Ward Verbakel | Urban Andes

8th September, 2022 in Author’s corner

“To address ‘wicked problems’ such as climate change, research by design and collaborative urbanism prove to be effective in showing us alternative futures.”

Urban Andes marks the start of the new series LAP on innovative design research in architecture, urbanism, and landscape. It suggests alternative futures in the light of climate change in the Andes, crossing scales of landscape systems to new settlement typologies within the Cachi River basin of Ayacucho, Peru. A Q&A with editor Ward Verbakel.

Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.
Using design explorations as a tool for collaboration and knowledge production, this book offers insights in the way one balances landscape logics and human occupation within the context of climate change, water scarcity and rapid urban growth.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?
Climate change is a critical transformation that we all need to tackle. The effects of disappearing glaciers and changing water supplies is strongly felt by those living in the high Andean landscape. Business as usual in land cultivation, urban development and the use of water is speeding up the negative effects of this process and cannot be sustained. Moreover, it turns out that large-scale infrastructural approaches, such as enormous dams and kilometres of pipes and aqueducts, are proving insufficient to offer long-term solutions. Their implementation cannot keep up with increased capacity demands or their maintenance is not adapted to local resources. Landscape urbanism, the knowledge sourced from local practices and a collaborative approach, offer a different starting point for meeting the needs of Andean highland communities as they grow and adapt. It was Tulia García León of CEDAP (a local NGO active in the link between water infrastructure, agricultural communities and auto-construction) who inspired us to connect with local practices and other forms of knowledge to co-produce alternative strategies for urban development and water systems. Using design explorations to imagine, project and communicate alternative strategies is an effective method for building knowledge. This exceptional collaboration between local actors, NGO’s, design professionals, engineers and policy makers, is well documented in this publication.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, …) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?
John Murra wrote a wonderful book in 1969 on reciprocity and redistribution in Andean civilizations. It is a good starting point for those wanting to familiarize themselves with the history and practices of high Andean life and the concept of ecological floors or ‘vertical archipelago’. On the project and associated collaborations itself, there is the website of the ‘Urban Andes’ and ‘Agua Andes’ initiatives, coordinated by CCA in collaboration with many partners such as KU Leuven. It offers a good overview of the different projects, results and partnerships.

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?
The collaborative design research took place in 2018-2019, during a time when traveling to and from the Andes was an evident part of the process. The translation of the jointly produced design research into a book took place during the pandemic and consecutive lock downs. Since then, the world has been a different place. Writing and reflecting on the research outcome and its impact on the field took place in virtual formats. The notion of travelling and working together has evolved drastically, giving rise to virtual, physical and hybrid collaboration formats, all of which have their strengths and limitations on the nature, intensity and dynamics of the exchange. This has had a profound effect on how we see the nature of collaborative design, workshops, and fieldwork, that are so important to the design profession and the development of shared knowledge. In my experience, it has reinforced the conviction that to profoundly participate, exchange ideas and coproduce, proximity and local immersion are very much needed. For future projects like this one, we may travel less and have many more additional exchanges online, but the need to be physically present is vital for the quality of the work and the depth of the understanding. Design – after all – is deeply rooted in the physical domain.

What would you like readers to remember about your book?
When local practices and design exploration work together in order to develop strategies that can be implemented by and for local communities, they can make a difference. In order to address ‘wicked problems’ such as climate change, research by design and collaborative urbanism are proving quite effective in showing us alternative futures. The Urban Andes publication provides insight into how high Andean communities can address water scarcity and climate change through design research embedded within their cultivation and construction practices.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about?
At our KU Leuven department we produce design-based research in various fields. We are discussing a publication on the productive city, a concept that reimagines new (and less conflicting) forms of localized light-industrial production that can be embedded in the city as it evolves. That research is ongoing and we are working closely with local policy makers, practitioners and academics. As a method of collaboration, and with a similar focus on how design research contributes to large societal challenges, this publication should offer relevant tools and insights into how we can re-appropriate certain types of production and be less dependent on global and geopolitical networks.

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