When the Futurefarmers design studio plants ideas, it’s not just about reaping great design: it’s also about cultivating momentum. That momentum is often born in the curious mind of the collective’s founder Amy Franceschini, a rural farm girl gone urban designer. As a designer, Franceschini has kept with her what could be described as an “agri-mentality”: just as one farmer would trade her corn for another’s eggs, Franceschini relies on the community around her – everyone from neighborhood kids to Berkeley scientists to other designers – to help grow her designs into tangible reality. In this way, the subtle art of Franceschini’s design is that she knows what she doesn’t know – and then she goes out and finds the people who do. Researching collaborators as vigorously as they research solutions, the Futurefarmers aren't just a small design studio in the Mission District of San Francisco; they're more the makings of a major design force.

Their modus operandi of constant collaboration, spurred on by infectious ideas, has ensured that the Futurefarmers collective continues to create some of the most exciting community-involved design today. Most of their work revolves around using the natural world to survive in the manmade one – using the design of nature as a lesson in living-better within urban areas. As a result, the intersection between science and art is central to Futurefarmers and to Franceschini. Victory Garden 2007+ is just one exciting example of what happens when Futurefarmers collaborative spirit takes hold.

Victory Gardens 2007+ is a local network of urban home gardens that hopes to create a community of food producers within San Francisco. It was inspired by a program Franceschini stumbled upon living in Belgium, at a home she and her Belgian husband go back to every summer. “One summer I was planting seeds out in front of our little house, and a woman came by and was yelling at me,” says Franceschini. “Well, at least I thought she was yelling at me. I didn’t speak Flemish at the time, so I motioned for her to go in and talk to my husband. A few minutes later he came out of the house and said that she was just trying to tell me that if I kept my receipts for the seeds and the soil, I could submit them to the city and get reimbursed! I had thought she was yelling at me, but she was just happy I was planting!”

Franceschini was intrigued by the possibility of that sort of program and started looking into it. She discovered it’s called “Bebloemingacties” – Belgian for “Planting Action”: “bebloeming” means “to plant,” and “acties” means “an action or undertaking,” especially the action of neighbors getting together to do something. The city-run program reimburses you twice a year for planting seeds, and will provide a one-time fee if you install a green roof, or the less-popular open-a-window-in-your-basement-for-bats-to-fly-in-and-live option. The reimbursement is called a “greenness check.”

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Pogostick Shovel, a custom gardening tool, and Bikebarrow, a custom bike both built for the urban gardening proposal for the city of San Francisco
Photos courtesy Futurefarmers

When Franceschini returned stateside, she began doing research on urban gardening projects. She discovered that during World War II, from 1941 to 1943, there were 23 million gardens throughout the United States located on both private and public land – “victory gardens” meant to both lessen the burden of food production and increase the morale of the gardeners. “When I read that,” Franceschini says, “I thought, when’s the last time something like that happened here?!” More research lead her to the book City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America by Laura Lawson. “There was a picture of this homeless man in the book,” Franceschini recalls. “And he was holding a sign that said, “If I have a garden, I have a home.” And I thought, let’s make gardens in the city.” For Victory Gardens 2007+, victory would come in the forms of independence from corporate food systems, community involvement, and getting people closer to the natural environment.

It was helpful that the city was San Francisco, a place steeped in a history of community action and grassroots politics. Futurefarmers asked the influential Green party politician Matt Gonzalez to join in on the project, because, Franceschini said, it was Gonzalez’s community-centered mayoral campaign that had convinced her once-and-for-all that local action could effect change. Gonzalez, for his part, said he would absolutely be a part of Victory Gardens 2007+, and would help connect Franceschini to city resources.

But beyond governmental access, Franceschini knew she needed more help on the project level. “I thought, I can grow food but I’m not a gardener. I need a partner,” she recalls. “So, out of the blue, I called Garden for the Environment up on Haight Street – an environmental education program focused on organic gardening, urban compost systems and sustainable food systems – and asked if they wanted to collaborate with me. And they said yes.” And surprisingly, getting the word out about Victory Gardens 2007+ to the public was the easy part. Franceschini had been nominated for and won a SECA award, and winners were awarded an exhibition at SFMOMA. That show provided a prominent stage for Victory Gardens 2007+, and proved to open many doors that might not have opened had she gone knocking as a sole proprietor. "At the time of the exhibition, I had no idea that the project would be taken seriously or invited into the city as a real initiative," said Franceschini. "I did not enter into the relationship with SFMOMA thinking that their publicity and prestige would pave a way. I did it more as a test to see how the project could live as "art" and fortunately that position opened many hearts and minds."

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Victory Gardens 2007 +Seed Library is a series of laser cut boxes to hold seeds saved from Victory Gardens The boxes are divided by microclimate.
Photo courtesy Futurefarmers

So far a pilot project has been launched with 10 free urban gardens planted alongside apartments and parks in San Francisco. To get the project started, Franceschini designed a garden Starter Kit that included soil, fertilizers, a drip irrigation system and raised bed materials. The Starter Kit was delivered to the participants’ houses by a gardener on a modified tricycle, and included a lesson on how to build a raised bed, planting instructions, and an irrigation and seed-saving lesson. The seed bank is an offshoot project designed by Franceschini housed at Garden for the Environment until the program is adopted by the city. The seed bank will evolve over time to reflect the diverse food crops that can grow in these urban gardens.

Because Futurefarmers design is rooted in the collaboration, the success of its projects translates into a success for the community. Franceschini has figured out how to harness natural the energy of the city and plant it back into the ground. Next time, look closely at what you see sprouting from the cracks of those San Francisco sidewalks: those aren’t weeds you’re seeing, but a food revolution, redefined by design.

Pictured at top: Victory Gardens 2007+ Trike is a custom delivery bike built for the Victory Gardens program. The front wagon is detachable such that it can be pushed up the hills of San Francisco. The trike can cart all the necessary ingredients to install one garden plot. Photo courtesy Futurefarmers

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Posted September 10, 2007