Kelly Shannon proposes water urbanism solutions in Ecuador

School News

Kelly Shannon proposes water urbanism solutions in Ecuador

November 05, 2015

This past summer, Professor Kelly Shannon, newly appointed director of the Master of Landscape Architecture + Urbanism Program, was a keynote speaker for “Designing Inclusion: Co-producing Ecological Urbanism for Inclusive Housing Transformations in Guayaquil,” an international summer workshop sponsored by VLIR-UOS, a part of the Belgian Development Cooperation and jointly organized by the University of Leuven in Belgium and the University of Guayaquil in Ecuador.


The workshop’s focus was on alternatives to “Quayquil Ecologico,” focusing on informal settlements of Guayaquil, one of Ecuador’s largest cities and its major port. In recent years the government of Ecuador has been conducting “slum clearance” to remove these settlements in response to increasing flood risk, many of which exist on highly desirable real estate along the banks of the River Guaya that cuts through the city on its way to the sea. The government has been promoting development along the river’s edge, putting in a network of parks and mixed-use projects and forcing the local inhabitants out, relocating them to camps outside the city where there is no infrastructure, no schools, no hospitals.


Specifically, the workshop addressed one section, Estero Salado, along the river that has not yet been completely redeveloped. The approximately 50 participants brought the collective thinking of landscape architecture, urban sociology, and urban design to bear on the problems of how to do it differently. How could the existing community be included in the process and incorporated into the plan to transform the riverfront? Participants stayed for two weeks, conducting fieldwork and attending lectures on design and policy precedents for integrating low-income housing, ecological infrastructure, and landscape strategies into the city’s plans for riverfront renewal.


Shannon’s keynote addressed a topic close to her heart and central to her research: water urbanism. Showing examples of her work in Vietnam, Shannon proposed that Guayaquil’s riverfront needs to be more than a park. It should include other public facilities to serve the neighborhood and larger public interests. Since the riverbanks are vulnerable to sea level rise, Shannon also discussed her research with mangrove networks as a way to soften the river’s edge and incorporate water into the life of the community.


“It is soft engineering,” says Shannon. “We should work with water, incorporate it and encourage the development of mixed housing that lets the informal city coexist with the new. There is already public life there. These are established, full-fledged neighborhoods, not slums.” Shannon advocates for ecological infrastructure, like mangrove networks, as a way to connect the new park system and new development with existing communities at a more integrated urban scale. Currently, many components of the new riverfront plan has resulted in fenced off, fortified enclaves cut limiting access from local people, many of whom have lived along the river for generations.


“My work is centered around water urbanism and how we can change our relationship with water, the interplay between water and cities. With design we can develop ways to understand and intervene, looking back in history to combine ecology, urban design, and policy in new ways.” One of Shannon’s current graduate students, Yan Liu, is also working on such problems. Her final project will be addressing the informal settlements of Guayaquil.


The purpose of the “Back to Front: Envisioning an Alternative for the Estero Salado” International Summer School was to come up with design propositions to help move decision making in a new direction. “These and in fact all design propositions should be deeply rooted in geography and content-embedded,” says Shannon. “In our world, many people stop short at descriptive mapping investigations, reading the territory. But this is an alibi for not designing and I think it’s very dangerous because it doesn’t go far enough. It is far too easy to simply make beautiful maps.”