Weaving communities

An exploration of collaborative design and urban gardeners. Community development and design through the example of a two-day workshop by Cecilia Palmer and Hillary Solly | Orto Semirurali | DonneNissà.
Written by Cecilia Palmer (Fashion & Code) and Anja Salzer (Free University of Bozen-Bolzano)

Starting point of a collaboration between designers and different civil society groups of a workshop was the question how a stronger sense of community could be fostered by a design intervention. The workshop, held in the framework of the DoD conference, took place in the Orto Semirurali, an intercultural urban garden in Bozen-Bolzano. By weaving together design and community development the role of designers with regard to the creation of urban commodities, change of mindset, capacity building and collective action, thus rather the design of processes instead of objects, inevitable move onto the agenda. This piece describes insights into one example of community building and practicing the commons fostered by design.


How to build a stronger sense of community and a common base with and for a diverse and heterogeneous group of urban gardeners?
How to build a stronger sense of community in an urban garden?
What could be created by the encounter of a heterogeneous group of civil society actors and designers?
What kind of requests do we have from the users?
What about the people and their needs? How much can we do without the permission of the community?
What are the potential requirements for the use for of different spaces?
What different needs, interests and criteria do we have to reflect and integrate into the planning – cultivation, kids space, festivals, exhibitions, historical places?
What happens when changing a space?
How can we combine natural and artificial structures?
What is used?
What might get used?
Do we want to produce privacy?

These questions were the starting point of a collaboration between designers and different civil society groups of a workshop held within the framework of the By Design or By Disaster conference. The workshop, weaving together design and community development, took place in and about the intercultural urban garden Orto Semirurali, a urban, cultivated jungle just out of the centre of Bozen-Bolzano.

What goes hand in hand with these simple questions is a much broader notion of and reflection on community, the role of designers with regard to the creation of urban commodities, change of mindset, capacity building and collective action. Thus the design of processes instead of objects, wherein the object becomes a result of the frame, the people and materials involved.

Important key ingredients in the process were upcycling, growing things, design for sustainability, community action and the community garden.

The workshop aimed to explore means of sustainable, collaborative design in practice; to bring together the community in a joint effort of creating shelter for L’Orto Semirurali using upcycled material, mainly worn clothing as material base, to be used to give shade and be a place to gather in the garden in the coming seasons.

Upcycle = the reuse of discarded objects or material in such a way as to create a product of a higher quality or value than the original.

During these two days we planned to collect worn clothing from the surrounding community and setup a temporary sewing workshop in L’Orto Semirurali. Workshop participants, as well as the public, were invited to join in making, sewing, cutting, remodeling and building a shelter together, with the hope that after these two days, many hands will have assembled a patchwork large enough to provide shade for the community during upcoming seasons.

This piece describes insights into one example of community building and practicing the commons fostered by design.

Urban commons as creative free spaces for eco-social transformation

Eco-social transformation requires radically different solutions in all fields of society. As such a radical transformation is not likely from political side, the power of grassroots movements is necessary. The involvement of affected groups in the exploration and design of eco-social transformation processes is therefore an absolute necessity. (Elsen, 2011)

Global change and civil society responses in today´s cities manifest themselves in many different ways. One of the most colorful, multifaceted and diverse manifestations are spaces of urban agriculture all over the globe. In particular, in Western cities, a new understanding of urbanity arises were urban gardens with their cultures of DIY and the re-establishment of community relations play a pioneering role (Müller, Eds., 2011).

Urban gardens are new forms of communal gardening in the middle of the city in the sense, that one of the majors features differentiating urban gardens from traditional allotments, is the fact gardens are not retreated into a private sanctuary, but are consciously based on the idea of “commons” (Allmende, Gemeinwesen). Therewith the gardens are strong statement against the private commoditization of shared resources (Müller, 2011; Stollhorz, 2011; Helfrich, 2013). Wastelands, roof-tops and other neglected or degraded places are collectively transformed into openly accessible green community environments.

Community gardens are distinctive in their ability to integrate food production with environmental stewardship and civic engagement. (Krasny and Tidball 2009, p. 2).
The garden becomes not only a place of production for self-sufficiency or well-being, or the collaborative mobilizing of resources, but also a place of participation, sharing, joint non-formal learning, communication, building relationships and the creation of community (King, 2008; Müller, Eds., 2011; Saldivar and Krasny, 2004). Most of all, it is about actors taking charge of their lives and their endangered resources. Therewith, gardens become tangible arenas of community and laboratories for the design of sustainable futures.

Backbone of the Orto Semirurali, which exists since more than three years, is the women’s organisation DonneNissà. The Orto is coordinated by the British anthropologist Hillary Solly and supported by the city of Bozen-Bolzano and the Amt für Kabinettsangelegenheiten (Office for Cabinet Affair) of the Autonomous Province of Bozen-Bolzano.

The garden project connects a diversity of actors, with different backgrounds and with different objectives; some use the garden to grow food, others to change the world. The beautiful, full-grown space, with intricately built hedges and gardens is home to species of vegetables that cannot be found in any store around here. The produce and the garden designs all tell a story of the different geographical, social and cultural backgrounds of the gardeners, and as colorful and wildly mixed as is the garden and its harvest, as heterogenous and loosely knit the community.
L´Orto Semirurali “(…) è un orto comunitario, interculturale e condiviso” (Hillary Solly, Donne Nissà)

Intercultural gardens, like the Orto Semirurali, which in total hosts around 50 gardeners from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Great Britain, Germany, as well as German and Italian speaking South Tyroleans, provide a space for lively encounter of different life-worlds (not always without conflict); life-worlds that provide means against the lack of resources, discrimination and separation, but instead focus on the exchange of goods and ideas, the cultivation of mutual aid, local networks and communal coherence (Taylor 2011). And most important, of the joint practical activity intercultural gardens provide space for growing new realities

Design intervention, collective social activity and… #action!

A group of around 15 DoD workshop participants, in majority design students, gather at university in the morning of the first of two workshop days. At hand we have a place, a few set rules, a range of materials, four sewing machines and a mission. The participants are introduced briefly to the garden, it’s community and the plan: a hands-on attempt to use these two days to design and create something which was lacking in the garden thus far: Shelter. On hot, sunny days, there is no place in the garden to shed away from the sunlight, nor a natural meeting point to meet fellow gardeners.

The core of the challenge is thus to design, and more or less simultaneously, build an object that meets the natural, social and functional prerequisites: The object should offer shade and be a place potentially open for growing. The construction must be fast, flexible, and integrative in nature. It has to work with on one hand the natural environment, in wind, sun and rain, on the other the social environment: around 20-30 people with different social and cultural backgrounds working in the community garden.

The process starts with planning and discussion. Many questions arise, each resulting in even more questions, to which we hopefully can find answers to in the shape of a shelter construction.

From a common discussion, the group quickly starts moving into practice. It is time to shift from thinking, talking and planning, into action, to go from the university to the garden. On the way there, we take care of the material sourcing. At the Passamano free-shop we have been offered second-hand clothing, our material base, but once there we are met by initial doubts. Why are we going to use good garments to cut up in pieces and transformed into something else? What if those garments will still be worn by someone? Negotiating our way through single bits and pieces of clothing-consumption leftovers, eventually we have filled a few trash bags worth: this shall be enough square meters of textile. Arriving at the Orto, smaller groups are formed, we set up the workspace: in the corner of the garden where the shelter will be built, the sewing workshop is installed on tables built from recycled pallets; we roll out colourful carpets becoming the “factory floor” where some start cutting up the fabrics and clothes that will become our patchwork canvas. A smaller group engages in the meta design of the space, and how to design the construction. Slowly, everyone finds a role and a place in the process, or rather multiple simultaneous processes, that span from sewing, measuring, building wood and making concrete foundation. Meanwhile, both needs, challenges and potentials evolve: The structure needs to on the one hand be flexible and modular, on the other have a stability of materials and construction. A communal space like this allows only temporary constructions, and after all most of us are still strangers to the garden, with only a few people from the garden community present.

More and more people arrive, a Bengali woman spontaneously decides to cook for the whole group. One women of RiCreAzioni gave us as present recycled coffee bags for all of the participants. A group of people from Akrat (an association which name in South Tyrolean dialect means “exactly, the same way, right now”) appears getting active with the already ongoing cutting of textile pieces. Another group is working on constructional issues. Suddenly, once everyone has settled into action, the atmosphere gets calm. The sewing machines finally are working and a very heterogeneous group starts sewing with the advice of Cecilia. The very few men in the garden are digging a hole. At sunset of the first day, the fresh concrete is poured into the hole in the ground to create the foundation of the structure to hold the tent.

“It is a totally decent, relaxed process. It´s a decentralized chaos design. Seeming to come together. An anthill.”

The fruit of the hard work came together magically towards the end of day 2, bit by bit. What for an outsider would still look like an unregulated anthill with no direction, was in fact bits of the puzzle coming together to larger bits, and finally assembling into a form, an object. As the deadline was approaching quickly, ending the workshop and leaving the garden for presentations in the university, the first parts of the tendone [do we live it in Italian] suddenly merged into shape. The wooden construction got into place, so did the ropes to carry and tie it together. And so, just a few moments before we all had to be on the other side of town discussing the work, those triangular patchwork pieces sailed up between the garden produce, like giant flags made from a million stitches.

  1. Voices1
    Ganz lustig.
    Love is in the air.
    Schön, weil ich hier war und geholfen habe und einfach so viel Spaß habe.
    Schön gemeinsam im Freien zu Nähen, das habe ich noch nie zuvor gemacht.
    Ich staune wie viele Ideen am Ende zu einer Gemeinsamen zusammenfließen.
    If we are gonna get a real result, it is something that I really appreciate, because I did not expect it from the beginning.
    Tanta gente laboriosa – il risultato è variopinto.
    Viele nette Leute kennengelernt und nebenher getan, was mir wirklich gefällt.
    So many people working on one piece which seems to come out well.

Design, Sustainability and the Role of the Designer

The finished tendone (Italian word for marquee or tent; as the shelter construction soon was called), as an object exhibits something one could call a seemingly random aesthetic of the collaborative process.

Every time when I came here I saw different situations, images, configurations and emotions. It seems that the situation changed according to whom was here. Flexible and changing configuration.

A prerequisite was the material one: upcycling would be our main sourcing strategy, using reclaimed fabrics and clothing. For the sake of sustainability and reuse of materials, and for illustrating the circulation of matter happening in the garden, and for, when possible, using materials with a connection to the people of the garden. The stories that unfold when reusing materials and objects: we have a history with brings personal connections; used clothing, especially when you have carried it on your body, becomes something intrinsically personal.

The garden provides us with food, which together with shelter and clothes sum up our most basic material needs as humans. This workshop touched all three of these essential corner stones, as well as how we can design or interact with them.

Nature does not know the concept of waste; the only species capable of making something no one desires is the human species. (Gunter Pauli, Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives)

The natural loop in a garden is evident – we prepare the soil, plant the seeds, grow our crops, harvest them, prepare food from them, using the left-overs for compost to prepare the soil anew, and so the cycle goes on. Our clothing, on the other hand, is nowadays mostly a product of globalised industry, wasting both natural and human resources, with thousands of tonnes of textiles ending on landfills each year, an industry that creates a lot of waste and very little going back into a natural loop.

Upcycling design initiatives seek to find ways to close this loop of resources, in a similar way this would happen in a garden. After all, most of us have a staple of clothing at the back of their wardrobes that they don’t use anymore, that might be out of fashion or might not fit anymore, but are still of good quality. That resources we seek to bring back into the loop of creating new garments, or objects, or in this case, shelter.

To work with upcycled materials, one has to embrace a certain portion of both happenstance and circumstance into the design, leaving space for a variation in materials at hand, for a shifting aesthetic and irregularity. The many small pieces create a vibrant whole, an inherent beauty and magic of objects made by many hands. It’s reflected in the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, an aesthetic sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, including asymmetry and appreciation of the integrity of natural objects and processes.
It is a place where the designer has to rethink his/her role as an author, where the finished object can be controlled throughout the process, as a rendering of a visual concept of the mind. This particular design process was not controlled in that sense, the resulting object was purely the result of the action. It is a performative act: a process of making where the final result comes out of the tiny actions of each participant, as a result of the environment, materials, and the time at hand.
On another note, the collaborative making without a prior blueprint dictating the outcome, allows for another way to work than the regular design process which we are often accustomed to, especially as designers, namely to start by doing, and reflect later. It’s great to have a plan, and to a certain extent crucial even. But too much thinking brings a risk of freezing in thought and never entering into action, leaving us estranged from the real process of making. It’s impossible to tell how awesome an idea is, however great in the studio, until it is actually prototyped or even better, put into practice.

Which role do designers have in processes of social change?

To engage in sustainable design, designers need to rethink their roles, to design for subjects not objects, to design a new consumer behaviours not greener designer objects. A new product, even if it is “environmental-friendly”, is still a new product, and still takes resources of different kinds to produce it. We live in a world which more and more is thoroughly designed, where even the roadside cafe has a logo and a corporate identity. And yet, this isn’t preventing it from being dysfunctional, but rather the opposite, since design more often than not is made to encourage consumerism a desire for new and more objects. Sustainability in design is asking to re-design the way we use, consume, and depose of, goods instead of only the object or the production thereof. Design situations, and the culture surrounding consumer goods. The designer becomes a catalyst of change

Weaving a community

Collective social action – building community by building things

Collaboration between people with different backgrounds is something really special. Spontanität.

One of the mayor non-tangible effect of the project was the fostering of connections between civil society actors of the local community. The workshop as an occasion to meet, and a first collaborative project, between Donne Nissà/Orto Semirurali, Akrat, Passamano free-shop, RiCreAzioni etc. helped to start up a network of like-minded individuals and organisations in the local community. The short term intervention, initially grouped around the immediate action, a joint enterprise, became the starting point of a long-term activity.
Fantastic. What I really like is that particularly these groups that are somehow linked with the idea of the orto, but have never come together no finally came together. I hope it is the start for more.
As communities of practice are not only characterized by a joint enterprise (e.g., gardening and associated social and cultural practices), but also “mutual engagement that binds members together, and a shared repertoire of tools, language, and stories” (Etienne Wenger2), it is about doing, action, a practice of building connections and networks and sense of community by building things.

This can’t be ruled from above or outside, but is rather changing the relations between (and among) civil society and those in power, so that everyone can take part in issues that directly affect their lives. Therewith community development becomes a democratic bottom-up process.
Everybody is working together without really a boss
And, although empowerment is a powerful term, the sense of achievement, success and growing oneself knowledge and skills, fosters the recognition of individuals in understanding their potentials or power in having control over important life-world problems.

Community needs open places, openness and possibilities to grow and flourish.

The garden as an open public space became a crossroad facilitating collaboration and interaction of civil society, design, environmental and educational activities, reaching far beyond the immediate place.
Elinor Ostrom, one of the most important figures with regard to the “commons” approach, promotes the idea of commons – their (re-) appropriation, preservation and cultivation – as practical requirements for a solidly economic and societal system. Therein commons form the basis of productive and creative processes, and therewith are, or become the material and immaterial basis of community. (Elsen, 2007; 2011; Ostrom, 2009; Stollhorz, 2011)
Although the initial focus and aim of the workshop was to strengthen the inner community of the garden, the turn-up of participants from the garden members was fairly low, although those who joined were very engaged. Hence, the community building process that took place was not so much within the garden, as within the local community of Bolzano; between the various actors engaged in the workshop.
A classical take on design could be dubbed Design for the Designer, with an inherent aim of spreading one’s name and brand, gaining fame. Community design, on another hand, is a collective endeavour with an equally collective product. A sense of belonging takes the place of the authorship.
An identification happens through joint activity, by sharing of skills and knowledge. When one has personally laid hands on something, one becomes part: of the process but also of the finished object. One becomes part of the object, the object part of oneself. Here, the re-purposing of old cloths supports a transformation of the material into a new whole, and the patchwork as symbol for community. The threads of community become a cultural fabric. A collaborative creation automatically interweaves all the actions of the participants, it becomes one piece where no one can say who did what, we become one in the action of creating together. The intellect of the body, the intellect of the collaborative process3. Finally, the result, is a tangible object created together, reflecting a community.

Conclusion. Reflecting future prospects; what happened afterwards

Reflecting on outcomes and future prospects of the design intervention, i.e. doing something with a certain idea, it became clear that it is not possible to design a community, but it is possible to create situations that enable community. By creating different outcomes – shared tangible and non-tangible – designers become catalyzers for eco-social transformation. Design making takes place with regard to subjects instead of objects, where the objects become means of something broader. A utopian activity became the mean or framework for the negotiation of a broad spectrum of eco-social transformation processes. Although the motivations of the actors in participating might have been quite different in the beginning, the joint activity lead to an integration of people, the appropriation of productive environments, as well as thought and ideas for sustainable future visions. (Elsen, 2011).

The design process can be read as the creation of a “free spaces” to think about and imagine sustainability (Egmose, 2011) and to actively take a stake regarding future development.

Where did the social-design processes lead to?

Actors that were part of the social-design process ended up in various collaborative institutions and activities such as Akrat and Passamano. Akrat offers the ideal space for any kind of ideas or innovations and a place for social encounter. The social cooperative is aimed at establishing sustainable interaction between economic, social and cultural issues in the local community. With events such as workshops, exhibitions and aperitifs Akrat wants to establish a social and cultural meeting point for the local community a social and cultural meeting point and support already existing structures by promoting social exchange. AKRAT is in charge of an extensive working space with sewing machines, an exhibition hall, a kitchen, shared office spaces and a wood workshop. Hence, a basis for creativity where the tendone-group decided to finish the last pieces of the shelter.

As the participants of the second meeting mostly knew each other already, the set-up of working groups was quick and people almost immediately started to create. Even some new faces (e.g. from the House of Solidarity (HdS) in Brixen-Bressanone) showed up and immediately became part of the process. And again an atmosphere of collaborative activity and creative intimacy was felt. By knitting together life stories of humans and clothes, the tendone became more and more a social piece carrying stories, social connections and ideals. When the food started to smell from the kitchen the apparently random pieces fell together. Even though, people had to leave due to other obligations, the group worked till it became dark already and everything was completed.

That afternoon, the smell of local and intercultural food combined to the sound of sewing machines and entertaining discussions brought us to new ideas and projects that have already appeared or will hopefully appear soon!


Egmose, J. (2011). Towards Democratic Sustainable Development. Social Learning through Upstream Public Engagement. Doctoral Thesis. Roskilde, Roskilde University. (available from from http://rucforsk.ruc.dk/site/services/downloadRegister/33086085/Egmose_Thesis.pdf, last visited on the 04/11/2016)

Elsen S. (2007). Die Ökonomie des Gemeinwesens. Weinheim und München: Juventa-Verlag.

Elsen S. (2011). Solidarische Ökonomie, die Wiederentdeckung der Commons und die ökosoziale Entwicklung des Gemeinwesens. In: S. Elsen (Eds.), Ökosoziale Transformation Solidarische Ökonomie und die Gestaltung des Gemeinwesens Perspektiven und Ansätze von unten. Neu-Ulm: AG SPAK Bücher.

Helfrich, S.; Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (Eds.) (2013). Commons – Für eine neue Politik jenseits von Markt und Staat. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.

King, C. (2008). Community resilience and contemporary agri-ecological systems: Reconnecting people and food, and people with people. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 25,111–124.

Krasny, M. and Tidball K. (2009). Community Gardens as Contexts for Science, Stewardship, and Civic Action Learning. Cities and the Environment, 2(1), Article 8. (available from http://escholarship.bc.edu/cate/vol2/iss1/8, last visited on the 04/11/2016)

Müller, C. (Eds.) (2011) Urban Gardening – Über die Rückkehr der Gärten in die Stadt. München: Oekom Verlag.

Ostrom, E. (2009). Gemeingütermanagement – eine Perspektive für bürgerschaftliches Engagement. In S. Helfrich and Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (Eds.), Wem gehört die Welt? Zur Wiederentdeckung der Gemeingüter. (pp. 218–229). München: Oekom Verlag. (Eng. Transl. Governing the Commons from a Citizen’s Perspective. Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America, 2010, available at https://us.boell.org/sites/default/files/downloads/Ostrom_Governing_a_Commons.pdf, last visited on the 04/11/2016)

Saldivar, L. and M. Krasny (2004). The role of NYC Latino community gardens in community development, open space, and civic agriculture. Agriculture and Human Values, 21, 399–412.

Stollhorz, V. (2011). Das zarte Pflänzchen der Allmende. Polis, 18/01, 6–69.

  • Akrat: http://www.akrat.org; http://vimeo.com/87803843
  • Cecilia Palmer: http://fashionreloaded.org
  • DonneNissà: http://www.nissa.bz.it/
  • Orto Semirurali: http://www.nissa.bz.it/index.php/it/cosa-facciamo/orti-comunitari/orto-semirurali
  • http://franzmagazine.com/2013/02/21/lorto-semirurali-garten
  • Passamano http://www.nonsprecare.it/passamano-negozio-bolzano
  • RiCreAzioni – perché buttare é poco creativo www.ricreazioni.wordpress.com
  • HdS (Haus der Solidarität/Casa della Solidarietà) http://www.hausdersolidaritaet.org/

1 Voices by Hillary, Raphael, Peter, Sarah, Marlen, Gerda, Alvise, Niklas, Sascha, Irene, Sonja, Maria, Cecilia, Anja, Martha.
2 Wenger, E. “Communities of Practice: Learning as a Social System”. The Systems Thinker,. Vol. 9, No. 5,
cited in Krasny and Tidball (2009, p. 2).
3 As Marianne E. Krasny and Keith G. Tidball (2009, p. 2) remark: “Interactive or socio-cultural theories suggest that science and other learning occurs through the participation of the learner in the social and bio-physical processes taking place in a particular environment or context … Interactive theories focus on imitation of and interaction with skilled practitioners, and moving from a novice to skilled participant in a community of practice … practice through interaction with the environment and with more experienced people”