about design

The form is simply that part of the ensemble over which we have control. It is only through the form that we can create order in the ensemble.

— Christopher Alexander

The FoodPlaces design process has been a highly challenging and excitedly uplifting journey. We are thrilled to share it with you!

Here’s the story of some of our challenges and breakthroughs, with highlights of some of the coolest features.

A very conceptual design came together for the grant proposal submitted to the US Forest Service (November 2015).

We started with the vague idea that we could create universal design for multiple types of planting contexts (median, public square, traffic circle) in public spaces addressing the issues pertaining to each planting context. Then upon identifying a project’s specific location (i.e. climate zone) the system would magically generate a list of appropriate plants for the localized planting context.

There was interest on the part of the funder, we clarified questions, and months went by. Then one day (June 2016), out of the blue, we get the award email congratulating us!

We were elated… until we reread the proposal we had written – holy sh*t, did we have a few details to figure out!

The design process is truly mysterious if one dares to trust it; especially, when attempting something that’s never been done before. By definition, it means you can’t possibly have any idea what you are doing!

This is daunting, but we had a tight concept, stellar national partners, who were innovators in their fields, and a year to figure it out.

And, we had amazing inspiration from the work of Christopher Alexander, one of the most brilliant contemporary design thinkers!

Alexander’s ideas nutritiously fed and inspired us through the design process. They shaped the project’s operating system and the various key components.

The first idea, fitting form to context led us to our first breakthrough. According to Alexander, the main goal of design is to achieve fit-ness between the form and its context.

The concept of fit-ness recognizes that there are universal forces in nature that shape forms to fit their contexts. In other words, the context is the question and the form is the truest answer. As designers, we must understand the forces and the field of the context sufficiently, so that we can select or fashion a form to fit it.

This meant that we could design universal templates for a context typology, like a median let’s say, without having to choose the actual plant species. All that was required was to create an arrangement of plant types (a generic medium tree, generic small shrubs, and generic herbaceous groundcover) that fit that context. This was an awesome realization.

But, how do we judge fit-ness? Alexander clarifies, “We should always expect to see the process of achieving good fit between two entities as a negative process of neutralizing the incongruities, or irritants, or forces, which cause misfit.” (Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Page 24) Apparently, it is easier to discern what is out of context.

Here’s where the first breakthrough came! We developed a methodology for selecting the most appropriate forms, plants, by avoiding conflicts between the forms and their context.

In the case of a median, potential conflicts include those between vehicles and other vehicles, vehicles and pedestrians, and plants and people, etc.

The first two are avoided by allowing for sufficient vertical visibility at the correct height through the median planting. The third involves choosing trees that will not drop large, dangerous parts in the thoroughfare. This led us to devise a way for users to select the vertical space that should not have plants and by process of elimination, the ones that should.

For horizontal spaces, we devised ways for users to select which forms (arrangement of plant types) would be in each.

Designing for potential conflicts was a big breakthrough but only half of the equation.

Alexander coined the term, pattern language, as a method of describing good design practices or patterns of useful organization within a field of expertise. Patterns help us remember and communicate insights and knowledge about design and can be used in combinations to create solutions, i.e. forms that fit.

It works like this.

There are hundreds of thousands of species of plants on Earth. However, we can categorize them into six plant type patterns: trees, palms, vines, shrubs, grasses, and forbs/herbs. There are all kinds of nuances, but this is all we need to know to put together a basic design template for a median.

There are certain universalities for trees. They are perennial, woody plants often with a single stem (trunk) and usually of a certain height. If we want a bit more nuance, then we drill down to the next level. We take some tens of thousands of different tree species and categorize them into seven growth form patterns:

And even though each species is unique, there are varying patterns that can be distilled from their structure, behavior, needs, services and yields to add further nuance. We can, and have begun to, organize these into various categories based on how they look and function (see The Elements [link to page]).

These categories are what we refer to as patterns. The cataloging of these provides us with a pattern language, a menu of forms that we can choose from to assemble a foodscape for a median responsive to its situational and geographic context.

We worked with Eric Toensmeier and his team to assemble a catalog of over 500 productive perennial plant species for North America that could be used to satisfy the forms in each design template.

The resulting database, the Species Index, is a detailed index containing plant profiles that allow the system to ascertain how well a form will fit its context – the site, as represented by the design template.

The process walks the user through a series of progressive filters embedded in the design template, including the identification of the site’s climate zone, until, by process of elimination, plant suggestions are made.

The template that emerges is a foodscape pattern – an assembly of elements that represents a higher-level form – documenting the parameters that inform which elements can be used and how they are best arranged to produce the most appropriate result.

Alexander understood that because humans are creatures of habit, they repeat patterns unconsciously. In his work, he discovered that the highest expressions of designs are created by cultures over time, not by individuals (see unconscious design) and passed down repeatedly from one generation to the next.

This got us thinking! We could collectively develop patterns that are worth replicating: foodscapes that ensured the highest and best use for our underutilized spaces within our cities.

With the FoodPlaces project, we have begun to curate regenerative foodscape patterns that can be easily integrated into public spaces. We intend to enlist early adopters and leaders in their field to keep expanding the pattern language of foodscape elements and templates (see Community).