Tucked away at the end of a residential cul-de-sac in Iowa City, just south of Interstate 80 and growing suburbs, the daffodils, violets and hyacinth in bloom, among the peach, pear, cherry and apple blossoms, Blair Frank tends to the medicinal herb section at the privately-owned Gaia’s Peace Garden with the precision of an urban planner.

Far from being a “vacant lot,” the eight-year-old Peace Garden initiative under Frank and his wife Mary Kirkpatrick’s tutelage has emerged as a nationally acclaimed sustainability showcase for Iowa City, transforming 1.1 acres of clay soil into a biodiversity hot-spot, a permaculture demonstrate site, a local food and medicinal herb oasis, and a blueprint for city staff and planners on how to incorporate green spaces and commons into neighborhood development. A solar energy panel powers a pump on a small waterfall as a renewable energy demonstration site; a stone labyrinth guides visitors around the Garden sections, where benches and places have been set up for meditation.

Blair Frank

“It’s a demonstration of some of the most forward-thinking and ecologically sound land management practices available,” said Jennifer Kardos, with the nonprofit Backyard Abundance. “But more importantly, it is place infused with love where community members can gather and imagine a more peaceful way of being in the world. It has been a place of refuge and deep healing for me personally.”

Gaia’s Peace Garden has also become a beloved landmark for neighbors, offering a serene and safe place in the urban landscape to reconnect with nature, take a walk during lunch or quietly meet in the evenings.

“We love the…