New Landscapes in the Tropics
by Patti Stouter, ASLA

Many areas developing quickly are in the tropics. The warm, humid climate regions need sensitive landscape planning more than any other areas on earth.                 

Land near Bamenda, Cameroon. Image courtesy Patti Stouter

Outdoor spaces in these regions are often primary living areas. Structures in these areas can have permeable boundaries, evoked more by roofs than walls. Courtyard walls may give privacy and let vital breezes in. If new buildings are to perform well climatically, this must be carefully considered during site selection and site planning. 

"Living within our ecological means" is more obviously appropriate in warm regions than in colder climates. A mindset that values nature's contributions can enable landscape architects to understand open air structures better than other design professionals. Landscape architects can take a leadership role in promoting environmentally sound planning as well as new design aesthetics that successfully serve the different social structures, mindsets, and historic culture of these regions. 

The Yaounde Hilton’s hotel’s balcony garden. Image courtesy Patti Stouter

A pavilion as part of a children’s home in South Africa. Image courtesy Joseph Kennedy and

Because site utilities may not be determined by code or existing infrastructure, low impact development techniques can be used for stormwater and waste-water. The climatic benefits of preserving vegetation for shade or evaporative cooling may be critical to comfort in tropical and subtropical areas.

Form Follows Meaning

Traditional forms and materials throughout Africa and Asia have been abandoned for the concrete and glass of foreigners. The structures of the "rich" become the new tradition, because they gain a meaning of permanence or superiority. Designers working outside of the western hemisphere need more than others to realize that “meaning is not something apart from function, but is itself a most important aspect of function.” (i)

Cultures today undergo massive changes. Automobiles invade pedestrian cities, extended families separate, and industrialization takes economic activity out of the home. Large redevelopment projects destroy traditional site organization as well as buildings in large areas. With social change, lifestyles that respect and value nature may be also abandoned. Neither traditional structures nor those from other regions fulfill culture’s needs.

"A culture without the presence of its history is a culture without roots and, very possibly without meaning. The habitations of mankind are the scene of most of our activities from birth to death, . . . [vernacular ones often] technologically undamaging, culturally acceptable and symbolically significant . . . in compatible landscape environments." (ii) 

Life outside in Yaounde, Cameroon. Image courtesy Patti Stouter

A designer can try to discover core elements of the culture to preserve. In the southwestern U.S., some of the Navaho tribe live in ordinary buildings, others in traditional round hogans. But all Navahos use a dispersed settlement pattern. This open land-use pattern is a core element of their culture, while the building shape is less essential. (iii)  

Designers can educate people about their own cultural heritage. Traditional, vernacular structures can be shown as precedents to their clients. All involved in the project can be interviewed about the meanings of different types of spaces and buildings.

Designers must listen, think, and ask many questions. How are different domains portrayed and used: sacred/profane; front/back; men/women; public/private. What do environmental cues like height (above/below, scale or size), centrality, right/left, and color mean? Any material or texture contrast can mark a special use. (iv) Cultural issues need to be raised, but may require input during the entire design process. Social meaning may not be well verbalized by those who care about it.

Designers can also plan to allow a site to grow and adapt. Personalization by future users will better adapt it to social needs. Private properties can have painted or built accents like roofs or porticoes at appropriate locations like entries. Shared spaces with moveable furniture, planters, or booths can be more appropriately adapted. Sometimes furniture should be left out. Among Aborigines, furniture prevents fluidity in space use, and causes problems with their sensitive interaction and avoidance patterns. (v) Long seating benches in Arabic buildings may likewise allow more subtle adjustments of proximity than separate pieces of furniture. 

Metal bench near an Arabic museum in Paris. Image courtesy Patti Stouter

Working with Different Climates

I have had the privilege of working on site plans and building designs for several properties in Africa with an NGO that assists literacy and translation workers. I have three goals in my international work. I aim to encourage construction projects to be more climate-appropriate, to use lower impact site development techniques, and to reflect important cultural issues.         

Building site in Yaounde, Cameroon. Image courtesy Patti Stouter

Climactic and environmental priorities should be discussed and clarified in early design phases. Inventories of site conditions should include an analysis of the local climate and also note micro-climate impacts. Architects and engineers can be educated about strategies and forms that suit the climate.

For hot, humid regions, buildings can be long and narrow to allow cross-ventilation of all rooms. Planting can funnel breezes. Spacing structures far enough apart, with taller ones downwind is important. Hilltops or raised structures are breeziest. Existing trees can be limbed up to provide shade without blocking breezes.

Shade is actually second priority to capturing breeze. Blind short sides should face east and west to avoid overheating from low sun angles. West facing walls could be planted as greenwalls to allow evaporative cooling. Plantings can break up hot pockets where walls and pavement receive too much sun. Plants should be chosen that will not harbor poisonous insects and that will not outgrow their situation too quickly.

Knowledge about climate-responsive forms and materials for humid tropical climates must be accessible to decision-makers. I developed a booklet, Shaping Buildings for the Humid Tropics(vi) to summarize this information.

Nearby buildings can funnel breezes to speed them up. Image courtesy Patti Stouter

Basic climate information for each site should be assembled in a clear and graphic format. This kind of comparative information about conditions can help designers decide how critical adapting to the climate is for each project.

Because my team has projects in many regions, I have developed an Excel worksheet to analyze climate-responsive building types appropriate to specific local conditions. This worksheet produces graphs that show the monthly average temperatures that are comfortable at the average humidity. (vii) The graph results can be confirmed by clients’ experience.

Temperature Comfort Chart. Image courtesy Patti Stouter

These examples contrast conditions in a subtropical U.S. city and a very humid tropical African city.

Culture Defines Comfort

Are the users more accustomed to heat than cold? Do they prefer closed spaces to reduce thievery or because they spend their days outside? Designers must consider the social implications of design. Landscape architects must learn to speak the language of local vernacular shapes and forms. Their built environments must meet the values and needs of real people. (viii)  

Many cultures, including Japan and India, organize space by complex beliefs, but only popularized versions of Chinese feng shui may be “well-known, if largely misunderstood.” (ix) City forms reflect the values and perceptions of different cultures. Traditional African cities seem disorganized to Europeans “because their order reflected human relationships -- social, religious, ethnic, occupational, kinship and lineage, hierarchical -- rather than geometrical.” (x) Traditional Indian cities had a sophisticated cellular structure based on residential precincts. “The home, the lane, spinal street, and main thoroughfare represent a gradual hierarchical order, a continuum of an expanding living environment” (xi) … which presented a sophisticated progression from private, semi-private, semi-public, to public. It is appropriate for these forms and belief-systems to continue influencing city, institutional, and even single family residential design.

A modern walled courtyard palace in Cameroon. Image courtesy Patti Stouter

Anglo culture values the rural motif of the detached house; even if it is only 30 cm from the next building, the building stands separately in its site. Most other cultures prefer the courtyard house, formed by buildings attached to each other and to the surrounding walls.                          

Two examples illustrate the difficulty of change in the built environment:
A US college dormitory groups 5 or 6 small rooms around each separate semi-private lounge. The lounge space in the cramped dormitory is hardly used. Should the public, "formal" entrances to the rooms be separated from the lounge, and allow the lounges to be more private and informal?

Women in Costa Rica spend much of their time at home. Men meet their friends in the evenings elsewhere, but women stand in their doorways and speak to their neighbors. Indoor plumbing is not a welcome convenience because it replaces their sole means of socializing and meeting -- at the public well.

Landscape architects trained in other cultures or who work across a range of climates and cultures need to learn to analyze both climates and cultures. Design training appropriate to temperate regions can be inappropriate to other regions. "Frequently, indigenous values are insensitively treated . . . local cultures are simply ignored . . . [because of] an unwavering commitment to, and belief in, western technology and social systems, [or] . . . due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of the diversity of building traditions and their relationship to the distinctive qualities of the cultures that produce them." (xii)  

Outdoor living in the breeze and views in Bamenda. Image courtesy Patti Stouter

Change that occurs in incremental steps and by diffusion allows cultural adaptation. If we landscape architects do our work well, we may enable some good ideas and techniques to spread. If we place a high priority on understanding culture as well as climate and appropriate technology, we may be able to spark some new but appropriate traditions.

Patti Stouter, ASLA, studied painting at Pratt Institute and urban landscape architecture at City College in New York. She has worked for Keith Simpson Associates, the Westchester County Planning Department, and the Pouder Design Group. She currently is a volunteer with Wycliffe Associates’ Construction Services Department, working on site and building designs for SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) language and literacy specialists and Wycliffe Bible Translators in locations around the world. She can be reached at 

Photos by Patti Stouter except: South African building, by permission of Joseph Kennedy and 

(i) Rapoport, Amos (1990) The Meaning of the Built Environment: A Nonverbal Communication Approach, University of Arizona Press: Tucson, AZ p. 15
(ii) Oliver, Paul (2006) Built to Meet Needs: Cultural Issues in Vernacular Architecture, Architectural Press, Amsterdam pp. 25- 26 
(iii) Rapaport p. 88
(iv) Rapaport pp. 106- 111
(v) Rapaport p. 92
(vi) Available for free online at
(vii) Email me at if you would like a copy to use and adapt.
(viii) Oliver pp. 17- 18
(ix) Oliver p. 179
(x) Rapoport p. 89
(xi) Schoenauer, Norbert (2000) 6,000 Years of Housing, W.W. Norton: NY p. 180
(xii) Oliver, Paul (2006) Built to Meet Needs: Cultural Issues in Vernacular Architecture, Elsevier: Amsterdam, p. 422
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