Shaping the City with Horticulture: Productive Gardens

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The Cultural Landscape Foundation and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society just organized a conference on Civic Horticulture in Philadelphia. Three panels of leading landscape architects discussed the organizational, aesthetic, and productive potential of horticulture. They explained how it is shaping contemporary civic spaces. They presented on three major topics: The Street, Productive Gardens, and Parks and Plazas. Through their own projects, these design leaders showed how these types of places are evolving to meet the needs of cities today.

Productive gardens have become increasingly popular components of the urban landscape. Unused green space and vacant land are often repurposed to grow fresh food for urban dwellers. Panelists discussed ways to enhance these efforts and foster other productive uses of civic spaces. New partnerships provide opportunities to examine larger-scale food production, community-based development, and ecological services. The performative qualities of plants make horticulture an essential part of these explorations.

The Productive Garden

Landscape architect Elena Brescia, ASLA, partner at SCAPE/Landscape Architecture, described cities as “environmental and cultural systems where landscape, beyond formal, economic, and aesthetic interests, can generate a critical participatory effect among citizens.” Landscape offers new ways of intervening in city fabric at the local level using stewardship, grassroots participation, and neighborhood identity as generators of community-based change. SCAPE has experimented with projects both imagined and real that explore this dynamic and the broader potential of what it means to be “productive.” For Brescia, productivity stems not only from a horticultural basis but from a participatory and programatic standpoint as well.

SCAPE’s project, Oyster-tecture, part of the MoMA’s Rising Currents exhibition in 2010, proposed a self-generative, multi-layered, and multi-functional system rooted in oyster production for Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal (see image above). Oysters are native to the canal and were once an important food source in the community. They filter water and naturally agglomerate into reefs. They have the potential to clean the canal’s polluted waters and attenuate waves, addressing issues with water quality and rising tides.

With Oyster-tecture, SCAPE proposed to transform a historically relevant food source into a tool for generating ecological resilience and community-based development. The project argues that the reef armature fabricated from a series of piles supporting woven ropes can provide the oysters with an initial place to grow and propagate. They will eventually form a series of new reef islands that will provide food and habitat for other animals as well as areas for work, research, and recreation for the surrounding community.

SCAPE’s work on the 103rd Street Community Garden in East Harlem also expands on notions of productivity. Completed in partnership with the Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project, it’s a positive model for a community garden. The project is both a small-scale agricultural system supported by cultivation plots and rainwater capture and a series of play spaces that accommodate a variety of age groups and activities within a small site. It was a productive catalyst for block revitalization and community participation and has become a neighborhood asset. SCAPE also conceptualized and designed the project so it could be built mostly by local volunteers.

Re-imagining Victory Gardens

Mia Lehrer, FASLA, landscape planner and principal at Mia Lehrer + Associates, provided a definition of “civic horticulture” as “community gardening.” For Lehrer, who focuses much of her work on food production, horticulture is about education and empowerment. Productive gardens and their related systems and infrastructure have the potential to rectify the disconnect between disadvantaged urban communities and their food sources.

The prevalence of food deserts in urban environments has been growing. These food deserts have contributed to the escalating obesity epidemic. Unsettling statistics show the rate of U.S. children contracting chronic health conditions related to obesity more than doubling, from 12.8 percent in 1994 to 26.6 percent in 2006. A majority of these children are located in impoverished parts of the inner city, which lack access to fresh food. Many of them do not know where their food comes from or how it is made. Lehrer believes that education and empowerment are imperative to addressing this “Does ketchup grow on trees?” scenario. Landscape architects can play an important role in designing places and systems that help people better connect to their personal health because their “work is about many things, including place, making, healing, beauty, people, cities.”

Lehrer’s practice is experimenting with the “S, M, L, XL” scales of productive gardens, from residential to commercial farming, in Los Angeles. Urban agriculture in the city is moving beyond the scale of the traditional victory garden to consider the larger urban environment and regional food distribution systems. Though the vast surrounding agricultural region produces 50 percent of the fresh fruit and vegetables for the United States and Canada, the city keeps only 1 percent of it and imports the rest. Transforming this “outside-in” strategy to an “inside-out” one requires a reevaluation of the policies that currently structure food distribution, including everything from large-scale agricultural systems to zoning regulations for residential productive gardens and provisions for bartering and selling homegrown food. Lehrer’s “Small” projects include a community garden for the Jordan Downs Housing Project with enough acreage to successfully meet the needs of the entire neighborhood. MAS (“more”), an “extra large” project, is a non-profit food distribution service that designs farmers markets with a focus on providing equal access to fresh local food.

Regardless of the scale and intention, horticulture is an important feature of each project. Fresh food production brings people into contact with the plants that support their basic health. However, not all of Lehrer’s interest in civic horticulture is explicitly about food production. Unique and performative aspects of plants are utilized in other projects. A five-acre “outdoor collection” for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles features a growing wall and an abundance of both native and non-native plants chosen to attract the most species possible. At Orange County Great Park, lima bean fields are remediating a disturbed portion of land. These “medium” and “large” projects demonstrate some of the other productive potential of plants in civic spaces.

From City Beautiful to City Functional

Thomas Woltz, FASLA, landscape architect and principal at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBW), believes that “horticultural acts are civic acts.” Attitudes toward gardening and plant cultivation vary dramatically and the methodologies used can have significant implications, both positive and negative, for communities, wildlife, and public health. It’s critical to the contemporary practice of landscape architecture to cultivate responsible management strategies, plant choices, and design goals. These can help establish new definitions of productivity that can in turn create “hybridized concepts of gardens, agriculture, and restoration ecology.”

The projects of NBW reflect a desire to respect aesthetic quality while establishing valuable habitat in order to engender a public sense of stewardship and investment in the landscape. Projects are developed with the purpose of fostering a “new form of civic horticulture combining pleasure with responsibility.” Woltz sees civic horticulture as having developed from the City Beautiful to the “City Functional.” He posits that “the next step might focus on productive gardens that operate at the scale of performative urban landscape systems.” NBW has been working with scientists, ornithologists, and conservation biologists to develop rigorous designs that are not only beautiful but also “envisioned with an idea of productivity with an ecological resonance.”

For Woltz, ecological services are a critical part of any landscape’s productivity, regardless of scale. NBW designed a small biodiversity garden for a Manhattan residence that emphasized the creation of bird habitat. Planted with pollinator attractors and nesting and feeding niches, the garden at the Carnegie Hill House is a haven for several species of birds and butterflies. It meets the family’s needs as well with features like a secluded seating area, a sandbox for children, and a green wall for herbs. The design won an ASLA Professional Design Honor Award for successfully creating “a tiny outpost of a much bigger adjacent landscape.”

A larger project at the Medlock Aimes Winery and Tasting Room in Sonoma, California combines ecological services with larger-scale food production. For the biodynamic, organic, solar-powered winery’s outdoor tasting room, NBW designed a productive garden tailored to pairings for tastings. It’s coupled with a stormwater management system. The variety of plantings include native rushes in the swales and an old-growth olive grove transplanted to the site for conservation.

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NBW also designed a more traditional productive garden for a public housing complex in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Urban Farm engages residents in growing organic vegetables in the underutilized green space in their community. Residents work by the hour in exchange for tickets they can trade in for fresh produce. The surplus is sold at farmers markets. One extraordinary feature is that the plots are maintained entirely through rain harvested water capture.

This is part two of a three part series on the Civic Horticulture conference. Read part three, Parks and Plazas

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, former ASLA summer intern and recent Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania.

Image credits: (1) Oyster-tecture / SCAPE/Landscape Architecture, (2) 103rd Street Community Garden in East Harlem / Melissa C. Morris blog, (3) Jordan Downs Housing Project Community Garden / Mia Lehrer + Associates, (4) Orange County Great Park Urban Farm / Mia Lehrer + Associates, (5) Carnegie Hill House by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects / Eric Piasecki, (6) Medlock Aimes Winery and Tasting Room / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

One thought on “Shaping the City with Horticulture: Productive Gardens

  1. Mario Cambardella 07/17/2013 / 5:12 pm

    Incredible article. Well researched, well written, and right on time. “Productive” landscapes have arrived and now landscape architects and environmental planners should prepare for the trickle down effect – meaning, when every day landscape architects are designing the installation of food-producing landscapes. what do the Time-Savers Standards say about the design, installation, and care of food-producing landscape? Many safety issues should be brought to the table now. Not to discourage the use of “productive” landscapes but to encourage it. Don’t believe me that there are safety issues? Bring up the idea of a food-producing landscape in your next municipal park design. First two words out of their mouths: “law suit.”

    Call it “horticulture,” I like to refer to it as “agriculture.” Whatever you call it, they are in a larger sense, just “plants.” Plants that not only still need to look good but also do something – and that something is identified with measurable goals. I suspect its a matter of time before clients, owners, stakeholders ask another question besides will it look good and how much will it cost?; what’s my return on investment?

    I apologize in advance for the numerous grammatical errors. My editor is on extended vacation.

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