Parks and Renovation

Art and design student, Giovanni Gonzo was part of a task force that helped renovate a public park in Bolzano, Italy. However, rather than just ‘create’ something nice to look at, he and his team decided to make something innovative and interactive that everyone could enjoy.

Bolzano: the beating heart of Italy’s South Tyrol region. A picturesque town nestled up against the Alps, on the western fringes of the spectacular Dolomite Road. Home to Ötzi the Iceman, Castel Roncolo, and... Soundgarden.

No, not the Seattle-based grunge sensation (!). On the surface, this Soundgarden is a wooden, rectangular planter containing different edible plants -- including basil, coriander, and tomatoes. However, hidden beneath the soil is a small box containing a Makey Makey, a Raspberry Pi 3, and a power bank which transform this deceptively simple park garden feature into an interactive electronic keyboard.

The project was developed by University of Bolzano design students Giovanni Gonzo, Francesca Sannia, and Chiara Perrone, in response to a brief the local government put together to renovate a park -- Parco Pompei -- in the city. The design students were tasked with coming up with something that would encourage local people of all ages to visit the park more often and take better care of it.

“We wanted to create something that anyone could use and feel responsible for, to strengthen the idea that everyone should take care of public areas just like a private property,” explains Giovanni.

After a short analysis of the park, the team decided to focus on four core values: interaction, fun, sharing, and responsibility; and developed some ideas around them.

“It took us about month to come up with the final idea and two weeks to build it,” says Giovanni. “We were helped by the guys working in the university’s metal and wood workshops who taught us how to weld -- among other things.”.

Soundgarden can be played like a keyboard as every plant triggers a sound when touched. There are three stools around the planter; the perfect spot for people to sit and use the Soundgarden together.

On two corners of the planter there are two speakers of varying heights (one for children and the other for adults). Each speaker has metal box on top of it that the user pulls close to their ear. These boxes are actually connected to the Makey Makey’s ‘earth’ wire, meaning that touching them and the plants at the same time completes the circuit -- making the sound audible.

The speakers themselves are connected to the Raspberry Pi 3, which loads a Scratch program when it’s switched on.

“The Scratch app plays different sounds when the Makey Makey keys receive the input,” explains Giovanni. “I used Garageband to record the different notes from a minor pentatonic scale. This way every note always sounds good when played after or on top on another one, and there’s no way anyone could play a ‘bad’ melody.”

Giovanni discovered Makey Makey when looking for a way to produce sounds with plants and saw it as a very good alternative to the standard Arduino.

“Makey Makey’s easy to use, cheap, and ready to go as soon as you unbox it,” he says. “There are a lot of amazing things you can do with it; the potential is huge and it’s a technology that requires very basic IT knowledge.”

The project was on display in Parco Pompei in June, but the city’s administration is now considering making Soundgarden a permanent feature.

“Park visitors were very excited about the project and everyone was having fun making music just touching some plants,” Giovanni says. “Both children and adults learned how to play together producing more complex melodies and trying to reproduce famous songs. A group of three guys also started using the stools as a percussion to play a rhythm that sounded very nice together with the noises from each plant.

“Everyone enjoyed it and it was a big success in my opinion. I really enjoyed using Makey Makey and I’ll definitely use it again in future projects.”

Thanks Giovanni! We eagerly await your next efforts :)