LSU architecture students help rebuild city in Haiti
The LSU Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture engaged a group of fifth-year students in a planning and design project that is giving a whole new meaning to the term “service learning.” They’re helping to rebuild a coastal city in Haiti that was devastated in the earthquake that hit the island country early in 2010.
The 15 third-year students worked on the project throughout the fall semester in their urban design studio, under the direction of Associate Professor Austin Allen, who led them on a site visit to Haiti in late October. The group spent seven days in the country, primarily in the badly-damaged historic district of Jacmel, a 312-year-old city on the Caribbean coast in the southeastern part of the country.
“This gave them an understanding of the landscape unlike anything they have had before,” said Allen, who was the school’s Inaugural Marie Bickham Endowed Chair last year and has since joined the school’s faculty officially. “Experiencing something like this first hand is part of a learning process that they can carry with them in their professional lives.”
The thrust of the students’ project was to focus on urban design strategies for the Jacmel historic district and how those can be used as a catalyst for recovery. The district is unique, and has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. In recent years, it has evolved into something of an arts district, though its history stretches back to the Colonial Age of Exploration, when it was a major hub of Haiti’s coffee and indigo export business.
On their visit, the students stayed in a hotel within the historic district site of the studio that was damaged during the January earthquake, so they could better understand the challenges and realities of rebuilding in the area. They also spent time walking the streets, visiting with residents and artists of the area and meeting with local elected historians and officials. They were joined by graduate landscape architecture students from Morgan State University, a HBCU based in Baltimore, who are collaborating with them on the project.
“We wanted them to really get the feel of the area,” said Austin, whose areas of interest include landscape regeneration, urbanism, design of public spaces and film studies, with an emphasis in the cultural landscape.
Austin and the students worked closely with the Jacmel mayor’s office on the project, as well as the Port of Jacmel, the Ministry of Tourism for the city and several private property owners. The project was facilitated by the Louisiana/Haiti Sustainable Village Project, an organization that was created in the aftermath of the earthquake.
“The idea behind the organization was not so much to create another non-profit relief agency,” said Allen. “Rather, it was to share with Haitians the lessons learned four and a half years after Katrina.”
While the students have been busy working on their designs since returning from Haiti on Oct. 25, the project isn’t all work. On their trip to the island, the students spent two days in Port Au Prince. They also spent a day in the mountains, playing as tourists. They also took a side trip to a small city 10 miles from east of Jacmel called Cayes Jacmel.
“It really gave them an opportunity to compare and contrast the landscape and architecture within the Caribbean region,” Allen explained.
The Haiti project is one example of the broad perspective students can obtain in LSU’s Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture. The school’s undergraduate program was ranked first nationally and its graduate program second in 2010 by DesignIntelligence, the leading journal of the design professions.
Besides elective travel and study abroad experiences, students participate in field studies and travel experiences during the fall semesters as part of their design studio requirements in the third, fourth and fifth years of study. Instructors choose a general geographic area to visit and plan for student travel accordingly so they will have the opportunity to see urban centers and designed works and sites, visit with alumni and other noted professionals at their offices/agencies, and experience natural wonders of the U.S., Canada, Mexico or other locations.
During the fall 2010 semester, third-year students visited Toronto, Niagra Falls and other Upstate New York locations, and New York City; fourth-year students went to Chaco Canyon and other New Mexico cities and sites; and one section of fifth-year students traveled to the Chicago area.