UW News

October 26, 2006

From garbage to grass: Students build gathering space

By Peter Lewis
News & Information

Imagine a toxic garbage dump the size of the U-District inhabited by thousands of people who survive by picking through other people’s garbage. Rainfall uncorks a smelly soup of barely buried domestic, medical and industrial waste.

This was part of the reality observed by 12 UW students in Guatemala last summer, along with three students from other schools.

Each paid $3,500 to accompany Daniel Winterbottom, associate professor in landscape architecture, to participate in a project to benefit the underclass that endures in the otherworldly Guatemala City dump.

“It ain’t quite sippin’ wine in Italy,” said the 51-year-old prof, “nor drinkin’ coffee on the Riviera.”

On the plus side, he noted, trips like the one he led to Guatemala offer students a chance to develop a social ethic and a moral foundation. They make sense, he said, for “someone who can think on their feet — a professional skill I think students will need more and more to survive in practice.”

Not counting the daily hour-long commute from Antigua on the local “chicken bus,” the students spent at least eight hours a day over six weeks toiling in a “decommissioned” part of the dump, still a dangerous part of the city.

Their tangible objective was to design and build a gathering spot, including a play area and sensory gardens, outside a preschool — a place where mothers drop off and pick up their kids.

Most of the people stuck in the dump are Mayan Indians who during Guatemala’s protracted civil war left the highlands for the city in hopes of a better life, but ended up sifting through mountains of discarded plastic, paper, glass, furniture and food to survive.

The preschool is among two buildings located on a less-than-one-acre plot in a walled-off area run by a nonprofit group known as Safe Passage, which partners with volunteer groups like Winterbottom’s.

In screening applicants, Winterbottom said, students’ construction experience takes a backseat to “independent thinking, drive, passion, desire to see another culture, and flexibility to adapt to difficult situations.”

In looking for worthy causes, Winterbottom said, he links up with nuns or nonprofits that help at-risk populations with few resources.

For the most part, he said, his students have risen to the occasion.

Among them last summer was Vanessa Lee, a third-year graduate student who is pursuing a master’s degree in landscape architecture. “There was constant learning every minute we were there,” she said. She described the conditions as “really harsh…you could feel the contamination of the site and the struggle.”

That was offset to some degree, Lee added, by the vitality of the local kids. “You could see hope in that too,” the 26-year-old Boston native said.

Students sharpened their skills — learning how to bend rebar and various mortaring techniques, for example — by working alongside local construction workers, she said.

It was rewarding, as well, to spend time with the mothers, children and social workers to get their input as part of the design process, Lee said. That also was important because it helped build local stewardship, said Winterbottom.

Previously, he has led design/build classes to a maximum-security prison for women in New York state and to a foster home for kids with AIDS in New York City.

Winterbottom described the Guatemala City dump as about as marginalized a community as he’d ever seen. Many lived in corrugated metal shacks and other shanty-like shelters.

Until it was transformed into a dump about 30 years ago, the site had been a beautiful ravine, “a gorgeous ecosystem,” said Winterbottom. One of the most gratifying moments, Winterbottom and some of his students recalled, came after they’d procured some plants for a series of sensory gardens — a place where aromatic, medicinal and fruiting plants tickle the senses with color, touch and smell.

“The idea is that there’s a therapeutic quality to being in nature and the sensory effects of the plants,” Winterbottom said. The plants also attract insects — including butterflies and hummingbirds that were drawn even before the plants were put into the ground. “It was pretty extraordinary,” he recounted.

After six weeks of design-and-build work, students spent a final week touring the country.

Of his time in Guatemala, UW landscape architecture graduate student Justin Martin said, “It gave me a sense of how someone who is a professional landscape designer can help contribute to social causes.” Martin, 29, of Seattle, called it “an amazing experience.”

A powerful moment for undergrad Michael Michalek occurred when many of the children who would get to play in the park “were allowed to experience what we had done for the first time.”

Michalek, 22, of Irvine, Calif., added, “To hear the laughter and see the joy on the children’s faces was more than enough reward for several weeks of backbreaking physical labor.”

Winterbottom said it took two years to prepare for the project, including two advance trips to Guatemala. It all started, he said, with a connection to Safe Passage that he made through a UW graduate whose sister lives in Antigua, about 30 miles from the dump.

Safe Passage’s mission is to pull kids out of the dump and put them back in school to break the cycle of garbage picking, Winterbottom said.

Winterbottom’s project is being staged in several phases, with the next trip scheduled for fall 2007. Although last summer’s group was made up of landscape architecture students, Winterbottom said he welcomes students from other disciplines, including social work, public health, civil engineering and anthropology.

Those interested in learning more may contact him at nina@u.washington.edu