The CANARY IN THE MINE, Wildfires and rural communities in the Mediterranean Hinterland

“Fire is a phenomenon that derives from its circumstances… It synthesizes its surroundings.”¹
Stephen J. Pyne

1. Why
Wildfires rage throughout the rural and peri-urban territories around the world, particularly in Mediterranean climates. These occurrences, with severe economic, social, and environmental damages, are vastly traumatic for the localcommunities: currently vulnerable targets for their advanced age and disenfranchised territories. Once a necessary disturbance for landscape management and economic growth, fire has become an ever-growing threat —a symptom of many damaging “fronts” accrued over decades in the rural hinterlands: ad-hoc forest governance, fast-growing monocultures, depopulated and aged communities, swelling temperatures, and the abandonment of hinterlands perceived to have low quantifiable “value.” However,the pressures imposed by the growing wildfire occurrences, climatic stress, unreliable food and energy security, bio-diversityloss, and the pandemic outbreak forced the national government and the European Union to act toward new economic andecological paradigms. Recently, the European Commission announced the “European Green Deal” –an ambitious plan to make Europe climate neutral by 2050. In this context, Portugal’s rural territories are the canary in the mine. With approximately twothirds of the country considered “rural,” the symptoms of current wildfires are a warning and a prospect of what the future holds for Mediterranean landscapes; and, potentially, a spring-board for new design principles in today’s challenges.

2. What
The Studio focuses on the municipality of Arganil located in the central region of Portugal severally affected by the wildfires of 2017. With approximately 2500 Ha, this area gathers community parcels (“baldios”) winding through small mountain and river villages. The Studio is a laboratory to explore questions about wildfires, rural stewardship, bio-economy, resilient landscapes, community built-up, and the cultural values associated with “working with the land.” There are two scopes of design: 1) longterm vision for 2050 at a scale of landscape infrastructure for increased resiliency, bio-diversity, and economic viability; 2) localized proposal in a village (or adjacent) for cultural leveraging, local tourism, and food production to sustain the idea of “living territories.”

3. How
The students work in pairs with a strong emphasis on forensic practices centered on cultural and ecological domains by analyzing maps, bio-physical history, demographic reports, fire behavior, climatic trends, and economic futures of rural territories. The design work will address the scale of (i.) the District (Coimbra), (ii.), the municipality (“Baldios”), and (iii.) the village. In this last segment, each pair develops a design proposal based on phases (i) and (ii) toward a possible idea of how a rural community should become, i.e., retrofitted, protected, requalified, re-populated, refurbished, or reintegrated in the cyclical processes of landscape production. Experts from various disciplines will contribute to the studio: horticulturalists, civil protection officers, ecologists, geographers, economists, landscape historians, entrepreneurs, lawyers, local politicians and community agents. 

This Option Studio is open to students from every department.

1- Pyne, S. J. (2006). „The Element That Isn’t“. Fire Ecology, 2(1), 1-6.

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