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American Society of Landscape Architects


January 2008 Issue

In Guatemala, Building Gardens of Hope
Landscape architecture students design and build a garden for the poorest of the poor.

By Daniel Winterbottom, ASLA

In Guatemala, Building Gardens of Hope

What does landscape architecture have to offer mothers trying to free their children from a life of garbage picking in Guatemala City? These families’ lives and relationships are fractured by constant stress, their communities offer little support, and their environments are disconnected from nature.

For more than a decade I have been trying to answer questions like this one. As both a professional and a teacher with a service learning ethic and therapeutic design goals, I’ve designed and built projects for communities that are not benefiting from landscape architecture. War-ravaged communities, orphanages, aids facilities, garbage dumps, and prisons (see “Working in the Margins,” Landscape Architecture, December) are the environments where I’ve taught and practiced landscape architecture. These places and people have a profound need for beneficial design. The University of Washington landscape architecture design/build studio that I teach tries to meet this need. Our solutions use low-tech, cost-effective, and sustainable materials and methods. This allows our students to learn about local and culturally expressive materials and building traditions.

Our academic design/build studio has partnered with more than 14 nonprofit institutions and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to build projects for marginalized communities. As our completed projects become widely known, contacts are made, opening intriguing opportunities, most recently in Bali and Bosnia. We weigh engaging these new projects against continuing partnerships with NGOs and communities we’ve served. We can effect greater change by further developing these long-term relationships.

In 2004 a challenging project emerged when Malcolm Dole, a graduate of our BLA program, inquired if our studio would be interested in designing and building a park in Guatemala. He had been introduced to Safe Passage, an NGO that helps the most impoverished children in Guatemala City break the cycle of poverty through education. Safe Passage was expanding its programs to a site close to its client families, who live near and work in the city garbage dump.

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