Seeds to Feed Rooftop Farm, Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Photo: Rob Stephenson

As an organization, our most important asset is our Fellows — past, present, and future! Earlier this year, we put out a separate call to our Fellows alongside our current RFP, The Restorative City, offering mini-grants to past and current fellows to support ongoing work connected to health equity. 

We are thrilled to share that Five Borough Farm Design Fellows Elliott Maltby and Gita Nandan and Urban Planning Lee Altman were selected as our first mini-grant winners! Continue reading to learn more about what they're working on and their experience as a Design Trust Fellow. 

Elliott Maltby and Gita Nandan: 

When were you a fellow at Design Trust? Elliott Maltby and Gita Nandan were fellows for the Five Borough Farm Project, Phase I (2009 - 2012). Working in partnership with Ian Marvy and Added Value, they created the proposal and framework setting the stage for the following phases.

Describe the scope of the project you worked on as a Design Trust Fellow. The Five Borough Farm project was the first of its kind, bringing a spotlight on urban agriculture in New York City. The project was far-reaching and grew to become a two-phase project expanding to include a deeper analysis of the impacts and metrics urban agriculture has on our public spaces, health, ecological benefits, and food security. Thread helped to craft the proposal from the onset, working with Added Value, bringing a lens of the public realm to the conversation. In 2009, urban agriculture was a burgeoning local primarily community-based industry with great potential. Addressing issues around land access, policy, and city agency support were at the core of our original intent to ensure longevity and expansion of food production and food access, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. The goal of the project was to provide tool-kits and a roadmap to farmers and gardeners to support their efforts, in addition to the creation of a systematic metrics-based data collection to concretely show proof of the need, and success in a wide variety of co-benefits, to city agencies and policymakers. The impact of this project has been far-reaching, and long-lasting. Urban agriculture in NYC is thriving and continually expanding from the private sector to community-based initiatives.

What attracted you to apply for a fellowship at Design Trust? We have always respected the work of the Design Trust, the ability of the organization to advocate for public space, and its ever-evolving role in the cultural-social landscape of New York City. We felt that our work would benefit from the fellowship through additional perspectives brought to our work through the exposure to the network of experts and advocates.

What are you working on now? Elliott and Gita, Founders and Principals at thread collective, are working on a wide variety of projects that range in scale from buildings to park design and continue their work around urban agriculture in the public realm. Specifically, we have been working on a number of community-based projects, such as a field station on the Gowanus Canal with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and in partnership with the RETI Center, an amphibious climate lab, BlueCity LAB and the BlueBlock Gardens. In addition, we have been working with small towns across New York State on the Downtown Revitalization Initiatives, an effort led by BFJ Planning, to bring a design lens and urban design / public space vision to these community-led economic development plans. 

How did your time at Design Trust impact your career and/or your thinking around public space? During our fellowship, we developed a deep network of new collaborators, building relationships with fellow farmers, urban agriculture researchers, and food justice organizations. Over the years we have enjoyed engaging with the community of Fellows at Design Trust events, learning about other compelling approaches to public space design and research. We continue to be involved in the urban agriculture conversation in NYC:  Last month, Gita curated and moderated the second panel discussion in the series, Designing Urban Agriculture: Digging into Farming in the City at the AIA New York; Elliott is currently working on a research project with Inclusive Ecologies at Pratt called Fruiting Bodies, using a feminist perspective to explore the planting of fruit trees in the public realm. Our work with the Five Borough Farm really brought to the fore the power of metrics: to see data collection as a persuasive companion to storytelling - not only to funders and government decision-makers but also critically valuable for the farmers themselves. More broadly, our work with the Design Trust gave us a detailed understanding of the complexity of organizations with purview over NYC's public space and the shifting demands and definitions of utility, advocacy, and justice that frame investment in the public realm.

Lee Altman, Urban Planning Fellow:

When were you a fellow at Design Trust? I was a Fellow between 2012-2014, on the second phase of the Five Borough Farm project. 

Describe the scope of the project you worked on as a Design Trust Fellow. Building on the success of the Five Borough Farm project, the second phase of the work was focused on understanding, maximizing, and scaling the benefits of community gardens and urban farms in the city. Together with my colleague Kaja Kühl, I took the approach of looking at urban agriculture as infrastructure which provides many different benefits beyond food production. Farms and gardens provide health, social, economic, and ecological benefits to the individuals and communities they serve. Cumulatively, urban agriculture activities contribute to many infrastructure systems in the city, from stormwater management to food security. 

The fellowship took place at a critical time where the City was preparing to transition from the Bloomberg administration to the new DeBlasio administration. Through evaluating urban agriculture from the perspective of these different benefits, including composting, stormwater management, integrated aging, youth development, and food entrepreneurship, the project, which started out of a partnership with the Department of Parks and Recreation, became relevant to many other City agencieslike the Department of Environmental Protection, Department for the Aging, Dept. for Youth and Community Development, and others. Given the precarious status of many community gardens and farms, the intent was to gather collaboration and support from multiple municipal players to help sustain these initiatives through the mayoral transition. 

What attracted you to apply for a fellowship at Design Trust? I have always been interested in the role that city government plays in forming, shaping, and managing public space, and in the role that designers, within and outside of government, can take on to actively impact these critical decisions. The Design Trust’s model of establishing project-based partnerships with agencies, while still working with the relative flexibility and agility of a small, design-focused organization, offered a unique window into this world. The Five Borough Farm project was especially interesting to me. I was drawn to community gardens and farms—not for the farming (no green thumbs here, unfortunately), but for the idea that by caring for a space, a community can challenge the traditional models of ownership and claim a piece of land through the act of transforming it into a productive place.

What are you working on now? I work at SCAPE, a design-driven landscape architecture and urban design studio, where I am the Director of Design Management. At SCAPE, we believe landscape architecture can enable positive change in communities through the creation of regenerative living infrastructure and public landscapes. As an architect and urban designer, I work mostly on large and complex projects where we collaborate with community members, engineers, ecologists, planners, as well as city and state agencies to envision and implement transformative and resilient public spaces. 

In addition to my work at SCAPE, I also teach at Columbia University’s Urban Design Program. In the past few years I led a studio that focused on issues of social, environmental, and economic justice in the Hudson Valley. Working with local partners in cities from Newburgh to Poughkeepsie, students developed concepts, tools, and strategies that challenge the role and agency of design in creating justice in place.

How did your time at Design Trust impact your career and/or your thinking around public space? Design education often focuses on what public space should look and feel like; it rarely focuses on what (and who) it takes to get there. My time at the Design Trust gave me a close look at the intricate and complex network of actors involved in something as small (and yet as impactful) as a single community garden. The importance of building sustained partnerships, and that a committed community partners is as critical to the success of a project as a supportive government official (if not more!) is something I carry with me in all of my work.