Using Service Learning to Explore Culture and Place in Croatia
By Daniel Winterbottom
Arriving at our guesthouse from a hike to the falls at Plitvice Lakes National Park, my students explore one of the many abandoned houses that punctuate this otherwise bucolic area around Croatia’s border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The black cavities recall the conflict that ravaged this landscape in the early 1990s. Today rampant clematis and trumpet vines reclaim, and may soon hide the devastation. The students return with pockets containing spent bullet shells they found. What they gleaned from pre-class readings becomes a vivid reality.
The students and I were in Croatia for a 10-week service-learning program over fall quarter. We partnered with a local community in the design and building of a landscape architecture project to help local youth discuss and better understand how the war affected the local population. We visited regions where the violence was most devastating and talked to people we met about how the war affected their lives. In fact, most people referenced the war quite frequently in our discussions.
Our home and work site in Rijeka, an industrial port city on the Adriatic was Dormitory Podmurvice, a facility housing local high school and college students. In the project’s initial stage, we worked with residents to assess their needs and preferences. We then designed a gathering area, a reconciliation garden, a garden of learning and cultivation and an art exhibit space. After a week of refining the designs and construction documentation, we moved into the field to break ground. The outdoor work was a relief for the students following long days and late hours in the studio designing. Digging into the rock-laden soil of this coastal city, we talked about the stone builders who preceded us. The Romans – and Illyrians, with fewer and cruder tools – had built settlements, markets and roadways, all carved from the limestone karsts that define the area’s topography.
Our project built upon two other projects completed the previous summer in Bosnia and Herzegovina that benefited disabled children in Tuzla and Bugojno, two cities that saw significant violence during the recent war. For those projects, students created therapeutic environments for people suffering from cancer and HIV/AIDS, for disabled and/or impoverished children and for prisoners. The spaces were designed specifically for reconciliation and horticultural, vocational and play therapy. The premise of my work is that creating spaces and activities with increased interactions with nature can assist people in dealing with the trauma of conflict, abuse, illness and displacement. The project in Rijeka was born from a meeting with a Croatian landscape architect in 2009. Together we developed a plan to merge and showcase Croatian concepts in therapeutic landscapes with current ideas about therapeutic landscape design. Despite a long tradition of therapy along the coast, therapeutic landscapes are not currently being created in this part of Croatia.
However, this part of Croatia does have a long tradition of therapeutic landscapes, including well-preserved and influential Franciscan monasteries, where 600 years ago monks dispensed treatments gathered from medicinal herb gardens. Under Austro-Hungarian rule, coastal towns, from Opatija to Crikvenica became destinations for relaxation and recuperation. Health spas and sanitaria were built on the sites of Roman thermal baths, continuing a long therapeutic tradition in which the prevailing winds off the sea were thought to cure respiratory ailments such as asthma and bronchial infections. This history resonated in our intent to create therapeutic spaces to alleviate the stresses and conflicts in the lives of high school students from poor, remote villages.
After a week-and-a-half of constructing stone retaining walls and straw bale seat walls, we took a break to visit nearby Krk, the largest and most populous of the Croatian Adriatic islands. Originally deforested by the Venetians for shipbuilding, sheep herding, olive groves and vineyards later came to dominate Krk’s agricultural landscape. Rocks dug from the fields were used to build houses and barns, but it is the labyrinthine stone walls lining pastures and properties that characterize Krk. Hiking the island’s terrain magnified the meaning of the stone walls we built: with direct knowledge of the labor and craft necessary to create these icons, we better understood this rich Croatian tradition.
Back in Rijeka, the transformation of the site began to attract attention after four weeks of construction. Curious locals befriended our students and the resident high school students who helped during construction began to visualize how they might use the gardens. Edith, who observed us from her socialist-style concrete apartment tower, invited my student Lori over to practice her English and learn about America over tea. I joined them and heard Edith’s deeply personal view of post-Yugoslavia and the effects of the recent war. Although relieved with the war’s end, she is frustrated that the “little people” paid a great price in lost lives and homes and diminished economic opportunities, while the politicians and commanders benefited from the suffering. She said she misses the former Yugoslavia. Granting that freedom was limited under the long, autocratic rule of Tito and that “many people simply disappeared,” Edith said that the issues now causing anxiety in Croatia – medical care, education, food and housing – were not a problem during socialism. Many elderly Croatians felt secure during socialism and it is hard for them to see the benefits of the new system.
On our last excursion from Rijeka, we crossed the mountainous terrain that divides the Adriatic coast from “continental” Croatia to reach the capital, Zagreb. We toured the city’s famous green lungs: a series of linked, open, verdant spaces that continue to offer residents a place to relax, exercise and reenergize. East of the capital, we entered Slavonia, the breadbasket of the country. The mix of the flat land’s black soil and green sprouts of recently planted grains formed a vivid contrast to the rock soils of the coast. Farming defines the villages, with each homestead a compound of many out buildings, workshops, grain storages and cattle barns. Surrounding the facades of these side-by-side family farms are the rich fields of Slavonia.
Entering Vukovar, the bucolic setting gave way to houses leveled or pockmarked by bullets and grenades. Streets with buildings barely standing recalled what was once a thriving town. Even the grand plane trees, some centuries old, stood like blackened totems, eerie reminders that flames engulfed the site in 1991. The most disturbing part of our visit to Vukovar was the tour of the hospital that treated the wounded from both sides while being subjected to daily bombardment and months of battles in the streets. The incident most memorialized was the removal of over two hundred Croatian patients from the municipal hospital following the city’s surrender. They were taken first to a concentration camp and later to a mass grave where they were executed and buried. This field trip made the horrors of war vary tangible to the students and all were clearly moved.
Students also met with Eurohouse, an NGO focused on forging reconciliation in what is now a town ethnically divided between Croats and Serbs. When I asked, “Is reconciliation possible?” many youths replied that they simply wanted to move on. It was hard for their parents to forgive, but they felt little hostility and were more concerned with the economy and their limited job opportunities. Forgetting might be easier, but reconciliation might help future generations resist political manipulation and view inclusiveness as a positive attribute.
The dedication for the four completed gardens was held on December 2, after thirty long and wet days of construction. Politicians and dignitaries spoke, but the most moving testimonies came from the Croatian high school students for whom the gardens were built. They expressed their appreciation through powerful poetry, music and spoken word. I realized that deep bonds had formed between many of the Croatian and American students. That is one of the greatest benefits of the service learning model. Despite the brevity of our visit, close daily interaction spawned lasting friendships and a deeper connection, as is often the case with service learning. The closeness students developed while working together towards a shared goal is hard to produce using other learning models.
As in all of my foreign study projects, the initial enterprise is the most difficult. Learning the local cultural mores, personalities and logistics is an investment of considerable time and energy. We hope to continue this partnership and, building upon our work in Croatia, offer another class of students the opportunity to experience the beauty, culture and challenges of the Balkans.
Daniel Winterbottom, ASLA, is a landscape architect, Associate Professor in the School of Landscape Architecture and Adjunct Associate Professor of Architecture in the School of Architecture at UW. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Tufts University and his Master of Landscape Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Professor Winterbottom's research interests include the built environment as a place of cultural expression, applied service learning and the effects and role of restorative/healing landscapes in the built environment. He has been published in Northwest Public Health, Places, the New York Times, Seattle Times, Seattle P.I., and Landscape Architecture Magazine. He has authored “Wood in the Landscape” and has contributed to several books on sustainable design, community gardens, therapeutic landscapes and community service learning.
Professor Winterbottom has developed several landscape architecture programs. Through one participatory design/build program that began in 1995, he and his students have helped communities design and build projects that address their social and ecological concerns. Professor Winterbottom has completed projects in Seattle, New York City, Bedford Hills in New York, Mexico, Guatemala, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. He co-founded the Public Art Program with Professor John Young and in 2006 he developed the Healing Garden Certificate program.