Sego Lily section. The Sego Lily was opened in 2017 with final adjustments added in Spring 2018. 

Johanson’s designs draw connections between the area’s cultural and environmental history, referencing the Sego Lily, which the city’s early European settlers are said to have survived on eating, following advice from Native Americans, the prominent coal seams of nearby canyons, and the seven creeks that flow into the Great Salt Lake Valley. She wrote a ‘Trail Guide’, where visitors could learn about the various sculptural features, plants, and viewpoints, and how they connected to the area’s history, with quotations from nineteenth century pioneers.

Salt Lake City has struggled with spring flooding, which has caused serious damage in the past and may be exacerbated by climate change. The local community library flooded only a few years before the Draw was constructed. The sculptures are designed to provide emergency flood defences with the reinforced eastern lily petal – which also acts as a viewing platform – directing floodwater around and through drainage channels to pass under the expressway and through the Canyon to be safely fed into Parley’s Creek. The design alleviates pressure on the expressway, which had previously functioned as a dam and prevents the adjacent park from flooding. Initial concerns were raised that the design would undermine the functionality of the dam, but the dam engineer welcomed construction of a spillway that would direct excess floodwater safely away. The sculpture itself is now a registered state dam, perhaps the country’s only sculpture to achieve this designation.

The Draw has since seen heavy usage from residents and popularity for visits from local schools or youth groups as a field trip, taking advantage of the educational opportunities offered by the design. It is also a draw for visitors, bringing tourism to the area. 

Partners & Stakeholders

  • Patricia Johanson, an environmental public artist with a professional degree in architecture and a background in engineering, created and elaborated the original proposal and helped oversee its development.
  • Parley’s Rails, Trails and Tunnels (PRaTT) Coalition, a Salt Lake City-based not-for-profit organisation, commissioned and promoted the work.
  • Boulderscape construction company were responsible for realising the designs, replacing a different construction company that had been originally contracted but proved ill-suited to the project. Ryan Allen of Boulderscape worked in close partnership with Patricia Johanson throughout the construction process. 
  • Walt Gilmore of Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation Planning & Development department acted as project manager for the project, overseeing its design and construction
  • Steven Gilbert, landscape architect and principal of ArcSitio Design contributed to planning and production of the site and was an important point of contact with Boulderscape. 
  • Kids Organised to Protect the Environment (KOPE), Sugar House Community Council and other local organisations and groups played an important role in promoting and gaining support for the project.
  • Salt Lake City council organised the original design competition to which Johanson’s proposal was submitted. Their support was also needed to obtain permission and funding. 
  • Senator Gene Davis and the Utah State Senate supported gaining permission for construction of the Draw and provided funding. 

Sustainability Issues

  • The Draw has a role in containing and directing flooding and the Sego Lily sculpture is now a registered state dam.
  • The Draw provides habitat space including beds for native plants, nesting areas and bat boxes, as well as creating a wildlife corridor connecting two water sources.
  • The Draw provides outdoor space, connecting up the park and the Parley’s trail walking and bicycle route to promote active travel recreation and interacting with green space.
  • The sculptures draw attention to the history of the city and connections with the value of the local environment.

Lessons, Tips & Advice

  • Johanson emphasises the importance for her, particularly as a non-resident of the area, of developing a detailed understanding of local history and culture to produce work that would speak to residents. This requires research time but makes the resulting work more meaningful. 
  • The design makes practical and aesthetic purposes work together, with the form and structure of the sculptures being heavily informed by their function for directing floodwater. 
  • The project had to alter to fit constraints of funding and space, expanding on and altering the elements of the original proposal, while still producing an effective result. 
  • The project was a learning experience for many engineers and builders who were unused to working directly with an artist. It took time to develop good working relationships and understanding. 
  • Communication with the original construction company that commenced work on the project had been less effective, leading to errors with the builders not being aware of potential issues such as the remains of an old railway line under the site, which the artist had previously raised. Johanson credits working directly with Ryan Allen on the construction process with the effectiveness of the final result.

‘Patricia’s passion and strong desire for detail and Steve Gilbert's ability to take Patricia’s vision and convert that vision into workable drawings is what made the project such a success.’

Steve Jimenez, Boulderscape

Funding

The Sego Lily section of the project cost about $1.2 million to build, with the Echo Canyon segment costing $750,000. The tunnel itself cost $2 million. 

The initial competition was sponsored by Salt Lake City, with funding from the National Endowment of the Arts

The majority of funding for construction itself was provided by Salt Lake City council, Salt Late County, and the Utah State Senate. The Draw became part of city, county and state transportation plans, thus allowing funding to be made available through the relevant agencies and mechanisms. Funding was also obtained from Rails to Trails, who support the conversion of old railway routes into paths. 

Only a very small amount of the overall budget came from private sources, but these donations were crucial for demonstrating the local support for the Draw that convinced council and state officials to fund the project. 

Quotations

‘This is an important project, and one I hope will point the way toward the future—environmental sculpture that coincides with civic infrastructure. This would be the first flood control system in America that has not only been designed as a work of art, but also accommodates many layers of functionality, from safe highway crossings to trails, wildlife corridors, educational programs and tourist magnet.’ Patricia Johanson, artist
‘The project is an unbelievable asset to my community. When people come to visit the city, it is an eye opener for people to see something so unique and so different in the middle of a busy urban business district. It is eye popping for people to look up and see the majesty of the walls of the draw and to try to figure out what it is, why it’s there and to hear the story of how it got to be there. It is one of the largest works of public art in the state and for flood prevention it is unparalleled.’ Lynne Olson, resident and member of Sugar House Community Council

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