The Terraced Landscape: Sarah Bolivar's summer in Nepal

During the summer break, our newest LOEBlogger, Sarah Bolivar, assumed an key role in the planning and design of a new school and residential campus in Nepal. Her experiences there show how the benefits flow both ways when GSD students take their skills and creativity on the road.

This past summer, with grant funding from the South Asian Institute and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, I was able to support Kopila Valley School and Home, an American non-profit based in southwestern Nepal. Kopila Valley manages a home for children coming from destitute conditions, as well as a school for 350 students ranging from kindergarten to 10th grade. I learned about the organization from my friend, Kelly, who had been volunteering there for almost 2 years. Kelly’s images of the children and landscape had captivated me, and when I asked if there was any way in which I could contribute, she told me about plans for a new school campus and suggested a possible role as campus masterplan designer. As a landscape architecture student, the opportunity to work with community members in the design and construction of a project filled me with excitement and not a little trepidation.

Before putting ideas on paper, I led workshops with the older classes to help gauge the students’ ideas on play and to help them learn about the field of landscape architecture. Exercises included using paper and clay to create various landforms and learn about city development, drawing and visualizing ideal play spaces, and re-imagining the Kopila Valley School neighborhood. Through these exercises, students became designers and learned about the power and potential of physically transforming their environment. In an area where increasing residential and commercial pressures are coupled with little environmental oversight, it will be key for students to understand their own impact and role within fluctuating ecosystems.

In the midst of leading workshops, I had the great fortune to meet with and learn from experts in the region. One of the more memorable site visits included a motorcycle ride over rocky hillsides to the Himalayan Permaculture Center, where I learned firsthand about local plants and permaculture principles. This knowledge was beneficial as I began conducting research for the new school campus’ plant palette with Jamie MacDonald, Kopila Valley’s Sustainability Fellow. With the support of our community liaison, Sandip Shahi, Jamie and I selected trees with edible and medicinal properties, and built a nursery to accommodate the seedlings. And through Kopila Valley School’s Community Service Day, students helped plant more than one hundred bamboo and eucalyptus plants. It was truly wonderful to work directly with students and teachers and to help them assume a sense of ownership over their new campus.

The actual design process itself was challenging – as it is apt to be – but a source of great fun and contentment for me. Fortunately, Prabal Thapa, the local architect behind the school building designs, provided a building layout so I could concentrate on the surrounding spaces. Since the new school campus is located on a slope, surrounded by small homes and agricultural fields, and bifurcated by a ravine, I homed in on water flows throughout the site. During monsoon season, heavy rains can wreak havoc on communities. Seeing this phenomenon firsthand made me conscious of where land could easily erode. Thus, the design is composed of a series of sloping terraces that channel water to planted areas, reed bed systems, and the ravine. By integrating terraces with varying slope and aspect into the design, the project tackles water flows, fosters diverse plant growth conditions, and promotes gathering spaces of varying scales. Programmatically, the design encourages children to play soccer in the large, open field, venture into the forested amphitheater and path systems or gather in one of the more intimate outdoor spaces. Moving forward, I hope to refine and finalize the plan with the help of Kopila Valley volunteers and community members.

The South Asia Institute Graduate Internship Grant provided an unparalleled experience. Through volunteering with Kopila Valley School, I learned about the nuances of managing a design project in an area where there are extreme weather phenomena, little municipal infrastructure, and visibly enmeshed land development patterns. From playing with the Kopila Valley children to constructing a terrace with the laborers, each experience brought opportunities for self reflection on my role within community design projects. In the future, I plan to continue working closely with community members to create dynamic, resilient, and inclusive spaces.

Learn more about the Kopila Valley School and Home.

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