by Avi Salem, External Relations
9 Aug 2016
Sunflowers and strawberries weren’t the only things growing in North Richmond’s Verde Partnership Garden this summer, due in part to the efforts made by 41 high school students at the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.
Students from the embARC Summer Design Academy—a four-week summer intensive that blends architecture, urban design and sustainable city planning theory with a design-build project for a local organization—spent the month of July planning, constructing and building out a multipurpose storage and wash station for the teaching garden that serves over 500 students, families and community members affiliated with Verde Elementary School. For over 20 years, Verde has played a central role in providing fresh produce to the community, in addition to contributing to the day-to-day academic enrichment on campus by acting as a living classroom for students to learn about gardening and the environment.
EmbARC students spent a portion of their urban design studio meeting with cooperative members from Urban Tilth, an urban agriculture nonprofit that helps support urban gardens in Contra Costa County and teaches community members to grow and distribute their own fresh produce. The students had the opportunity to learn about Verde Garden’s impact on the North Richmond community, where access to affordable and good-quality produce is almost nonexistent due to a lack of grocery stores or farmers markets in the neighborhood.
“The importance of expanding production and supporting youth involvement in the garden is central to promoting fresh food accessibility and community involvement,” said Luis Chavez, Verde’s Garden Manager and a longtime Richmond resident. “Teaching children that food doesn’t just come from a grocery store shelf is vital to their awareness and understanding of how food is grown,” he explained.
“When kids recognize tomatoes are grown in the garden and or they taste strawberries grown here at Verde, they start making connections to food,” Chavez said. “North Richmond is a food desert: it has no grocery stores. We happen to be one access point to fresh, non-pesticide food, and we like to share that and let people know they can really change things once they have access to some land.”
As fruits and vegetables ripened in the North Richmond garden, students back at the College of Environmental Design’s fabrication shop were busy constructing segments of the new 25-by-25 foot facility, which includes a vegetable wash station; shelving for garden gear and equipment; a seed and herb drying rack; a plant nursery with retractable shading; and a rainwater catchment system that collects and stores the freshwater runoff from the structure’s new double-gabled roof. Liz Thorp and Tonia Sing-Chi, who co-taught the design and build component of the program, explained that the modular design of the structure allowed for component parts to be built by students at CED and then assembled on site. “Students learned to thoughtfully address a client's needs and gained an understanding of both structural building and furniture construction,” Thorp said.
For incoming senior Gus Curran-Munoz, who traveled from Myanmar to attend embARC this summer, working hands-on to build the new facility at Verde Garden gave him applicable workshop skills while reinforcing his love for the design and drawing aspects of architecture.
“EmbARC really broadened my horizons in that it gave me a sense of what architecture is like as a profession, something I’ve always been curious about,” he explained enthusiastically. “I loved working in the fabrication shop because it gave me a chance to create something I could hold in my hands—I wasn’t expecting working on a project that was so hands-on, but I learned a lot of techniques in the shop that I’ll take with me.”
Venezuelan student Veronica Raga’s experience at embARC solidified her desire to pursue architecture next year when she starts college. She explained that while the month of intensive design studio and fabrication shop work felt challenging at times, her efforts paid off through a final product that looked beautiful and served a significant purpose for a community in need. “The past four weeks I spent at UC Berkeley were filled with amazing people who broadened my knowledge on urban planning, design studio, the history of architecture and shop skills,” she said.
The month of planning and building culminated in a reception and award ceremony on Friday, July 29 at Verde Garden, where students and their parents joined with embARC staff and Dean of the College of Environmental Design Jennifer Wolch to unveil the structure and celebrate the tremendous accomplishment. Dean Wolch, who noted the level of craftsmanship and design on the structure, explained to students that the work they put into the Verde project in four short weeks was equal to college-level standards of work.
“I'm truly impressed by the level of planning and thoughtful design that went behind this structure,” Dean Wolch said. “Not only have embARC students made a significant contribution to this community, they've also contributed to the growing community of young designers and architects.”
For Executive Director of Urban Tilth Doria Robinson, seeing Verde Garden transform in four short weeks made her hopeful for the garden’s future. As a firsthand witness to the positive impact the garden has had on kids’ relationship to food, the potential for expansion and education in the future is bright.
“Were getting to a place where we really can impact food access, not just impact people’s relationship to food, Robinson explained. “You don’t have to be a victim of the circumstances you were born into—with imagination, access and some know-how, you can change your situation around.”