Landscape architects take on global issues from the ground up

An informal settlement in Iquitos where a team of landscape architects from the University of Washington will be working this summer (Credit: Leann Andrews)

Landscape architects are using their work to tackle global issues such as sustainability, climate change, mental health, mosquito-borne disease and poverty.

Though landscape architecture may bring to mind elegant gardens and parks, Glen Schmidt from Schmidt Design Group is convinced that landscape architects can serve as “architects of survival.” If climate change is the problem, “landscape architects are part of the solution. We design the green infrastructure that offsets a lot of these issues.”

Trees are great carbon sinks, and when placed well, their shade can reduce energy consumption in buildings and reflective heat from asphalt. Planting deep-rooted species also stops rainwater from running off, which prevents pollution and flooding, and Xeriscaping, the practice of planting drought-resistant or native species, reduces water consumption in yards and gardens.

In the dry coastal desert of Peru, a team of landscape architects from the University of Washington (UW) and Architects Without Borders have come up with another way to get water where it’s needed. Experimental fog-catchers are set to be scaled up in the community of Lomas de Zapallal after pilot tests last summer went well. The fog-catchers, inspired by the native vegetation that draws moisture from the ever-present mists during the Peruvian winter, are essentially large sheets of Velcro that wick moisture from the air and into containers, with the goal of eventually providing water for parks and urban agriculture in what is currently a barren environment. The team has been working in Lomas de Zapallal since 2010 and has already completed a number of structures and parks based on community input through a “participatory design process” that asks locals to not just think about what they want, but draw it. This inclusive approach, and the six-year history the UW has with the community, has greatly contributed to the success of these projects.

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Leann Andrews, a Ph.D. candidate in landscape architecture at the UW who was involved with the home gardens project in Lomas de Zapallal, will help to expand that work to the jungle city of Iquitos, Peru, this summer. She plans to investigate how gardens can affect a range of issues, including “access to food and medicine, habitat creation, water cleansing, mental restoration and stress reduction, beautification, social cohesion, and enhancing neighborhood identity and empowerment.” The UW researchers observed positive changes in well-being among community members in Lomas de Zapallal and plan to collect better data on these factors as they develop new projects in Iquitos.

Another group, Architecture for Health in Vulnerable Environments (ARCHIVE), has documented and promoted the idea that a well-designed environment can promote better health. The group, started by professor Peter Williams of Columbia University, aims to influence “global practices concerning health reforms and housing strategies in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

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An ARCHIVE project in Cameroon worked to combat malaria with a combination of window screens, native plants and education. Another report from Burkina Faso found that people living in houses with roofs made of iron sheets instead of mud suffered from fewer malaria infections, linking environment and health.

The United Nations has championed these concepts for decades. United Nations Habitat, mandated in 1978 by the U.N. General Assembly, promotes “socially and environmentally sustainable human settlements development and the achievement of adequate shelter for all.” It currently employs around 2,400 staff in more than 70 countries. It is working with governments to improve urban planning and upgrade housing through projects like the Donghu Greenway to reduce car use in China and affordable housing in Jordan.

Regardless of the size of a given project, Andrews from the UW emphasized the importance of participatory design: “The community will decide exactly how this will take shape.”

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About Author

Nikki Eller

Nikki Eller writes on environmental issues for Humanosphere, and is currently a Master of Public Health student at the University of Washington. A neuroscience major in college, she later served with the Peace Corps in Peru and worked for the UW Department of Global Health. Contact her at Nikki.humanosphere@gmail.com.