Guest post written by Tora Rocha, Overall Director of the Autumn Lights Festival
The Friends of the Gardens at Lake Merritt is a non-profit organization set up to maintain and support the Gardens at Lake Merritt, and the Autumn Lights Festival helps raise funds for the ongoing support of the Gardens.
For the past 7 years, we’ve hosted the Autumn Lights Festival at the Gardens at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. The purpose is to showcase the amazing array of light artists in the Bay Area, as well as to raise funds for the ongoing maintenance and beautification of the Gardens themselves.As the City of Oakland’s Park Supervisor of the Gardens at Lake Merritt, I decided I needed to find a way to raise money and awareness of the Gardens, since it was a little-known secret in the community. I came up with the idea of a night-time event to light up the Gardens with local artists. In the past 7 years that we’ve hosted the Autumn Lights Festival, we have met more and more amazing community members who see the Gardens in new light.
I began to notice a new group of people showing up around the Gardens–a younger, more diverse group of people attending not only during the Autumn Lights Festival, but on a regular basis. They seemed to take a particular interest in the art around the garden, as well as in the major structures around the area. I eventually began approaching them to ask them what they were doing. They told me that they were playing something called Ingress, a game created by Niantic that required them to explore places like the Gardens to level up and earn items. This surprised me, and I wanted to learn more.
Over time, I got to know these Ingress players, or Agents, as they refer to themselves. They always had a keen sense of mission and identity, and I really enjoyed meeting people I wouldn’t have otherwise met at the Gardens. I also ended up meeting John Hanke, the founder and CEO of Niantic, who frequented the Gardens with his family and friends, testing Niantic games as they went. It turned out that John was especially interested in using games like Ingress to encourage people to discover and visit unique ‘special places’ tucked away in their city neighborhood that they might not know about. Now I understood what had led those Ingress players to our special little Garden.
Fast forward a couple years later... Niantic launched Pokémon GO, and as most people know, everyone took to it. We had a great uplift in visitors, and the Niantic employees began scheduling company-wide volunteer days at the Gardens. As they saw it, they wanted to give back to the place where Ingress really grew and came to fruition, all those years earlier with John Hanke.
For the past two years, Niantic has sponsored the Autumn Lights Festival, incorporating an interactive art piece into the scene by Senior Engineer, Chris Collins. In addition, they have invited their players to come explore and enjoy the lights and the Gardens, creating a fabulous mix of people on all three nights of the event.
At the American Public Conference held in June this past year, 900 folks from around the country discussed how to keep public gardens thriving. The biggest question across the seminars was, “How do we get Millenials interested in public gardens?”. I spoke about my experience with Ingress and Pokémon GO players, and how embracing games and technology has helped keep us afloat and blossoming, with a new look into how we can work across industries to help keep our communities and public spaces growing.
—Tora Rocha, Overall Director of the Autumn Lights Festival