"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Archive for September, 2011

Designing a New Life for the Garden… Together

In this post I discuss Saturday afternoon at the Walled Village project run in collaboration with Imogen Heap.

After spending our morning preparing the field, we took a different approach to the afternoon. Clear Village, the organization facilitating the open air lab in the Walled Garden, uses a participatory collaborative design process to ensure that various voices influence the shape and texture of projects. After all, Clear Village views itself as a catalyst organization for sustained community change. The project would fail without solidly involving the community in the project design.

My own work in engineering education has shown me that there is a lot of mystique around what it means to be a designer. When people come to see their daily activities as design activities, it can remove some of the underlying assumptions that to be a designer, one must have the right profession (such as architecture or engineering). Clear Village also finds the educational process important so a facilitator led a discussion around a design process. I particularly appreciated how the facilitator described a design process, acknowledging that a lot of people have created variations on the design process theme. For the most part, we also avoided making the process linear. And, like a lot of things, you really learn about design as you actually attempt to design something.

Because of the sheer number of people on site and everyone’s different interests, we divided first into a plants team and a structure team. Owing to some spontaneous tree clearing at the wall, some in the group had already hit the first point of structural inspiration to make tripod structures with the sycamores. We then divided the structure team further so more voices could express ideas. As an engineer with sketching experience, I found myself coordinating a team.

Personally, I often embrace a definition of engineering design as design under constraint as a useful tool for thinking. Our structure had to have potential to cover the entire field, allow people into the structure to tend to plants, and provide protection from birds (netting) and frost (horticultural fleece). We had 50 bamboo poles 4 metres in length as well as the earlier fallen sycamores. To allow for people to move around the structure easily, all teams worked with a human access height of 2 metres.

Putting numbers in created an interesting design dynamic. “Covering the field” meant either being designed to the field size (roughly 10×10 metres with a smaller area for actual planting) or designing for fractal expansion where a core would repeat itself. It was also a little strange to have the field size influencing design when we had actually never measured the field and worked from very rough estimates. To provide frost protection for the plants, the horticultural fleece actually has to be a lot closer to the ground than 2 meters, creating upper and lower structural concerns.

For our part, my team focused principally on designing to field size. All of the design teams wanted to avoid the standard rectilinear structures easily built with bamboo. We explored echoing the various polytunnels around the site in combination with various triangular structures. I’m also not the best orthogonal-view artist, so we struggled a bit to communicate how the five different structural components came together to cover the field.

Both the structure and the plants teams needed to work together. After all, the plants team couldn’t put plants in the ground until the structure established locations and shapes for the various beds. All three structural design teams shared their ideas, and a couple of members of the planting team proposed an idea based from their earlier tinkering with the sycamore tripods.

I thought the Clear Village facilitators did an excellent job at making sure the different designs could be discussed even as some teams lobbied hard for their design. Our discussion focused on the various merits of each design, identifying how various design ideas could come together. We ended the time with a weighted vote where people could vote with 3 stones to either strongly vote for one design or divide their preferences by putting stones on the various sketches.

My team’s sketch didn’t do so well. At the same time, all of the teams benefited from the thorough vetting of similarities and differences between designs. I felt good about getting stuck in with whatever design concept the next day. Something magical happens when you actually start to build up the design.

Then a whole new group of people joined in on Sunday, creating some different dynamics. In the next post, I’ll discuss Sunday morning and the surprises of prototyping.

[And as an author’s note, I will be pulling pictures into these blogs in the near future as more and more team members are getting their pictures posted online. Right now I’m focusing on writing.]

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Getting Stuck into a Project with Imogen Heap

A couple of weeks ago, I learned that Imogen Heap was partnering with Clear Village to restore a walled garden in conjunction with Heapsong3. All of these announcements happened online, and here’s a blurb from Imogen’s site that tells you what we were expecting to happen.

In order to make the experience really rewarding and useful, Clear Village have thought it best to run an immersive program in which volunteers / participants / local residents can be involved in a learning and doing journey and become part of a team.

So in collaboration with the Borough’s Park managers, Clear-Village will be holding an open air lab for a maximum of 20 people over 6 days (22nd – 27th Sept inclusive) that will include presentations, exercises and creative get togethers. If you’re not a local, we have a hotel nearby that is pre-booked with 15 rooms at £55 per night (£65 if 2 in a room), including breakfast and transport to and from the garden (10 minute drive).

You can either come for the short period (22nd – 25th inclusive) or long period (up until 28th) when there’ll be art workshops also. We will feed and water you during the day and you’ll be forever welcome into the garden! You would have your evenings free from 5pm to enjoy nearby London (30 minute train from Gidea Park Station, Essex) or the local countryside.

You are then invited to ‘The Garden Party’ on the 8th Oct at The Round House (where we live), doubling up as the release of Heapsong3. It’s also Thomas’ birthday which he is ‘giving’ to the garden (friends and family bring cash not pressies!). If you’d like to come to the party but can’t be one of the 20 garden angels, you are welcome to come for £99 (all proceeds go toward further Walled Garden projects – places limited to 50 people).

For the 20 garden angels, your jobs could range from:

• Clearing the decks via bricklaying, carpentry, masonry, irrigation expertise, catering, revealing original footpaths, tilling the soil.

• Creating artwork from the debris of the clearing to be positioned around the park to raise local awareness to the ongoing project. (for those staying for the full 6 days)

We would be very happy also to have people with some knowledge of biodynamic agriculture, permaculture, architecture, community project management, drawing/live sketching etc.

I arrived on Saturday and worked through Tuesday. I found a team of folks preparing a large plot for planting because weeds had overrun the area. With spades, forks and hoes, we tried to bring this garden back to life. I chose to jump right in as other plots were roped off for safety reasons. The old greenhouses and poly-tunnels need a lot of skilled demolition. Our team focused principally on one overgrown plot.

Weeding fit my gardening skills nicely. Everything in the field needed to go. We also had a bit of a treasure hunt. The Friends of Bedfords Park had planted potatoes a few months back that were ready for harvesting. In particular, the raised beds were good places to find potatoes. Some stones tried to masquerade as potatoes, making the game that much more fun. Everyone on the team was really friendly, and conversations sprang up around a range of topics.

Because potatoes get planted in raised beds, we had to level the field. People worked with the forks and shovels to get the field roughly level. Other team members took to what we called “the penguin walk.” Treading the field requires you to take small steps using your heels to push down the soil. The ever-colourful Martin (also the parks director) showed us how to tread and recruited a team of people to “look really daft while doing it.” The three people closest to him got on the task right away while the rest of the team worked to prepare the far side of the field. Imogen came down to help and joined the penguin walkers while also joining right in with the team’s chatter.

At some point in the morning, a camera and mic boom showed up. [Weeding requires a lot of time looking down at the ground.] It was a bit strange to garden on camera but Clear Village and Imogen Heap commissioned a documentary about the Walled Garden project and the making of Heapsong3. Personally, I’m not really a taking pictures type of person, but many other folks on the team had really nice still cameras. After a point, I just got used to people taking action shots.

After the team had been working for a while, Lois brought in the winter vegetables and the salad crops we were planting. Martin facilitated a discussion about the difference between horticultural and permaculture techniques. Horticulture uses a rotational system of monocropping while permaculture inter-crops with symbiotic intentions. Certain plants do well when planted next to other plants as the various combinations offer natural protections from pests. The team knew that we’d be having to think carefully about how we wanted to plant the various plants.

By the end of the morning, we had the field nearly all turned over and ready for planting. I was quite impressed.

In the next post, I’ll discuss Saturday afternoon.