State of the Planet

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13 Proposals to Boost Resilience in Vieques, Puerto Rico

map of vieques
Map of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Image: Urban Design Lab

A new report details 13 student proposals to assist the Puerto Rican island of Vieques with its recovery after Hurricane Maria. The proposals, published by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation (GSAPP), range from hurricane-resistant housing options to localized food production, innovative waste management solutions, education initiatives, and more.

Eight miles east of Puerto Rico’s main island, Vieques is perhaps most known for the naval base that once terrorized residents with its live bombing and missile exercises. After the Navy left in 2003, the island began attracting tourists with its white sand beaches, tropical forests, and bioluminescent bay. But in September 2017, Vieques was ravaged once again — not by missiles and bombs, but by powerful winds and flooding from Hurricane Maria.

Hurricane Maria cut off Vieques and its 9,000 inhabitants from the rest of the world for weeks. Homes were destroyed. The power went out. Cellular service stopped working. Nearly half of Viequenses had no access to clean water, and the hospital closed. Meanwhile, food supplies were dwindling. It wasn’t until almost two weeks after Maria that workers from the Department of Defense arrived to assist the people of Vieques.

It has now been two years since the hurricane, and Vieques is still feeling the impacts. Parts of the island still don’t have access to reliable electricity, and many Viequenses had to rebuild their homes without assistance from the government. The island still has a long way to go in terms of recovering and preparing for future storms.

With this in mind, the Urban Design Lab (UDL) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute spearheaded an initiative to explore solutions to make the island more resilient, sustainable, and equitable. The resulting report, published in November, is the first such document that offers Vieques tangible examples for a path forward after the disaster.

By the Community, For the Community

From September 2018 to May 2019, the UDL coordinated two graduate-level design studios that brought urban planning and architecture students to Vieques to conduct research, meet with community members to understand their needs, and help build a vision for the future. The GSAPP studios were led by UDL director Richard Plunz with architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld, adjunct professor Douglas Woodward, and with the assistance of urban planner Ubaldo Escalante.

During the visits, community organizations, political representatives, and professionals from various disciplines met the students and informed their final proposals. The Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust discussed the island’s unique bioecological resources. The deputy mayor and director of planning explained problems with the island’s waste system. Students heard from business incubators, farmers, and a wide variety of other local experts. On the last day, the students pitched their ideas for buildings and infrastructure that encourage physical, economic, and community resilience.

“These project ideas largely came from the folks there — we just helped translate them,” said Plunz. “It was very important and a huge learning experience to hear what they were thinking, and to be able to see people fixing their houses in unconventional, clever, and economical ways.”

“The students were organized and informed, and they had a well-prepared approach,” Mark Martin-Bras from the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust said in a recent interview. “They envisioned wide-ranging solutions and were able to be flexible in their assumptions…. They didn’t come with the attitude that they knew what had to be done.”

The new report documents 13 of the group proposals, which have been vetted with academics and field professionals in addition to local experts. At least two of the projects have received a lot of attention and could be implemented quickly, said Plunz.

Eventually, the aim is to secure funding to implement some of the proposals in partnership with local organizations. In the meantime, Plunz thinks that the report will give the Viequenses hope and will help validate their ideas, while pointing out what the next steps could be.

1. We Bike Vieques

Concept art from the "We Bike Vieques" proposal by Eunji Kang and Joree Liu
From the “We Bike Vieques” proposal by Eunji Kang and Joree Liu. Click for a larger view.

“We Bike Vieques” is a project aimed at improving the island’s public transportation system and promoting a healthier lifestyle, while developing eco-tourism in Vieques. This project would develop a network of cycling and walking trails that can improve residents’ daily commutes and, in the process, highlight the island’s historic, cultural and natural resources for tourists.

The bike path would include a main loop that runs east-west to the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge areas and connects the most populated areas, including the towns of Esperanza and Isabel Segunda. Amenities such as camping sites, picnic areas, historical monuments, and visitor centers are suggested.

The proposal could help to boost the local economy through the need for tour guides, event planners, family-owned food trucks, bike rentals and/or repair, and the construction and maintenance of the path.

2. Mobile Infrastructure

Concept art from the “Mobile Infrastructure” proposal by Lucy Navarro
From the “Mobile Infrastructure” proposal by Lucy Navarro. Click for a larger view.

Referencing the traditions of the island’s local community, “Mobile Infrastructure” would establish an emergency response system comprised of residents who already know the island’s terrain. “Rangers” would make use of the island’s many free-roaming horses to scout remote areas, communicate conditions, and rescue people in areas that would not easily be reached by traditional emergency responders. Meanwhile, other teams equipped with re-purposed vans would be able to deliver water, energy and other resources after a disaster, and local boats could carry emergency supplies from the mainland. The proposal would also install equipment in strategic locations to create water from air, turn wastewater into drinking water, and power batteries.

3. Resilience with Memory 

drawing shows plaza with fountain and landscaping
From the “Resilience with Memory” proposal by Andres Milos and Michael Lu

Many of Vieques’ historical monuments have lost their intended use or have fallen into disrepair. The “Resilience with Memory” proposal was conceived to reinvigorate these monuments, reinforcing their significance as places for reflection, memory, and strengthening the social fabric of Vieques.

The image above shows a possible future for the Plaza Muñoz Rivera, the first and main public space of Isabel Segunda, which is currently occupied by a gazebo and sparse vegetation. The “Resilience with Memory” proposal would densify the plaza’s vegetation, and take advantage of the difference in ground levels to generate social places protected from sun and rain. It would also reincorporate water at the center — a reminder of the water collector that historically occupied this space.

4. Viviendo Vieques 

drawing of redesigned hospital facility
From the “Viviendo Vieques” proposal by Timothy Clark

“Viviendo Vieques” is a proposal to solve several healthcare-related challenges the island is facing, including the lack of locally appropriate medical facilities, a scarcity of medical service providers, and a growing population of elderly and sick people requiring healthcare and housing attuned to their needs. This proposal suggests repurposing the Centro de Diagnóstico y Tratamiento, a 40,000-square-foot one-story concrete hospital facility that was abandoned after Hurricane Maria. The renovated structure would include areas for hospice care, housing for healthcare providers, a market and restaurant, as well as a community shelter for use during future emergencies.

5. Social Infill 

drawing of hexagonal two-family home
From the “Social Infill” proposal by Oscar DeLeon and Shriya Sanil. Click for a larger view.

The “Social Infill” proposal includes a two-family housing concept that is hurricane-resistant, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective. The hexagonal shape is meant to provide protection from high winds. A modified hip roof allows for winds to pass up and around the house, reducing wind pressure and the chance for roof detachment. Deployable solar panels can act as hurricane shutters, and concrete cores within the units provide a sturdy shelter during emergencies.

The shared nature of this design makes the solar panels, water collection system, and electricity and water storage more affordable for both families, while enhancing social ties and community resilience.

6. Vieques Florece 

drawing of a greenhouse
From the “Vieques Florece” proposal by Argelis Gonzalez, Kate Galbo, and Ran Ma

Currently, Vieques imports almost all of its food, so events that jeopardize shipping routes create food shortages. This proposal would set up a farmers’ cooperative to grow healthy food locally. The vision includes greenhouses, orchards, a chicken range, housing for farmers, and a commercial kitchen and farmers’ market for selling produce and other locally sourced products.

7. Museum of Memory

painting of objects in an open-air museum
From the “Museum of Memory” proposal by Gu Geo and Qi Yang

The “Museum of Memory” seeks to address the mental suffering caused by natural disasters. It sets up a platform for people’s self-expression as a way to support and strengthen relationships among Viequenses, improving social resilience. The project would repurpose damaged spaces and turn them into living museums, where residents share personal objects charged with strong emotions and memory, and use them to narrate their experiences.

8. Hacer Vieques

models of 3d printed homes
From the “Hacer Vieques” proposal by James Piacentini

One goal of this proposal (“Make Vieques”) is to use large format 3D-print building technologies to help Viequenses build affordably, cheaply, and resiliently. The concept aims to test and build 3D-printed homes, and would provide a catalogue of custom floorplans, roof structures, window types, and other options for families of different sizes and needs.

9. Rake and Fork  

drawing shows waterfront and restaurants
From the “Rake and Fork” proposal by Anastasiya Sytenko and Emily Siegel

“Rake and Fork” proposes a community garden that feeds into a restaurant row in the highly trafficked area around the island’s ferry terminal and fish market. The community garden, built in a nearby abandoned lot, could help to reduce the island’s reliance on imported food. As the garden gains traction, the designers envision its growth to include a market, educational facilities, and cafes. It would also catalyze new restaurant activity nearby, resulting in a “restaurant row” that enhances economic development and revitalizes Isabel Segunda’s town center.

10. Eco-Struct Vieques

drawing shows a school made of bamboo
From the “Eco-Struct Vieques” proposal by Alanna Browdy and Lena Pfeiffer

The “Eco-Struct Vieques” project would expand education on sustainable and storm-resistant building practices, with a focus on using a local, non-invasive variety of bamboo. The proposal includes an education center design that is both flexible and self-sufficient, where classes could help to establish an understanding of how to grow and harvest bamboo, how to use it in construction, and more.

11. Wastespace

drawing of machinery that turns melted plastic into products
From the “Wastespace” proposal by Rebecca Cook and Tola Oniyangi

This project addresses landfill issues on Vieques. The landfill is nearing capacity, and there is currently no place for residents to deposit recyclables and gently used goods. “Wastespace” would extract such materials from the island’s waste stream and turn them into value-added goods. The project would set up waste hubs to collect recyclable items, and provide tools, equipment, and training to reprocess those materials into marketable products. For example, Precious Plastics machines like those shown above would shred, extrude and shape the collected materials into goods designed by individual makers.

12. Harnessing Water

model of a house
From the “Harnessing Water” proposal by Anqi Liang and Laura Veit

The “Harnessing Water” design includes a home that collects solar power and rainwater, storing the latter in tanks that help to weigh down the roof against hurricane-force winds. The surrounding landscape includes bio-retention areas, wet ponds, and rainwater gardens that would decrease storm water runoff and flooding. These features would also help to recharge the groundwater supply and decrease the salinity of the water table.

13. Unearthing Resources

drawing shows warehouse full of materials that can be reused
From the “Unearthing Resources” proposal by Anqi Liang and Laura Veit

Many Viequenses build their own homes, but this practice is hindered by the limited supply and high expense of building materials, which are shipped from the main island. The “Unearthing Resources” concept would help to make Vieques more self-sufficient by finding new uses for materials from the island’s growing landfill. The proposal would establish a warehouse for different categories of recycled materials, and provide educational resources for building techniques, including classes. An instructional booklet for materials reuse would help to evolve the culture of self-sufficiency.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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Monica Addington
Monica Addington
4 years ago

So…who would we contact to help make things happen? I would love to be part of we bike vieques. Researching available grants, writing grant proposals etc. Then actual help forging the trails.

Jose Perez
Jose Perez
4 years ago

Will I be dead when this all happens?

norm griffin
norm griffin
1 month ago

A lot of good do-able proposals within this read. I think a committee approach focusing on a specific topic as it affects climate justice might be a viable approach so volunteers do not feel overwhelmed right from the “get go.” I’d be willing to serve on the Wastespace proposal committee if one was formed. (I’m a homeowner in Monte Santo).