Turning the city’s rotting food into rich soil is just one of the ways graduate student Marilyn Reish is sowing the seeds of a better community. By the time she walks the stage at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to accept her master’s degree in landscape architecture this May, Reish will have already helped improve Knoxville’s environmental strategy.
“School has really been a treat for me,” says Reish. “The education I got here was so wide and stretched my skill sets in so many directions. I didn’t expect to do the things I got to do. Landscape architecture is an exciting place from which to think about those difficult-to-answer questions about human existence.”
Inspired by a 2021 studio taught by Adjunct Assistant Professor Scottie McDaniel, she designed a food-waste collection system and composting site that were adopted by the City of Knoxville and placed into operation earlier this year.
“The studio’s theme of normalizing the working landscape connected economics, government, ecology, sustainability, and people in a speculative way,” says Reish. “It asked us to look critically at how we metabolize all sorts of things in our lives—in my case food waste—and then integrate them into our landscapes. I designed a working landscape around food waste collection and urban composting that could be implemented in Knoxville.”
The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food waste makes up about 20 percent of municipal solid waste. Adds Reish, “Food waste in landfills is a large contributor to carbon emissions.” Instead of being dumped into a landfill, the organic waste collected at the Willow Avenue Recycling Center in Knoxville’s Old City is turned into compost and used on a local farm. “I think this kind of thinking is critical for the future,” says Reish, “and it doesn’t have to be at massive scales to make better outcomes, like the compost that is being created.”
A Journey from Philosophy to Landscape Architecture
Reish’s love of nature and the environment goes back to growing up in a farming family 10 minutes from the George Washington National Forest, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, a community very much in tune with the natural world. She graduated from Manchester University in Indiana with a degree in philosophy, then returned to Harrisonburg to co-own and operate the Natural Garden, specializing in ecological landscape design, creating “living landscapes, working with native plants to feed the pollinators and the greater food web.”
She also operated a community-supported farm delivering vegetables to area members. “I have been kind of in love with small-scale farming for a long time,” says Reish. She moved to her current home on the seven-acre City Possum Farm in South Knoxville and worked for a year at Overhill Gardens, a native plant nursery in Vonore, Tennessee. “I’d been working design-build-restoration for eight years and restoration ecology, but I was interested in knowing more.”
Reish applied and was accepted to the landscape architecture master’s program in UT’s College of Architecture and Design. “I’m really grateful for the education I got here,” says Reish. “It was a great program for me, so eye opening—bringing in humanities, geography, and history. In studio classes I’ve gotten to be speculative, go deep into ecology and interactions and gotten to read a lot of books that challenge my thinking about place, space, and the future. I am still discovering what design is and how it should be done. We’ve got a lot of wicked problems in the world. Landscape architecture is not positioning itself to provide all the answers but to be an agent of better or innovative ways of doing things.”
Seeing Potential for the City of Knoxville
In McDaniel’s Normalizing the Working Landscape studio, Reish and fellow students studied Knoxville’s history related to development, class, race, industry, and infrastructure. McDaniel then challenged them to design projects that normalized working landscapes. “I was able to think about the city and its people,” Reish says, “how to integrate labor into landscapes, and the potential for compost in the city.”
Working from her design, Reish—along with Chad Hellwinckel, an associate research professor in the UT Institute of Agriculture, and Chris Battle, owner of BattleField Farm and Gardens, a nonprofit urban farm in Knoxville—won a grant from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to build a solar-powered static-aerated composting system.
Soon the City of Knoxville, led by Office of Waste and Resources Management Manager Patience Melnik, adopted Reish’s idea, purchased food-waste collection bins and prepared the collection site at 227 Willow Avenue at the Old City Recycling Center. Residents and restaurants can drop off food scraps—including fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds, paper coffee filters, eggshells, and nut shells—between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. The city takes the scraps to the composting site at BattleField Farm, where they are composted into rich soil and put to use on the farm and made available to other farmers to grow healthy produce, much of which is used to fight food insecurity in Knoxville. (Information on participating in the program is available at the City of Knoxville website.)
Reish also had several classes with Associate Professor Brad Collett, director of the Tennessee RiverLine, and worked in his Tennessee River Studio. “It was a great studio for me, exploring local waterways and ecology,” says Reish. “On a virtual river tour, we explored the infrastructure and broad systems. It taught me a lot about digging deeper into a place and the way that the river interfaces with so much history and so many different people.
“I believe that the future must include working landscapes, especially those that create stability in the food system, seek to use our own urban metabolism (in this case rotting food), and address urban planning voids that do not serve the greater good. Rethinking our landscapes in this way can help us do the work needed to contribute to our collective survival.”
This spring the university will award approximately 5,250 degrees and certificates—3,816 undergraduate degrees, 1,229 graduate degrees and certificates, 122 law degrees, and 83 veterinary medicine degrees. Additionally, 14 Air Force ROTC cadets and 23 Army ROTC cadets will be commissioned. See the commencement website for details.
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