Fallen Fruit Brings Free, Organic Produce to Public Spaces

Have you ever walked past an apple tree or berry bush in a public space and wondered what happens to the fruit? Is it safe to pick and eat, or not? Unfortunately, a lot of it goes to waste—getting overripe, falling to the ground and rotting. To the guys behind Fallen Fruit, that waste, existing alongside chronic hunger and poor access to fresh produce in urban spaces, just makes no darn sense.

In 2004, Los Angeles-based David Burns and Austin Young, and co-collaborator Matias Viegener, combined a passion for art and agriculture to create their Fallen Fruit initiative, which puts free, organic produce in public urban spaces. Burns and Young recently celebrated the opening of the Stoneview Nature Center in Culver City, California, a design collaboration between Fallen Fruit and Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects.

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Fallen Fruit collaborators Austin Young (left) and David Burns in front of wallpaper they designed at Stoneview Nature Center’s grand opening in April. Photo by Jim Newberry.

Visitors to the center can pick a literal rainbow of fruit from the trees and enjoy them in cozy seating areas nestled in the groves. A public kitchen is attached to a public herb garden, encouraging healthy cooking, sustainability and community.

“Within the garden itself, we imagined creating social spaces—designed for different types of social interaction—intimate, communal, familial,” Burns and Young wrote in an email to Rewire. “We agreed this project should be about spending time with people in a casual and relaxing way. … We think it’s pretty radical for the County of Los Angeles to build a park specifically designed for people to enjoy relaxing, foraging and sharing.”

The two worked together to answer some questions about Fallen Fruit and the exciting new things they’re growing—literally and metaphorically—in L.A.

Rewire: How did Fallen Fruit get its start?

Fallen Fruit: Fallen Fruit began in 2004 as a response to an open-call for submissions for an art ‘zine called “The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest” published in Los Angeles. The theme of the issue questioned the following: Is it possible to use the agency of activism but without opposition? Or in other words, is it possible to create something that exists that is pro-humanity and pro-culture and pro-world connectedness without needing to be against anything?

We got together and started to explore the possibilities in our own neighborhood of Silverlake (in Los Angeles) and quickly realized there were over 100 fruit trees that existed in public spaces within only a few walkable blocks that were being completely unused. People would drive to the supermarkets and pass by organic lemons, ripe peaches and perfect avocados. So, we wrote a text, took some photos, drew a map and called it Fallen Fruit! The name Fallen Fruit actually comes from Leviticus and it quotes a citation that calls to “not harvest the edges of your fields or vineyards, to leave the fallen fruit for the stranger or the passerby.” It is our collective responsibility to take care of others and this is the foundation of the work of Fallen Fruit.

Rewire: What is it you want to accomplish?

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Stoneview Nature Center, which Fallen Fruit helped design, features interactive signs like this one. Photo by Jim Newberry.

FF: We would like to change the way people think about public space. Fallen Fruit’s collaborations have helped shift public consciousness and change public policy. There is no reason people should be without food in urban areas, except that most cities and counties in the U.S. can only legally plant ornamental, non-edible landscape. A city may plant 1,000 trees in an at-risk neighborhood and not one of them is an apple, pear, peach or plum. That just doesn’t make sense. From the research we have done over 14 years, we believe that cities could be like communal gardens, providing edible public resources that could better utilize open urban spaces for enjoyment and community connectedness. Originally we thought about mapping fruit trees in neighborhoods as a way to invite people to get out of their cars, go by foot, and meet neighbors.

Rewire: What’s your advice for making big ideas happen?

FF: Taking risks, challenging the possibilities of an outcome and learning a project and process along the way … Sometimes it takes several revisions to get a project right before we locate that space between the familiar and the abstracted. We are always interested in the sublime place in-between what you already know and what you didn’t expect. Everyone comes up with great ideas for projects and yet there are a million ways we talk ourselves out of following through with good ideas. The world is hungry for creativity. If we all do things that add value to the world and to humanity, then how can we go wrong?

Rewire: How is the Stoneview Nature Center different from other nature sites or community centers? What makes it uniquely a Fallen Fruit project?

FF: We knew fruit trees would be a big part of our vision of the park. … Public participation and community involvement was always an integral part of the concept for the Stoneview Nature Center civic art work.

We created four public participatory projects to engage with neighbors and guests to foster pride and ownership in the park. During these engagement projects, we are collecting family photos and recording resident’s stories about about the history of neighborhood. We will curate quoted material from story recordings and contributed photographs to create permanent artworks in the community building. We are also collecting kitchen utensils from neighbors to create “Community Chandeliers” in the outside dining areas to symbolize themes about food, cooking and cultural histories.

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The new Stoneview Nature Center features easy guides to picking in-season fruit grown there. Photo by Jim Newberry.

Fallen Fruit created six fruit tree gardens that represent California histories, arranging them in order of the color spectrum. The garden is essentially a rainbow of fruit gardens that invite a stop along the Park-to-Playa trail, a 13-mile walking trail from Baldwin Hills to the beach. There are two dining spaces, one in the orange grove and one in the avocado grove, a lounge in the lemon grove, a love-seat bench in the pomegranate grotto, and rustic stools with a table in the berry patch. Each grove, grotto and patch provide spaces that allow for different types of group or solo activity. The gardens at Stoneview create places for sharing experiences that are passive and relaxing.

(Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects) designed the community building like a telescope that looks out into the park, but in reverse the building windows frame one of the best views of Los Angeles and Hollywood. Housed within the community building is a state of the art community kitchen. … To encourage the relationship between gardens and cooking, the kitchens are both adjacent to a suite of raised beds for organic herbs and veggies that anyone can use.

Rewire: Your new Endless Orchard initiative is a worldwide public garden, art and history project. Can you explain what it’s all about?

FF: The Endless Orchard invites participants to plant a fruit tree in front of their home, business or school and share it with everyone. We were awarded the prestigious Creative Capital Award for Emerging Fields in 2013. The project will launch to the public on Earth Day this year. The Endless Orchard is a web app (and) mobile app that will allow anyone anywhere in the world to add on in their own way, in their own neighborhood, to expand the project. The Endless Orchard will become a giant, non-contiguous worldwide orchard that is communal resource for sharing. It is easy to create an account and use the maps to mark new fruit trees or find existing fruit trees. Anyone can plant more trees and add them onto the maps as local landmarks. You can share your backyard fruit by putting it in a box, for example, in front of your property and mapping it to share with freshness alerts. You create a user account then connect with other sustainably-minded individuals around you.

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A visitor decorates an origami pot she made for a native plant she “adopted” at the opening of Culver City’s Stoneview Nature Center in April. Photo by Jim Newberry.

Each one of the fruit trees becomes a type of a local landmark that can attach to other media. For example, maybe a group of people in a neighborhood want to publish favorite fig recipes. Or, perhaps there is a story from the person who lives down the street about why they planted that big fig tree everyone knows from long, long ago. That big fig tree story could be recorded on a smartphone then uploaded and tagged to the corresponding tree. The story would last forever creating a legacy of sharing; not only… the exchange of delicious figs, but knowledge of local histories and insight into how people collectively create socially memorable spaces.

We are excited to watch how people engage the app and we hope it will encourage people to take charge of their own neighborhoods, parks, and to convert public space into fruitful, communal new public resources. We envision connecting existing and newly planted public fruit trees, past and present, via the Endless Orchard.

Rewire: What would be your advice to aspiring activists, artists and entrepreneurs?

FF: We think you just need to do it. So many times we have been told by others, or we tell ourselves, that we can’t or won’t or shouldn’t do this or that. We have been told “it’s not art” or whatever. By staying resonant with our beliefs, the project is always evolving and growing organically (excuse the pun).

Maybe the best advice is really committing to whatever you are doing with passion and openness and explore how the work you make manifests naturally. Honor your ideas and don’t listen to your doubtful inner voice. Stay flexible and open to unexpected outcomes.

The world is greater than we imagine.

Web editor Katie Moritz contributed to this article.

Jim Newberry

Jim is an internationally published, award-winning photographer based in Los Angeles. His interest in photography began as a young child, when his father—James Newberry, who founded the photography department at Columbia College Chicago—gave him a camera and taught him how to use it. He later graduated from Columbia, and soon after began shooting assignments for magazines and record labels.
Jim continues to shoot for editorial and commercial clients, as well as shooting fine art photography, especially street pictures.