David de la Peña

AboutDavid de la Pena headshot in front of concrete wall

David de la Peña is an Associate Professor of Human Ecology and Director of the Program in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design. As a licensed architect and urban designer, his research and creative work are focused on community engagement in the design, creation and management of pubic spaces. He is particularly interested in support mechanisms for self-built and managed urban spaces, and he regularly collaborates on participatory projects in the Sacramento region as well as internationally. He has authored numerous articles and book chapters on participatory urbanism, and is co-author of the recent book Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity. He received his Master of Architecture from the UT Austin, and a Master of Urban Design and PhD in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning from UC Berkeley.

Project Description 

Messy gardens, bountiful harvests: A case study in the precarity, informality, and aesthetics of a community garden in Sacramento.

Informality is a common response to precarious conditions, as individuals act out of urgency to satisfy needs that are unmet through formal channels. The creativity that emerges expresses cultural values, reveals everyday social practices, and has the potential to inform policy. This is particularly true for spaces of food production. Despite ample literature on community gardening, little attention has been paid to informality in the social and physical structures of gardens. This paper introduces a case study in Sacramento—the International Garden of Many Colors—which was self-built by immigrants in the 1990s and survived numerous efforts to evict or to replace informality with orderliness. Using spatial mapping, participant observation, interviews, and co-design, this paper shows the importance of qualitative, informal, and ethnographic research, as well as the importance of informality in design. While informality is revalorized, the analysis also confronts its limits: for key physical infrastructures, some measure of formality is a necessary scaffold to support self-management. This work has implications beyond community gardens, especially for landscape design, urban design, and engaged pedagogies.