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Experimenting with Artist-Led Community Garden


Editor's Note: Thoughtbarn is a design studio in Austin, Texas "that champions artful utility through buildings, urban strategies, public installations, and interiors." Directors are Robert Gay,'00 (B.Arch) and Lucy Begg, a Rural Studio Outreach Participant. 

In 2012 Thoughtbarn won a commission from Art in Public Places to design the first “artist-led community garden’ in Austin. The project, located at a new YMCA, is an institutional experiment on many levels–in defining a garden as public art, in making city-owned land available for community gardening and in growing food at a recreation facility.

The 25,000 square foot garden is laid out in a radial site plan, with a gathering hub at its center under a shady Arizona Ash. Each slice of the "pie" contains a different program: a wheelchair accessible area, raised beds for individual members, teaching and demonstration plots, an orchard, composting area, and playground. A "public spine" invites everyone to enjoy the communal areas, while member beds are enclosed by a colorful sculptural fence. A hybrid toolshed and shade structure marks the entry to the garden and acts as a visual beacon from the adjacent parking lot.

During the project, we often found ourselves defending the value of artist involvement. Why call a community garden a work of public art? In response to this question, we developed a series of "Value Propositions" to articulate how creative partnerships can help achieve goals of growing food, bringing people together, and encouraging civic stewardship.

#1 / Art Activates the Imagination / None of the project partners knew how the initiative would unfold, but the idea of fusing public art and community gardening sparked a new imaginative space that generated tremendous support from the outset.

#2 / Art Elevates the Ordinary / Rather than building a sculpture, we proposed to treat the utilitarian garden infrastructure as the art project instead. How could typically mundane elements of the garden, the fence, garden beds and toolshed, create delightful everyday experiences?

#3 / Artists Can Navigate Uncertainty / No less than eight different City departments had jurisdiction over the project, while the YMCA had to develop new management protocols. Delays and confusion in the permitting could easily have disbanded the most dedicated of volunteer community groups. Our creative problem-solving skills were key in navigating the project through this process.

#4 / Art Helps Visualize / To build interest in the garden, we developed illustrated site plans, renderings, flyers, a website, and signage. These visual communications generated rich community feedback and a great deal of “buzz” before the garden opened.

#5 / Art Changes the Conversation / During the design process there was much community disagreement about the need for a fence. Some saw it as a necessary security mechanism, others as a barrier to inclusion, and yet others as a pragmatic regulator of respectful behavior. We challenged ourselves to address all these concerns and designed a sculptural armature that wound through the garden, leaving some areas open (teaching/gathering) while enclosing others (member beds). Once this proposal was put forward, the “either/or” conversation dissipated and people instead became concerned with ensuring the fence survived value engineering!

#6 / Art as Barn Raising Mechanism / The fence also became an opportunity for a collective making exercise, where over 100 volunteers wove thousands of feet of colored wire into the steel framework. Enthusiastic participants included city workers, local apartment residents, seniors, chefs, artists, kids, and a girl scout group, who also constructed a Little Free Library for members to share gardening books.

#7 / Art as Funding Mechanism / Community gardens are typically built on tight budgets with funds raised by volunteers. By classifying the garden as a public art project, it was able to tap significant additional resources through the city’s 2% for Art program.

#8 / Art as Visual Attractor / On the day the registration system opened, all fifty beds were sold out within four hours. When we asked new members about their motivations, they said, “We saw what was going on and we wanted to be a part of it.”

We believe the North Austin Community Garden is a unique case study, with national relevance, in how the place-making arts and the local food movement can come together to amplify their collective impact in shaping healthy and vibrant neighborhoods.