Harvard Came to Arganil to Think About the Resilience of Rural Communities to Fire

By Carla Tomás, Portugal
Originally published by Espresso, Oct 11, 2021

[English translation below kindly provided by Miguel Cardoso for NWNL]


INTRODUCTION Silvia Benedito, architect and professor at Harvard University, developed the project “O Canário na Mina/The Canary in the Coal Mine: Fires and Rural Communities in the Interior of Portugal.” It is now published in her newly released book. Arganil is in the center of Portugal, surrounded by forests. Every year it has big fires. In 2017, more than 40 people died in their worst fire ever.

Several villages in Portugal’s municipality of Arganil [east of Coimbra] became the laboratory of a project conceived by the architect and professor at Harvard University Silvia Benedito and her students. O Canário na Mina / The Canary in the Mine): Fires and Rural Communities in the Interior of Portugal is book that results from the work developed in collaboration with the Câmara de Arganil, presented this Monday in Lisbon. Silvia Benedito spoke to “Expresso” of her goal to “give a new image of the rural countryside as a beautiful and productive place;” and how transformation of that landscape could endow it and those who live in it with greater resilience to fire.

The idea began to ferment in 2005, but only took shape after Arganil’s tragic fires of 2017. Sílvia Benedito, architect and professor at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, wanted to apply her theories on climate variation and absorption in the field. A sense of space, with landscape architecture and urbanism as support instruments, can interconnect and help local communities to live better in the rural world.

Canary in the Mine was created as a “multidisciplinary convergence laboratory” to respond to alerts regarding the climate crisis. Four years later, it resulted in publication of O Canário na Mina: Fires and rural communities in the Interior de Portugal. “If we don’t change the paradigm, we will continue to have the same tragedies,” Benedito explains, justifying the message that this ‘canary’ echoes.

The partnership between Harvard and Arganil began in 2018. Initially, Benedito wanted to “study the terraced landscape in this municipality and understand why its wetlands form a specific microclimate and are more resistant to fire.” As well, she wanted to “create a multidisciplinary platform and a new sensitivity to the problem.”

Arganil became the stage, after this researcher studied a report of the Independent Technical Commission. It made her realize that even with Arganil “being one of the most proactive councils and those that best maintained the fuel lines,” the flames had not spared it.

Participatory Models to Redesign Spaces

Following a dialogue with the local authority, the doors opened for collaboration. It was not difficult to excite students “from different backgrounds” for the project. Its basic concept is based on multiculturalism and exercises on social and climate crises in various parts of the world.

Two students, Inês and Melissa, spent July and August inserted in the community of the village of Benfeita, living with local elders. They created a “relationship of empathy,” necessary to collect memories and documents that served as a basis for the other students. “I want to value what communities do with the landscape. We are looking for participatory models to redesign spaces,” she explains.

In all, eleven projects emerged amongst eleven participating students. The idea was to design concrete actions on the ground, using an interdisciplinary approach to explore the relationship between fires, the Mediterranean landscape, rural management, bio-economy, resilience, local communities and cultural values ​​associated with “working with the land.” For Sílvia Benedito, born in the Algarve and having lived in the United States for years, “It was a way to bring Portugal to school [Harvard],” and to return her “back to the countryside.” 

“We have to think of the rural world, as well as the new urban world, needing to be strengthened and improved; that this rural world needs more people; and that the landscape is not just forest,” defends the architect. And she remarks that in this landscape, “The climate is like alcohol in a wound,” Its imminent explosion has to be controlled with the help of “the perception of the cultural and social dimensions of fire. In her opinion, “This is part of an ancient culture working the land, and the balance of the landscape should not be demonized, but included.” To include it, the architect asked the students to listen to the people of the land and then conceive a spatial resolution of that landscape which “could be the new image of rural regions.” Their aim was to create “a long-term vision – for 2050 – on the scale of landscape infrastructure, aiming for greater resilience, biodiversity and economic viability of rural territory.”

Good and Bad Fire

The project includes conversations with several Portuguese and foreign specialists and local people, leading Silvia Benedito to remember that “There is good fire that regenerates vegetative species which feed goats, support pollinators, and can foster a new rural economy.” This integration “is in line with the European strategy of Prado à Prato, or the European Ecological Pact,” she recalls. “We want to give a new image to rural areas, which should be seen as beautiful and productive places that can spread to the rest of the country, not only from an aesthetic, economic, cultural point of view, but also in terms of well-being,” she adds.

In the era of 5G and the ubiquitous Internet, desertified rural communities are also beginning to receive new “colonizers” – national and foreign. Many are searching for new ways of life, “in a new time, in which new generations begin to realize the beauty of living in the countryside, feeling healthier, with more freedom and in contact with nature”.

Silvia Benedito has always felt the Portuguese rural world as her own. Despite living in the USA for years, she conceived a project that brought her to her origins. Now she hopes to find private and public partners to shape rural areas in Arganil, and then replicate that in other parts of the country and the world.

For now, these projects are taking “baby steps.” She hopes to see more village condominiums built within the designed projects and hopes to rely on ICNF* collaboration, for example, “to rethink fire lanes that might be pleasant spaces, increase water retention for groundwater, and serve for shepherding.” The architect does not see Utopia in what she designs. “Things take time, but I believe in these ideas,” she says. And she notes that residents in Portugal and California have already realized that “spending billions on firefighting is not sustainable and we have to change the paradigm.”

1Instituto Conservação da Natureza e das Florestas (Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests)

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