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It was about a month into isolation amid the COVID-19 outbreak when we spoke with the landscape designer Lily Kwong. Although the moment felt somber and relatively new, our discussion quickly led to light and hope. Kwong was in Los Angeles, already harnessing the power of the outside world to map out what’s next. She is a landscape designer who has worked on projects around the world, and her ideas are now taking new shape in response to the global pandemic.
Whitewall spoke with Kwong about her studio’s latest “Freedom Gardens” project, the impact landscape has on community, and how biophilic design can support both public and mental health solutions.
WHITEWALL: What were you working on before the current health crisis?
LILY KWONG: Before the world turned upside down, we were gearing up for a large-scale botanical art piece on Fifth Avenue right in front of the Apple cube in New York City. We were working directly with the Fifth Avenue BID, and primarily focused on arts and culture projects. Our studio was working on permanent landscape projects for NeueHouse’s new and existing locations, and curating our first landscape photography show for Phillips auction house. I was very inspired by all the research I was doing, and excited to test new ideas around sustainability and social action.
WW: Tell us a bit about Freedom Gardens—an initiative aimed to help the community grow edible gardens.
LK: The Freedom Gardens initiative is Studio Lily Kwong’s direct response to the most harrowing public health crisis of our lifetime. We were inspired by our research on Victory Gardens—20 million of these civilian vegetable, fruit, and herb gardens flourished across the country during World War II and produced 40 percent of the nation’s produce, or about nine to ten million tons.
We see a lot of parallels in this moment of global crisis, and our aim is to help our community grow thriving edible gardens to support their physical and mental health. We launched the project this week to an overwhelming response, and look forward to sharing how-to guides, urban farming resources, and our own personal experiences as our team embarks on this journey together.
WW: What do you think the future looks like for at-home gardens, aiding people with food and nutrition, but also mental health?
LK: I believe it’s time to revive gardening as a civic duty during this moment of peril and crisis. To grow our own food is to safeguard from food insecurity and injustice, and it’s to live in freedom from an increasingly precarious and inequitable global food system. Studies show gardening could not only lower cortisol levels, but could also improve heart rates and blood pressure. As we cherish our physical and mental health now more than ever, at-home gardens can be an incredible resource for both nutrition and physical well-being. To connect with the land available to us is very empowering, even if it’s just a small pot of soil on our fire escapes. I hope the future sees many more at-home gardens, and you can follow along with us and learn how to grow your own at @freedom_gardens.
WW: How can landscape design impact community spaces?
LK: If you look to history, we can expect gardens and parks will be at the core of every urban plan moving forward. Cultural projects in the wake of typhoid fever, cholera, and the 1918 influenza led to urban design practices that intertwined with the natural world to manage disease in the 19th century—a period when epidemics powerfully influenced the planning of cities around the world.
I believe landscape design will be more important than ever and transform community spaces for the better. People will feel safer gathering in urban parks than in crowded buildings in the near future, and if we create more walkable neighborhoods, we can begin to alleviate extreme density and crowdedness. I hope parks will emerge from this crisis as an important public health solution in our urban centers.
WW: You also mentioned its benefit on mental health. Can you elaborate on this topic?
LK: Studies show that urban nature directly supports human health and wellness and provides people with easy ways to reduce physiological and psychological stress. Having access to green spaces can reduce health inequalities, improve well-being, and aid in treatment of mental illness.
Some analysis suggests that physical activity in a natural environment can help remedy mild depression and reduce stress indicators. Research supports that access to urban green space encourages activity, thereby mitigating chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and respiratory problems. Frederick Law Olmsted, the legendary designer of Central Park, proposed that urban nature could function as a kind of spiritual medication, and I agree!
WW: Recently, you traveled to Singapore through the New Museum’s NEW INC programming, continuing to look at landscape design in relation to urban spaces and how we can change them for the better. What did you learn here?
LK: I was able to see firsthand what a “garden city” really looks and feels like. In Singapore, new developments must include plant life in the form of green roofs, cascading vertical gardens, and verdant walls. They’re everywhere, and that’s not by accident. It’s through deliberate and bold urban policy.
Much of the sustainable initiatives were actioned by Cheong Koon Hean, the first woman to lead Singapore’s urban development agency. Through an incentive program she launched, the city replaces greenery lost on the ground from development with greenery in the sky through high-rise terraces and gardens. To me, this is a testament to the fact that we need more women and diversity in planning departments to envision an alternate reality. That’s the big picture, but we as individuals can also change urban space for the better by planting native plant material and Freedom Gardens in our own backyards, on fire escapes, and even inside our apartments! Take the power back into your own hands and reconnect with nature in your own home.
WW: Where do you hope the future of urban design is?
LK: I hope the urban design of the future relies on nature-based solutions, resulting in more soulful environments for more resilient communities. To sum it up—make cities greener!