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American Society of Landscape Architects


December 2007 Issue

Working in the Margins
A nontraditional approach to the practice of landscape architecture creates a much-needed playground in a womenís prison.

By Daniel Winterbottom, ASLA

Working in the Margins C/O Daniel Winterbottom, ASLA

People living in marginal conditions who are desperate for financial, political, educational, and medical support need strong, determined advocates to be heard in the greater social arena. Designing spaces and natural systems that help these communities can be a compelling opportunity for landscape architects. As both a professional and a teacher with a service-learning ethic and therapeutic design goals, Iíve designed and built projects for communities with a focus on the transforming potential of community landscapes.

Iíve taught and practiced landscape architecture in war-ravaged communities, prisons, orphanages, aids facilities, and garbage dumps. Despite difficulties with planning and implementation, the results are effective and meaningful. Two projects, a mother/child garden situated in a maximum security state prison and a park built upon a reclaimed garbage dump (appearing in next monthís Landscape Architecture), are particularly instructive. In both, the clients are largely mothers and children. The prison project involves incarcerated mothers in a mother/child program within a state correctional facility. Their lives and relationships are fractured by constant stress, their communities offer little support, and their environments are disconnected from nature.

In its service-learning aspect, the University of Washington landscape architecture design/build studio, which I teach, partners with other service organizations: neighborhood and community groups and nongovernmental organizations. For models we look to Peace Corps and Earth Corps projects, where volunteers immerse themselves in a community to understand its needs and work together to find solutions that use low-tech, cost-effective, and sustainable materials and methods. This allows students to learn about local and culturally expressive materials and building traditions. When our students are immersed in a new culture, they are invigorated to think outside the box and be more open and creative in their design ideas.

Students who sign up for design/build service-learning projects value the direct experience of another culture and want their work to make a difference in peopleís lives. They see applied learning as a concrete and meaningful expression of their compassion for marginal communities. Some nearing graduation hope the experience will help open up career opportunities in developing countries.

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