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Project: Life-saving garden design, Peru

Project: Life-saving garden design, Peru

Jorge talks to Iquitos residents about his ideas

An award-winning garden design proposal from South America is aiming to make a real difference

Designing small residential garden projects is challenging and satisfying for many practitioners, but it might be a stretch to say it is ‘worthwhile’ or world changing. We feel that gardens improve our mental and emotional health – though there is still little solid scientific evidence to prove these hunches – but what if good garden design could literally save people’s lives?

An award-winning new proposal from Peru offers hope that that garden design could make a quantifiable difference on a global scale. Jorge Alarcon, who is working towards his Masters in Landscape Architecture from the University of Washington in the US, believes that residential garden design is the answer to many of the problems faced by impoverished urban communities in South America. This topic became the focus of his postgraduate research thesis, in which he examines how the design of backyard gardens could be an essential element of regional health strategies in developing countries.

He used residential areas in the city of Iquitos, Peru, as a case study. “Iquitos is the fifth largest city in Peru,” Jorge explains, “with a population of 500,000 people, and is surrounded by the Amazon rainforest. Nearly 40% of people there live in slums, with precarious housing and infrastructure, and limited access to clean water, sanitation and health services. Increased weather intensity due to climate change has also multiplied the city’s health issues.”

Those health issues include tuberculosis, the second most prevalent disease in Peru, and Iquitos has the highest rate of transmission, caused by poor air circulation, a lack of natural lighting and crowded spaces. Parasitic infections are common due to lack of hygiene and exposure to or consumption of infested water and soil. Diseases carried by mosquitoes are also a permanent risk. Chronic malnutrition affects two out of every five children under five here – a local political crisis in 2013 ruined regional agricultural production and this, combined with the city’s isolated location, increased food costs by 800%.

it is a densely populated and built-up urban area

Evidence-based strategy

Jorge began his project with a visit to Iquitos, surveying 15 houses. His analysis was based on field observations and official health and planning reports from Iquitos and the Peruvian Census. He was determined to use an evidence-based design strategy, reading more than 600 articles, which provided the scientific background for a design framework for affordable backyard gardens that address health problems.

He wanted to apply this knowledge to the typical house in Iquitos. Most of these homes comprise two independent structures: a brick perimeter wall as a boundary; and a wooden frame supporting a corrugated metal roof, with rickety subdivisions made of reclaimed wood panels or curtains. The layout is a sequence of common spaces: a living and dining area, bedrooms, kitchen/bathroom and the backyard. This outside space is often dangerous and unhealthy, with wet soil, rubbish and rodents, creating conditions for parasites, and water reservoirs in containers offering habitats for mosquito breeding.

 Jorge could see that with a few simple changes, the garden could provide health benefits for the residents instead of causing many of their problems. The resulting framework took the form of a straightforward strategy that could be easily implemented: reduce the standing water; provide clean fresh water for health; offer ways for people to grow their own food to combat malnutrition; and lift their feet out of the mud to eliminate parasitic diseases.

A large part of the design concept centres on water management. Rainwater-harvesting systems would provide a reliable and healthy water source. Improving infiltration rates through plantings and mulch will also reduce vector habitats and help restore the water cycle, and adding a tree to each garden would increase evapotranspiration and reduce mosquito-breeding water on the ground. Another element of his design is a deck at the back of the house, which would provide a dry, clean surface for walking – reducing the risk of picking up parasites and injuries – and shelter for spiders, ants and other predators that help control vectors in the garden. Ground and wall-mounted containers would create growing space for a host of edible plants, providing residents with an element of self-sufficiency to ease the affects of the recent food crisis.

Jorge’s simple and achievable concept for a healthy backyard

Horticultural health benefits

Jorge believes his framework could be applied to more than 50,000 houses in Iquitos. “Beyond that, this framework has the potential to also be applied to other cities in tropical developing countries, to have a global impact.” It seems some of the top landscape architects in the world agreed, presenting Jorge with the top accolade of Award of Excellence in Residential Design in the 2016 American Society of Landscape Architects Student Awards. “This was refreshing and a fabulous project,” said the jury. “It demonstrates the value of research to solve an important problem, and it was something that could be done. This is where landscape architecture can be an agent of change.”

The next big step for Jorge is to find support to develop a pilot. “So far I’ve discussed this project with the Peruvian National Institute of Health and local academics, and they’re interested in exploring the topic further,” he says. “In the meantime, I am continuing to research, design and build projects in other similar areas in Peru.”

The layout of the typical Iquitos slum house and backyard  

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