Driving to the Landscape Lab at Yale’s West Campus requires getting on I-95, getting off I-95, taking the ramp to get back on I-95, then veering off to the right moments before you get sucked back into the vortex of traffic. Yale runs two regular shuttles out to West Campus, but I missed the one I needed to catch, so I made my boyfriend rent a Zipcar and drive me there.

Of course, I was late to my meeting with Justin Freiberg, the director of the Landscape Lab. Fortunately, Freiberg is one of the nicest people on Earth, which is probably what happens to you when you spend as much time communing with nature as he does.

In 2007, Yale bought the 136-acre Bayer Pharmaceuticals campus in Orange, Connecticut for $109 million, which sounds like an exorbitant sum but was apparently a pretty good deal. Ten years later, West Campus houses seven institutes dedicated to biology, chemistry, energy sciences and cultural heritage preservation, plus analytic and imaging technology centers that serve the whole Yale community.

It’s also home to 80 acres of greenspace, which is where Freiberg comes in. His job description on the Lab’s website says he “oversees the development, design, planning and execution” of the Lab’s initiatives, but he functions just as much as a human Rolodex/mentor/jack-of-all-trades as he does an administrator. He is involved in practically every project at the Landscape Lab, and everyone I spoke with told me that he had made their work infinitely easier and more successful.

The Lab is two years old, but it’s built around a quarter-acre urban farm that’s now in its fifth growing season. Since the Lab’s inception, Freiberg, a team of volunteers, student interns and partner organizations in New Haven have built a barn, a patio and a “WikiHouse” (more on that later); terraced a hillside to create a medicinal herb garden; installed beehives; and begun cultivating mushrooms. The timber barn, adjacent to an agroforestry orchard, is built with wood from the Yale Forest, and serves as the site for courses, workshops and gatherings.

“The Landscape Lab has developed a lot since I started going. When I first went it was just a farm and a couple of trails. But in the past three years we’ve built so much, and now I’m taking leadership on developing a rainwater collection system for the barn,” said Holden Leslie-Bole ’18, who’s been working at the Lab since the beginning of his sophomore year. “The barn is off the grid and we want to get some water to it so we can use it for events. So we could either run a water line from the street for about $20,000, or we could have a cool student design opportunity and develop a rainwater collection system for a couple hundred bucks.”

Leslie-Bole emphasized the value of doing simpler tasks around the Lab as well. “I’ve also spent time building trails, whacking back brush, and laying down wood chips, and I built the fire pit so we could gather around a campfire. It’s a little overwhelming sometimes doing academics at Yale, so it’s nice to get outside and do something physical.”

The Lab’s work isn’t limited to the barn’s immediate surroundings — it extends across West Campus. Thanks to a Seedling Award (a grant that supports student projects at the Landscape Lab), Rachel McMonagle FES ’18 studies the effects of perennial wheatgrass on soil erosion, and she managed to obtain permission to convert an unused hillside between two parking lots into a group of research plots. “That’s a real tribute to the collaboration between the Landscape Lab and West Campus, that they were able to take this unused space and make it productive both generally and in a research sense,” she said.

Another Seedling Award recipient is Jonathan Simonds ’18, an environmental engineering major who used his grant to build a biogas digester and develop preprocessing techniques that will allow more kinds of food scraps to be digested into methane. “Methane is basically identical to natural gas,” Simonds said, “and there’s so much natural gas infrastructure already in place that if you can make methane without fracking, with a renewable material like food scraps, you can use that methane without having to start from scratch.”

Along with Lillian Childress ’17, Simonds applied for the grant after hearing about it from Freiberg, whom he’d met while working on an Engineers Without Borders project at the Landscape Lab. And, as he tends to do, Freiberg helped Simonds and Childress expand their project further than they’d initially imagined. “We really thought we were just applying for some money, because we already knew what we wanted to do — it was just expensive! But the award has been way more than that, way more than what we expected. We’ve gotten so many resources in terms of mentorship, both from Justin and people he’s connected with us. This award is worth so much more than the money,” Simonds said.

Other Seedling Grant recipients include Project Bright, a student-run group that works to install more solar panels at Yale, and a team of Forestry and Environmental students using drones to monitor and analyze various terrains.

The Landscape Lab’s commitment to student projects and entrepreneurship dates back farther than the year-old Seedling Awards. The aforementioned WikiHouse was a 2014 project spearheaded by Peter Hirsch FES ’15, who wanted to test whether houses could be built quickly to serve as temporary shelter in disaster zones or refugee camps. WikiHouse provides open-source building plans that can be downloaded and used to cut pieces out of plywood, which then snap together to assemble without nails or special equipment, making them faster and easier to build than a traditional structure. The WikiHouse organization promises that one can be built in less than a day, so Hirsch enlisted 40 volunteers and picked a day to assemble the parts.

It ended up taking a lot longer than he expected. “We thought it would go up really fast. We had brought a GoPro with 4 hours of film to capture the whole process. It ended up taking a month,” Freiberg said. “But that process of trying and failing taught us about the limitations of this design. The humidity warped the wood so the pieces didn’t fit together properly, and of course that would be a challenge in lots of areas. So it took longer than expected, but Peter learned some valuable things, shared them with the community and now we have this really beautiful structure.”

Cass Walker-Harvey, the program director for social entrepreneurship at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale, pointed to the WikiHouse project as a great example of the Landscape Lab’s contribution to entrepreneurship at Yale. “You need to test ideas like the WikiHouse out somewhere, and you couldn’t do that on main campus,” Walker-Harvey said. “Having a space for trial and error and hands-on experimentation is incredibly valuable. When I hear about any sustainability initiatives, or really any initiatives that need space, from storing prosthetic limbs to testing irrigation systems, I tell my students to go to the Landscape Lab.”

Another project that benefited from West Campus’ spaciousness is Poda Foods, a cricket-based culinary startup founded by Yale students that now operates (unsurprisingly) out of Portland. The company needed somewhere to breed the crickets that it would then use to make cricket flour, a sustainable source of protein. (There are a lot of crickets in the world, and unlike cows, they do not, uh, produce methane in significant volumes). “It addressed a critical food need and a critical sustainability challenge,” Walker-Harvey said. “And they couldn’t have done it without that space and that support.”

More established New Haven companies have also partnered with the Landscape Lab. Junzi Kitchen was founded by two FES students, Yong Zhao FES ’15 and Wanting Zhang FES ’11, and a School of Art student, Ming Bai ART ’13. It is partnering with the Landscape Lab, Dwight Hall and Colombian restaurant Roia to present this Friday’s installment of Beyond Food, a “monthly-ish culinary experience dedicated to interrogating the role food plays in our society.”

“When I think about service and social justice, one way to have greater civic engagement is to have people come together and talk and build empathy,” said Onyeka Obiocha, Dwight Hall’s director of innovation. “And one way Dwight Hall chooses to do that work is through food, which is a great way to bring people together.”

“Junzi and Roia actually forage from the farm at Beyond Food — they use produce and herbs from around the Lab to create the food they’ll serve,” Obiocha continued. “Working around the limitations of the Landscape Lab and the farm, using an open fire and foraging — that speaks to the way Northern Chinese and Colombian cuisines have influenced and continue to influence the culture of New England. The Landscape Lab is really a laboratory for people to get their hands dirty and build things.”

And the farm’s produce is used not just for culinary purposes, but for educational ones as well.

Sanjeet Baidwan first saw the farm’s potential when she visited it in 2015. Baidwan, a clinical instructor at the School of Medicine, had cold-emailed Freiberg (“when I hear of someone interesting that I’d like to collaborate with, I tend to just do that”), and their first meeting consisted of them wandering around the Landscape Lab’s grounds.

Baidwan’s interest in the link between food and health was first sparked when she served on the board of directors for local nonprofit New Haven Farms during her residency. New Haven Farms converts parking lots into urban farms, and partners with neighborhood clinics to identify low-income patients with a high risk of developing diet-linked diseases like obesity and diabetes. These patients and their families are then provided with a 16- to 20-week Community Supported Agriculture share, which includes not only weekly delivery of fresh, locally-grown fruit and vegetables, but also a two-hour weekly nutrition and cooking class offered in both Spanish and English that focuses on recipes using that week’s produce. “You can give people fruits and vegetables,” Baidwan said, “but if they don’t know what to do with them they won’t use them at home. So having a nutritionist give cooking lessons addresses that problem.”

Baidwan saw the success of the program, and realized it was filling a serious gap in the health care system. “I wanted to teach health care practitioners about these issues, because these preventable lifestyle diseases, like obesity, diabetes and some cancers, are a huge burden on the health care system,” he said. “Being in the clinics and seeing patients and physicians who are desperate for answers and help — that kind of brought about this idea.”

So she took a walk with Justin Freiberg, and since no walk with Justin Freiberg ends without him finding a way to help you, Yale Cultivate Health was born. YCH now hosts regular workshops for health care professionals at the Landscape Lab that combine short lectures on nutrition with “Iron Chef-style” cooking competitions where the participants harvest and then use produce from the Landscape Lab’s farm. Baidwan also teaches a required first-year course at the School of Medicine that focuses on food and its impacts on health.

The School of Nursing offers courses in partnership with the Landscape Lab as well: a plant-based medicine class teaches students at the School of Nursing about the uses of medicinal herbs grown in the Lab’s gardens, as well as about food and nutrition.

Undergraduate students also have opportunities to get involved in growing and producing food.

Y Pop-Up, a student-run pop-up restaurant that creates four-course fine-dining experiences in butteries, recently hosted a meal at the Landscape Lab. “Especially when you’re doing something like a dinner where the focus is on sustainability and contextualizing where food comes from, it helps to be surrounded by nature,” said Rhea Teng, the co-president of Y Pop-Up. “I recently went on a foraging tour with Justin for this past Y Pop-Up opening. Justin is one of those people that seems to know the name and use of nearly every plant, and it was a surreal experience to go walking into the wilderness and have things pointed out that you would normally never think to eat.”

Teng is also the president of Bee Space, an undergraduate club that runs the Lab’s beehives and uses the hive’s products, including their honey. “Because the Lab grows so much beautiful produce, it’s the perfect place to have hives to help with pollination,” she said.

“We’re pretty involved. We go to West Campus about every two weeks, once a month in the winter,” said Grace Cheung ’20, a hive coordinator for Bee Space.

“We’re not trying to train professional beekeepers,” said Freiberg, “so it’s less about the practice of beekeeping and more about creating opportunities for students to get a sense of the practice as it stands, and then be inventive and try to build improvements.” Cheung said Bee Space is currently investigating ways to help the bees survive the winter, and exploring nontraditional hive designs.

Another sweet project at the Lab is Maple Fest, an annual celebration of all things maple. “Of course, sharing the maple syrup we’ve tapped from our trees is great. But Maple Fest also offers an opportunity to talk about some of the tangible effects of climate change, like the reduction in harvestable days for maple trees as our area gets less of the weather needed for sap flow,” said Freiberg.

Other projects at the Landscape Lab are also in service of larger social and environmental causes. The Agroforestry Collaborative was founded three years ago by Nathan Hall FES ’17 SOM ’17, who was born and raised in a coal-mining region of Eastern Kentucky. The Collaborative now uses a plot of land at the Landscape Lab to explore how strip-mined land can be reforested, and Hall used his joint degree with the forestry school and the School of Management to investigate alternatives to his home’s mining-centric economy.

Another project, the GrassX Experimental Grassland Competition, challenges teams to design and implement strategies that hold back invasive plants, create pollinator habitats and improve the health of the soil. The competition is held in partnership with Ucross, an organization that works on land stewardship in the American West. “Projects like grassland management need to be executed at scale, and this competition gives people the opportunity to do that. And then, once they’ve had experience managing even an acre of land, that makes them much more prepared to work with the millions of acres out west,” Freiberg said. “And hopefully, we’ll hear about some solutions for pollinator habitat that could be useful locally.”

But not every student’s involvement in the Landscape Lab’s work needs to be so formal (or competitive). “We have programming almost every single day,” said Freiberg, before rattling off a list of recent events including a foraging workshop, farm volunteering sessions and a nature walk. “I wish everyone at Yale would come out here, because there are so many opportunities and so many ways to connect.”

Students who’ve spent time at the Landscape Lab echo Freiberg’s sentiments. “It’s a hidden gem of Yale’s campus. It’s a super cool place that feels almost like a retreat in the middle of the forest, but it’s just a couple minutes away on the shuttle,” Leslie-Bole said.

Though the drive may have been confusing, I could practically feel the stress melting off me as I walked along the Lab’s wooded paths. If the peaceful atmosphere isn’t worth the commute, the diversity of opportunities certainly is — especially if you catch the shuttle.

Katie Martin | katherine.d.martin@yale.edu