As hurricanes increase in frequency and intensity, Puerto Rico’s landscape architects have solutions for managing rivers, stormwater, erosion, and coastal development—if only the government would ask.
By Laurie A. Shuster
In 2017, back-to-back hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damage and taking roughly 3,000 lives. The territory was still recovering when Hurricane Fiona struck in September 2022, bringing up to 30 inches of rain in some areas, killing 25 people, knocking out power to the entire island, and causing some $10 billion in additional damage.
In early October, three landscape designers and educators in Puerto Rico met on Zoom to discuss the role landscape architecture has played—and can play in the future—in protecting the island from increasingly ferocious and frequent storms.
The conversation included Olga E. Angueira, ASLA, the director of academic affairs for architecture and landscape architecture at Universidad Politécnica de Puerto Rico; Yanick Lay Fumero, a professor of landscape architecture at Universidad Ana G. Méndez and a self-employed landscape designer; and Cecile M. Molina-Machargo, the director of design programs in the Department of Design and Architecture at Universidad Ana G. Méndez.
This discussion has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Do you think there has been any improvement since Hurricane Maria or even just the past 20 years in understanding by the public and by public entities of how landscape architects can contribute to the resilience of the island?
Yanick Lay Fumero: Puerto Rico is in a very delicate infrastructural state, and that gets exacerbated every time we have a chronic or typical [storm]. [It’s] very normal for the geographical situation where we live to have hurricanes chronically, right? It is a matter of, as always, where people live and then how they live in relation to natural resources.
Hurricane Fiona was a heavy rainwater event, [and] people don’t realize how wide rivers can get. People don’t realize how much water [hurricanes] can start to bring, and then you have housing and people building without permits close to these bodies of water, and then you have a big problem. I think that is what we’re seeing in Puerto Rico right now.
Socially and politically, there is a conflict between the way planning happens in Puerto Rico and how big developments are allowed close to delicate natural resources. There’s miscommunication, or there’s a lack of presence, in terms of knowing how this affects the landscapes. It happened in terms of erosion on the coast, and it also happens in terms of erosion in the upland, or higher up in the mountains where soil is more what they call arcilla, or more claylike. It has a weaker capacity of handling water, so it tends to slide more easily.
There’s also an opportunity for landscape architects to [work] with the scientific community, and also in tandem with engineers, to start creating better solutions for these types of problems. It’s getting to a point where I’m seeing, at least in our institution, a lot of interest from younger generations to study the profession and to learn more about the relation[ship] of built architecture [and] development to nature or to plants or to public spaces.
Cecile M. Molina-Machargo: One of the major problems we have in Puerto Rico, in terms of our participation in these projects on the coastline, for example, [is] there isn’t any junta or a board of landscape architects that responds to the government when these permits are being handed away to construct right there in areas that are totally vulnerable to the flows of the sea.
I know that there are many countries in the world [where the] government has boards of landscape architects that work with them to make sound and proper decisions for the development of cities, as to what should be constructed and [where and] why, you know? They don’t take [our] point of view into consideration when these things happen in Puerto Rico.
What can be done about that issue?
Olga E. Angueira, ASLA: We need to be more vocal. We’re getting a new generation of landscape architects, but [they are] historically not very—how can I say?—vocal.
We’re a small group, and sometimes the work relies on the same five, six of us, and we [have] a lot in our hands. Right now, I am at the university, I’m also the president of the Institute of Landscape Architects of Puerto Rico, I do classes, I do private projects whenever I get a chance. [It] gets to a point where I can’t do everything, and I know Yanick and Cecile might feel the same, because it’s just a handful of us [who] are willing to talk about it. But we don’t have enough time.
Fumero: As a professor, there are goals that you take on. I create a lot of projects and expose [students] to conflicts in projects that are very related to the problems that we have here on the island. In different studios, we deal with problems related to infrastructure. We [might] talk about military occupation on the island and what that does and the marks that that leaves in [the] landscape.
In the individual sense, [consider] what’s within your scope that you can start pursuing to help or to contribute to bettering the situation. I think, as educators, we first have to start with the students—with helping them develop, or having them develop alongside us, these topics that are critical to the island. That’s one of the main focuses that I think I take individually, in terms of addressing that problem, because it is exponential, right? Let’s say we have 30 students, then they go out in the market or they go out to the workplace and those are the ideas that [they] are trying to work around. Those are the fundamentals, I think, that they start pursuing.
I always say Puerto Rico is very small, so all the problems seem very big, but these are problems that we see in [the] states; these are problems that we see in different countries. It’s just a matter of resources, and also education, and being very active in finding creative solutions. Whenever you have limited resources, you have to be even more creative, even more active in finding those creative solutions that at times don’t rely [on] excess [funds].
Angueira: We’re always [at a] disadvantage in terms of the design and construction industry. You know, we’re barely, I don’t know, 50, 100 maybe, compared to thousands of architects and a bigger number of engineers who have been the leaders in construction throughout decades.
It’s complicated to change the ways in which they have been trained and worked for so long. So we have to be very strategic, because obviously, the collaborations with the scientific community [are] very important, but then I think it’s easier with them because we both understand the impact. But we also have to be very strategic in how we create these collaborations and connections with architects and engineers, [because] not all of them see things the same way. It’s a matter of educating them and making them understand that bringing us with them in the projects from the beginning, it’s a win–win for everybody.
What landscape interventions have happened since the last couple storms, and how did they affect this storm?
Fumero: I was a part of the development for the El Portal Visitor Center at El Yunque National Park. I was working privately with another architecture firm. That project was completely designed around storms and stormwater management, so we designed it to accommodate all the water loads. We made a series of rain gardens and different plazas and landscaping preventions that were meant to deal with stormwater.
That’s a federal project. It was very well funded. It was a large team. We had landscape architects, architects, engineers. It was one of those projects where you get to see every single component that needs to be in the [design]. Executing the work and then seeing [that] it worked now with Fiona and having been there recently, it’s a pleasure to be able to see how that worked at that particular moment.
Angueira: I wanted to add a couple of projects that I think have been successful. One of them was done way before Hurricane Maria—the linear park in Bayamón. Bayamón River starts up in the mountains and goes all the way through the north. It meets the ocean [on] the north side of the island, and that river, a long time ago it used to flood. And it flooded some of the urban areas. A project was developed at the linear park that runs through, maybe six, seven miles along the river.
With the last couple of storms that have brought a lot of water, that project has proved that it works. And it’s green infrastructure, because you have this really long park that allows people to exercise. People run, they walk, they bike—they have separate lanes. There’s a couple of kiosks along the way. And when the river starts going up, the park was designed in a way that, topographically, it goes higher so it protects the urbanizations, the residents near the river, from getting flooded. And it worked in Maria, and it worked in Fiona as well.
Besides that project, there’s also what is called the Urban Hub. It’s a private project here in Hato Rey in downtown [San Juan], and it’s a project that was sponsored by Banco Popular, [one of the] biggest banks here in Puerto Rico. And the late landscape architect Vilma Blanco [worked on] that project. It’s an urban park and plaza and it has a lot of urban areas, but it works with a system of rain gardens, and it captures rainwater. And I believe that project also helped with the stormwater management in that zone, which used to get very flooded as well.
There [are] also two green roofs here in Puerto Rico. The first one was done by Vilma Blanco as well, in the music conservatory in Miramar. The roof garden was done on top of the roof of a parking lot when the school was being renovated and extended.
It’s a big plaza, and it has trees and kind of an amphitheater, because the students can play and give concerts out there, and it overlooks the Condado Beach, so it’s a really nice area. And it was proposed with many ideas, to provide that view of the bay, make that roof of the parking lot look nice because we have a lot of parking lots. And also [there was] the idea of collecting some of the rainwater through that main roof, and I believe they have a cistern system that recycles water. And that was also done before Maria.
And then Edmundo Colón Izquierdo, ASLA, worked on the green roof at the Cuartel de Ballajá building, a historic building in Old San Juan. He designed this green roof that has solar panels so they collect energy for the building, but they also have the green roof as a way of dealing with not only the temperatures of the building but also the impermeability of the roof. There’s a whole ecosystem created and a whole habitat created upstairs. You have birds and bees, and there are ponds with fish, and then the people [who] work there are the custodians of the garden, and they have a vegetable garden upstairs.
Projects like those are ones that we need to keep showing and promoting so people know what they are; they are not just there to make things pretty, but they have these other functions that are so important.
Broadly speaking, what interventions would bring the most value at this point to Puerto Rico?
Molina-Machargo: We have so many projects we could do in Puerto Rico, particularly in landscape architecture, to enhance and to make better the quality of life and the quality of environmental well-being here with our landfills. We have been notified [that] we have to close this landfill, then we have to close this other landfill because it’s up to the top of capacity. But we haven’t done anything specifically to tackle all those closed landfills to make an economy out of it, as they have done in other places around the world—to be able to use that problem [to] our benefit.
Angueira: I think that working with the rivers is crucial because this last event, Fiona, made us really aware of how many rivers we have and the problem that comes when you build near the river or when you change the course of the river for construction. And it’s going to keep on happening. The river, it’s always going to want to go back to its original shape and form and route. That’s what happened with Fiona. The rivers just went their way, and we were in their way, you know? Humans were in their way; the construction was in their way. Right now, when you talk to people, it’s, ‘The rivers are the enemy.’ No, they’re not the enemy; we are the enemy. We’re the ones that changed their course.
And in kind of a smaller scale, I think that parking lots are another thing that needs to be redesigned, because even though there is a code here that requires you to have so many trees for so many parking spaces, it’s not happening. They don’t have any trees, or if they have trees, they’re really small ones, and it doesn’t work. And then we’ve been having a lot of heat waves. Well, of course we have heat waves—we don’t have trees to protect us! So, [on] a smaller scale, I think that if we go back to all these parking lots and start working and adding trees and working with bioswales and rain gardens within the parking lots, little by little, that will make a big difference. And it’s not that complicated.
What else would you want other landscape architects to know?
Molina-Machargo: One of the major problems we have right now is our electrical grid. We used to have projects that functioned before we were born, like the hydroelectric plants that we used to have that they let slide, and now we need them. We have the water; why can’t we just activate those projects again so we can move forward in how we’re dealing with our electrical power? This is ongoing; every day the power is out in your house, the power is out at my house. And we’re going through that every day; it’s crazy.
Fumero: I think it’s important for landscape architects who are not from Puerto Rico to get in touch and to research and learn about Puerto Rico’s current political [situation] with the United States. I think that’s the first thing, because a lot of the topics that we’re covering today, they really [are] tied to the way we [are] related, or the autonomy that we have or the autonomy that we don’t have. We are still sort of [in a] colonial relationship with the United States. [In] the history of Puerto Rico, we have always had hurricanes. For example, in El Yunque, the national tropical rain forest, we don’t get sequoia[-sized] trunks, we get more thin, secondary developments, and I think it developed that way in order to adapt quickly and regrow quickly, right? All the problems that we’re seeing are related to how infrastructure has been developed on the island and how we have been operating from that point on.
Molina-Machargo: Our condition is colonial, and I’ll just speak for myself: I hate that condition. I don’t like being colonial. At the same time, because we are in a colonial condition state, as an island to the USA, we get federal funds for education, this and that, and I think that one of those funds should be directed to projects for landscape architecture so [we] can fix a whole bunch of things that have to be fixed on the island. If we would receive a federal fund that would be just for landscape architects to be able to propose different projects and then that [would] be followed through and constructed, then we [could] move forward.