March 9, 2022
New placemaking project helps grow food and community

Creative County supports agriCulture, a new gathering spot in Gloucester

By Michelle Xiarhos Curran

Nonprofit Backyard Growers built the community garden at Willowood, a Gloucester Housing Authority development, in 2017, and they have managed it ever since. In the last five years, the garden space has become a connection point for Willowood’s diverse community of residents.

In Spring, the garden bursts into life, and participating gardeners young and old, experienced and new, can be seen tending the 14 raised beds that yield them nutritious, homegrown food.

But come this fall, Willowood residents will reap more than just vegetables from the garden as Backyard Growers completes the installation of agriCulture –  an exciting new gathering spot that will be located adjacent to the community garden – and builds on the sense of community that’s been growing there. AgriCulture celebrates the power of food and food traditions through storytelling, multimedia arts and a participatory design process that engages the community. When it’s complete, the space will include a three-level stage, shaded pavilion, modular picnic tables, kids play area and community garden beds.

“We hope to create a really vibrant gathering space that is used for generations to come,” said Corinne Lippie, program director for Backyard Growers, which is partnering with the Gloucester Housing Authority and the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce on the project. “Food is a connector, and we hope that the space symbolizes that connection.”

AgriCulture is being supported by an ECCF Creative County partnership grant, which is designed to encourage cross-sector collaboration between the arts, municipal, business and philanthropic sectors.

“This project is such a great example of all those different sectors coming together to collectively address the needs of the community while engaging those who will benefit from the work right from the beginning of the process,” said ECCF Creative County Program Director Karen Ristuben.

The design for agriCulture, which includes flexible plans for residents to personalize the space year after year, is a result of a series of interactive community workshops and focus groups held last summer by Backyard Growers and artist Claudia Paraschiv, founder of Studioful, a practice for participatory design, who is leading the design process. More than 40 Willowood residents – many of them kids – participated.

“The concept of having permanent structures and then working with the residents within the development to sort of seasonally bring in the temporary artistic elements is very exciting,” said David Houlden, executive director of the Gloucester Housing Authority. “The other thing that’s been really exciting is to see the excitement of the residents who’ve been involved in this. They just really are taking ownership of this project and what we’re seeing is what they want, which is really what we desired.”

Paraschiv envisions construction of agriCulture to be similarly homegrown, with Willowood residents assisting in the building process and materials donated by local businesses. Once the installation of agriCulture is complete, programming might include movie screenings, cooking demonstrations, spoken word and musical performances, community meals and gatherings, workshops and more – all suggestions from residents.

“I think the really neat thing about this project is that it’s building off a few years of Backyard Growers’ involvement in that space,” said Program Manager Jess Reid. “A lot of these kids and community members know Backyard Growers through a shared history of space and gardening. We’re definitely building on a network that was already existing and it’s growing a lot more this year, so it’s really cool to see.”

Another thing that’s amazing to witness is the extended impact that agriCulture is already having on people of all ages. Paraschiv’s participatory design process, for example, was aided by four teenaged interns – all residents of Willowood – who helped organize and manage the interactive workshops. They had the opportunity to earn a stipend and learn some valuable job skills, like how to conduct a good interview from a WGBH reporter, which resulted in a storytelling project featuring residents’ food stories.

“I was really impressed by them,” said Paraschiv about the interns.

The internship program is an exciting offshoot of the agriCulture project that Peter Webber, senior vice president of the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce, said they would be really interested in exploring and supporting.

“It’s another great layer to the collaborative process,” said Ristuben. “When different sectors are involved, there are so many connections that are made and new ideas that spring to life.”

To learn more about agriCulture, or to give to the project or get involved, visit www.backyardgrowers.org/agriculture.

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