After the City Council placed a moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in a swath of South Los Angeles, the questions of food and health and justice became topics for an architect to consider.
What role might urban architecture play in helping to feed the inner city? That was a question professor Michael Pinto, teaching in the Community Design Program at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, asked his students.
"In a time when sustainability is integral to our conceptions of architecture, we are finding that our city is not at all sustainable," Pinto said.
He and 13 SCI-Arc students organized what he called a "think tank" around the issue last year, collaborating with Watts residents to consider Mudtown Farms, a 2.5-acre spot adjacent to the Jordan Downs housing project just blocks from Watts Towers.
The students talked with neighbors and visited the site, which takes its name from an old moniker for the neighborhood. Each student came up with 100 ideas for making the land a center of community life — gardens for seniors or children, a seed library, a commercial kitchen, community cooking programs, a pet cemetery, a community stage and programs for fitness and beekeeping. Some of them might become reality, and plenty of their ideas will be left on the drawing board.
Their work, which concluded with a summer gallery show at the Pacific Design Center, dovetailed with the ongoing aims of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, a service and development organization that bought the land in 2005 with assistance from the national nonprofit Trust for Public Land. The committee wants to make Mudtown Farms a vibrant magnet for raising food awareness, improving access and building community, said Janine Watkins, a consultant on the project.
Long before the issue of "food deserts" and the scarcity of fresh, healthful food in some neighborhoods moved onto the public agenda, the Watts community planted a garden on a burned-out lot after the Watts riots of 1965. For years, a small group of people has controlled plots at Mudtown, along the lines of a community garden. There's an open area with some tables and chairs. There's a broken wok, an old car seat and a dilapidated kitchen chair among the refuse.
Those growers have been asked to move out and are getting help to find new places to garden. Watkins said some compost boxes and raised beds will be built first, using an open section of the land. Earlier this week, Pinto brought a group of architecture students, and in early December a group of food bloggers plans to meet there.
"The community garden model doesn't work for us. And that's proved by who's there now," Watkins said. Instead, she wants to see a farm, run by a professional farmer, as well as a kitchen for teaching and making products such as jams or salsa.
Ideally, the farm would have a community-supported agriculture program, offering shares of the harvest to neighborhood families. And it would provide plants for people to take home to grow some of their own food, Watkins said.
The idea is to expose many more people to the farm than now participate, and to ensure that quality food reaches the neighborhood, said Watkins, a master gardener and the mother of six.
Pinto, a design principal at Osborn Architects in Glendale, met Watkins at a conference, and they eventually realized they wanted to work together.
A neighborhood without easy access to fresh, affordable food is not sustainable, Pinto said. He and his students asked how architecture and infrastructure affect that, looking at such things as food deserts. In particular, Pinto said, they focused on trains that carry food through the community — without stopping.
"Architects haven't seen food as their issue," Pinto said. But in 2008, when city planners restricted fast-food restaurants in South L.A., that changed. The moratorium, he wrote in a booklet about his students' work, was a "recognition of an imbalance in the way the city was planned and how it has evolved."