Chance Munns, a graduate student in the UNM landscape architecture master's program, got involved with Step into Cuba, a park project in Cuba, N.M. Attila Bality, National Park Service's Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program, contacted the UNM School of Architecture and Planning looking for a student group to tackle an initiative in that community.
As president of the Society of Landscape Architecture Students, or SOCLAS, Munns got the call. RTCA, the village of Cuba and Nacimiento Medical Foundation were partnering to look at ways to transform St. Francis of Assisi Park into an area focused on improving healthy living in the community.
Cuba had a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to create community gardens, safe routes to school and other health-focused opportunities in the village.
Through a town meeting, Munns and other students discovered that they needed to create walkways and trails connecting various parts of the community, as well as the gardens. "Walking is an easy and effective way to combat diabetes, a disease affecting many in the area," Munns said.
He added, "Fruit trees could be planted to provide apples and pears and such for healthy eating. They could also sell the fruit to maintain the park."
Their designs included retaining the baseball field, expanding the community center, establishing more sports fields and identifying how to create trails and how they would fit into the community. "We all drew ideas and even had a sandbox model for the park where people could place things within the park to see the design concepts," Munns said.
He and SOCLAS presented their ideas to the village council in December, about the same time Munns had to decide what he was going to do for his master's thesis project.
"I wanted my thesis to address something I was excited about. The preparation leading up to this gave me a connection to the people and the process. I knew I would want to engage community involvement in planning professionally," he said.
Munns thought critically about the need for a park in an area surrounded by wilderness and outdoor opportunities. "Cuba is a rural village with access to a pastoral setting. They didn't need a retreat from concrete, but they did need a place to go to do things," he said.
His goal was to program activities within the space to allow a lot to happen. "By expanding the community center, they could offer Tai Chi and other exercise and wellness programs. They could lease pedometers so that people could document the walking they were doing to follow doctors' orders," he said. "I also thought a ropes course could be incorporated for team-building."
Because they are all about mud-bogging in Cuba, the pit would stay. "I proposed establishing a mud festival with mud volleyball, wrestling, mud sculptures and dorodango balls," he said. Dorodango balls are Japanese shiny mud balls.
Munns took his designs to the lunch line at the local high school to get input from the students. "Chance knew the value of their input and knew they wouldn't show up at a meeting," Bality said.
In late May, Munns went back to present his final plans and the village endorsed his concept.
Bality said Munns understood Step into Cuba as a partnership project.
"Chance brought together an outstanding group of students. I like working with the students from the UNM School of Architecture and Planning. The plans they develop are not hypothetical, but have real world applications. They adhered to a need to keep costs low – they understood the resources available and stuck to those principles," he said.
Munns graduated in May.
Media contact: Carolyn Gonzales, 277-5920, firstname.lastname@example.org