Jenna Witzleben

MFA Thesis Blog

This blog contains experiments, project and reading reflections, unanswered questions, and more relating to my year-long thesis as part of my Master's design program. From Sept. 2016 to May 2017, I explored rewilding human beings and the environments we inhabit at multiple scales including investigation around individual fears of nature, regional food production systems, and global overpopulation. The final works of this thesis can be found in my portfolio.

Swale and Social Entrepreneurship

On Sunday, I traveled out to Brooklyn Bridge Park to visit Swale. This is a food forest / art installation aiming to create a vision for edible greening of NYC. Visitors can come to Swale and pick free vegetables, spices, leafy greens, and berries. The plants were selected to maintain healthy soil composition (i.e. clover for nitrogen fixation), reducing the need for fertilizers. Swale is actually on a barge - so they move around. When I visited they were in their last weekend at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park. 

While I was there I was able to speak with one of the volunteers about the project and learned that it's actually more political than the website makes it seem. Currently NYC Parks does not want to change their practices around pesticides or invest in any extra work to support the edibles in the parks, so they keep foraging illegal. Swale aims to demonstrate that public edible greenspaces are achievable and desirable to the community. I also learned more about their policies around overpicking. Because this initiative is for the community, the staff maintains a relatively hands-off approach in regards to protection against overpicking. They don't want to negatively impact engagement and curiosity. And so far they've only had 1 or 2 plants die - people that visit tend to be relatively gentle.

On Monday, we presented our Service Entrepreneurship sprint. We were asked to identify a problem within our thesis area, and ideate solutions/provocations around 5 modes of social change: policy, data, disruptive tech, "bright spots" (or scalable programs), and public perception (or campaigns). I've been experiencing some anxiety with only producing one thing each week for thesis, so I did this exercise twice.

My first problem focused around the commodification of nature. We are legally and socially bound into surrendering to the commodification of nature. The upper echelon has power over the land, over us, and over the relationship we have with the land. This issue encompasses paying for water, food, and energy, while not being legally allowed to harvest rain water, let our lawn become overgrown with natural food, or install off-grid energy systems. One key example of this was Robin Speronis in Florida, one of many people in this country and around the world who have been brought to court over living off grid, planting in their front lawn, etc.

Robin Speronis' House

Robin Speronis' House

To start to push at the edges of hierarchical control of our relationship with our land, I decided to focus in on suburbanites with manicured lawns. Specifically instigating the #wildpatchmovement - a social media (Instagram/Facebook) campaign to stop mowing a patch of lawn, and share your wild patch with the world. Using the provided adoption barriers analysis (looking at disadvantages, compatibility, trialability, simplicity, and observable results) I discovered that there likely would still be a lot of pressure from the Homeowner's Association to keep the lawns manicured. To mitigate this, I decided to make this campaign for charity. How could Homeowner's Association say no to that? Plus this assimilates my design to the Ice Bucket challenge model - largely popular and well-known in suburban circles. So, the #wildpatchmovement is a partnership with with a joint goal of freeing wild plants and edibles for all. 

The second problem I focused on in this sprint was overpopulation as barrier to rewilding. There is a lot of dialogue around reducing overpopulation in "non-developed" countries, as the fertility rates tend to be higher in these regions. However, the children in the "developed" world use far more resources and have a much larger environmental impact than children in non-developed nations. It's just as much, if not more, of our responsibility to take action against overpopulation here as well.  (

My design provocation was targeted towards couples who may be considering having children. "Alternative" is an app that aids them in filling the perceived gaps of not having a child. Users would identify activities and events that they would engage in if they had children, and then replace them with other goals and hobbies for life without children. For example, salsa lessons instead of Saturday soccer games or volunteering at a local college instead of throwing a graduation party. The app is linked both to the temporal progress since you begin (i.e. 18 years later you will get the notification for volunteering) and to the calendar events that your friends with kids create. To make this easy to try, users can enter “baby’s first” mode where they can go through a year of event replacements. 


I really appreciated this exercise, and in particular the adoption barriers analysis. It certainly strengthened my ideas and I aim to use it again throughout thesis and beyond.

Jenna Witzleben