The Mission and About Us

About the Project

At the turn-of-the-twenty-first century, more than half of humanity lived in cities for the first time in history. Open Gaarden brings together history and technology to reimagine what it means to live in this urbanized world, revealing overlooked community food spaces and urban biodiversity hidden in plain sight. Our app aims to make green spaces part of our everyday life—part of the foreground rather than the background. Our goal is to help visualize changes in land use patterns over time—from the movement of farms to the disruption of ecological systems to the reintroduction of these spaces in the twenty-first century.

With Open Gaarden, we can reimagine what “green” means and regenerate nature, communities, and stories.


History and Development

Open Gaarden was conceived by Richard Lee and Natale Zappia while serving as board members of the Garden School Foundation (, an environmental non-profit based in South Los Angeles focusing on teaching ecological literacy and creating regenerative school gardens. After a trip to Denmark, Lee was inspired by the intimate, maximally productive growing spaces (including rooftop and vertical farms) created across Danish urban spaces. Hence the name “Open Gaarden” was adopted by Lee and Zappia in 2018. In 2019, the Open Gaarden team welcomed app curator and programming coordinator Michael Totten. Since then, Open Gaarden has added more than a thousand new green sites, including geolocated historical images.

Natale Zappia (Co-Founder)

For two decades, Dr. Natale Zappia has directed, created, and participated in multiple projects related to food systems, urban farming, environmental sustainability, and food justice. Between 2008-10 he served as the Executive Director of the Garden School Foundation (GSF), a 501(c)(3) developing garden-based curricula for students of need in South Los Angeles. Between 2013-16, he also served on the Board of Directors. For nine years (2010-2019), Zappia was a professor of history at Whittier College, Zappia co-directed (2011-2019) the Sustainable Urban Farm Lab (SUrF), where he taught and coordinated programming related to permaculture, environmental history and studies, and the humanities. Zappia is currently the Director for the Institute for Sustainability and Associate Professor of History at CSUN, where he is involved in numerous campus-wide, regional, and national sustainability projects, including overseeing climate and CO2 reduction initiatives.

Richard D. Lee (Co-Founder)

Richard Lee is a senior IT and online systems executive with over 20 years of experience working directly with clients to develop ecommerce solutions for their businesses. A motivated problem solver with an aptitude for innovation and solutions development, Richard finds ways to manifest his talent in a variety of passion projects. Communicative and personable, Richard is a technology evangelist who clearly and persuasively describes the benefits of various technologies. Between 2016-2020, Richard was the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Garden School Foundation, an LA-based nonprofit that enables Title 1 schools to implement a school-garden program and curriculum. That opportunity was the impetus for the Open Gaarden project and the repurposing of an app he had developed prior.

Michael Totten

Michael Totten is a graduate of CSUN (History) and is State Certified in Recycling and Resource Management (Santa Monica College). Totten brings a wide range of experience and expertise as a food service manager, a self-practitioner of sustainable living, and as a motivated historian to uniquely approach each problem. In 2013, Totten co-led an initiative to introduce Zero-Waste lunches into the Las Virgenes School District. Specializing in solid-waste management, he now works as an environmental consultant for local businesses in the Greater Los Angeles area offering sustainably focused solutions. 

He is the app curator and programming coordinator for the project.