The Buena Vista Community Garden Redesign Project
By Michael Lu, Tiffany Ho, and Anna Huff
Background and Beginnings
In starting this project, we met with Lynn Fang, one of the coordinators and organizers at the Buena Vista Community Garden and got to hear her background and stories about how the garden was started. We listened as she told us about the importance of community engagement when they were starting the garden to better understand community desires and needs for the space and their work through canvassing to do so. They started this garden in 2019, when the lot was filled with concrete, broken glass, hardened dirt, trash, and weeds. Her deep knowledge about compost and soil was crucial for bringing this land back to life to support a garden in this space. Lynn’s excitement about this space and the work they have done to make it what it is today was evident in the conversations we got to have with her, in the initial conversation as well as in other conversations over the course of the semester. While at first our focus was on creating an outdoor kitchen for the garden, we pivoted to the re-design of the garden’s front entrance due to another group working on the outdoor kitchen. We were excited to jump into this project, reflecting on the importance of feedback from neighbors and listening deeply to community members to more fully understand the wants and needs of this community.
-quotes from the Buena Vista Community Garden’s “About” page
Systems Mapping and Observations
In order to understand the scope and stakeholders in this project, we mapped out the various people and groups who interact with the garden and appreciate the space. We observed that people walking by on the sidewalk, possibly with their kids or pets on the way to the nearby park interacted, to various degrees, with the front entrance space. Most of the time, people just passed by on the sidewalk, maybe glancing at the garden, but not much more. In reflecting on this observation, we knew that however we decided to design the front entrance, we wanted to welcome anyone passing by into the space. As well, the garden organizers and volunteers engage in this space in many different ways: maintaining the garden’s crops and irrigation systems and holding community events such as the cob-making event we got to attend, among other things. Neighbors and community members engage with this space when walking by the garden, maybe walking with their kids or dogs to the park across the street or just walking through the neighborhood, and when people come to volunteer or attend garden events. Some neighbors also receive produce from the garden each week. There are also several classes from the Claremont College involved with the community garden, so university students from these classes engage with the space when they come to learn, volunteer, attend events or work on various projects. The front entrance is the sole entrance to the garden, so any volunteers or visitors in the garden will pass through this space before entering the garden.
In all of these relationships to the garden, we noticed varying levels of engagement- simply people passing by, neighbors or volunteers coming to work in the garden, garden coordinators coming to the space to manage and organize the space, students engaged with this for a class, and neighbors receiving produce from the garden on a weekly basis. In our design, we needed to consider all of these levels of engagement, reasons for engagement with the space, and varying levels of interest in this garden.
Conversations, Interviews, and Empathy
In our class, we focused on aspects of human-centered design, learning about the value of empathy and deeply listening to people’s stories. Understanding people’s stories regarding a certain problem or area of design is crucial to realizing people’s needs and to generating creative, wild ideas for innovation.
Based on discussions in class, we knew we needed to engage with and listen to various stakeholders about their visions, desires, and needs for the space. We visited the garden several times throughout the semester, at the beginning to mainly familiarize ourselves with the space and start to ask questions to community members about their desires for the front entrance. Martin Vega, a professor at Scripps whose students are also involved with the garden in several different ways and one of the main coordinators at the Buena Vista Community Garden, organized the work in the garden when we visited and also allowed us to join him on trips to neighbors’ houses to deliver produce from the garden every week. Through these trips and Professor Vega’s help in translating Spanish, we were able to talk to nearby community members about their visions for the front entrance. When we asked community members about their ideas and desires for the space, we got a lot of feedback: suggestions for various types of flowers from different neighbors’ home regions, generally lots of greenspace and plantings, large colorful signage, paintings of the vegetables inside the garden-almost like a window through the fence, an archway, flowers, a place to sit down, a shade structure, a focus on native plants, etc. In conversations with Lynn, she expressed an interest in setting aside space for communal compost bins along the fence, colorful signage, moveable murals, a bulletin, and also shared her appreciation for the diversity of the space and desire to continue to welcome that. After talking with student volunteers, we got to hear people’s ideas for various plantings in the front, such as certain native, drought resistant plants, that were really helpful in guiding those designs. Through being able to listen to so many different perspectives and input, we were able to better understand the collective needs for this space; this gave us a strong foundation of information from which we started to brainstorm and design.
Ideation and Testing: What Worked and What Didn’t
Before we even started interviewing, we started to put forward some ideas, just so we had something to present to the garden neighbors, Lynn, and other volunteers when we went to interview them. Our goals were to create a welcoming space that would encourage passers-by to interact with the garden. During our interviews we also found that the neighbors already had some ideas about what they wanted to see in the front of the garden; one specifically said that it doesn’t really look like a garden, so things that would make the space more obvious would be welcome. Some other ideas that we heard included more greenery, bright colors, a bigger sign, an archway over the gate, culturally significant plants, and a way to see into the garden like with a chain link fence or something that can be seen through. They also responded well to our idea of including food plants outside of the garden.
From these ideas we made our next iteration which included a cob bench in the front, an umbrella for shade, lots of plants, some bright murals, and a brightly colored banner hanging over the entrance. Cipriana offered to give us an avocado tree and Lynn wanted to plant an additional fruit tree, so we also incorporated these into the design as well. We presented our drawings to Lynn and the neighbors who overall liked it, though Lynn was hesitant about the amount of time and labor it would take to build the cob bench.
Lynn’s foresight was very apt as we quickly found we wouldn’t be able to incorporate all of our plans because the end of the year was fast approaching, and we didn’t want to leave the entrance in a half finished state and perhaps uglier than we found it. In light of this, we opted to source a wood and metal bench from Facebook marketplace rather than build a cob bench. We forgoed the umbrella, because of concerns about theft and weather, and also opted to hang the large colorful banner on the fence so it wouldn’t interfere with the large vehicles that sometimes must enter the garden through the front entrance. We also made sure that our interventions were easily reversible and easy to change if needed in the future.
We incorporated aspects of liberatory design and biomimicry into our plan. The community around the garden is majority Spanish speaking and many are low income. The garden helps provide fresh produce to the garden, and we thought we would be able to help in this mission by adding herbs and dahlias to the front, but we discovered that the herbs, mainly the parsley, had all been eaten by rabbits, though the dahlias, which are significant to Mexican culture, are still thriving. We’re also hoping that Lynn’s and Cipriana’s fruit trees will one day be able to provide easily accessible fresh produce for neighbors, but it will take many years after planting before we see if this effort was successful. All signage was also in Spanish. Regarding biomimicry, we wanted to provide ecosystem services to pollinators and plant native plants like poppies, sage, and buckwheat. We visited the California Botanic Garden’s nursery, where the clerk was very knowledgeable and helped us find native plants that would fit into our plans. We planted many flowering plants in the front to add color and attract pollinators, though the time of year limited our selection and the site’s slow clay soil may cause problems for the native plants in the future.
Events and Creation:
We implemented our design through several workdays and one workshop. Though all the events were open to the public, we struggled to attract other volunteers, so we, Lynn, and Erin ended up doing most of the work.
Our first event was a planning event, where we laid out the basic placements of the bench and plants. Cipriana, an important volunteer and local community member helped give us some more ideas and offered to give us one of her avocado saplings.
Our next event was weeding, planting and irrigation. Only our group and Erin attended this, but we were able to weed and plant relatively quickly as just a four person group. Margaret from the dA Center for the Arts helped us plan the final event. She warned us that turnout is always a bit of a toss up, but that Sunday afternoons are the most reliable, and she told us she would help publicize the event. Indeed, our last event attracted the most people, wherein we painted the bench, murals, and helped plant the last few plants. Finally we returned to the garden one final time to hang up our work and take photos.
Our final result included a mural of California tree poppies, orange California poppies, and corn stalks- all plants growing in the garden, a sign saying “welcome” in the languages most common in the city of Pomona and in Los Angeles, a large colorful banner with the name of the garden in Spanish, a bench painted with crops and flowers from the garden, a chalkboard on the gate to advertise the garden’s hours while also being able to change them easily as needed, and many plants (a couple rosemary plants- herbs for people to enjoy, two poppy plants- colorful and native to California, two lavenders- more herbs for passers-by to enjoy, a hibiscus and a dahlia for their beautiful colors, a California tree poppy- a native and drought resistant plant, a verbena- which has colorful flowers for pollinators and is native and drought resistant, a whirly blue sage- colorful flowers for pollinators, native and drought resistant, and a buckwheat plant- flowers for pollinators, native and drought resistant). The fruit trees are unfortunately not planted yet, but we left space for them and Lynn already put down irrigation so they should be easy to add. We are excited about the colorful signage, biodiversity, and seating area now added to the front entrance and hope it contributes to a more welcoming atmosphere of the garden!
What we learned:
Basic ecological design principles and technique, as well as knowledge on cob building and California native plants.
Flexibility and adaptability are two key skills to a design project. There is no one single formula to approaching a human-centered design (HCD) project; for example, while we knew ahead of time that empathy interviews are one of the first steps to HCD, during our actual project, we carried these out in varying forms that were different from our trial runs in class. In actual practice, we conducted empathy interviews by accompanying Professor Vega to his fresh produce delivery runs on Saturdays and casually chatting with volunteers at Buena Vista, which took place throughout the entire design process.
There has been a growing presence and network of community gardens around Pomona; yet, their operations face many challenges (e.g. conflicting interests between landowners, neighbors, and garden managers; unstable flow of funding; insufficient manpower/volunteers).
While community engagement is challenging, it is very fun and empowering when you are finally able to coordinate, collaborate, and co-design together.
It is crucial to stay grounded, humble, and introspective throughout the human-centered design process. One can easily be distracted by personal biases on what looks and/or works best for the client that they are designing for; it is therefore important to constantly reflect upon the information gathered from interviews, openly discuss design ideas with the team, and critically assess/test out assumptions while prototyping.
Hosting and planning events is HARD
Language barriers are tricky but can be overcome
Everything ends up taking more time than you think
You can do a lot with repurposed and free materials, but you need money to do almost anything: have transportation, irrigation, lumber, etc.
I learned so much from this project. I learned the deep importance of clear communication, transparency about plans, and the sometimes difficult task of making sure that everyone is on the same page.
I learned about patience with the pace of getting certain things done; some things, like really listening to people’s stories, cannot be rushed. So, in those cases, pausing and letting go of expectations regarding a certain level of “productivity” is the most valuable thing you can do in those moments.
I learned how important it can be to find existing networks of communication and make use of those, rather than trying to make up our own. For example, the produce runs with Professor Vega and the advertisement of the community mural painting event through the Pomona dA were incredibly helpful.
I learned what it means to partner with an organization to design something, how transparency is key and how checking in with each other at every step of the way to assess expectations is key.