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Studying City and Nature in Bogotá

hiking in Bogota
Architecture graduate students and faculty hike in the hills in Bogotá's Los Cerros Orientales, while studying communities along the city's natural boundary during their field trip to Colombia. Photo / Karen Wang, MArch '18.

Constructing a Sustainable Relationship Between City and Nature

In late September, third-year graduate students in architecture embarked on a week-long field trip to Colombia led by architecture's Associate Professor Jeremy Foster and Visiting Critic Julian Palacio. The trip was part of the fall 2016 expanded practice studio titled Bogotá's Los Cerros Orientales: Constructing a Sustainable Relationship Between City and Nature.

Foster and Palacio led 22 students to study the urban edge at the mountains east of the city—an area known as Cerros Orientales—which are a natural boundary to Bogotá's development and one of the most threatened regions in the city. Decades of conflict in the rural areas of the country dramatically increased rural migration to the city, and Bogotá now has some of the largest numbers of inhabitants living in informal conditions in the world. "The challenges created by this migration are especially evident in the Cerros because they are so close to the city's historic center," said Foster.

Armed with geodata provided by an environmental advocate in Bogotá, the students were given project areas within the city-Cerros boundary and challenged to develop strategic visions for their sites.

Travis Nissen (MArch '17), Wachira Leangtanom (MArch '18), and Anuntachai "Ben" Vongvanij (MArch '18) studied the relationship between the Cerros and the Parque Nacional Enrique Olaya Herrera, a dynamic area of wealthy universities mixed with historically informal communities. Their project looks at the informal community of El Paraiso linked with the university neighborhoods via a hiking trail that is underused due to its steep slopes and the perception of danger. "Our proposal centers on using that trail as an armature for urban agriculture and additional community space," said Nissen.

Brian Havener (MArch '19), Ethan Davis (MArch '18), and Justin Hazelwood (MArch '18) focused on the barrio of Aguas Claras, an informal settlement hidden in a valley of the Cerros. "We're proposing various surgical interventions of the landscape," said Havener, "to create a framework for further development in the form of urban acupuncture, that could be replicated in other communities of Bogotá." For him, "It's one thing to understand a city through research and mapping, but it's truly inspiring when you get to experience that place and see so much change as it is happening." Davis shared this view. "A successful site visit is one where your preconceived notions of a place are challenged or completely upended," he said. He appreciated seeing the value of the informal settlements, such as Aguas Claras, as assets to the city. "This in-between zone serves as a soft urban buffer that mediates the city's interaction with the mountain, contains urban expansion into natural reserves, and provides a space for ecological succession."

For Foster, the most interesting aspect of the experience was the current "political moment" in Colombia and how it affects the way planning and design of the city are discussed and contested. He realized on visiting Bogotá that the Cerros, seen by most visitors as simply a "beautiful backdrop" to the city, are actually a long-disturbed landscape, and one which, thanks to recent history, is unknown and even feared by many Bogotanos. "To give this green open space a future, designers and planners also need to come to grips with this fear and cultivate a sense of environmental citizenship towards the mountain," he said. "This gives students lots of things to consider."

In addition to site study and documentation, the students met with architects and university professors in Bogotá, attended lectures, and toured the historic neighborhoods. According to Palacio, "This interaction with local experts and residents was very productive and gave the students the opportunity to have an idea about how these different stakeholders understand Bogotá's relationship with the natural backdrop of the Andes."

The other students who traveled to Colombia were Jordan Alejandro (MArch '18); Antoni Baca (MArch '18); Dixin Bao (MArch '18); Katerina Economou (MArch '18); Aurelie Frolet (MArch '18); Ka Yin Fung (MArch '18); Kristin Ionata (MArch '18); Caroline Niederpruem (MArch '17); Russell Southard (MArch '18); Guoyu Sun (MArch '18); Petrea Sweeny (MArch '18); Kai-Chun "Karen" Wang (MArch '18); Shawn Xiaoyun Wang (MArch '18); Jingyuan Yang (MArch '18); Yifei Zhang (MArch '18); and Yang Zhao (MArch '18), with alumnus Juan David Grisales (BArch '14) assisting.

The group spent the final three days of the trip in Medellín, where they met with city planning officials, architects, and university faculty, and visited built projects that, according to Palacio, "embodied ideas about the transformative role of architecture in the revitalization of different areas of the city. "The visit to Medellín was the perfect close to a successful trip and provided Davis with a lasting memory. "We struck up a game of soccer with a group of kids while on a tour of one of the informal settlements. The sun was going down and our bus was ready to leave, but our professors, along with residents of the neighborhood, gathered around to watch the group of graduate students get outplayed by 12-year-olds."