FEATURED MEMBER – Daniel Phillips

Posted on February 8, 2011



                                                                                      Image: Bjorn Borstelmann


Daniel Phillips is an environmental designer and a co-founder with Kim Karlsrud of Commonstudio, a design consultancy focused on urban ecology, social enterprise and adaptive reuse.

The studio’s two main enterprises are Greenaid and (C)urban Renewal. Greenaid has produced “seedbombs”, a mixture of clay, compost and seeds that can be thrown into derelict urban areas. They are dispensed via gumball machine-style outlets that take people’s loose change. Concerned citizens can purchase or rent machines from Greenaid, and they’ll design a seed mix specifically tailored to the needs of that particular area.


(C)urban Ecology is a modular micro-remediation infrastructure designed to supplant existing curb-and-gutter systems and tackle the problem of polluted urban drainage. The design encourages water permeation and street vegetation, while keeping debris from reaching the urban watershed.


Q.  What prompted you to focus on environmental design?
A.  Actually I wouldn’t necessarily call what we do environmental design in a pure sense.  Kim comes from the realm of product design, and I come from the more traditional environmental design side (i.e. architecture, landscape, interiors).  But I think this friction gives us a unique perspective on the idea of scale.  A lot of our projects play with this idea; objects that are intended to be deployed or aggregated at the scale of spaces that in turn impact urban ecology in a broad sense (i.e. a regional scale).  We’re interested not only in objects but also in systems and tools that adapt existing conditions to a new level of performance and social engagement.  We love the idea of finding the overlaps between adaptive re-use, urban ecology, and social enterprise, which means that we’re often wearing a lot of hats – design, business development, activism, research, etc.

Q.  Where did the idea for Greenaid originate?
A.  It started when we were handed down a small fleet of candy machines from a family member who was retiring from his candy peddling hobby on the east coast.  We thought they were interesting so we agreed to take them without any real idea as to what we’d do with them (filling them back up with candy never felt right). The problem of how to make seedbombing more accessible to all ages and demographics had been rattling around in the back of our minds for a while. We realised gumball machine would be a perfect format for this. The eureka moment wasn’t an immediate stroke of insight but more of an experiment that we were thrilled to find workable (there was of course some trial and error, recipe, and sizing tweaks before we got them to dispense properly).  We now have about 60 machines throughout the U.S. and are expanding internationally this year (fingers crossed).

Q.  Greenaid is part of the guerrilla gardening movement. What is the motivation behind this movement?
A.  To us, guerrilla gardening is about looking opportunistically at the urban landscape, and finding hope or beauty in the mundane.  But of course we also need to recognise the correlation between urban ecological heath and social justice.  As cities become the preeminent human habitat in the 21st century, the issues of environmental quality, access to public space, and sustainability have emerged as some of the greatest challenges we face. Seedbombs are a great first step in understanding that natural process and urban life are not as distinct as we often think, and that we as individuals have the power and the responsibility to do what we can to make cities better places to live in.  Seedbombs as a guerrilla gardening implement aren’t new, nor obviously are gumball machines. For us it was just recognising the opportunity to bring them together in a new way, enabling mass access to an activity that was once considered marginal.  We hope we’re spreading awareness and ideas as much as we’re spreading seeds.

Q.  Greenaid designs seed mixes tailored for particular locations. Can you tell us more about how this works?
A.  We’ve worked with local plant experts to develop seven regional ecotypes that include native wildflower seeds appropriate to every state in the continental US.  Our Chicago machine for example includes Upland Hog Peanut, Wild White Indigo, and Yellow Honeysuckle.  Our California mix includes Poppy, Blue Flax, Arroyo Lupine, and Farewell to Spring among others.  You can put any type of seed in a seedbomb, and we’d love to start branching out into edible plants for urban agriculture.

Q.  (C)urban Ecology tackles the problem of polluted urban drainage. Why is this such a problem?
A.  Water running off of impervious areas, such as roads and parking lots, picks up contaminants from many sources along the way.  This runoff water then carries these deadly substances (such as pesticides, oil and metal deposits, and common street garbage) directly into lakes, rivers, and oceans, often without any filtration whatsoever. The implications of this flawed infrastructural model are far reaching, and include the toxification of fresh water sources in the developing world, the alarming levels of plastic debris that now occupy our ocean,  the poisoning of aquatic animal species,  and the resulting decline in the health of human populations that rely on these systems.  The stakes are high, and a comprehensive response to this complex problem is urgent, but the immediate solutions can be simple, and must begin at localised scales.

Q.  Can you tell us more about how (C)urban Ecology helps with this?
A.  Basically we’re identifying the typical urban street as both the source of the problem as well as the site of the solution, and asking the typical curb and gutter system to do more, to become in effect the kidneys of the urban environment. (C)urban Ecology is a modular micro-remediation infrastructure that integrates seamlessly within our existing streets and provides opportunities for water permeation and street vegetation, while sequestering small scale debris before it reaches the larger scales of the urban watershed.

Q.  What more needs to be done to encourage environmental design?
A.  It has been proven (if not innately understood by all of us) that the physical arrangement of urban space has a huge impact on our quality of life. The big question for cities in the future, especially as the world grows increasingly urbanised, will be how to adapt the existing fabric (since it’s too late to start over) to become more socially and ecologically performative at the same time.  One of the things we know this will require is that we start to look at and reconceptualise the urban landscape in new ways and begin to challenge the idea that urban life and natural process are incompatible.  More and more, we’re defining a new notion of “ecology” that includes the various tangible forces and abstract energies that constitute our increasingly complex cities – infrastructure, built form, public space, human activity, and natural systems are all considered parts of a single organism. Working in this way of course has a direct impact on the design process itself, requiring us to collaborate and understand our role beyond traditional disciplinary divisions, beyond the visual bias of form-making that has only served to marginalise our role, and beyond the belief that we are just designing “stuff”.  People, with all their unique needs and desires, must be at the center of the equation if design is to be relevant.

Q.  What other initiatives does Commonstudio hope to launch?
A.  We have a lot of ideas floating around in the ether, but want to do our best to follow through on the initiatives we’ve already started.  Future projects will likely be in the same vein of social enterprise, urban ecology and adaptive re-use.

Q.  What do you hope to achieve in the coming year?
A.  Right now we’re focusing on further expansion, and the development of a social enterprise for scalable seedbomb production. We’ll be partnering with a local non-profit to provide jobs to formerly homeless men and women from L.A., offering them a living wage to roll seedbombs.  We’re also working on developing a series of location aware applications for smartphones that will allow people to document underutilised spaces in their cities as well as “geotag” and document the locations where they’ve thrown seedbombs or staged interventions in open-source maps.  We’d love it if this enabled us to eventually combine social media and GIS technology, urban ecology, and grassroots activism to create an interconnected global network of empowered people making their cities better, greener, more equitable, and vibran
t places to be in.  Seedbombs of course are just the beginning, the future of “guerrilla” gardening will likely be much more organised and ambitious.

Q.  How do you hope Pelime can help with this?
A.  We love open conversation between multiple creative perspectives and voices.  We find projects and ideas everyday from all over the world that inspire us, and appreciate Pelime providing a format for this to happen.  Thanks!


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