Helping 524 Million Indians Rethink the Landscape of a Fundamental Human Act

By Kyle Niblett


Representing the human rights activism group called Action India, Gouri Choudhury once proclaimed, “It’s a question of belief in human dignity, which somewhere along the line we seem to have lost.”

Luckily for more than 524 million people in India, University of Florida senior landscape architecture majors Xiaoyu (Nikki) Zheng and Kate Noel believe in human dignity more than ever.

As a result of their project entitled “Rethinking A Fundamental Human Act: Landscape as a Solution for Open Defecation,” the duo were recently named winners of the American Society of Landscape Architects Award of Excellence in the inaugural Urban Design category. This new category recognized projects that activate networks of spaces mediating between social equity, economic viability, infrastructure, environmental stewardship and beautiful place-making in the public and private realm.

“Our college is committed to addressing societal challenges our world faces through the design of our built environment,” Department of Landscape Architecture Interim Chair Dan Manley said. “Receiving the 2020 ASLA Award of Excellence in Urban Design is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our students and faculty, as well as the support we receive from our alumni. We are tremendously honored that the jury chose to recognize our students with such a prestigious award.”

Working out of the Undergraduate Urban Design Studio in the College of Design, Construction and Planning, Zheng and Noel submitted a project introducing sanitation facility designs and phasing in Raipur, India, proposing design solutions based on a theoretical framework highlighting causes, conditions and effects of open defecation. With more than half a billion people practicing open defecation in India, a vicious cycle of disease and poverty has arisen and led to child mortality, malnutrition, social inequity and violence against women and girls.

“Studying the issues for this project and working in a foreign context we were not familiar with was an absolute eye-opening experience,” Zheng said. “It was incredibly challenging when we first started researching and understanding this sophisticated issue; but during the process of creating cultural-sensitive, functional, and conscious solutions, we explored what our profession can possibly do for the changes we want to see in this world.”

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By working for communities that lack basic facilities in a landscape with little consideration for the built environment, this proposal challenged the student’s notions of what design can do for human beings.

“Our goal with this project was to honor the dignity of the population we were serving by offering carefully-coordinated design interventions integrated within the landscape itself,” Noel said. “Operating outside of our comfort zones and tackling complicated problems with many underlying factors ranging from cultural tradition to social justice, taught us how to design with empathy and respect.”

“The award of excellence was such a tremendous honor to receive,” Noel said. “Our work spanned the beginning of a global pandemic, which only seemed to add urgency to the pressing issue of sanitation in under-served urban populations.”

The two DCP students were also recognized in Archue’s “Dream of Century” competition for the very same project.

Zheng added, “This award means a lot to us, not only because it is such an honor to have our work recognized, but also because it challenged our previous understanding of what landscape architecture is.”

Noel and Zheng developed their project during Spring 2020 in the urban design studio class taught by Department of Landscape Architecture Faculty, Assistant Professor Alpa Nawre. It was there that they and their peer cohort investigated many complex topics such as inequitable resource management, barriers to universal accessibility, surface water conflicts, and exclusive or gendered public spaces.

“Students like Nikki and Kate give us reason for hope and inspiration for a better future that they are learning to craft through their studio work,” Nawre said. “Moving away from ethnocentric viewpoints enables our graduates to not only engage objectively and sensitively with issues across different cultures, but also become more capable of designing solutions for complex problems in their own backyards. The sooner we train our students to tackle these challenges, fail safely as well as succeed spectacularly, the more prepared they will be to deal with the massive challenges of the contemporary world staring at us.”

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