In the class Design for Sustainability and Resilience, taught by Claire Hartten and Kathleen Bakewell, students partnered with the Community League of the Heights, a non-profit based in Washington Heights, to develop architectural solutions for an empty plot of land that the Community League—otherwise known as CLOTH—possessed. CLOTH’s mission is to empower the residents of Washington Heights; in pursuit of this goal, CLOTH operates a school that teaches grades 6 through 12, provides housing for low-income residents, and operates a food pantry that operates on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and serves over 500 families a week. CLOTH had previously used their empty lot as a community garden, but a rat colony living in a nearby abandoned building forced CLOTH to abandon their garden and leave the lot fallow for a number of years.
CLOTH asked the MFA Products of Design students to develop different use cases for the empty lot on West 158th Street—with a strong preference given to plans for a community garden—to be incorporated into the curriculum of their school, which was located across the street. Additionally, Claire and Kate asked students to consider architect and TED speaker Carolyn Steele’s concept of sitopia, and to incorporate it in their final proposals to CLOTH. Sitopia is a word derived from Ancient Greek, and is a compound of the Greek words for “food” and “place”. The word was conceived when Steele noticed that because of industrialization, cities developed apathy towards their sources of food. The ignorance of the natural costs that food requires has had, according to Steele, pernicious consequences for the environment and for society at large. To combat this trend is to actively consider and acknowledge the importance of food in our daily lives, and to build urban systems that acknowledge the importance of where food comes from.
“The food pantry seemed like a wasted opportunity—not only was the interaction with CLOTH woefully short, the entire experience of receiving food from the food pantry seemed to alienate users.”
For student Souvik Paul, this brief compelled him to try to redesign the CLOTH food pantry. Having visited the food pantry on a cold Wednesday morning with a few fellow students, Souvik noted that CLOTH’s food pantry distribution system seemed inefficient. Neighborhood residents had to line up on a public street in the bitter cold for hours at a time. When they finally arrived at the entrance of the food pantry, and after about five seconds of interaction with CLOTH representatives, residents were given a bag of food and began the long walk home. Souvik reflected, “This seemed like a wasted opportunity—not only was the interaction with CLOTH woefully short, the entire experience of receiving food from the food pantry seemed to alienate users.”
Souvik began to research food pantry distribution methods. He found that in addition to the Standard Distribution model that CLOTH was utilizing—in which each and every user received the same bag of food—there existed a Client Choice model. In the Client Choice model, the food pantry is organized similarly to a supermarket; users enter the food pantry with the freedom to choose the foods that are most relevant to their diet and eating preferences. Under this model, users can also receive larger quantities of food, based on their family size. (Food waste is also reduced since people only take what they need.) IN this model, CLOTH representatives would no longer serve solely as distributors of food; rather, they would be community advisors. With more time to interact with their users, CLOTH representatives could begin to make a larger impact in the lives of the people that they serve. The only drawback to the Client Choice model was the amount of space that it required—more space than CLOTH had at its disposal.
Souvik envisioned placing shipping containers within the CLOTH empty lot to form a public hall, where CLOTH representatives could advise neighborhood residents, and more significantly, where neighborhood residents could connect with one another after receiving food from the pantry, thus forming a more cohesive community.
After consulting with CLOTH and researching on Google Maps, however, Souvik found that the empty lot was located on the same block as the food pantry, but faced a different street. (he food pantry was located on West 159th Street, the empty lot was located on West 158th Street.) These two pieces of CLOTH property were connected by a dogleg, running through the backlot of a CLOTH-operated apartment building. Another challenge: All of these pieces of CLOTH property were at different elevations from one another.
Souvik’s initial instinct was to connect the disparate yet adjacent parts of CLOTH property with a series of staircases. This would ultimately free up 4000 square feet of unused CLOTH property—more than double the square footage of CLOTH’s empty lot—and utilize it in a way that benefited CLOTH’s constituency. The new user journey would take place wholly within the context of CLOTH’s property...a safe space.
Souvik recalled, however, that most of the people that received food from CLOTH’s food pantry were over the age of 50. Because of this, Souvik redesigned his plan to incorporate ADA-compliant ramps rather than stairs.
Additionally, drawing on a class-related visit to Heritage Radio—a food-centric radio station in Bushwick, NY that's housed in shipping containers—Souvik envisioned placing shipping containers within the CLOTH empty lot to form a public hall, where CLOTH representatives could advise neighborhood residents, and more significantly, where neighborhood residents could connect with one another after receiving food from the pantry, thus forming a more cohesive community.
In order to incorporate this plan with the original client request of a community garden, Souvik drew inspiration from Heritage Radio once again—or more specifically, the greenhouse that exists atop of Heritage Radio. Adding to the appeal of this idea was the fact that the empty lot did not receive much sunlight. By putting a greenhouse atop of the community center, Souvik was ensuring that the greenhouse-cum-community garden would receive a lot of sunlight, and would be accessible by students year-round.