How We Used Community-Driven Design to Transform a Public Sidewalk

by Taylor Kuhn

Greetings, gardeners and community garden fans. Whether you’re a member of Q Gardens or not, you may have noticed some new additions to the garden, including a plastic bag-free food scrap drop-off bin and solar panels that will give the garden power to host building and sewing workshops, among other exciting opportunities set to begin this Spring. Clearly, Q Gardens is on a roll, carrying their productive streak into the early months of 2020–and not slowing down since receiving the 2019 GreenThumb Sustainability Award this past October.

Here, I will describe a little about the bright new benches, tree guards, and community partnership board that may have seemed to pop up overnight around Q Gardens’ street trees last June. Without a doubt, their existence is possible thanks to the ongoing cooperation, creativity, and hard work that many Q Gardeners and neighbors have contributed to the project.

In the Spring of 2018, Q Gardens partnered with Design for Agency, a budding design studio based here in Flatbush, Brooklyn that specializes in leading collaborative design projects in neighborhoods. The partnership set out to explore how a collaborative design process could help Q Gardens achieve three goals: design and build tree guards to protect three sidewalk trees in front of  the garden from litter, animal waste, and compaction from pedestrians; expand garden membership and community partnerships; and inspire ongoing stewardship. Design for Agency designed a series of workshops for neighbors and gardeners to share and exchange ideas about how to design the tree guard structures and steward the tree beds going forward. 

The design process consisted of three phases:

Phase 1: Discovery and Research, which predated the partnership with Q Gardens, was conducted by Design for Agency in 2017-18. Design for Agency tabled around Flatbush and was surprised to learn that waste was one of the top three concerns of neighbors. A partnership with Q Gardens was subsequently formed to launch a collaborative project and transform the sidewalk in front of the garden, which had consistently been a magnet for litter and a safety hazard due to a large puddle that formed whenever it rained.

Phase 2: Design Workshops were facilitated by Design for Agency from March to July 2018. During the workshops, any and all interested neighbors were invited to explore and refine ideas for transforming the sidewalk, and to identify the resources needed to make it happen. Early in the process, teams were formed around three themes of interest: visual vibrance, tree ecology, and social inclusion.

Phase 3: Development and Stewardship. Garden and community members built out the final designs in May and June of 2019, and stewardship of the sidewalk has been integrated into ongoing garden activities (including planting and watering).   

The result? Three tree guards, each with its own community-designed theme and uses. 

The Visual Vibrance team built an aesthetically pleasing, honeycomb-shaped bench out of reclaimed wood and recruited a local artist (Alaiyo Bradshaw) to design and paint a beautiful hummingbird mural on an adjacent electrical box: 

The Tree Ecology team highlighted the ways street trees benefit community health and well-being via an original  informational sign (in three local languages), and designed a colorful herb garden / bench from which passersby can harvest:

The Social Inclusion team designed a metal honeycomb-themed fence to protect the newly widened tree bed (thank you 311!) and enable planting to take place. In addition, to promote partnerships between Q Gardens and other community organizations, the team designed a community partnership board to feature a different local organization benefiting the Flatbush community every few months. The board provides information about the featured organization in three local languages and a new Q Gardens team was formed to manage the board and plan joint events with featured organizations whenever possible.

Four months after the installations went up, Design for Agency conducted post-design research to assess the community’s response to the designs. After tabling on E. 18th street, sharing the survey at garden events, and posting a digital version, 60 responses were received. Overall, the reception was very positive, reflecting a sense of pride among most respondents. 44% reported feeling “very proud” in response to the installations, 40% reported feeling “proud,” 16% reporting neutral feelings, and none reported “less pride than before.” In addition, 62% of respondents reported that their relationship to the space had changed. The top three changes people observed post-installation were: 1) increased beauty of the space (75% of respondents); 2) people interacting with the benches (61% of respondents), and 3) more neighbors observed meeting in the space (50%):

It has been quite a journey, with many meetings and collaborative sessions, but the hard work paid off! We met all three of our goals – we designed and installed sturdy and beautiful tree guards, we increased community engagement and partnerships, and we created a space that garden and community members take pride in and feel motivated to steward.

Please come see the installations in person! You can check out which organization we’re featuring this month, meet a gardener, BECOME a gardener, or see what new ideas are coming to life at Q Gardens.

(Additional photos of the sidewalk transformation are available on Q Gardens’ instagram page).

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