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LAN Students Design New Garden for Bethany Center Senior Residence

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(L–R) Mike Mao, LAN 680 Instructor G.V. Chang; Director of Community Programs at Ruth’s Table Lola Fraknoi; Vincie Wu, Amelie Li, Michelle Liu, Hilda Lin, and Avery Wu. Courtesy of the School of Landscape Architecture.

Every afternoon Ita Burmenko goes out to the garden at the Bethany Center, a residence for seniors located in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood. She gathers with friends around a patio table or sits in a sunny spot at the far end of the parking lot. The arrangement is adequate for Burmenko, but if all goes as planned, she and her fellow residents will be able to enjoy a much more enriching outdoor space in about two years time.

Thanks to six graduate students from Academy of Art University’s School of Landscape Architecture, a new plan for the Bethany Center garden revitalizes the existing space by combining comfort, beauty, safety and sustainability, as well as incorporating elements inspired by the artist Ruth Asawa.

“The people [here at Bethany Center] live in tiny apartments,” said the Director of Community Programs for Ruth’s Table, Bethany Center’s art gallery/workshop space, Lola Fraknoi. “For them to have a place where they can go, that is not the street and not their tiny apartment, but this interim oasis where they can smell good things and be with people—it provides them with an experience that is so valuable.”

Led by instructor Chih-Wei G.V. Chang, the students, including Mike Mao, Vincy Wu, Amelie Li, Avery Hu, Michelle Liu and Hilda Lin, took into account the needs, concerns and desires of residents, and drafted a plan for a unified garden with several distinct spaces. 

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Avery Hu explaining sun/shade diagrams to Bethany Center residents. Photo by G.V. Chang.

The focal point is a “green canopy” that links the main building with a new construction for Ruth’s Table, which will be designed by Gelfand Partners and built across the parking lot. Outdoor living spaces planted with drought-resistant vegetation and fragrant jasmine, vertical green walls and a community garden complete the design. Residents like Guadalupe Portillo and Mary Fuentes say they’re excited about the possibility of growing their own herbs and chili peppers, while Savita Badel would like to plant small white roses.

Residents also expressed enthusiasm about the design’s sustainable aspects, including a rainwater collection system and an infiltration system built into a “green” parking lot, which will direct rainwater into the soil, preventing urban run-off.

“Saving the water. That really makes sense,” says resident Curtis Moore, who explained that though he had a World War II victory garden in his backyard growing up, he’s a novice when it comes to landscape architecture. “This should be applied to the whole planet as far as I’m concerned. I’m very impressed with the whole idea.”

The students spent an intense nine weeks working on the project, which was an assignment for the class LAN_680_01: MS: Site Planning & Sustainable Design Studio. “Every night we’d work until 10 or 11,” said Avery Hu. “We didn’t get enough sleep. But I like the result. In a school project we can usually do anything we want, but for a real client we need to consider the requirements and the constructability. The process made me feel more comfortable about the things I’m doing, because they’re related to real things.”

At the final review, held April 2 at Bethany Center, residents and staff, including Executive Director Jerry Brown and Bethany Center Foundation Board President Debra Varner delighted in the designs, while students expressed gratitude about the opportunity to participate in a “real world” project.

“This is the first time I designed a real site and communicated with the people [who will be using it], the people who are living in this building,” said Vincy Wu. Hilda Lin said she enjoyed the process of learning about different ways of improving the environment through storm water management and low impact development (LID) in class, then applying her knowledge to a real world situation that could actually improve lives.

Thanks to the work of Lin and her classmates, the lives of Burmenko and her garden-loving friends will most certainly be improved. “It’s very nice,” said the Russian resident. “Very beautiful. I say thank you.”