Friday, April 1, 2011

Hey there- a quick note about an interesting community outreach project here at the gardens.

As I write this, the soft patter of a gray, rainy day whispers outside my office window. The gentle rainfall that permeated the late fall and winter has given rise to a glorious floral display this Spring. The hundreds of new native woodland perennials in the Blomquist, added during the Fall to enhance the visitor experience along the main loop in the lower portion of the garden, have emerged with vigor. The Bloodroot, Sweet Betsy, Virginia Bluebells and their woodland neighbors, most of whom were rescued from piedmont woodlands in the path of development, have gone above and beyond this Spring, due in no small part to the amount of work put into building healthy soil with a diverse population of the microscopic miracle workers that make plants grow and thrive.

Beginning in October of last year, my colleague Annie Nashold and I embarked upon a community outreach and educational partnership that has proven truly rewarding, and has restored my faith in the amazing things that can be achieved through working with children. The “Eco Design Project” paired the team of horticulture and children’s education here at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens with the Duke School for Children and their seventh grade class and instructors. Together we have worked to build an understanding for and appreciation of an often elusive term: “design”.

Design is everywhere, in everything we interact with in our human-made world. It’s also evident in all the miracles of adaptation and survival in the world beyond where the sidewalk ends. A botanic garden is where those two worlds meet, and what better place for young people to experiment with how we can design to incorporate both.

Our work with these students, which began with abstract conversations about “what does it mean to design something?”, and “what goes into the design process?” quickly evolved to discussions around “do different places have different feelings associated with them?”, “is design involved in creating those feelings”, and finally “how do we create a certain feel with design?”.

The culmination of these classes and discussions is the formation of “design teams” among the students, who have been charged with creating a design vision for a section of the Blomquist Garden. The teams have worked on identifying a “Blomquist aesthetic”, and what it means in the design of new features within the garden. They’ve also conducted “precedent studies” to identify existing examples of landscapes and structures

throughout the world which seem to fit this aesthetic. Their final task is to take all they’ve learned and put it into a final presentation to a group of SPDG and Duke School representatives, during which they will make design recommendations for the Blomquist study site, and explain the process they went through to reach those design conclusions.

This project, and its combination of demystifying design while at the same time harnessing the inherent creativity of young people has proven to be quite special. My mantra in life is this: to make a true impact in anything we do, we have to see the big picture- how all the connections, big and small, come together to create the end product of our efforts. As a gardener, having the opportunity to speak to these students about my vision of the design process, being able to work with as thoughtful and intelligent a partner on the subject as Annie, and being immersed in the high energy world of young people has given this designer great joy, and a new appreciation of what it means to design.

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