Case Study: Five Borough Farm
Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2013 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 14 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments.
Project brief and background
The Design Trust for Public Space is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making a more dynamic, livable and sustainable New York City by bringing design innovation to its public spaces. In the 18 years since its inception, the Design Trust has worked on such projects as “Reclaiming the Highline,” the “Taxi of Tomorrow” and “Making Midtown.” A recent initiative takes on New York City’s booming urban agriculture movement.
New York City is not necessarily a place one would expect urban agriculture to thrive. It is one of the most densely populated cities in the country with some of the highest real estate values. But with more than 700 food-producing farms and gardens citywide, New Yorkers have turned vacant lots, rooftops and schoolyards in all five boroughs into places to grow food. New York is a leader in the practice of urban agriculture, which encompasses a wide range of activities that extend beyond food-producing spaces. Participants compost food waste, capture storm water for reuse, earn income at farmers markets, teach others about nutrition and the environment, and create safe, attractive public spaces that foster greater connectedness within communities.
Yet at present, there is no citywide policy or plan to coordinate farming-related activities in New York City and no cohesive city-based infrastructure to support the movement. Many active land use sites are not currently secured with solid legal arrangements, and while there are many people involved in the movement at the grassroots level, there is little in the way of standardized communication or shared information among them. Even city officials and stakeholders who feel inclined to support urban agriculture have a hard time fully grasping all of its activities and benefits. And the farming community has a hard time expressing the impact the movement has on the lives of everyone outside of it.
The Five Borough Farm project was conceived to address these issues. With an interdisciplinary team of fellows including urban farmers and experts in food policy, public health evaluation and sustainable design, the Design Trust embarked on this two-plus-year initiative to research the current state of urban agriculture in New York. They sought to compile a set of policy recommendations and metrics that would help local communities make a stronger case for the movement’s benefits and for increasing resources, from soil and compost to growing space and funding. All of the research and recommendations would then be synthesized in a detailed report and a comprehensive website.
The Five Borough Farm project was initiated not only to help city agencies and officials institute positive change in support of the urban agriculture movement at the policy level, but to help farmers and gardeners on the ground gain a clearer understanding of the full scope of their work and, in turn, feel more empowered to grow their practice and acquire necessary support.
As amateurs to farming, our design team did not possess the same level of understanding of the urban agriculture system as the team of fellows already involved in the project, but what we did bring to the table—in addition to our eagerness to learn quickly—was an understanding of how effective communication design and the intuitive flow of information can be in conveying complex data and intricate stories to a discerning audience. Simplicity, directness and legibility were of utmost priority, as was making sure that the vibrant and multifaceted spirit of New York City’s urban agriculture movement remained present in everything we did.
One of our biggest challenges was synthesizing several years’ worth of findings into a comprehensive yet accessible package. We conducted thorough competitive analysis of previously published reports, comparable publications and online efforts in the public sector, and we looked at the use of information graphics and branding in similar campaigns. It became clear that we had a vast opportunity to create a truly unique and engaging campaign with a visual tone and personality unlike anything else in this landscape.
The Five Borough Farm team also:
- Convened more than 90 farmers, gardeners, funders and nonprofit advocates for “The Future of Farming in NYC,” a participatory workshop
- Interviewed more than 60 leading New York–based and national urban agriculture stakeholders, including formal research interviews with 31 farmers and gardeners, city and state officials, nonprofit advocates and funders
- Surveyed municipal governments nationwide to identify best practices relating to urban agriculture and develop recommendations for New York City policy
- Conducted more than 60 site visits to community gardens and urban farms across the five boroughs
The ultimate design package for Five Borough Farm includes a 150-plus page publication, a suite of information graphics focusing on key ideas and data points about urban agriculture practice in New York—two of which were published as 12-by-18-inch posters—and a comprehensive website containing the project’s core findings and recommendations.
The design of all of the project materials was inspired by the visual identity system and logo mark we developed for the initiative. Mixing a slightly messy, handmade pattern with the structural intricacies of metrics, data and citywide systems, our design direction—wholly supported by the Design Trust and the team of fellows from the start—hoped to evoke the vigorous spirit of New York’s often-grassroots movement as well as its incredibly rich array of activities and impacts.
Schedule was one of our biggest challenges. After a year of research, strategizing and gathering content, the ultimate turnaround time for the design of the book and supporting materials was just over three months. Oftentimes, sections of the publication were still being determined (and sometimes even written) while the design was already fairly far along. This required a nimble and collaborative process between our design team and the Design Trust, in that we had to facilitate sometimes-significant adjustments all the way through to the finish line. As is often the case, it was this type of collaborative spirit in the face of a challenging deadline that made the Five Borough Farm project so rewarding and meaningful.
Released in July 2012, Five Borough Farm: Seeding the Future of Urban Agriculture and the companion website offer more than 30 recommendations to support and expand the growing urban agriculture movement in New York City. The project provides the most detailed survey ever produced of urban farming practices in New York. It also establishes the nation’s first urban agriculture metrics framework—so that farmers and gardeners everywhere can track their activities and demonstrate their impact—and recommends initiatives to connect the grassroots efforts of city farmers and gardeners to municipal policy and urban health planning.
Now that the initiative has entered Phase II, the Design Trust is using our visual materials in conversations with government officials and funders to focus on ongoing community outreach by:
- Conducting workshops and other engagement efforts
- Assessing city-owned land with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in order to increase land availability
- Turning the theoretical metrics framework developed during Phase I of the project into a viable and practical data toolkit based on data compiled from active farms and gardens
The information graphics in particular have provided the Design Trust with an invaluable communication tool. Visually demonstrating the potential impact of a comprehensive data collection effort, they generate excitement about urban agriculture and help people understand the system as a whole.
At the time this case study was submitted to “Justified,” a total of nearly 1,000 physical and 300 digital copies of the book had been distributed, and the publication has received more international interest than was originally expected, with recent downloads from The Hague, Berlin, Vienna, Ireland, London, Oslo, Milan and Australia. Additionally, the website had garnered more than 37,000 page views with more than 9,000 unique visitors from 117 countries.
At a recent “Just Food” workshop, Liz Barry, an Urban Design Fellow, used the metrics framework as a cornerstone of the workshop. Attendance was in the thousands, and almost 500 copies of each of the two posters were taken over the course of two days.
Most recently, as a direct result of the publication and graphics created in Phase I, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand solicited the Design Trust’s input and advice on how urban agriculture can be addressed and supported in the Farm Bill.
All news and press coverage of the Five Borough Farm project can be found here: fiveboroughfarm.org/news-press/