Published: July 31, 2020 By

Capstone Project: Boundless Growth: The Path to Turn American Lawns into Community Food Gardens

Partner Organization: Boundless Landscapes

Student Team: Emma Layman, Dani McLean, Dylan O’Neill, Josh Yuen-Schat

It was mid-March on a sunny and otherwise unsuspecting Wednesday. All of our MENV cohort sat together in Capstone Innovation Lab, surrounded by large monitors that reflected the morning’s light. I distinctly remember our professor, Kimberly Kosmenko, grimly saying that she had just heard about CU’s impending closure to stop the local spread of COVID-19. I could feel the quiet, wide-eyed look of bewilderment and anxiety of my classmates mirrored in my own expression.

A few minutes later, the email came. It was official: CU was to move to exclusively online schooling the following Monday, more than a week before the local community went under total lockdown. Our education, our relationships, our summer capstone work, and indeed, our everyday lives would not look anything like we had imagined even in just February.

Capstone Group

A Year of Capstones Like No Other

Coronavirus has impacted every aspect of our world, and our capstone projects have been no exception. In this new era of masks and endless Zoom meetings, our capstone team (as well as many others) had to quickly re-orient our project and adapt to a new reality — one of the unknown, of hundreds of thousands of lives lost, of crippled economies, of deep political division, and of constant emotional turmoil. At the project level, no longer could we engage face-to-face with stakeholders, conduct in-person customer interviews, or travel. Some teams had to hastily rewrite their entire project’s Scope of Work — finding a way to produce the same high-quality deliverable when the state of the world made it essentially impossible.

We have partnered with Boundless Landscapes for our capstone, a local startup that aims to convert residential lawns and under-utilized spaces into food gardens as a manner of fighting climate change. Our goal is two-fold: help scale Boundless Landscapes efficiently and equitably while also empowering outside entities to engage within the lawn-to-food movement.

And while the pandemic has certainly hindered our project, it has also presented us with avenues of growth and collaboration we may not otherwise have had.

Opportunity in a Time of Loss 

In June, Boundless Landscapes had to find a socially distanced way of selling their produce — and fast. Our capstone team was entrusted with the task of creating this new, contactless distribution system. Emma and Josh quickly began analyzing the required logistics, visiting potential outside farm stand sites, and developing signage and other communications. Within just three weeks, the company implemented their solutions. Since then, Boundless Landscapes has hosted two weekly farm stands in North and South Boulder — selling peas, chard, butter lettuce, basil, and a variety of other organically grown crops to locals.

“Farm stands had to drastically change the way they operate in response to COVID-19,” Josh said. “We had to help create a model that complied with CDC guidelines and ensured the safety of both staff and customers. It’s been impressive to see how farmers and organizations like Boundless Landscapes have pivoted, and it was really cool to be part of that transition.”

Kid at farm stand

During the same period, Boundless Landscapes and the City of Boulder’s Department of Climate Initiatives approached our team to help launch a local victory garden campaign. The goal was to recruit local households in growing fresh produce to donate to food banks and pantries, as need for food assistance has skyrocketed. We rapidly took on a management role, where I oversaw communications of the campaign to the dozen participating organizations, including Boulder County’s CSU Extension, Boulder Housing Partners, Ecocycle, and the Growe Foundation. In collaboration with these partners, we planned how to recruit participants to the cause and easily connect them to non-profits.   

The initiative, Grow and Give in Boulder/Boulder County, made its official launch on July 7 using a social media communications toolkit I developed. As of this article’s publication, participating locals have registered 115 gardens, harvesting almost 200 pounds of produce for non-profits like Community Food Share, Boulder Food Rescue, and Harvest of Hope.

These tasks have come to an end, yet our capstone work continues. As a result of these unexpected shifts in the project scope (among others), our work will inform the lawn-to-garden conversion movement well after our project ends, thanks to key resources (including a website) that we will create.

A Hard Lesson in Personal Strength

In MENV Zoom meetings, we have heard numerous times how the pandemic is the ultimate test of our own personal resilience — the perfect time to apply concepts we are learning in the program. While sometimes this kind of statement has made me roll my eyes or want to scream about the gloom of it all, I must admit that, in the end, it’s true. 

It’s very hard to look back on this year and not fall into despair, seeing all that is broken and needs healing. But if we look hard enough, we may just see that we are stronger, more adaptable, and more resilient now than we ever believed possible. In response to the pain, we have been encouraged — and sometimes forced — to take action, to initiate, to support, to collaborate. As a result, out of the pain has sprung opportunity.

While our lives are nothing like we pictured before, I’m unsure that our lives will ever be as we picture them, particularly in the climate crises to come. 

And for Masters of the Environment students dedicating ourselves to combat those crises, there has been no harder — or more valuable — lesson.