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1998 Santa Ursula, Mexico




In 1998, students constructed a public community washing facility on a plot of land set aside by the residents of Santa Ursula, Mexico. A cistern used to collect and store rainwater from the roof over the wash stands provides water for washing. The soapy water, collected from the washstands is filtered, biologically treated, and used to irrigate a community garden and orchard. A plaza and community cooking facility were also built.

As a means to offer a cross cultural experiential learning experience and to explore sustainable models for rural development in the third world development, the Department of Landscape Architecture initiated a study abroad design/build studio. In the course students are exposed students to indigenous materials and construction methodologies employed in the central highlands of Mexico. The students are also introduced to the cultural life of the small community of Santa Ursula.

A common problem facing squatter settlements and other poor communities, both rural and urban, is the absence of water for drinking and washing. Families are forced to import water at relatively high cost or find a nearby river or spring to meet these needs. The problem is particularly severe in and around Cuernavaca because of the high rate of immigration from rural areas, from Mexico City and neighboring states. For the past decade the area has seen an explosive, chaotic growth of densely populated settlements at the edges of the metro area, on lands that are either purchased or invaded. Living conditions are dangerously unhealthy because of poor sanitation, lack of potable water, and of course inadequate housing.

The zone to the west of Cuernavaca and Temixco, is still largely unsettled and contains a rare resource, clean running water in the ravines of Los Sabinos, La Tilapea, and El Alguacil (see map). The other ravines are dry except in the rainy season. This area is coming under increased pressure from unplanned human settlements, however. La Union and Solidaridad are squatter settlements, the result of land invasions. Santa Ursula has been settled legally by the sale of lots from Acatlipa, but lacks services.

Santa Ursula is home to 90 families who survive by working urban jobs in Temixco and Cuernavaca or as agricultural laborers. Most families have several young children, so there are about 450 direct beneficiaries (5 per family). The women (100% of them) will benefit in terms of convenience and health. The project may employ 5% of the men. Other benefits to men are indirect since men do not wash clothes.

Indirect beneficiaries include the ejido populations downstream of the area now being contaminated. Two ejidos, San Anton and Temixco, with a total of about 250 farmers, have communal lands along the river on which they would like to establish ecological parks to derive a small economic benefit from tourism while protecting the natural resources. The Santa Ursula project will therefore indirectly benefit another 1,250 people.

Short term objectives cover the 7 months from early May to the end of November. The final three months coincide with the fall semester at Univ. Washington. Participating students will assist in the design and build the project as part of their academic credit. The objectives are therefore highly focused to ensure successful, rapid completion.

  • To provide an alternative water storage and laundering facility in Santa Ursula;
  • to demonstrate the use of ecologically sustainable technologies such as rainwater collection, biological filtration and recycling of gray waters for trees and gardens;
  • to create a pleasing space for community interaction;
  • to eliminate laundering activities in the Los Sabinos river;
  • to provide a social service opportunity for students; and,
  • to promote intercultural exchange for residents and for North American visitors.
  • Long term objectives seek to multiply the use of the technologies to ease the burden for women in Santa Ursula and neighboring communities that lack water. It is hoped that the project will stimulate opportunities to:
  • promote rain collection and water recycling in private households;
  • promote sanitation alternatives for private household’s e.g. composting toilets;
  • increase awareness and attention to health and nutrition, especially for women;
  • increase ecological awareness within the community; and,
  • derive food and income from the cultivation of vegetables, herbs and fruit trees.

Located in Santa Ursula, Morelos, Mexico, a small rural village of ninety families, with out electricity, water, or sewer, this project advances a larger plan, preserving the last remaining patches of undeveloped land and addresses a local concern, lack of washing facilities in the village.

Santa Ursula lies west of Cuernavaca, and its growing population is threatening the remaining natural areas around Santa Ursula. The ecology is this area is unique, composed of deep lush ravines, called barrancas, and dry mesas, call lomas. The baranncas support abundant native flora and fauna, serving as important corridors, linking preserves to the north and south. The residents of Santa Ursula travel, by foot to the barranca to wash and collect potable water. The trip is arduous and dangerous, especially for women, many of whom are pregnant. Many suffer from arthritis and nerve damage caused by prolonged exposure to the cold water and are contributing to the soil compaction and loss of vegetation along the stream.

When questioned, he women expressed a desire to capture water and build a lavanderia in the village, a traditional social gathering place in older villages. In fall 1998 a group of landscape architecture students led by Assistant Professor Daniel Winterbottom from the University of Washington went to Santa Ursula to work with the client, the community of Santa Ursula. In nine weeks, they built a rainwater collection system, a storage cistern for 80,000 liters of water, a public wash facility, a public plaza, a bio filtration system to treat the wash water, and irrigation system to water the surrounding orchard.

A series of small focus groups were held with the women, followed by a larger public community meeting to solicit impute on the project. Afterwards one on one interview's were conducted with the women, since many were not comfortable expressing their opinions publicly. The design ideas were mocked up on site to for discussion. Out of this process two schemes were presented to the community and one was chosen as the preferred scheme.

The project serves as a model, demonstrating how traditional and modern technologies can together, and serve as sustainable solutions to improve the life of the villages and preserve ecological systems. A secondary intention is to increase opportunities for social cohesion through, community washing (lavanderia), community celebration and civic events (Plaza and barbecue), and children’s play (site grading and play objects).