Taubman College Alumni, Faculty Secure $1 Million Bloomberg Grant for Jackson, Miss., Public Art Project Addressing Nutrition and Food Equity

Travis Crabtree, M.U.D. ’16, and Salam Rida, B.S. ’11, M.Arch ’17, are part of a team of Jackson, Mississippi, officials who have secured a $1 million Bloomberg Philanthropies 2018 Public Art Challenge award. The award was announced November 29, 2018, by philanthropist, public health advocate, and former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba.

The project, “Fertile Ground: Inspiring Dialogue About Food Access,” aims to inform policy related to nutrition by using art as a medium to communicate the complexities of the issue in the city.  

A team of local and national artists, landscape architects, filmmakers, farmers, chefs, nutritionists, and community members — which includes Taubman College faculty members Anya Sirota, Geoffrey Thün, and Kathy Velikov — will come together to create a city-wide exhibition with installations, performances, and programming. Workshops and panels will address challenges stemming from a proliferation of fast food restaurants in the area and the need for healthy food opportunities for the community.  

Sites will include public streets, community gardens, a local elementary school, a vacant building that will be converted into exhibition space, and a food lab with pop-up kitchen space that will act as an experimental food incubator.

Crabtree is a senior urban planner and Rida is an urban designer with the City of Jackson. As U-M students, both were active in a range of extracurricular activities related to issues of urbanism and design. After graduating from the Master of Urban Design program, Crabtree worked with RVTR, a design research group led by Velikov, an associate professor of architecture; and Thün, an associate professor of architecture and associate dean for research and creative practice. As a student, Rida worked with Sirota, an associate professor, as a production assistant and social media curator for Sirota’s exhibition at the 2017 Saint Etienne Biennale in France. Rida also developed a firsthand understanding of the productive intersection between art, design, and equitable development by partnering with community organizations to spearhead projects in association with the Grace Lee Boggs School and People First Project in Detroit.

“Given my own practice in Detroit, we often discussed strategies related to urban activation and inclusivity in economically challenged environment,” Sirota said.

In the summer of 2017, Crabtree and Rida spoke with Thün, Velikov, and Sirota about early plans to develop the EcoShed, one of the three sites that is now part of the Fertile Ground project. Originally from Mississippi, Crabtree desired to return to his home state to apply the knowledge from his degree and work experience to advance the livelihoods of Mississippi state residents.    

“Travis had a detailed knowledge of the community context and a deep ambition to work on urban social transformation through design,” said Thün. “Many of the themes and concepts he hoped to develop in Jackson were in alignment with different projects we had underway, and on which he was working as part of our team.”

Velikov and Thün noted that Crabtree and Rida’s ideas about how to engage public participation in pop-up health initiatives, ideas about how broader food-related networks and actors could be assembled to produce vibrant public spaces, questions about the relationships between advanced technologies and the democratization of access in new formats of public space — which they explored as students at Taubman College — were enhanced when they moved to Mississippi.

“Working with Jackson’s city planning and development department, and engaging in direct and meaningful dialog with the community to advance these ambitions was a strategic way for Travis and Salam to actualize these ambitions and move them forward,” said Velikov. “The Bloomberg award will enable them to design and prototype new approaches to coupling urban design, public space, community health, and urban transformation. We are excited to be part of the diverse and talented group of collaborators they have assembled around this initiative.”

Crabtree and Rida’s faculty mentors also expressed confidence that their former students will lead the project well.

“Salam and Travis are fearlessly interdisciplinary and unequivocally focused on applying their architectural training to meaningful projects at the urban scale. Their breadth of interests and experiences makes them the ideal team to refresh our conventional understanding of development through exuberant cultural experimentation while blurring traditional boundaries between architecture and planning,” said Sirota. “They have bottomless energy, charisma, and commitment, not to mention curatorial sass.”

Partners will include local arts councils, community organizations, restaurants, and cafes, as well as the Jackson Medical Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Jackson State University, and the Mississippi Museum of Art. Select national and local participants who will inform both the creative process and food related programming include noted landscape architect Walter Hood; Kara Walker, a nationally celebrated artist known for her exploration of race, stereotypes, and gender throughout American history; award-winning filmmaker, director, and producer Keegan Kuhn and local director and producer Roderick Red, who both work with nonprofits and focus on social issues; Mark Bittman, the country’s first food-focused Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times

Learn more about Fertile Ground at