As with much of the industry, 2009 was a slow year for Robin Key Landscape Architecture, but an email from the volunteer organization desigNYC piqued the designers’ interest. Established in 2009 to bring communities, non-profits, and city agencies into closer connection with good design, desigNYC was seeking pro bono designers for an “intergenerational garden” for senior residents at a new affordable housing development called Serviam Gardens, which sits beside Mt. Saint Ursula, an all-girl Catholic high school in the Fordham Bedford section of the Bronx. “We wanted to make good use of our time,” said Key, and so rather than twittling thumbs, the staff of four took on the project.
The firm held meetings with the community to assess the desires of residents, whose diverse backgrounds ranged from the Virgin Islands to the Korean peninsula; gardening was familiar to at least half. “When we came on board the residents were fairly new,” recalled Key. “They really hadn’t had an opportunity to meet each other, and this really opened up a conversation. It brought out a lot of stories of where they come from.”
As with the apartment building, designed by OCV Architects, the garden includes several community “rooms.” “There are lots of nooks and crannies where you can spend the day. We wanted to create gathering spaces where students and residents could garden together,” said Key. Twenty thousand square feet make up the garden, with 7,000 feet set aside for a rooftop garden. OCV principal, John Coogan donated several hours to make the rooftop garden a reality.
The cost, about $1 million, was absorbed by a host of foundations, lenders, and equity investors, including the Home Depot Foundation and Enterprise Community Partners. The city kicked in funds through several housing organizations.
Rosanna Vierra, senior project manager for the developer, the Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation, foresees volunteer opportunities for the Ursula students, such as spring planting and fall harvesting. She’s also exploring the possibility of engaging the New York Botanical Garden to provide gardening lessons.
Asked if she’d do volunteer her services again for a project of this size, Key hesitated. “It was a really big project for pro bono, maybe bigger than any of us realized,” she admitted. “But as a small firm with four people, if we were competing, we may not have gotten it. Now we can show that we can compete, so we have gotten as much as we’ve given.”