Move earth before planting seeds: How Austin’s residents tilled the community garden permit process
The City of Austin’s Office of Design and Delivery’s Service Design Lab addresses and tackles problems such as the community gardens permit process and community building. The lab consults with city employees and the public on how to digitize services to best meet community needs, wants, and concerns.
Community gardens are -and have always been- about much more than food.
Community gardens’ popularity in America have ebbed and flowed relative to a particular era’s socioeconomic challenges. Gardening was a patriotic act during World War I when “wartime gardens” increased food exports to supplement food shortages in Europe; gardens were a platform for racial justice among African Americans; and before the end of the second world war, gardening boosted morale when 18–20 million families’ gardens reportedly yielded 40% of Americans’ vegetables. The modern environmental movement dovetails soaring food prices and failed urban renewal projects in the 1970s. Reclamation of vacant plots spurred community gardens to represent ownership of the public commons, areas where people recognize and protect valuable parts of their community.
Community gardens remain the bedrock of environmental stewardship, self-efficacy, holistic health, and trust among neighbors, but inconsistent policies and procedures mar community garden opportunities on city-owned land.
How might we better assist the citizens of Austin with the permitting process, while also meeting the needs of multiple city departments?
Service designers and user researchers within the City of Austin’s Office of Design and Delivery’s Service Design Lab got to work to understand the pain points behind establishing a community garden in Austin, TX. The project goals were:
- To better understand the City of Austin’s current garden permit process
- To identify pain points in the public’s experience while uncovering opportunities and tools to assist a parks department staff member in shepherding (across multiple departments’ needs) new gardeners
- To identify opportunities to cultivate outreach and build partnerships while supporting existing gardens
Every step of the process was executed with focus on the users — Austin residents and City employees. Every step of the process must focus on the users — balancing the needs of the city and technology with the needs of the people. This endeavor involved interviews, three workshops, reams of qualitative data, and champions in multiple departments and the field.
Talking to community gardeners and City employees
The project kicked off with research and discovery, best practice among the design principles to pair usability with functionality. Our learnings from the initial research helped us identify some areas that we wanted to look into further. And to do that, we needed to talk to the people getting their hands dirty- the community gardeners and the employees making it possible for the gardens to exist.
In the user-centered design process, public user interviews are crucial within the discovery and research phase. Interviews contextualize people’s behaviors and why they do what they do. Users’ pain points or struggles are identified and shed light on the problem statement.
Just like the public, direct service city staff in all departments play a role in delivering a community garden. We need to understand what’s happening internally and decipher whether the City’s tools work.
Throughout the interviews, users described how they navigate the permitting process, which highlighted preferences, pain points, how users problem-solve, and how they feel when interacting with the service. The interviews dug deep into cognition and behavior science — what users’ reasoning was behind their choices and behaviors. As residents and City employees solidified each step of the process, data gathered in interviews started to answer the “how” to balance the needs of the city and technology with the needs of the people.
Voice of the gardener
During this project, interviews were conducted in person and on location at community gardens, resident homes, community centers, as well as grassroots, sustainable farm organizations. Additional stakeholder interviews were conducted in person and on location at other city departments.
Current gardners, garden participants, and residents who had successful and unsuccessful garden permit processes voiced what community gardens meant to them and the barriers.
For instance, a Housing Authority resident and community organizer shared the benefits of a community garden:
“If you can walk out the door and pick some herbs, for a senior citizen, that’s huge. Something as simple as that can make a difference in someone’s cooking. I was trying to make the opportunity for them to not have to go to the store.”
And why the garden wasn’t successful:
“The garden wasn’t supported and it wasn’t implemented right. They didn’t have meetings, they didn’t have communication. You have to have that. You have to have involvement from the residents, but also people from outside the property that are willing to help too.”
Each garden has different barriers: language, time, interest, gentrification, and inclusion. For example, East Austin is rapidly gentrifying, and it’s reflected in who’s getting involved. People are not feeling welcome as persons of color or because of unintended bias.
The Service Design Lab’s user researchers interview one of Sustainable Food Center’s program directors
The Sustainable Food Center suggests the City provide garden staff support. The Office of Sustainability currently sponsors and funds the University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s microfarm, a 40-plot, half-acre community garden for UT students, staff and faculty.
Katherine Shirley, the microfarm’s project lead, is paid $10 an hour for 10 hours of work per week. “The fact that I’m paid… That’s a huge struggle for a lot of people. It makes a difference in keeping the student leaders dedicated to the project, having a paid person.” The microfarm’s mission, says Shirley, is to connect students to their food. “It’s about their health, it’s about the health of the environment, it’s about the way the agricultural system affects underrepresented people.”
It’s advantageous for the City to invest in residents to organize neighbors around community garden projects. By paying a garden lead or ambassador $10-$15 an hour for set number of hours per month, modeling the UT microfarm, the garden lead can actively assist shepherding new garden groups through the permit process. Compensating leaders for their time drives a stake in the garden’s sustainability while reaping long term benefits. Correspondingly, with increased capacity, the garden coordinator with the Austin Parks and Recreation department will bolster grants, outreach, and partnerships. Investing in people sustains community garden projects and reaps healthy food and healthy people.
Default to users as source of truth
Designing for users, such as residents and city employees, means learning everything we can about them — needs and goals — and iteratively testing our work throughout the design process.
The process yielded 10 takeaway, identified needs, including:
- Process improvement meeting multiple City departments’ permitting needs
- Equitable involvement of community
- Increase the number of community gardens in Austin
- Increase the public’s health, wellness, and community garden education
- Increase community garden staff with community partnerships cultivated by a simplified gardening permit process
While providing insights:
There are barriers to accessing garden permits. The current systems serve those who have the time and money to dedicate to the process, such as securing landscape architects, engineers, and plumbers, over those who don’t. Furthermore, requirements meet the needs of the City, not the public.
There are many ways the permit process can be inconsistent in service delivery due to the implementation of policies and process, and the burden is on the public.
There’s a preference for mitigating between departments like a member of the public not as another entity of City of Austin, therefore creating a lack of institutionalization that muddles the consistency and sustainability of the community garden permit process.
Information is available, but challenges with capturing and sharing across departments usefully prevents community garden permitting from functioning in a data driven way.
A garden is a solution to other solutions
Gardens in urban areas decrease crime rates. Vacant land can lead to higher crime rates, which harms residents’ health in the form of increased cardiovascular disease and mental health issues. According to Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, cleaning trash and debris from neglected properties, leveling the ground, and seeding new grass drops neighborhood crime rates by as much as 29 percent. Gardens can improve economic opportunities by training volunteers and selling food at farmers’ markets. Urban agriculture teaches residents how to plan, produce food, and manage business. Solving issues when starting a community garden supplements solutions cultivated in communities.
Civic tech connects citizens to services and one another by creating better user experiences
Community gardens need to be the touchpoint between the public and other departments. Maybe this is achieved by setting the goal for a 1-year permit process with quarterly meetings to improve communication and ensure consistency while being transparent in reviewing new garden needs. Luckily, the wheel neither needs reinvention nor are the residents and City employees alone in the process.
The Coalition of Austin Community Gardens launched its website in December 2017. It showcases an easy-to-read garden profile for each community garden in the Austin area. Profiles include basic information such as English and Spanish contacts, the garden’s physical address, and links to gardens’ websites and/or Facebook pages.
The site has a resource page supporting the creation of new community gardens and ensures that existing community gardens thrive long term. This section will help visitors to the site locate gardening education opportunities, funding opportunities, team-building resources, and more.
Finally, the site has an updated map of Austin area gardens and farms including location, contact, and open availability of community gardens, urban farms, school food gardens, school wildlife habitats and/or monarch waystations, and schools with rainwater collection projects.
The permit process is a big ask of garden stewards, many of whom are volunteers. Digging deep into where and why problems exist will best guide the development of user-centered solutions that serve members of the public and the people who serve them.