Landscape architecture students visit Peruvian community to inform designs
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Ecosystems in the Amazon region have undergone significant changes in the last few decades due to increases in mining, agriculture, oil extraction and wildfires. One of the groups most affected by these changes are the low-income families who have settled in informal slum communities in jungle cities such as Iquitos, Peru.
Many of these families have continued the traditional practices of living on the floodplain in floating and stilted houses. However, the informal floating community of Claverito is not officially recognized by Iquitos, making it difficult for residents to obtain resources, sanitation and safe infrastructure.
A group of upper-level landscape architecture students at Penn State recently spent their spring break in Claverito gathering firsthand perspectives from community members to inform their final designs to address problems in the floating community.
Leann Andrews, assistant professor of landscape architecture in the College of Arts and Architecture’s Stuckeman School, has been leading community design efforts in Peru for several years, collaborating with Peruvians and Americans through the InterACTION Labs Program, which is a design and research collaboration between Claverito, Traction, University of Washington, Penn State, Universidad Nacional de la Amazonía Peruana, Centro de Investigaciones Tecnológicas Biomédicas y Medioambientales, Instituto Nacional de Salud del Peru and others. Traction is a design activism non-profit Andrews founded with Coco Alarcón, a Peruvian architect, landscape architect and public health researcher.
Alarcón recently came to Penn State as part of the Stuckeman School’s Lecture and Exhibit Series. His exhibition, titled “Happy Landscapes: Wellbeing by Design” is on display through May 31 in the Rouse Gallery, Stuckeman Family Building, on the University Park campus.
Andrews involved her students in her research space in Peru this semester with her LARCH 414: Design Activism Studio course, which focuses on collaborating with students and faculty across the veterinary and medical sciences and with community members to stimulate evidence-based ideas, emphasizing empathetic designs, cultural mindfulness and social and ecological responsibility.
Before the trip, Andrews said students were absorbing as much information as they could about Claverito through photos, videos and data collected through the InterACTION Labs Program. A focus was placed on the health issues that plague the community, and how specific improvements could be made to improve those problems. The class then compiled a list of 16 primary health concerns, including chronic diarrhea, infectious and zoonotic diseases, injuries, poor mental health, biodiversity, food insecurity, and malnutrition and drowning.
“They were learning how design aspects of the built environment, particularly the landscape, can be used to target health issues,” Andrews said.
Andrews has a particular interest in the concept of “One Health,” the idea that the health of humans, animals and the environment are all linked, and her landscape architecture class used this concept as a framework for their research and design plans. One Health has also been a key tenet of the class, particularly as students think about how design can be collaborative with medicine.
The theory is that if you can improve the health of the environment, you can also impact the health of humans and animals at the same time.” — Leann Andrews
Andrews along with Stephen Manzier, assistant professor of landscape architecture, Justin Brown, assistant teaching professor of veterinary and biomedical Sciences, and Sona Jasani, formerly an assistant professor at Hershey Medical Center who is now at Yale, initiated the Penn State One Health Scholars program in 2021 as an applied collaborative training program for students from different disciplines related to One Health. The funding was supported by an Institutes of Energy and the Environment Seed Grant.
Two One Health Scholars are engaged in the Andrews’ LARCH 414 course, acting as public health and veterinary consultants to the students’ design ideas.
Students in the course constructed prototypes during the first half of the semester before visiting Peru, which were designed to “improve health conditions in the community.” According to Andrews, part of the research informing these initial models was pulled from a survey the students sent to members of the Peruvian community before visiting.
“The survey had really big, broad questions, like ‘What makes you happy or stressed out in your daily life? What do you think could be changed in your daily life to make it better?’” Andrews said. “Students took those results and analyzed them as a basis to think about design.”
Each student built a different prototype, trying to solve a different health issue. One student created a “home helper” that could attach to a porch and would provide a safe place for families to engage in everyday activities such as laundry and gardening. Other designs included floating pathways, a water purification system, trash collection and plastic bottle recycling devices.
In the second half of the semester, students are working at the community scale to target One Health issues. Design ideas include agricultural and composting systems, play and recreation parks, ecotourism opportunities, women’s health programs, floating infrastructure and ecological restoration within the community.
While in Peru, the students immersed themselves in the culture of the floating community to further understand the community’s unique design needs and to gain understandings of how to improve their design ideas.
“We attended a community meeting, which was super exciting, and we were able to see how the dynamics of the community work,” said Olivia Boon, who is pursuing a master of science in landscape architecture, and is one of the One Health Scholars. “We also heard people’s opinions on the initial design ideas we had.”
Boon said it felt like a crucial experience to be out on a boat, directly experiencing what it’s like to be a member of a floating community.
“Site visits are really important in landscape architecture,” she said.
Visiting a site in person is a super critical perspective to have when you’re creating designs — you have to get a feel for the place and see all the tiny details for yourself.” — Olivia Boon
Thomas Darlington, a fourth-year bachelor of landscape architecture student, said a particularly memorable part of the trip was a three-day excursion the class took into the Amazon jungle.
“That really gave us new perspectives of the layers of ecosystems, how plant habitats work in a relatively untouched form, even though there is still human interference there,” Darlington said. “It was really cool. We saw new flora and fauna (animal life native to the region); it was definitely an eye-opener to say the least.”
Andrews said the skills the students are developing in this studio will be transferable to other design projects they will encounter.
“I hope they see the positive impact they can have on any community,” Andrews said. “These are transferable skills to communities in the United States; we have so many people to this day in this country who don’t have access to improved sanitation and water, who are combating infectious diseases, food insecurity, toxic exposures or other health issues related to our animals, plants and ecosystems.”
I hope students realize every single landscape has an impact on One Health, and they have a little more intentionality with any project they do as they move ahead in their careers.” — Leann Andrews
Darlington said he recognized this possibility for future application of what he learned on the trip.
“We’ll try to apply that experience [in Peru] to our ecological designs in the future,” he said. “What we saw can help us with what we think about [when designing] for other landscapes.”
The jungle excursion was also a meaningful experience for Anne Lai, also a fourth-year bachelor of landscape architecture student.
“I think it was cool that we got to visit the more indigenous parts of the jungle rather than the city,” Lai said. “The idea that wilderness is a construct is really debated in landscape architecture, as is recognizing that these lands have been managed by indigenous peoples in the past and that they are not, in fact, untouched landscapes.”
Lai also said the concept of One Health was an influential framework to be working from while in Peru.
“Thinking about the convergence of human health, animal health and environmental health influenced our need to be learning from the community we were in,” Lai said.
As an exchange for their time and expertise provided to the studio, students also co-designed and built a sign at the entrance to Claverito to combat negative stigmas toward the community and to potentially provide an income stream via community tours.
Students are spending the remainder of the semester designing and refining their prototypes informed by their interactions with the Peruvians they met, keeping in mind the goals to address the health issues at hand and to establish Claverito as a more recognized community.
The design ideas that the students will produce will be presented to the community at the end of the semester, and Andrews plans to seek funding to have the ideas that are prioritized by the community turned into realities.
“When you participate in any study abroad experience, it really transforms the way you see the world,” Andrews said. “Going down there [with the students was] so necessary, because until you walk there, until you talk to someone and see the conditions and the really impressive cultural identity in that community, you can’t possibly design anything.”
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