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Urban design is powering social change in New London by turning desolate places into food spaces.
By Maria P. Gonzalez
ndrea Wollensak looks down at the cracked and uneven concrete that represents the majority of the park at the corner of McDonald Street and Connecticut Avenue in New London.
“This space should work really well,” she says, describing how students in her public practice design course will take chalk and map out design ideas for the neglected city property so community members can better visualize how this cement landscape can be transformed.
The 12 students in Wollensak’s urban design course this spring are collaborating with local nonprofits to realize the vision for an “edible landscape” throughout New London, where garden beds and fruit orchards will line sidewalks, abut buildings or fill once neglected spots like the stale concrete and graffiti of McDonald Park.
Wollensak’s goal is tackling blight and lifting the community. The unifying theme is food.
“It’s what brings everyone together, right? Food,” says Wollensak, professor of art and the Judith Ammerman ’60 Director of the Ammerman Center for Arts and Technology.
By building on existing programs that have brought community and school gardens to New London, Conn students will help map the city’s food resources while designing a sustainable vision for the edible landscape.
“The course introduces students to creating social change through the power of design,” she says. “We explore human-centered design as an approach and method to problem-solving and innovation. So really connecting with communities—what I call co-creation—so that we’re not designing for but designing with.”
Students are partnering with FRESH (Food: Resources, Education, Security, Health) New London and Spark Makerspace, a new collaborative worksite and learning center for arts and technology. The class is funded by Conn’s Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy. The partnerships came about in part through Conn’s Community Partnerships office, with help from Tracee Reiser, associate dean of community learning.
Together, the groups will tackle food insecurity and revitalization in the city Conn students call home.
One student is Quinlan Low ’19. Low, an architectural studies major, brings experience from her summer internship with an architecture firm in San Francisco, where she studied the pros and cons—including community impact—of developing a new park in the city’s Chinatown.
Rather than just talking about the theory of co-creation in the class, “what we design is going to be implemented into a community and will have an effect on individuals,” Low says.
As a nonprofit with established roots in New London, FRESH seeks social change through food justice and youth empowerment. The mission is to address the statistics that place New London among the poorest cities in the state—a city where a high percentage of residents still lack access to fresh, nutritious food.
In its 10 years serving New London, FRESH has helped drive a social shift toward urban agriculture. It has developed three active community gardens as well as gardens used as outdoor classrooms at the city’s public schools.
The city of New London approached FRESH to reimagine McDonald Park. Individual garden beds, fruit trees and a children’s space might replace the current concrete and graffitied fence—yet the true vision lies with the residents of the neighborhood who would use and oversee the park.
We want to “build leadership in New London for residents to reclaim space,” says Alicia McAvay, executive director of FRESH. “We’re here as facilitators and for support, but ultimately that space belongs to the city and the residents of that neighborhood.”
With a vision in place, Conn students can start to realize the possibilities for the park—and other potential sites for urban orchards, through purposeful and aesthetic design.
“What Conn really has to offer us is a host of skills and resources that as a small nonprofit in New London we don’t always have access to,” McAvay says.
“What I see this class doing is being able to take our grassroots work and research and present it in a cohesive and beautiful way.”
Wollensak plans to use walking tours with students through the city to capture both the physical and aesthetic characteristics of the town to help them develop a food map of the city and spot places beyond the park for future urban orchards. Additional locations include land behind Jennings Elementary School, at Bennie Dover Middle School and a spot behind Saint Francis House.
“We’re going to map the city, map the whole area, to visualize ways of thinking about better uses for empty spaces, and look at all the potential spaces for urban orchards,” she says.
And “we’re going to be exploring augmented reality”—computer-generated images that provide a composite view of the real world through mobile apps—“as a way to visualize” what these derelict spaces can become.
Spark Makerspace, a nonprofit established in New London in 2015 by Hannah Gant, is supporting the vision for the edible landscape project.
Through community and corporate members, Spark works to drive sustainable revitalization in New London, which last saw true economic vitality during its days as a whaling port.
“It’s really about helping spark things, and recognizing that everyone has unique abilities, whether they create or innovate,” Gant says.
Spark opened at the site of the former El ‘n’ Gee music venue in downtown New London. Its main floor has a commercial kitchen, a workspace with computers, a 3-D printer and a spacious woodshop where El ‘n’ Gee’s dance floor used to be.
Spark provides space and communal equipment—from woodworking to screen printing—in a place where Gant says “people can really find their tribe.”
Gant sees New London as the perfect launching point for an economic rebirth.
Best known these days for an active arts and music community, New London has also drawn younger residents and newer businesses. Yet like other urban centers in Connecticut, its economic growth has been slow and urban development sporadic. For every new eatery or mixed use development, there remain empty lots or properties in disrepair.
Gant’s vision for Spark is reflective of her personality: a unique combination of down-to-earth and cutting edge. She brings a laid-back vibe to her role as an initiator of Spark. But she is also a social entrepreneur who is guiding the makerspace concept with the aggressive urgency of a new startup.
“We are evolving into a new type of public, where traditional public, private and third-sector are coming together in an unprecedented way and asking how we can improve this place,” she says.
The potential of FRESH’s edible landscape project to transform the face of New London folds into Gant’s broader vision for the region, where she asks, “What are things we can do to make it easier for everyone to get in the game of community economic development?”
THAMES RIVER PLACE
Addressing food systems is a launching point for a bigger transformation already underway that is redefining the region’s identity with the hopes of securing state funds to drive that change.
Gant sees regional revitalization extending beyond New London and across the Thames River in Groton, where another key partner shares Gant’s vision for collaboration and innovation, but with a different perspective.
Where Spark focuses on craft—woodwork, art and printing, sewing, welding, and 3-D printing or computer science—CURE (Connecticut United for Research Excellence) Innovation Commons offers shared space and resources for entrepreneurs in life sciences and technology. It’s a fitting focus for a city that houses the pharmaceutical firm Pfizer Inc. and draws active and retired science researchers.
“My role is to knit together the life sciences community of Connecticut,” says Susan Froshauer ’74, CURE’s president and CEO. “I think about ways to help life sciences and technology entrepreneurs understand how their innovations can create value—either in startup companies, through partnerships or in collaborations with other entities.”
Both Spark and CURE serve as incubators for ideas and entrepreneurship that will ultimately benefit the greater community. The groups are co-seeking an Innovation Place designation through CTNext—a local company that provides resources to area startups—branding themselves the Thames River Innovation Place and allowing them to channel money to the region to maintain projects like an edible landscape.
The possibilities of the Innovation Place designation mean Wollensak’s students will also visit with CURE and learn about folding the urban orchard concept into other industries.
“We are talking about the greater food system, both seafood and landed, and a mapping project that will locate sites for aquaponics (cultivating fish and plants together) as part of the Innovation Places project,” Wollensak says.
One location being considered is on the grounds of the former Groton Heights School, which closed in 2007.
“The commons incubator could nurture a company interested in aquaponics,” Froshauer offers hypothetically. “Then those aquaponics-produced plants could be part of the gardening or community building. All of this brings value to the community because it harnesses its different strengths.”
And that’s the long vision for the region’s transformation.