As a designer with a foundation in architecture, I am fascinated with how spaces can be well-utilized to improve the quality of life in society. I aim to understand how people use the space around them by applying user-oriented design research methods to everyday problems. As a graduate student in design innovation and environmental design, my goal is to uncover the layers to problems in food sourcing in crowded cities and arriving at creative solutions. I have explored possibilities for change and hope to continue learning and growing from the research done for this project.
Fresh fruits and vegetables at your doorstep are what I consider to be a sign of progress. Getting your hands dirty and working towards ensuring that progress is how I envision the direction for society’s prosperity. Sourcing food in a sustainable way is something that a lot of designers and professionals have been trying to figure out. Farming locally can ensure not only a steady supply of groceries for yourself but also help resolve the shortage of resources in the world. I have always believed that together we can achieve more. The pandemic has shown us the importance of banding together as a civilization. The support and kindness we can offer each other collectively can prepare us for any unforeseen problems. This can be a broad concept and difficult to navigate where to begin with.
In this fast-paced and ever-changing world, the demand and need for basic amenities like food and water are increasing. There is tremendous pressure on the world’s resources, and we are not fully aware of the consequences that are yet to follow. I am interested in finding a way to live in a society where we can source our food ourselves. We are dependent on grocery stores and supermarkets for our daily fruit and vegetable needs. What if there is a way to find an alternate source of food that doesn’t rely solely on other systems. This idea of a sustainable way of living first came to me during my undergraduate studies. I visited a distant relative who was living in the countryside with a small farm in their backyard. They are an elderly couple who now use their retirement savings to live a clean holistic living by growing their own food. I was fascinated with this concept of sustainable living. But living in a city, I didn’t have enough resources to make this a reality yet. All my groceries have been store-bought. But amongst many reasons, not having the benefit of having your own plot of land to farm with all the right resources and time are some of the reasons I want to explore through this project.
The next experience showed me the importance of locally sourced produce in society. A few years ago, I was living in a community in the south of India called Auroville, outside of any Indian authority or laws and functions as an independent city. The philosophy of this town is to “a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity”. Here I was able to experience a holistic life where I ate locally sourced food. I witnessed a pretty different environment from where I grew up. In the city, slowly people were losing connection with their neighbors. When I was a kid it was a common practice to gather in common spaces and have a chat or share stories in the community. While living in Auroville, I witnessed the same feeling of togetherness with the quality of food we shared. Here, all the food was locally sourced, and the establishments were also privately owned. I witnessed a healthier lifestyle through food that was independent of any corporation or business. My mission to obtain a close-by supply of fresh fruits and vegetables was rooted more than ever with this experience of my life. I want to be able to use gardening as a tool to be the starting point to reach a sustainable way of life in the future. As a designer, I hope to use the tools and skills I have been equipped with to make a positive contribution to society, starting with the area of food and farming which is a topic I have always been intrigued with. Through various research methods, I have explored the various aspects and characteristics that are attached to growing your own food and the related services that are currently present.
Community gardens are a key part of urban cities that create a common space for growing your own produce. Such spaces help people who don’t have their own land because of space limitations in a city. They are an integral part of enhancing the beauty of a neighborhood. I came across a paper which explores the effects of a community garden in improving the collective development of an urban neighborhood. This paper informs the joined efforts of a diverse community is favorable for advancing future. The community gardens that were “multi-functional” and “met social needs” were most succeeding. (Yeager, 2020) I have tried to understand the connection between people and their community and how these existing resources can be enhanced to result in something beneficial for everyone. I am also interested in finding a way to live in a society where we can rely on each other when it comes to source food ourselves.
At the start of the project, I realized that I just had the bare minimum information on food sourcing or farming and had only the passion in the subject, to begin with. I started exploring different resources to broaden my knowledge to discover the possibilities I could go to. I found out about a webinar on Eventbrite organized by Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) called Food Sourcing Solutions which at once caught my eye. The topic that was discussed was a live project conducted by graduate students along with collaborators and stakeholders from their community in Chicago, Illinois. Attending this webinar proved to be instrumental in setting the ground running for me. I got a rough understanding of a design project similar to mine. Here, the students spoke about the multiple solutions they had arrived at by prototyping their ideas and concepts with the community they were designed for. Through desk research, I found various news articles, journals, and reports that were helping me further understand the different layers and scope for this project. As shown below, I sketched out a rough mind map of what aspects of food I wanted to address. This helped me gather my thoughts and focus on growing fruits and vegetables and how this could be achieved.
The relationship between sustainability and farming was my main concern to address. I began investigating the concept and value of sustainable farming. I came across one of Unilever’s initiatives that emphasize the positive effects and more importantly the urgency for sustainable farming practices. Reducing the effects of climate change and benefitting the farmer’s community were some of the topics they were hoping to be working towards to meet the demand for goods and services. They also mentioned how providing farmers with a better yield would not only improve their lives but also the surrounding communities. However, this highlighted the role of an organization with sustainable ways to source food which was not the direction I aimed for. Through this project, I was hoping to find a way to meet the world’s growing needs without destroying all of the earth’s resources through individual contributions. To better investigate the effects of food sourcing on a person and their community, I would have to study the different nuances of what sustainability means. All of the preliminary online search for buzz words like sustainability, community, farming, etc. swept up pages of information with relation to environmental or economic impact. I was curious to learn about the social connection to sustainability. According to this paper on placemaking, different factors are responsible for the outcome of urban community garden projects. Here the emphasize that a community garden’s success is not only measured on its scale or the yield of crops. By acknowledging the effects of community gardens, I want to explore a way to incorporate into a variation of “home gardens”.
The pandemic has taken its toll over the world and people over the globe have gone through similar experiences with the lockdown. Having to isolate from society is the sole connection experienced world-wide. But the importance of supporting each other is a core value we can learn from this catastrophic event. I had to enquire more about whether the attitudes of people were changing in a more positive light was accurate or just optimistic delusions. I came across an article published by Civil Eats, a news source sharing stories surrounding the American food system. Here, a group of commercial farmers who usually do not grow fruits and vegetables is now contributing to helping the nearby town in times of need. This showed the potential of battling a shortage of food as a collective effort.
But why choose to grow it ourselves? For starters, it is an opportunity to learn a new skill. To have the closest nutritious food source that can improve our physical and mental health is always a plus. It could be cost-effective if done using the right methods but more importantly making us more independent. This article supported that theory which speaks about a retiree in her 60s from Singapore who overcame a shortage of food at the local store by growing it herself. Previously, she was unable to find the time to garden more often. There were also several other examples and data collected highlighting people’s increasing interest in home farming. These stories substantiate my belief that farming at home is possible despite having no prior knowledge or space for it. Not only is it achievable but also has mental health benefits. An article from the Guardian demonstrated the health and socio-cultural benefits of growing your own food. This article was about a man renting out a small space and growing vegetables in the garden for himself and helping neighbors do the same. He was able to live a healthier lifestyle for an entire year without ever going to the store. This article supported my idea of bringing people together using farming specifically to become more self-sufficient.
The connection between urban community empowerment and the benefits of farming was the next area I was curious to get insights from. I read about a paper that examines the positive and negative reasons behind the development of a community garden in an urban context. This was necessary to contend my assumption that cities do not have enough space to farm individually. Hence community gardens could be a great alternate to not having a private plot of spare land to grow crops. The purpose and functionality of community gardens or allotments were the main focus on my desk research stage. I briefly researched organizations that contribute to gardening and urban development that came across 2 places that I was aiming to speak at a later stage of my project. ‘Urban Roots’ in Glasgow and ‘Urban Growth’ in London would have been a great source of information to understand the role they played in their communities. Unfortunately, this was the start of the lockdown, and all places were temporarily closed and proved to be a roadblock for me at this stage.
I began combining my desk research with my personal experiences that could also contribute to my research planning. I had participated in a bamboo construction and organic farming workshop in June 2018. The workshop run by Ar. Richard Belho of Zynorique Initiatives at Nagaland, India. Here I got a better understanding of how farming can be conducted in a cost-effective and organic way that benefitted their community. The farm was in a small village where there were not a lot of amenities that we find easily in most cities. I got to be a part of every stage of the gardening process, from planting the seeds to plowing the land. Not only that but also every member of the staff was putting in their contribution towards the farm. They were able to save money; instead of buying tomatoes and chilies, they were growing it themselves. This is when I was able to see how a small community with limited resources was able to be self-sufficient by working together. Another experience I had was coincidently on my way to get groceries in Glasgow, where I came across Greyfriars Community Garden. I was amazed to see it thriving in the middle of a global pandemic unaffected. I went on to explore other community gardens to confirm my theory that these spaces were functioning successfully considering the current situation.
Assessing the current state of community gardens around me, I went through a report on Glasgow’s community gardens. The research conducted in this report was to expand on the connection between sustainability and the urban community. It also speaks about a grassroots organization called Just Food which engages in collaborative community projects to feed the local community. I stumbled upon ‘Stalled Spaces’, a Glasgow City Council project on the closed gate at Greyfriars community garden. Because the place was closed like every other establishment, I was unable to find anyone to talk to and I observed the surroundings to find any information. This project was started to support local community groups and organizations across the city to develop stalled, under-utilized spaces. These temporary spaces aimed to improve the health and well-being of the community by increasing community engagement. This space was meant to open up spaces for recreation and making them safer for the public. To my dismay, I was unable to find any proof that this city council project was a success. I visited 6 of the community gardens, based solely on their location to my cycling radius. The first 3 community gardens I visited were on the south side of Glasgow. These were located in the middle of residential spaces with abandoned plots. The current situation of these spaces was in bad shape. They were completely abandoned with no sign of greenery, and some were reduced to being unused spaces again. The next 3 community gardens were situated by the Scottish Canals. These were also located close to a residential neighborhood, but it was different from the other ones I visited. Spiers Wharf, for example, is inside a well-maintained residential area and is not easily available for everyone. Since it was temporarily closed for outside access, not much information about the garden was available.
After visiting these community gardens, I was able to gain some insights on what to explore next. I decided to look into a few other city council projects to see if there is a pattern forming there. This was meant to help me work towards a solution to design a more functioning community garden. I noticed some of these “stalled spaces” initiatives were in neighborhoods that were not maintained properly. I planned to explore the urban rejuvenation aspect of the project to see how to bring people together and make them feel safe and look for any opportunities to make these community gardens feasible and accessible for everyone. Based on this one particular city council project it was obvious that these spaces were not living up to the potential. My deduction by this stage was that community gardens are currently failing to be a good enough food source for a person. However, I had to be sure before making a snap judgment and dismissing community gardens altogether based on just a few visits. I created a rough stakeholder map that wasn’t based on a lot of data, but it was a base ground to look at broadly the end-user to my design idea.
INTERACTIONS AND LIVE CASE STUDY
My reasoning from the observations to know the exact direction I have to take to reach a long-term goal had to be explored further. Starting with interviewing people who are experts and non-experts in farming. I drafted emails inquiring for stakeholders to interview by branching out to my personal and professional networks. Not everyone got back to me, but I was able to get some interesting leads. But it wasn’t too much of an issue as I soon found out after connecting with my extended family and friends’ circles on social media platforms. I discovered an organic farm providing fresh produce in a locality in Mumbai. Through mutual friends, I asked to set up an interview, but it did not go as planned.
My first interview was with my family’s longtime friend who shared the first experience I had that gave me the inspiration for this project. They were able to provide another perspective to mine. I asked them several questions by breaking it down to simple general questions to get them comfortable with the subject matter and then dug deeper to see the reasoning behind their responses. The first one was from the perspective of people who turned to become expert farmers without prior knowledge. They continue to rely on themselves to source their own food. They originally lived in a crowded city and were able to achieve this holistic living after moving to the countryside, where space was abundant. The second interview happened after I attempted other research methods because I wasn’t able to get people to agree to sit down and have a chat. The second interviewee was an amateur gardener from Woodlands Community Garden in Glasgow and has been using the community garden in their neighborhood for the past 10 years. They lived alone in the city, so the community garden activity was more of social activity for them rather than as a way to source food. I downloaded my notes and data collected into a “journey map” describing the key elements for each interview and the recurring themes from these separate worlds. The main element that started to inform the project’s main concern of successfully growing food was that the gardening plot was available in close proximity and it because it was a platform to socialize. Also, both were unaffected by any concerns with food sourcing in the lockdown.
I created a questionnaire through Google Forms to branch out and reach out to more people quickly. The response from the questionnaire was overwhelming because in a few days I managed to get a total of 150 responses. This itself was a positive sign that people were interested in this area of food sourcing. Here again, 3 key themes jumped out which I felt were interesting to explore later. I discovered that people were:
· open to the idea of avoiding supermarkets completely.
· they were willing to share a space with their neighbors.
· would welcome help and resources to farm at home.
ANONYMOUS USER EXPERIENCES
The form sparked a conversation amongst people and they happily came forward with their personal stories with farming at home.
Following are anonymous experience-based personas I drew out that addressed some of the insights I made from the preliminary observations and assumptions.
· Persona 1
She is a middle-aged doctor who finds time in her busy schedule in a crowded city to grow a few essential used daily in the kitchen. Returning home, she plucks a few herbs in the community courtyard to prepare dinner. If shad more space and time she would love to grow more fresh ingredients.
· Persona 2
Working professional woman who has now found time in the lockdown to grow an abundant supply of micro-greens and pulses using plastic containers piling up at home. She has coped with space shortage with resources at home which would otherwise just land in a landfill somewhere.
· Persona 3
Stay at home mother of 2 young children who has converted the rooftop of her house as a farm. Living in the countryside which has a more favorable climate she has utilized her skills to source all of the groceries at home. Diary products and other food groups are what is store-brought, and she would love to expand into gathering those at home too.
LIVE CASE STUDY
Equipped with all the data I collected from talking and interacting with experts and stakeholders, I revisited my initial analysis from my field observations. In passing conversations with friends here in Glasgow, I was recommended to visit a couple of community gardens that disputed my theory that community gardens are a failing concept to grow food in the city.
WOODLANDS COMMUNITY GARDEN
This one was a well-designed space that showed an engaging community of people. There were other amenities provided which made the community engagement more of a success. Although they were currently shut, it was a beautifully designed space that is thriving with people socializing and growing produce. Multi-level spaces to maintain social distancing rules and enjoy the space were well-designed. A community garden with pizza oven and barbeque grill were also available as per the weather permits. Office spaces with a deck for social events are usually open to the public were closed now yet there were people using the space because of its design.
MARYHILL COMMUNITY GARDEN
This community garden I came across while cycling through Glasgow. It is located right by the main road blending in perfectly with the surrounding giving it a welcoming look. I figured this was thriving because of its positioning giving access to passersby on foot or in a vehicle. It also provided a green buffer space living enough to drown out noises and distractions from any traffic on the main road.
GARNETHILL COMMUNITY GARDEN
This one was suggested by a friend who lives close to it. This was smaller compared to the other 2 I visited but definitely functioning. It was beautifully decked with inventive planters made from recycled furniture and household fixtures. Though the place was small it was well-maintained from the conditions of the growing plants. The personalization of the space showed the investment of the community.
I referred to IDEO’s Human-Centred Guide among other such toolkits I found online. I attempted some of the exercises and activities to understand navigating the data to reach the desired results. I started by attempting another way to address my goal for this project since the start of it. Asking “5 whys” was a useful tool to understand the depth of all the information I acquired from interactions and observing spaces. Questioning the first “why” showcased the reason to start was from a desire to learn a new skill. After digging deeper with each “why”, I was able to decipher core themes emerging from them. I put them in the form of “how might we” questions.
· How might we create a sustainable food source through a community: to achieve a sustainable and healthy lifestyle.
· How might we become less dependent on supermarkets: to become more prepared for the future.
· How might we reduce food waste using gardening: to avoid a shortage of food.
This process helped me arrive at the long-term goal which was to work towards living in a self-sufficient sustainable community. But before that, I would have to prioritize the problem to reach that goal. With the “frame your design challenge” exercise, I tried to define the possibilities of taking practical steps towards making a change. I decided to concentrate on gardening as a stepping stone to reach the goal of an alternate source of food. I studied the changes in existing issues in the context of the stakeholder’s environment, currently getting in the way of being independent.
SYNTHESIS AND OUTCOMES
The last exercise helped me identify opportunities to arrive at possible solutions. Changes needed to happen to the current systems in place to explore opportunities and solutions. I began asking the following questions like how might we make accessible space for everyone and keep people interested in learning something to be more self-reliant? To make these solutions a reality I had to uncover the actions required to be done. Following the worksheet “Impact Ladder” from the IDEO toolkit handbook, I looked at the changes that are deliverable in the stakeholders’ actions. My field observations in the start revealed that community gardens were not living up to its potential. Therefore, I needed to focus on the reasons for the ones that are functioning and contradicted my assumption. My questionnaire regenerated responses that supported my reasoning from the desk research. The perception that people were enthusiastic in gardening at home but for reasons like not having space, time, or confidence in skills to develop it further. My next motive was to find a way to generate a way to get people excited about it as a hobby but not let it fade away when other priorities take over.
I had to understand the different characteristics in the user’s environment that factored in their behavior towards gardening at home. But layering in this activity into a person’s life without making it tedious. I don’t want it to be a process of imposing my idea on people just because I had faith in it. I had to make sense of the users’ context to begin forming a solution. Creating an ecosystem map suggested in the IDEO handbook, revealed the scope for change in the user’s environment, community, services, and institutions that contribute to their behavior in society. For the user to be consistent, they would have to have more access to the resources and time to be an expert. They should be aware of what is already existing in their community by better ways of communicating with other like-minded people in the neighborhood. As for the services and institutions that inform the user should be made available through a precise medium. So that they can be better advised on how to use the resources that they might not be aware of.
I was hoping to start a ripple effect in inspiring and improving the overall lifestyle and well-being of society. The close possible outcomes that can be generated to begin having that effect is what I explored next in this stage of my research. After refining the insights, I stepped into ideating the opportunities for change in the different stakeholder groups. I mapped out the shifts that needed to happen to arrive at the final goal in the form of a service or a product. Loosely following the steps in this activity guide (theory of change), I created some rough concept ideas against each of the shifts. These shifts or changes were a cumulative result of all the analysis and insights from the users I interacted with. In the map below, I placed red post-its’ on the concepts I wrote down that could have the most impact with “addresses this well” and the pink post-its’ on the concepts that have the potential to have an impact with “addresses this somewhat”.
FINAL ANALYSIS AND SOLUTIONS
Mapping out the concepts with the areas I wanted to make a difference in was starting to make sense after this exercise. I was happy to find out that I was arriving at some concrete deliverable ideas. In this next step, I bunched up the concepts that had the most impact (the red post-its).
· Local neighborhood pamphlets/ newsletters/ advertising-
This service or product addresses the problem of misinformation because of technological issues or being unaware of how to use digital platforms.
· Portable mobile structures in transition spaces-
This product addresses the need for a gardening space that can be flexible to the users’ limitations of space and accessibility. By allowing the user to place them in a familiar space, it has a better chance of blending into their routine and making it less of a chore.
· Fixed structures placed strategically for different purposes-
This product would have to be placed after careful planning of each neighborhood’s shared spaces to ensure active participation. These zones will have to be either designed for specific vegetations or depending on the stage of growth.
After focusing on these 3 concepts, I began narrowing it down to one concept I can design now for this project. I started eliminating the concepts that I felt would not hold merit to be successful enough. Since all the types of vegetation require specific conditions for growing I researched the basic fundamental of gardening. A wide range of tutorial videos and hacks on how to garden are existing resources. I felt that designing a better medium through service just to spread awareness to people is not the direction I intended for this project. After watching a Ted talk on how Rob Greenfield transformed his life into becoming an expert from scratch was inspiring. The instructions and guidance from his blogs helped me design a few basic essentials I would have to incorporate into the final product. The elements that were necessary for a beginner were my base point for envisioning the final product. The first advice was to start small, next was to ensure there was access to light and to ensure a healthy growing plant. The last advice, which I thought was most important was to check locally what is available. The following are the key outcomes I would have to incorporate into my design.
· From not knowing where to start to be able to see actual results: This would have to be a medium for people to socialize and learn to grow together. Thus, being well-informed combining with all the information found individually.
· From not having space and time to be able to garden anyway: This would have to eliminate any space constraints in most urban cities and be an interesting and easy way to accommodate a busy lifestyle.
The final concept I narrowed it down to with the help of the last exercise was to create an educational toolkit. This product would have the resources to start the process of gardening by including information, containers for planting, and a set of seeds for the basic ingredients for daily use. I wanted to focus on one of the facets of gardening. By concentrating on the “seed” stage of gardening I can contribute to changing an individual’s lifestyle. I read a chapter from a report stating that the joint efforts of both the individual and their community are important in a successful urban garden. “Urban gardens can further serve as a vehicle to engage individuals and communities in efforts toward other social and environmental initiatives” (PDF) Urban Community Gardens as Multimodal Social Spaces, 2020) This helped me move ahead in the direction of addressing the problem in bite-sized solutions. The way I see it is that literally planting seeds is the first step to a green future.
The journey map highlights the effects each element of the design will have on the user. The toolkit will hold containers that will be designed in a way so that it can be placed on a shelf or even hung from a hook. By making it mobile I believe it will be helping the users’ who lack space and natural light. This design will later suggest shared transition spaces can be used in case one does not have the conditions for the seeds to sprout after being tested out with the public. It would create an atmosphere to socialize, interact, and learn from each other. I believe this could bring people together to inspire more people. I would also integrate into the design a way for the user to personalize their containers to have a special connection to it. This way each person will hopefully have a personal intention to succeed with this experiment. I prototyped some alternatives to how these containers could be woven into the users’ life. One method was to place them along with shared transition spaces like corridors, parking lot, alleyways between buildings, provided that they have access to natural light and drainage. This would solve the space problem in cities. Another idea was to place the containers along spaces used in their daily commute like en-route to work, to exercise, or even just running errands. This would solve any more space issues by using place-making to ensure desired results. Also, these public spaces can be presented in a fun and interactive way to generate investment. I also had to consider the risks and pitfalls that can cause the product to fail or at least make the user demotivated to stay invested. The seeds would probably still not sprout in spite of perfect placement, they could be still be neglected after decorating and personalizing it. I would have to prototype elements of the design with different stakeholders to see how effective it really is. The stakeholders ranging from experts to amateurs. Since I was unable to prototype and reiterate the specifications, I got feedback for the design ideas from peers and colleagues with varied skill-levels in gardening. I would also like to take this forward and prototype the “container” at a local community garden.
I have broken it down into three main categories that will give a shot to capture the individual and their community’s behavior when it comes to growing food. The “seed” stage will help inspire aspiring gardeners to continue learning, the second stage of “sapling” when the seeds sprout will be pushed to a larger radius of using spaces shared with neighbors guaranteeing community engagement. Finally, the last stage of “yield” is the scope for design to be explored. Here I would like to design a system where it can work with the help of a community garden. Thus, forming a full circle of starting at home to end at a sustainable home outdoors. In the future, I would like to design a service that connects people and places iterating on different designs that blend with community engagement programs.
For a community to achieve the kind of self-sufficiency where freshly grown food can be found at our doorstep is still a long way off. I believe that by having addressed even one small aspect of gardening at home can help solve problems in food sourcing. And by doing so, as a collective, we can be more self-reliant amongst each other. I would want to inspect the scope of gardening in different user environments like school or workplace. Learning to be skilled can be incorporated at an early age by introducing nursery beds in schools as well as in-office campuses. I also hope this research can collect feedback to see any development in society. Above all, I want to see this become a contribution to making lasting change in the world. Once the world gets back to its daily grind, I would like to develop on the scope of the project once we get back to our old routines. The importance of community togetherness should not be lost when the world slowly recovers from the pandemic. That would be interesting information to study and see if we would arrive at different solutions.