April 5, 2007

UW team transforms garbage into gardens

  • Students and staff last summer designed and built a gathering plaza and children’s park in a decommissioned Guatemala City garbage dump.
    University of Washington

    Photos by Daniel Winterbottom
    The UW team designed and built the site entry, children’s gardens and an area linking a preschool with a vocational school in an impoverished area of Guatemala.

    The ripe smell of garbage greets our arrival in Zona Tres (zone three) Guatemala City. Smoke from burning tires stings our eyes, dust from the convoys of garbage trucks burns our throats and hundreds of circling vultures block out the sky above. This is the site where 14 landscape architecture students, two teaching assistants and I have six weeks to transform a portion of a decommissioned garbage dump into a children’s park.

    The park will serve one of the bleakest barrios in Guatemala City. The residents are mainly Mayan refugees of a 30-year civil war, who are working and living in and around the massive garbage dump, the largest in Central America. The loss of their traditional homes and communities in the agrarian highlands is a trauma compounded by this toxic environment. The families are the clients of our partner, NGO Safe Passage, which has programs that support children’s education to break the cycle of poverty entrenched in Zona Tres.

    Our 1.2-acre project site was donated to Safe Passage in 2005 to expand its preschool and vocational programs. Former Executive Director Hanley Denning envisioned the wasteland as a park where the childhood denied to so many could be rediscovered. Unlike the rundown city playgrounds, it would have climbing trees, jumping stones, hills for rolling and lush gardens. It would be walled off from the stress-torn neighborhood, offering a safe refuge to play, learn, grow and connect with natural living things.

    The design

    Photo by Justin Martin
    Professor Daniel Winterbottom, left, and student Jeff Kurtz formed seat walls.

    Building on Hanley’s vision and talks with Safe Passage, we created a five-phase master plan for the Children’s Garden of Hope. Phase one became the University of Washington’s landscape architecture design/build studio project for summer 2006.

    We arrived at the site to find the preschool for 150 children nearly complete. Construction was under way on facilities for bread making, carpentry and ornamental iron work at the vocational school for young adults. We would design and build the site entry, the area linking the two buildings and the children’s gardens.

    Social workers led an orientation with home visits to the families of the children enrolled in Safe Passage schools. We saw housing cobbled together with scrap lumber, pallets, tin and tarps, with no electricity or plumbing. My students witnessed the harsh living conditions and redoubled their resolve to create a natural and nurturing place.

    The first step of our design process was to meet with the children and their families and the Safe Passage staff and teachers to further understand their needs. From these small focus groups we learned that the most important features would be gardens with flowering plants and shady places to gather. We developed schematic designs by the end of the first week and elements were reviewed, selected and synthesized into a final plan with construction documents.

    We designed an oval paved plaza at the entrance to the preschool that is framed by curved seat walls backed with mounded planting areas. At the main entry, we placed a long, broad arbor leading visitors from the security gate at the street into the park. The shade arbor has family sized swing benches. Nearby, a children’s exploratory garden features interactive elements for developing fine and gross motor skills and plants chosen for their color, texture and scent.

    Facing banditos

    An arbor leads visitors into the park from the security gate at the street.

    With just four and a half weeks to build we needed to be efficient both with our time and with getting materials. This can be a challenge in a country ripe with corruption. We formed a partnership with a local contractor that was invaluable. He shared expertise in vernacular building techniques, and located reliable subcontractors and suppliers. One memorable car ride to the hardware store brought me face to face with gun-toting banditos, who hoisted the Safe Passage payroll. No one was hurt, but no one bothered to call the police.

    Most construction in Guatemala is done by hand. Tools are hand hewn from scrap material, all wood scraps are recycled and concrete is hand mixed in large piles and poured by wheelbarrow or buckets. Power tools and concrete mixers are rare as they are difficult to acquire and often break down. Excavation was arduous, all done by hand shovel and often turning up dump treasures such as plastic bags and resistant items of underwear.

    The half of the students with construction experience were distributed among the eight building teams. The wall team learned that curved seat walls are easy and elegant to draw, but tricky to build. They designed their forms of plywood and two-by-fours to be reused in successive pours. The longest seat wall was 40 feet long. They detailed a bullnose cap using half rounds of 4-inch-diameter PVC pipe.

    Knockouts were placed in the walls for embedding artisan tiles. Local maestros showed us their toweling techniques to get a fine and smooth final skim coat. They wielded cut soda bottles and plastic tape to finish the bullnose.

    Excavation, forming, pouring and stripping the forms took two weeks. After curing, the cap was painted yellow and the wall colored orange with blue and white tiles.

    Kids try it out

    When the garden first opened, children flocked to the porch swings.

    In the last three days the site was dramatically transformed when all of the teams together planted more than 700 perennials, shrubs and trees. At the dedication, we watched 40 children test drive the product of our labors. They rushed into their new park, piled on to the porch swings, danced across the wiggle walk and poured across the new soccer field to roll down its sloping sides. Mothers saw their children playing and reached out to our students to express their deep gratitude. For the exhausted students, it validated their efforts.

    For me, it reinforced my commitment to design/build as a significant service-learning model. All the students get to test and advance their skills. These are skills that are critical to professional practice, including organization and problem solving, collaborative community processes to facilitate design, construction, and graphic and verbal communication. In a uniquely intense manner, design/build integrates these skills and promotes experimentation, critical reflection, complex collaboration and community service learning.

    This fall an adventure play area will be designed and built for the preschool. For more information on the fall 2007 project visit

    Daniel Winterbottom is an associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington and principal of Winterbottom Design, a planning and landscape architectural firm in Seattle.

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