Three-Tier Garden: More-than-Human Choreographies in the Post-COVID City

The Three-Tier Garden: More than Human Choreographies in the Post-COVID city is a more-than-human design research project exploring shared urban gardens as places for healing and recovery from the traumatic ruptures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Research team: Cristina Ampatzidou, Viktor BedöEktor NtourakosJaz Hee-jeong Choi 
October 2020 – February 2023
Project publication, 2023, DOI:  10.26254/med/6344
Realised with the support of the Creative Industries Fund NL

The Three-Tier Garden is a more-than-human design research project exploring shared urban gardens as places for healing and recovery from the traumatic ruptures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It builds on the rapidly growing interest among urban residents in engaging with natural environments, particularly during the period of restrictions. It explores design opportunities for individual and collective post-traumatic growth by strengthening the sense of belonging and grounding, primarily through what we call mutual choreographies: how gardens and gardeners shape each other’s lives through the temporal and socio-spatial infrastructures of the garden.

In practical terms, the Three-Tier Garden engaged with ’t O-tje, a garden in the south of Rotterdam, surrounded by a housing block and creative community and managed by an independent foundation.

Sense making

We used three different methodologies to make sense of site-specific aspects of life in and around the garden with two main aims: to map the fractures in the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of the community and understand the impact of the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic, and to record temporal aspects of choreographies and processes in the garden. The sense-making activities revealed personal and collective histories of the site and the people living there and using the garden, the relationships between the members of the O’tje community, and finally, particular members’ relationship with the garden.

Multispecies Mapping

The most tangible manifestation of the connection between garden and gardeners is the way they choreograph each other by giving each other’s movement direction and quality through paths. In the Multispecies Mapping exercise, participants are asked to enact another species inhabiting the garden. They move and make sounds like that of their chosen species. The invitation to visualise what the garden is like for a non-human species aims at strengthening the ability to imagine.

The participants of the Multispecies Mapping activity enacted a squirrel, a cat, a sparrow, a seaweed, a bee, and a snail. 

Low Tech Augmented Reality

Low-tech AR is an exercise which uses a transparent sheet to augment the garden with future imaginaries.

Co-design activities

The sense-making phase rearranged our initial dimensions of inquiry: our focus shifted towards an – at times ambivalent – feeling of belonging, which we captured in the concept of ‘forced belonging’. We translated the learnings from the sense-making phase into design dilemmas addressing the dimensions of temporary ⭠⭢ permanent; introvert ⭠⭢ extrovert; new ⭠⭢ familiar; forced belonging ⭠⭢spontaneous belonging. To ground the participatory shaping of the garden’s future, we chose to use the trope of the treehouse as a vehicle for principles and mechanisms of relating, meeting, connecting, belonging to and with the garden, other humans and other-than-humans. The treehouse was deeply embedded in the garden’s identity, and was repeatedly mentioned either as a social structure or as a physical arrangement.

Design dilemmas matrix 

In a workshop dedicated to discussing the dilemmas with participants, we played through the dilemmas using the case of the treehouse. This helped to negotiate where community members see themselves in the future, finding consensus in some cases, but especially noticing diverse interests and sentiments. 

Making a collage of the tree house

The final workshop exercise focused on translating the insights gleaned from the dilemmas into spatial elements of the treehouse, such as the desired height, the shape and size of the windows, ladders, poles or ropes, and additional elements to host other species, such as a bee hotel or a bird feeder. The exercise followed the ‘exquisite corpse’ principle:  the design team provided a set of predefined elements that participants could combine in a conceptual sketch of the treehouse while discussing their choices. 

Lessons learnt

The Three-Tier Garden project started from the premise that grounding and belonging are particularly significant during the lockdown periods of the pandemic. The project strived to re-imagine the garden as a place, process, and community for grounding and belonging, a unique technology of sociability, care, long-term thinking, community building and healing. 

While the Three-Tier Garden is a highly context-specific project, where we worked with a small group of people and their individual experiences, and it is difficult to make generalizable claims about the broader social significance of the project, it is our hope and aspiration that other designers find these methods valuable and inspiring and can adapt them to different projects and communities. For this, we created a freely available publication that brings together project documentation and methodological guidelines with the aim of enabling others to adapt the three-tier garden approach at other locations. If you are one of them, please let us know! 

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