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Building bridges on Tonle Sap

Cite Magazine

Curtin graduate Kate Ferguson has been making waves in the architecture world – or, to be more precise, floating vegetable gardens.

A Lake Tonle Sap resident tending a floating garden designed and built in joint collaboration with local families and Kate Ferguson’s CoDesign Studio team.
A Lake Tonle Sap resident tending a floating garden designed and built in joint collaboration with local families and Kate Ferguson’s CoDesign Studio team.

In 2012, Ferguson led a multi-disciplinary team of engineers, designers, landscape architects and water scientists to Lake Tonle Sap, Cambodia, to help the floating villages get better access to fresh produce.

Transforming a neighbourhood

Many people living on Lake Tonle Sap have poor nutrition because they do not own land and have limited space to grow vegetables, Ferguson explains. Without access to land, fresh food must be transported in, making it expensive – too expensive for many – to buy.

“Our team brought in examples of how floating gardens had been constructed in other parts of the world, and then we worked together [with local families] to design something that would be appropriate for their situation,” Ferguson says. “It was important for them to participate because they had a lot of knowledge, and also because they needed to ‘own’ the design and feel confident about fixing any problems when we left.”

Three floating basket prototypes.

Three floating basket prototypes.

Participatory design: for the community, by the community

Community-mindedness has always been at the heart of Ferguson’s practice, even during her days at Curtin. While still a student, Ferguson received support from former vice-chancellor Jeanette Hacket to develop and run a design-build project for a Rural Health Centre in Papua New Guinea.

Since then, Ferguson has gone onto work in Australia, Cambodia, India, Turkey and the Netherlands. Her philosophy? Bridge the gap between design and community. If the bridge doesn’t exist, she reaches out to the community and builds one. Because who else better knows what a community needs, than the community itself?

“Design is enormously powerful in shaping the world around us,” Ferguson says. But, she adds, many young professionals are finding a disconnect between their values and the things they are designing.”

“They want to work on projects that benefit the whole of society, including people without the financial resources to commission designers.”

Recognising this disconnect, Ferguson co-founded CoDesign Studio, a not-for-profit organisation of like-minded, multi-disciplinary designers who partner with communities to design and build projects that meet the community’s needs – such as fresh produce for the floating villages of Tonle Sap.

“The families involved are proud of what we achieved together and have now passed their knowledge on to others,” Ferguson says. “And many are able to build [a floating garden] without relying on financial assistance. Villagers with gardens have doubled their vegetable intake, and are actively solving issues that arise with the design of their garden. For me, this is a really important indicator of success. There have been many examples of well-intentioned designers creating things for communities, but sometimes they end up abandoned because they didn’t fit the people’s needs, or they broke and nobody had the skills or materials to fix them. Participatory design helps minimise that risk.”


Locals construct a raft prototype garden.

Knowledge for tomorrow

Ferguson has commenced a PhD that will explore how participatory design could create safe, inclusive neighbourhoods for teenagers.

“It is a chance to reflect on the work I’ve done so far, “Ferguson says, “and to explore how I can do it better in future.”

Ferguson has also written a handbook to help communities and designers engage in participatory design. It will soon be available for free download from her website.


Graduate Snapshot

Name: Kate Ferguson
Studied: Master of Architecture
Graduated: 2008
Area of study:  Humanities