By Published: Dec. 13, 2019

A group of students in the environmental design program returned from a six-week hands-on planning studio last summer in Colombia with a broadened perspective of life in a marginalized community. For some of them, the experience was life-changing.

Students collaborated directly with the community of Carpinelo 2 in Medellin, Colombia, helping residents design and implement a community development plan. 

Program in Environmental Design 2019 project in Medellin, ColombiaProgram in Environmental Design 2019 project in Medellin, ColombiaProgram in Environmental Design 2019 project in Medellin, ColombiaProgram in Environmental Design 2019 project in Medellin, ColombiaProgram in Environmental Design 2019 project in Medellin, ColombiaProgram in Environmental Design 2019 project in Medellin, ColombiaProgram in Environmental Design 2019 project in Medellin, Colombia

Jota Samper, assistant professor in the Program in Environmental Design, leads the practicum and studio, a CU study abroad experience in Medellin with partners at the Universidad Nacional and the Corporación Con-Vivamos for 12 students each summer. It is one of several such experiences provided by the program each summer.

Medellin is a unique place to learn about informal settlements because of its revolutionary urban strategies to manage and improve poor communities. Learning about the urban processes Colombia is implementing opens the door to discover unconventional practices that can better the lives of some of the 1 billion people worldwide who are living in informal urban communities.

The 2019 project in Medellin was supported by a CU Boulder Outreach Award.

Samper, who is from Medellin, focuses his work on marginalized communities and trying to figure out ways to serve the needs of people living below standard conditions in informal urban settlements. He has been working as an architect, planner and artist for 13 years, and he teaches architecture and urban design.

“There are many study-abroad projects directed toward working with marginalized communities in the in the developing world,” Samper said. “For example, they develop a new potable water tech or an energy production system, and then they deliver it to a community. This project differs from those in that we do not arrive with a preconceived idea to Medellin. We define, design and develop the projects with the community. The community members are the experts who know what the problem is and we develop a solution with them.”

In the Medellin project, students:

  • Learned about planning and urban design methodologies 
  • Engaged with a marginalized community, working side-by-side with community members to produce a plan for neighborhood development
  • Learned about innovative urban upgrading practices

The project focused on diminishing environmental risk and providing spaces for community engagement, so the students built outdoor cement stairs to replace the steep dirt path that always got washed out during the frequent heavy rains, a pergola with a community table and chairs, terraces for gardening, a small playground and a planter next to the home of the abuela (the community matriarch).

There are three stages to the project. The first two weeks are dedicated to understanding the community partner. Next is time spent designing a solution vetted by community members, who decide whether that solution will solve their problem. And last is the time spent building, which can be hard and intensive.

“Students arrive with personal goals,” Samper said. “After they begin working, many of them retailor their life path to set new goals that are more socially aligned. Realizing their project had a meaningful impact on people’s lives was a powerful moment for them. I hope students take away from the project a level of humanity to understand levels of inequality. And see how the skills they’re learning in environmental design can be used to help bring more fairness to the world we live in.”

ENVD students talk about their experiences in Medellin

Marie Obermeier, a sophomore in the environmental design program, and Dean Behary, a senior in sustainable planning and design in urban design, went on the Medellin trip for the experience and came away with an aspiration to continue working with communities in need and to improve people’s lives. 

Describe your first impression of the neighborhood where you worked on the project?

Obermeier​: It was a lot to take in. We could see all of Medellin from where we stood. Families were standing at their doorways waving to us and asking us questions even though we didn’t know the language. We walked through and around the whole neighborhood with the kids following us, curious about the visitors.

Behary​: This experience was exactly what I wanted to get out of it. The families we stayed with didn’t speak English, so there was this whole language barrier, but it turned out to be one of the coolest experiences because we had to express ourselves and communicate in other ways. It added an intimacy to the relationship with the families. My Spanish definitely improved by the end. It was about establishing trust with them.

What was your interaction with the people like?

Obermeier: The community was very involved with this project; they had a say in everything we did. On our second day visiting the site, we met with the neighborhood abuela, or grandmother. We were invited into her house for coffee where we sat in a circle around her table. Jota, our professor, translated her story to us. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more motivated to build something before. The kids gave us nicknames. I was called teacher. They would run up to us every day giving hugs and fist bumps and worked with us side-by-side. 

Behary​: They didn’t know anything about us. We worked together and listened to music together. We sat together at the site every day and ate the meal they had fixed. We were doing so much together with the community you’d forget that when we first got there, we were strangers. What we did for them was about combining knowledge. It’s not me going in and telling them this is the way to do it. 

Tell about some highlights for you.

Obermeier​: The whole experience was the highlight of my year. A highlight was building the playground structure. It was complete with a climbing rope and swing and we were able to make it out of bamboo and a recycled tire. It was the first time for me to see something that we designed come to fruition in this manner. 

One of my favorite moments was near the end of the trip. Everyone was dancing as we overlooked Medellin. It was around dusk and the ladies were laughing at seeing us dancing. The happiness during that time was energizing. Another time was our last day on the site. Everyone was sad, but they made the biggest pot of sancocho (a traditional Colombian dish). We sat around the table we had made and ate the lovely meal the community prepared for us as a thank you. We shared so much laughter and happiness with the community. It was a breathtaking experience and I will never forget it.

Behary​: There are so many highlights. When we were walking down the hill for the final time, the little kids in the neighborhood followed us down. There was a dog in the community that followed us. Every evening when we’d leave to go (where we were staying), the dog would follow us to the train station. And the dog tried to follow us that last time. 

The path from the abuela’s house was too steep and rocky for her to walk on. She donated a plot of land at the site that she wanted us to develop a park and community space on. We built a staircase she could walk on from her house to the park area. On the last day of the job, watching her be able to walk up the stairs to the land that was literally nothing when we got there, but was now a park, was so beautiful I was literally in tears. You could see on everyone’s faces they were overwhelmed with joy.