Old scraps get new life in the landscape

University of Georgia students are partnering with Chris McDowell, director of the UGA Material Reuse Program, to plan and build several new gardens for community organizations throughout Athens. The Material Reuse Program, a pilot project of the College of Environment and Design, salvages materials from construction and demolition projects and reclaims them for landscape projects.

“The purpose of these projects is to expose undergraduate design students to the benefits of reusing ‘waste’ materials in landscape construction through hands-on application,” said McDowell, who is a recent graduate of the master of landscape architecture program.

The undergraduate landscape architecture students are gaining practical experience through the service-learning projects, applying principles learned in their landscape ecology course. Taught by Alfie Vick, an associate professor in the college, and Lauren Zeichner, a part-time faculty member, the course explores how ecological principles can be used to address design problems in the built environment. Clients include Casa de Amistad, a nonprofit resource center for the Latino Community in Athens; Clarke Central High School’s agricultural sciences program; and the Brooklyn Community Garden, which is managed by the Athens Land Trust. The classes also worked on the landscape at Lily Branch near the UGA Lamar Dodd School of Art and Fowler Drive Elementary School.

Zeichner, who is also an Athens landscape architect, said the class is meant to show the students applications of what they learn about in class-from rainwater harvesting to plant community development to educating the public about sustainable practices with demonstrable techniques.

“I also insist that our ‘clients’ have some form of commitment or ownership of the project; otherwise, the projects might not have long-term management. These gardens are living entities that need care and unless people have invested in them in some way, they will not flourish,” she said.

For Casa de Amistad, students are designing and building a communal garden that will serve as a space for community members to grow vegetables as well as gather for recreational activities and hold workshops and classes.

Alex Borges, executive director of Casa de Amistad, had positive reviews for the landscape architecture students. “Everyone has a great attitude, and I am very happy with how the plan is going so far to rebuild our community garden,” he said.

At Clarke Central, the students are working with agriculture teacher Jeff Holland to develop a master plan for an outdoor learning laboratory that will include a plant nursery pad, composting facility, production beds, an orchard and an outdoor classroom space. UGA landscape architecture students also are building the first phase, which will include a terraced vegetable, herb and pollinator garden.

At the Brooklyn Community Garden, a 10-year-old effort, students are updating and replacing existing raised beds, building a shade-structure and patio and establishing a new compost system.

These class projects were funded with grants from the UGA Office of Service-Learning and the Department of Natural Resources as well as with plant donations from a local nursery.

According to McDowell, “The students gain firsthand knowledge of how to interact with a client, manage tasks, specify materials and work as a team in projects with real consequences and deadlines. Moreover, the students design tangible products that have a lasting community impact. They can see the evidence of their own work and how it affects their clients and the community.”

In addition to the community projects, a group of students is working with McDowell at the Material Reuse Program’s facility on South Milledge Avenue to develop a demonstration garden that will showcase some of the different reuse applications for salvaged materials. As part of each project, students are both designing and building, taking their concepts all the way through to completion.

All the materials incorporated into the projects are locally sourced from nearby construction and demolition projects such as dilapidated barns and campus construction projects. This process manages the environmental impact, avoiding compounding landfill waste and purchasing unnecessary new material. Beyond the direct benefits to students and their clients, these innovative projects serve to educate the broader community about how landscapes can become more sustainable, environmentally friendly and beautiful. The facility includes raised beds for pollinator plants, herbs and vegetables, a demonstration for water harvesting, salvaged pallet fencing and a small green roof.

“A great deal of construction and demolition material ends up in our landfills unnecessarily. Through projects like the Material Reuse Program, our students are learning alternative, more sustainable approaches to construction,” said Dan Nadenicek, dean of the College of Environment and Design.