Traction believes landscape architecture is for the people, not just the elite.
By Katarina Katsma, ASLA
In 2016, as a student at the University of Washington, Coco Alarcón won the ASLA Student Residential Design Award of Excellence for his project to improve public health by creating food gardens in a soggy, stressed neighborhood in Iquitos, Peru. He was also named a National Olmsted Scholar finalist that same year. Since then, Alarcón, who is Peruvian, has been working with a multidisciplinary collective he co-founded called Traction (formerly the Informal Urban Communities Initiative) to try to bring his ideas to fruition. Using research, community outreach, activism, and educational workshops, Traction works with people from communities where resources are scarce to create new social and physical infrastructure that promotes health, safety, and beauty for residents. LAM recently caught up with Alarcón to find out how his group’s work has progressed toward giving people, as he hopes, the motivation they need to transform their environments into equitable, healthy places.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What are you working on now?
One of our projects is to design and construct a landscape architecture intervention in a slum community and measure the impacts on human, ecological, and environmental health. For example, we are documenting changes in human microbiome, water quality, mental health, and biodiversity of birds and amphibians—among other measurements—in the community to understand the effects of a productive community garden.
Another project focuses on the collection of literature, local experiences, and interviews with experts from different disciplines to understand the role that landscape architecture has on the pandemic of vector-borne diseases related to the Aedes aegypti mosquito, including Zika, dengue, and chikungunya.
Why do you think this type of work is important?
Landscape architecture is a unique profession in that its products have a broad impact on humans, other species, and the environment. It is common practice for us to claim that we are doing good things for each of these factors. The work that my colleagues and I do measures these claims and discovers additional, typically unmeasured impacts.
For our profession this is really important. With all the issues we face now in the world, we are at the point that we need to design with confidence that we are going to make things better for our communities and environments. Our clients are requesting evidence that supports our design arguments. And the people and animals that we design for deserve a critical and accountable professional service.
What are these additional, typically unmeasured impacts you’ve discovered in your research?
We have discovered that our landscape architecture interventions are having a positive impact on food security, mental health and well-being, injury reduction, and social health, for example. We are now documenting changes and relationships in oral, gastro, and environmental microbiomes in our current work as a health indicator.
What brought you into the kind of work that won you the 2016 ASLA Student Residential Design Award of Excellence?
There are two aspects that define my academic and professional path: design activism and research. Design activism is an empathetic reaction to our economic, social, and environmental context. I think as a designer living in a region with so many socioeconomic conflicts, one of the ways to contribute to my country of Peru and be consistent with my personal values is to become an activist. In addition, the field of landscape architecture is just now emerging in Peru, and I don’t want it to become an elitist service, as has happened with the other design professions in my country, such as architecture. I want to demonstrate that you can have an exciting, meaningful career working with any socioeconomic level.
My practice in research is motivated by curiosity and the desire to contribute to my profession and hold it accountable. Landscape architecture is comparatively a very young field. Although art is in its roots, landscape architecture has other responsibilities such as satisfying the needs and rights of a community. Meeting needs such as public health and ecological remediation requires scientific and intentional reflection. We must continue creating evidence to be able to say with authority that our designs are improving cities and ecosystems.
Can you tell me about that project and what it means to you?
The project you are referring to is “Residential Gardens as a Health Strategy in Impoverished Communities in Developing Countries: A Case Study in Iquitos, Peru.” I created this project to demonstrate the logic behind my design approach. I look at different aspects of human, ecological, and environmental health and how they are linked to our design practice. These links sometimes are very evident, but many of them are hidden behind literature and practice in other fields of study. This project shows how a multifaceted and multidisciplinary analysis stimulates ideas and questions that open windows to environmental solutions and new research topics.
My analysis approach includes interviews with locals and experts, and a literature review on topics of health, ecology, and environment to complement a robust architectural and landscape architectural analysis. Some solutions could look incomplete because of insufficient evidence, but that is the goal here, as the first step to having a design solution is to picture an idea.
One of the most frequent questions I get is, “Can gardens control mosquitoes and prevent vector-borne diseases?” They will, but I don’t know exactly how yet. The mechanisms have not been tested with a designer’s eye. We have some assumptions and ideas for the solution based on research in other fields—for example, a plant palette that includes potentially repellent plants, or creating beauty to foster community engagement and improve maintenance to remove mosquito reservoirs—but we still need to identify all the variables involved, scientifically test the solutions in the field, and ask the right questions of other professions with more training in understanding mechanisms. With this project I want landscape architects to get excited, showing them that we could be part of the solution for critical health, ecological, and environmental problems but also be cautious and critical with our designs, assumptions, and potential solutions.
What is the attitude toward design professions in the area where you’re working in Peru?
In Peru, most of the design professionals work in private practice. Architecture and the recently emerging landscape architecture are exclusive commodities. Only a few are designing for the 70 percent of our population living in slum conditions, which is more than 21 million people who really need our services. There are even fewer designers doing this type of research linking interdisciplinary science and design.
Because of the lack of exposure, the work that I do is often misunderstood in my country. At the global scale, there is a growing interest in design research, especially in topics of health, ecology, and environment, and this international trend is finally influencing Latin America. After more than a decade of work, I have finally seen new young groups emerging with the same interests, and institutions and governments have started to fund these ideas. It is still early to say, but the general attitude toward our work is shifting to curiosity and surprise, so I’m optimistic. I believe with time and evidence, eventually landscape architects will play a big role in scientific initiatives and health, ecology, and environmental policies, and emerge as leaders in developing countries and in Latin America.
Most design professionals stick to pure design, but you’re going into the community. Why is this important?
I use a deep, participatory, collaborative process that includes communities constructing the designs alongside expert professionals. My role is to facilitate the design process. The very first step is to conduct a series of exercises so residents can identify and articulate their desires, needs, and priorities. With this information, our team starts crafting ideas for solutions using our professional expertise that will respond to the community, our research needs, budget, and time.
After additional participatory meetings to discuss the design options, the community decides on the project and starts building. We elevate the existing skill sets in residents and hold training workshops for skills that are lacking. For anything really complicated or dangerous we bring a contractor in to assist, but again, working alongside the community.
Having the community build the projects has two purposes. First, it helps us to leverage our typically minimal budget and materials. Second, the community is physically and emotionally investing in the project, which increases the long-term sustainability of the project. We are working in informal, neglected environments where authorities sometimes cannot intervene, so it is important that the community itself take responsibility for the maintenance. Building the project themselves prepares them for this task.
What surprised you when working in either the field or on your projects?
When I first start a project it’s often overwhelming to see all the conflicts, challenges, and health issues that exist in these neglected environments. For a moment, I feel like the situation is hopeless, like I am jumping into an empty pool. However, as the project unwraps, and I get to know the community more and build a network of other passionate professionals, the pool begins to fill with water. Local knowledge is always a nice surprise, and interdisciplinary exchanges are incredibly stimulating. And when the project is finished and you can clearly see the changes in human, ecological, and environmental health, not only in the research data but also in the joy on the residents’ faces, I remember again why I do this type of work.
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/TractionDRA.