UW News

February 13, 2012

A Peruvian slum gets a massive green makeover — with slide show

UW School of Public Health

The residents of an impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Lima had a choice: Did they want a library, perhaps, or a health facility first?

The answer was surprising.

They really wanted a green space,” said Leann Andrews, a University of Washington graduate student of landscape architecture.

So Andrews, seven other UW students and two faculty members rolled up their sleeves and made it happen – with the help of volunteer labor from local residents.

A garden blooms in a Peruvian desert slum through the work of local residents and UW students and faculty.

A garden blooms in a Peruvian desert slum through the work of local residents and UW students and faculty.

Before fall quarter, the students and faculty spent a month in an informal settlement in Puente Piedra, a district north of the Peruvian capital. They held workshops, designed a plan for green space at a school, and then converted a barren, sandy hillside into a 600-square-meter park with walkways, trees and shrubs.

They also designed a system to recycle water from a hand-washing station and pipe it to the park to irrigate vegetation.

“The plant is a symbol of hope, a symbol of moving upward,” said Andrews, 27, a third-year graduate student from Pennsylvania who is also pursuing a certificate in Global Health. “Its really valuable to them. It symbolizes health.”

The creation of green space is the first major project coordinated by UW in the Puente Piedra slum – one of the largest slums in the world, said Joseph Zunt, a UW neurologist and associate professor of global health.

Zunt is bringing many disciplines together at the University and in Peru,  including major non-governmental organizations like Slum Dwellers International, to work with the community to come up with innovative approaches to improving life.

One-third of the urban population in developing regions like Peru lives in slums, and the number is growing by 6 million a year, according to U.N. Habitat, the United Nations department that focuses on urban development. U.N. Habitat estimates that by 2020, 889 million people will be living in urban slums. The collaboration means focusing on many things, from the physical and emotional health of residents to buildings and job training. “Were pulling in more and more disciplines,” Zunt said.

Exploratory seminar students: Leanne Andrews, Ryan Ulsberger, Laura Denman, Kate Walford, Alexa Celerian, Jonathan Jue, Tobey Clarkin, Daniel Shaw, and faculty member Benjamin Spencer.

Exploratory seminar students: Leanne Andrews, Ryan Ulsberger, Laura Denman, Kate Walford, Alexa Celerian, Jonathan Jue, Tobey Clarkin, Daniel Shaw, and faculty member Benjamin Spencer.

The Puente Piedra Project: Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities includes the universitys Department of Global Health, College of Built Environments, and the schools of Medicine, Environmental and Forest Sciences, Social Work and Public Health. Other partners include Engineers without Borders and Architects without Borders and the National University of San Marcos in Lima, one of the oldest universities in the southern hemisphere.

The project began in 2007, with a Peru-based physician from Uruguay named Jose Viñoles. Viñoles,  a Fogarty International Clinical Research Scholar who started a sex education project in the Pitágoras school, where teen pregnancy was high, Zunt said.

Other health-related programs included testing students for hearing, eyesight and asthma – and then helping those who needed it, such as subsidizing eyeglasses, Zunt said. Three sewing machines were purchased so the school could teach vocational skills.

With more than 1,600 primary and secondary students, the Pitágoras school is said to be the third poorest in Lima. It sits in the Lomas de Zapallal community of about 27,000 people and is part of a mega-slum of more than 1.5 million inhabitants.

Many live in make-shift homes of plywood and corrugated metal. Andrews says the wall of one home was made of plastic soda bottles filled with sand. Another home was little more than stacks of tires.

Many families lacked water, sanitation and steady electricity. “That was really pretty shocking,” Andrews said.

Andrews and the other students were taking part in an Exploration Seminar from mid-August to mid-September led by Susan Bolton, a professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, and Benjamin Spencer, assistant professor of landscape architecture.

The first two weeks were spent soliciting input from parents, students and teachers during participatory workshops and then synthesizing this input in three designs  for the open-space project.

“We offered several designs, including ones with bending, flowing sidewalks,” Bolton said. “They liked the square one.”

A professional stone-layer with a staff of three was hired. But most of the manual labor was done by parents of students who volunteered, Bolton said. Some women had babies strapped to their backs. Students and faculty put in their share of sweat, too.

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In just over two weeks, the park was constructed and about 200 plants, trees and shrubs – from geraniums to African tulip trees – were planted. Before, the school was on a giant sand dune.

“There were no walkways,” Bolton said. “It was just dry, sandy ground.”

The park, which connects the upper and lower parts of the school, now serves as a gathering place for students and as an “ecological learning landscape,” according to Spencer. Native plants and other species are labeled.

In addition, a gray-water irrigation system was built to recycle hand-washing water. The water passes through a sand filter for cleaning and then into a series of porous clay pots that slowly release it into the park.

Every drop is precious. Although its near the coast, Puente Piedra is a desert, and the region is vulnerable to climate change. “Its one of the driest places on earth,” Spencer said.

The eight UW students were also asked to hold cooking classes for the Pitágoras students. This was an excuse to teach some English, Andrews said, as well as to instruct students on the importance of keeping their hands clean when preparing food.

Students were taught to make brownies, cookies and banana bread, which they could sell to their peers to earn some money.

It was excellent cultural interaction, said Andrews, and the entire project was “the experience of a lifetime.”

The UW students lived about eight minutes away from the school by mini-bus.

Besides the new park, other planned projects for Puente Piedra include collaboration with Slum Dwellers International, to start a micro-savings program. Families would be encouraged to contribute small amounts to a community bank from which they could borrow money at no int

UW faculty , students and local collaborators are also in the process of building a health clinic and new classrooms. School rooms with good ventilation and adequate daylight could lead to better learning environments, according to Spencer.

Add up these kinds of small-scale interventions, he said, and “you can begin to create healthier environments in disenfranchised urban communities.”

In 2012, the entire project team was awarded a Social, Economic, Environmental Design or SEED Award for excellence in public interest design.


Jeff Hodson is a former Seattle Times reporter who specializes in global health news. He can be reached at jeffhod (at) gmail.com.