April 27, 2011
Using Education for Improving Lives
“If you’re looking for a course of study to help heal the planet, look no further!” says lecturer, researcher and advisor Peter Kumble (LARP). “Landscape architects and regional planners have been doing ‘sustainable’ work for more than 100 years! This degree will teach students to have the self-confidence to be problem solvers on many different levels.”
Putting students into challenging situations beyond their comfort zone, in the classroom and in the field, Kumble believes, results in real and measureable personal growth. “I want students to be at home with uncertainty. It’s not always smooth sailing, but this type of learning can be quite remarkable.”
Most recently, Kumble has used dusty and remote corners of Central America to drive this point home. In 2009 Travis Shultz ’07 (environmental design), MLA ’10 wanted to do a community service project in Guatemala City for his master’s thesis, with Kumble as his advisor. “We met the director of public works, a dynamic woman, dedicated to social justice and concerned about the health and welfare of the people who worked in the 40-acre landfill. ‘Work’ is a misnomer,” Kumble clarifies. “These people were scavenging through trash, collecting recyclables to sell, food to eat, discarded clothing and furniture to salvage, and breathing methane from decomposing waste: the scene left me speechless.”
The director also showed them a 30-acre farmers’ market where much of Guatemala’s produce is processed and packaged for export or local sale—and the germ of an idea formed. “We could set up a business to hire local kids and teach them the trade of producing compost out of green waste!” Kumble explains. “It was worth a try to help break the cycle of dire poverty.”
Adam Monroy '11 (landscape architecture), in foreground, mixing compost
as part of the Applied Field Studies in Guatemala class taught by Peter Kumble.
To test these principles, the experimental course, Applied Field Studies in Guatemala, was born. “Ten students in 2009 spent the first half of the semester learning how to make compost by meeting with experts, conducting research, and making site visits to a nearby operation,” Kumble recalls. “During spring break, we went to Guatemala City to build a test site, develop a business plan for this operation, meet with key leaders, and work really hard. By the end of each day we were filthy and exhausted—not your usual spring break trip!” Back at UMass, the students prepared a detailed site construction and operation manual, applied for grant funding and began the company, AbonOrganiCo.
“Travis received $100,000 in funding and moved to Guatemala City to apply his UMass training with his passion for affecting change,” Kumble says. Today the business employs nearly a dozen local kids part-time—but only if they stay in school. ”
Currently Kumble and the nonprofit ProPeten are developing ecotourism opportunities for La Compuerta, a Mayan village in Guatemala. “Nearby, the government manages an archaeological cave site (Naj Tunich) with 3,000-year-old hieroglyphics and trains local guides for ecotourists. I’ve been exploring other ecotourism experiences for the area to help create more jobs and revenue.” Last year Kumble’s Field Studies class conducted site surveys at the village and prepared site development and management plans for trails, signage, site interpretation, erosion stabilization, and rustic overnight accommodations.
Just a few weeks ago the third Field Studies group traveled to San Jose, Belize. “This Mayan village,” Kumble says, “has been successful in marketing itself as an ecotourism destination, allowing visitors to stay in a guesthouse and take meals with local families. “It’s an excellent model of a one-to-one relationship between local villagers and outside visitors. I wanted students to see this village and consider it as a possible model for La Compuerta, which they visited afterwards.”
“I think that I have been preparing all my life to work with students and conduct field research at a major university. I bring an applied and qualitative approach to both.” says Kumble, who began his career as a land surveyor, a draftsman, and an oceanographer. “Sprinkle in playing bluegrass music, repairing Volkswagens, working in public radio and as a music photographer, and even lifeguarding and bartending—my background is very eclectic.” Eventually, Kumble’s path zeroed in on landscape architecture. A graduate degree in the field, he realized, would be a good fit for his diverse interests.
Kumble chose the University of Arizona because of Tucson’s amazing desert landscape and Erv Zube, the chair of the program (who had led the UMass program for some years as well). “Erv was a pioneer in the field of landscape architecture research, public land management and environmental psychology,” Kumble says. “He was my mentor. Erv could outwork anyone with both arms tied behind his back!”
During this period Kumble worked on several “incredible” projects, including Biosphere 2. He helped develop systems to recycle oxygen, grow plants, and use alternative approaches to insect management in the air-tight two-acre environment. After graduation in 1988, Kumble headed to Washington, D.C, to help restore the highly polluted Anacostia River watershed. I was the only landscape architect working with a team of ecologists, engineers, biologists and planners,” says Kumble. In time he joined a fledgling consulting company, crafting solutions for small communities facing rapid land development. “We often involved the public in planning and design through a unique visioning process. That’s common today, but not twenty years ago.”
Kumble loved this work, but education was a big draw. In 2004 he and his wife, Elizabeth Brabec (now head of LARP at UMass) sold their company and joined the faculty at Utah State University. Then in 2007, they came to UMass. “I’ve also recently completed my PhD in Applied Landscape Ecology from the Czech University of Life Sciences. But I’m sorry Erv Zube’s untimely death came before I became a professor. I would have loved to share experiences.” I am lucky, however, to have LARP Emeritus Professor Julius Fabos here in Amherst to look to for advice. Julius and Erv were very close throughout their careers and also in retirement.
“Teaching in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences allows me to collaborate with a diverse array of colleagues, Kumble adds, “and working with students is enormously satisfying. In our required studio classes students learn the core fundamentals of design and planning and how to apply these skills to real-life projects with clients who expect high quality. This type of learning is not for the meek of heart!”
—Elizabeth Resker ’11 (communication), who completed a communications internship
in the SBS Dean’s Office this semester, played a large role in the development of this story.