As a young girl, Elizabeth Brabec [a member of the American Society for Landscape Architects] knew her mother’s garden was different. Where the neighbors grew lettuce and carrots and cucumbers in neat rows, her family’s garden featured mounded beds of currants, gooseberries, and celeriac interspersed with fruit and nut-bearing trees. Everything was mixed together. Brabec didn’t understand the reason for the difference until she visited the Czech Republic decades later. Every garden looked like her mother’s.
That was the first time that Brabec, now a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, realized that gardens could function as an expression of a person’s heritage, a way for immigrants to create continuity between the old world and the new. Brabec’s parents fled Czechoslovakia in the 1940s to escape the ethnic cleansing that took place after World War II. When they arrived in Montreal, one of the first things her mother did was plant a garden, Brabec says, a garden modeled on the one her own mother had grown back in Prague.
For the past five years, Brabec has been studying this phenomenon, visiting refugee gardens around the world to document the ways in which they reflect the gardeners’ home environments. Most recently, she has focused on the gardens of Syrian refugees in Jordan. Brabec says gardens offer refugees a way to perpetuate their language and cultural traditions, such as by allowing them to grow foods not available through aid organizations or in local stores. Gardening has become such a part of life in today’s refugee camps that in Domiz, in northern Iraq, there’s an annual garden competition, organized by the United Kingdom-based nonprofit Lemon Tree Trust.
Brabec says these gardens are not just a means of food production but symbolic representations of home, featuring flowers and other ornamentals, even fountains. Gardening can also provide refugees a sense of agency, a modicum of control at a time when the majority of their lives is dictated by external forces. Brabec says understanding the role gardening plays in the process of “emplacement,” through which displaced people create meaningful ties to new places, should inform the design of refugee camps and resettlement programs, especially as the number of refugees grows. Since 2007, the number of people forcibly displaced because of war or other disasters has increased by 50 percent, reaching a record 68.5 million people last year.
The scale of this forced migration has galvanized landscape architects besides Brabec. After spending time in Italy, Tao Wu, a landscape architecture PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut, developed a framework for integrating refugees into the social fabric of existing communities by involving them in already under way revitalization efforts. Wu’s project, which won a 2018 CELA Fellows Award of Excellence, proposes repurposing a former industrial site in Naples as a transitional community for incoming refugees, accelerating the remediation process by employing refugees in the cleanup while simultaneously creating opportunities for social and cultural exchange. Kristin Schwab, ASLA, Wu’s adviser, says the model has applicability in other contexts and even to other populations.
Whatever the scale of the intervention, Brabec says designers must understand the needs of the refugees. “It’s not about designing a space,” she says. “It’s about enabling people and giving them the tools and the technical expertise to achieve feeling at home.”
This article was written by Timothy A. Schuler and first appeared in the September 2018 Issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine.