UB alumni team builds agricultural and international oasis at United Nations headquarters in New York

The United Nations’ “South Garden,” designed and built with the help of several School of Architecture and Planning alums, officially opened in July with a ceremony led by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon. Photo by John Gillespie

By Rachel Teaman

When Arif Ilahi Khan (BS Industrial and Systems Engineering ’95), a United Nations staffer and partnership coordinator for the World Humanitarian Summit, asked architect and fellow UB grad William Gates (MArch ‘01) to design several food gardens on the grounds of the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, Gates was honored.

“Of course, I had a lot going on at the time,” says Gates, who runs his own practice, teaches design at three area colleges and, a firefighter with the FDNY, was still recovering from major respiratory surgery as a result of his service at the World Trade Center site. “But this was such a great idea and such a rare opportunity to be able to design and build something that is part of the UN Headquarters.”

Indeed, the largest agency within the United Nations is its Food and Agriculture division, dedicated to raising levels of nutrition and improving agricultural productivity around the world. Yet its spacious grounds overlooking the East River were essentially barren, dominated by manicured lawns and hedges. 

Khan, who met Gates during his undergraduate years at UB, had taken note of the contradiction and saw an opportunity to turn the resource-draining grounds into an agricultural, and international, oasis. “The UN does so much work all over the world promoting sustainable land use and responsible resource use,” says Gates. “So [Khan] thought ‘what a great place to not just talk about it, but show the world an example, we’re not just preaching this to the world, we’re practicing it at the UN Headquarters.’”

Understanding the significance of the site, both historically and architecturally, Gates poured countless hours pro bono into the design. He photographed, sketched, and even created a 3D model of the site with the help of fellow School of Architecture and Planning grads Samson Oshunrinde (MArch ‘01) and Joseph Messick (MArch ‘02), as well as Gates’ former student, Ela Pogwizd-Leja.

Gates drew inspiration from other gardens, such as the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, Wash., and two photos he hung in his studio – one of cupped, dirt-covered hands holding turnips, and another of a hand reaching for a single blueberry, symbolizing the growing and sharing of food as an essential human activity. Yet his hand-shaped garden design clicked into place only after his rambunctious seven-year-old son Owen drew outlines of his hand on several sketches in his attic studio. 

(from left to right) Joseph Messick (MArch ‘02), Samson Oshunrinde (MArch ‘01), William Gates (MArch ‘01), Ela Pogwizd-Leja, a former student of Gates, and UB engineering alumnus Arif Ilahi Khan. Photo by Catherine Zanev

“He was doing something so common, cross-culturally and globally. Some of the earliest pre-historic drawings are human hands on cave walls,” says Gates.

When the upcoming demolition of a temporary building on the site forced the team to move the garden to a new location, Gates and the newly-formed UN Food Gardens Club pressed on, adjusting the design in record time while also raising funds and material donations for the volunteer effort. The first of two sections, the “South Garden,” was completed in time for the 2015 growing season. 

UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon was so taken with the project that he chose the South Garden as the location of the Nelson Mandela International Day celebration in July, serving as the garden’s official opening.