A Feast of Agri-hood Opportunity:
from Suburban Ornamentals to Nourishing Healthy Community
At the invitation of University of Washington’s Green Futures Lab, I was asked to lead a mixed group of professionals and community representatives in a day-long visioning workshop. The subject of the charrette exercise was Molbak’s Garden + Home Center. Located in the suburban town of Woodinville, Washington, this 17.5 acre complex of greenhouses and retail store is nearby numerous winery, brewery and tasting room destinations.
Do You Charrette?
Speaking as a volunteer, I feel completely comfortable disclosing my general distrust of community charrettes. While there are valuable results to be gained from short, focused group explorations of place-making and physical (re)development opportunities, there are numerous risks of employing the charrette technique. First, they can raise expectations and encourage participants to extrapolate from very incomplete information. Through no fault of their own, community participants can leave these events feeling that just because someone sketched an idea or wrote down an objection to another proposal, then it will become just so. Those impressions can cause distrust and frustration as detailed technical work on a project proceeds by “the experts” and “behind closed doors.” That is the bulk of the work, and what leads ultimately to final decisions. Fewer things can disappoint folks who have volunteered their time to “give input” on something of importance to them, expecting to see it become built results. Worse is the message received by those not “fortunate enough” to participate in a community charrette. They rightfully may feel suspicious, and, depending on heresay and gossip, have basis to spread misinformation. While some of this is unavoidable, it is most unfortunate when exciting ideas and creative solutions get overshadowed by anxious suspicions and rumors about specifics or undefined changes that may — or may not be — afoot. While a conventional charrette format may honestly strive to crowdsource diverse perspectives, it cannot include people who need to work, tend to family care, or are otherwise unable to participate. It will inevitably skew toward those with the time, the resources and who are comfortable with design processes, physical planning, drawing and conceptualizing. To some extent this can be mitigated by good facilitation skills, following ground rules for inclusion, and using multiple “languages” beyond sketching on big maps. And I’m pleased to report, the Woodinville 2035 event employed several tactics attempting to be “inclusive”. I’ll describe some below.
First, you walk
A few dozen invited volunteers started this late January morning with a walk-around tour at 8:00 am. It might have been funny—and good for the collective wisdom of the group— if a random dog walker had joined in. It’d be hard to know, as no one provided name tags or introduced our tour guides. Was that a local elected official talking about that memorable flood? Or a nervous property owner anxious to have “outsiders” looking over their fence? Other than local friends or professional acquaintances sharing a lazy weekend “hello,” we really didn’t know much of what exactly we were engaged in. At least it wasn’t raining. Quickly we started to see the exciting opportunities (and recent missteps) abounding in Woodinville, and around the Molbak’s site itself. An historic school building sat vacant along a main thoroughfare. Soccer fields were swarmed with young athletes. Huge parking lots invited polluted stormwater to overcome a mostly-abused salmon-bearing creek. And the somewhat worn-out greenhouses invited us to imagine what might grow there next.
Once situated inside with hot coffee, the “talking head” portion of the day’s activities unfolded. Notably, we were welcomed enthusiastically by Jens Molbak, our host and refreshingly open-minded owner of the sprawling complex. Outside our serviceable meeting space, the sprawling store was just then beginning to come alive with weekend shoppers (On a later bathroom break, I’d spy kids trying to sit through a puppet presentation on honey bees). A report on the impressive buying power of the Molbak’s core customer (female, over 50, an affluent empty-nester) was delivered by a UW Business professor. What wasn’t emphasized to our group of about 60 was anything about “big things” coming next, what is likely to change regardless of what we envisioned for the garden center site. How our exploding region’s population is already shifting in household size and composition. Or that neighboring cities are taking clear, forward-thinking positions supporting high capacity transit to take best advantage of existing rail corridors. These kinds of really big “field markers” would have helped underscore that Woodinville in 2035 is not going to be a simple extension of the past (or present). In that regard, what’s always seems hardest think differently about is cars— and how to avoid designing for them first and foremost.
We also received some aspirational guidance for our work. Presented as “frameworks” for our small team work, we were briefed on the intents and approaches of three forward-looking tools. Each of the LEED, Living Community Challenge, and One Planet Living (OPL) frameworks variously attempt to assess the success of planning and design choices to a range of social, economic, and environmental factors. Our team was assigned to use the One Planet Living framework. It is based on the premise that if all people living on the planet used as many resources as the typical US citizen, we’d need six planets to support us. While OPL an open framework designed for each project to set its own measureable successes through the duration of a multi-year implementation period, there are ten areas of focus. The two “hard targets” are zero carbon and zero waste. Three other goals (Health/Happiness, Equity/Local Economy, and Culture/Community) were more germane to our project’s initial conceptualization. With our team’s initial OPL goals in hand, we had an easy time of starting to connect the dots. A theme of “it’s a vine-it’s in the wine” revealed itself. We quickly identified a compelling network of connections between the Molbak’s site and its built surroundings, the natural systems that define it, and the activity patterns (including winery and tasting culture!) that align with OPL’s key goals of healthy, equitable, and community-supporting neighborhood design. Our list (and mapping with sticky notes, construction paper cut outs, and icon stickers) of the key connections included obvious recommendations like a local spur from the regional Burke-Gilman Trail, transit hubs near regional thoroughfares, and a bike-share network as “last mile” mobility options to complement regional high-capacity transit.
More, we took the notion of a connected community connections to another level. We noted the value of ubiquitous, high-capacity wireless access for future residents and visitors alike, putting “best e-connectivity” on our top-ten list. And more, we argued that “connection” ought to provide opportunities to improve existing, unhealthy conditions. High on that list is the condition created around the site by excess pavement and the regular, toxic flows of storm water runoff. To create healthier connections, we identified a corridor on the Molbak site to intercept and provide biofiltration treatment of storm water that would otherwise be dumping poison into salmon habitats and migration routes. This strategy also cued us to define the environmental learning, open space recreation and habitat restoration activities should be closest to that new, healthier creek and community corridor. We thus began to see and articulate a “regenerative” purpose in Molbak’s future.
Of Steam, Sprouts, and Spaces
Now bringing the group’s focus closer to the future of Molbak’s site itself, my charge was to offer our team two informative frames. First, what cues, features and activities evident today should we celebrate, reinforce and amplify as part of the DNA of the place? For reconnaissance, I needed only a restroom break to spy two important precedents: steam pipes and pollinator puppetry!
Born of necessity, Molbak’s sports a mighty, heritage system of steam heating throughout the greenhouse/store/event spaces. While it likely suffers huge heat losses from the current configuration of overhead pipes in uninsulated spaces, the point remains: on a site this large, a district-scale system makes sense! And combined with smart, demand–reducing design, green-powered district energy is one of the most elegant strategies to reach the zero-carbon goal set by our OPL framework. Dropping my gaze from hissing pipes to squealing kids, I noted a squirmy score “sprouts” somewhat seated for science—of bees and a puppeteer preaching the power of pollinators.
The message I received was that this place could grow through so much more sharing of knowledge and experience. What could be sweeter than honey to remind us that food— our most universal need and shared experience— could tell the story of the redevelopment vision? (Spoiler alert: our ultimate response to that rhetorical question would in fact, be articulated with a savory dish metaphor. Read on…) The workshop format itself explicitly provided a second lens. It was as straightforward: we were tasked to unpack the relationships among 1) desired (and/or necessary) living activities, 2) the kind, size and arrangements of spaces in which those activities thrive, and 3) buildings that contain both indoor spaces and frame the “unbuilt” or outdoor ones properly.
As a result, all of our six working groups played with almost identical themes and arranged virtually all the same building blocks in their respective site plan models. All added various residential choices. We all identified a new destination store for Molbak’s as a way to provide a “main street” anchor. Some amount of office space was recommended to complement a conferencing/hotel/hospitality facility. These recommendations focused on establishing a 18-24 hour activity pattern, serving residents, visitors and business people of the winery, brewing and spirits industry. All teams’ visions for the site integrated green power, included mobility on foot, bike, and transit, as well as strategies to conserve water and material resources.
And Finally, Pie: Tasting the Ingredients of a Healthy Community
Luckily for, our team’s “show and tell” was last among the six shared with the larger group, after five others’ repeated their variations on a generally-shared vision. It was certainly of strategic value to our “food-as-point-of-view” that the local wines had started to flow and nibbling on charcuterie had commenced. By that time, the edible cues and the libations had given us the chance to “fully bake” and serve up our version of the story—using the metaphor of a savory pie. For my part, setting the “table” centered on the goals of connection and sharing as the two guideposts for our work. There would be nothing, I suggested to the gathered group, that could define a healthy, connected community more than sharing food: growing, choosing, cooking, and enjoying it. Then, my colleague Sue Costa Paschke described our site development vision by pointing out how we could—in specific locations integrated into the Molbak site—produce all the ingredients necessary to enjoy a savory pie. Or a quiche. And maybe a crustless one. For sure, the eggs would be harvested from a chicken tractor shuffled around the shared green space of a residential block built to be car-free. And certainly our goat cheese would be cultured from the milk of resident squad of invasive species-control ruminants. Basil, peppers, tomatoes and zucchini would be variously available year-round from rooftop hydroponics and greenhouses. The locally abundant supply of spent brewery grains and espresso grounds would host gourmet mushroom cultivatation. From this recipe, residents, local restaurant patrons, hotel guests, and farmers market shoppers alike could equally savor and gain sustenance from a slice of the future Molbak pie.