Now Playing

Higher Learning

Florida International University finds its calling in eco-studies. 

FIU Department Chair Roberto Rovira in the Sky Lounge, the space he designed for the campus 

It is well understood that South Florida, as a low-lying coastal city, is on the front lines of ecological change. Landscape architecture is by definition an eco-focused practice. By fusing the relationship between the two, Florida International University is making an impact. In July, FIU’s Department of Landscape Architecture was renamed the Department of Landscape Architecture + Environmental and Urban Design to reflect its renewed emphasis on eco-concerns. The force leading the charge is Department Chair Roberto Rovira.

“You can design to meet the needs of the moment, but the minute you look at the fundamental questions of what makes that transformation better and more meaningful for people’s long-term experiences of their cities and their environments, the more that you can impact the built and natural worlds for the better,” says Rovira, who joined the FIU faculty nine years ago and has been in his current post for a little over three. His mark has been tangible: Rovira’s architecture firm transformed the Sky Lounge at FIU from a lifeless courtyard into one of the most photographed and marketed spaces in the university.

Since its inception in 1986, the department has focused on sustainable design, but its current course work and philosophy have become completely intertwined with topics that plague the environment—from global warming and rising tides to population density. “We focus on the tropics and the subtropics, which are where 3 billion of the 7 billion people on earth currently live,” Rovira says. “That number is projected to double by 2050, so the issues that we deal with are representative of the issues that the world will have to contend with for a very long time.”

Students study real environmental issues facing South Florida—and the world—to understand how to solve them with landscape architecture tools. “Our studio projects often focus on Miami, South Florida, Latin America and the Caribbean,” Rovira says. “We offer numerous courses that look at how ecology and urban design in tropical regions of the world can be thought of as fundamentally integrated. We are currently redesigning a waterfront in the U.S. Virgin Islands, reimagining Miami canals as vital public spaces for neighborhood pocket parks and biodiversity, and envisioning possibilities for Miami-Dade County transit infrastructures that can be significantly improved by creating engaging bicycle/pedestrian links and sustainable development.”

Through a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, students in the school’s design studios study how to alleviate transportation, infrastructure and water issues. “The project involves a complete rethinking of how FIU connects to busy roadways through a network of iconic linear parks, shade and shelter,” Rovira says. “We also recently received funding from the Landscape Architecture Foundation to conduct a rigorous case study of three projects in South Florida, in order to assess the effectiveness of landscape solutions in prominent and high-traffic urban landscapes.”

According to renowned Swiss landscape architect Enzo Enea, “Roberto is constantly pushing the boundaries of landscape architecture education, with his progressive approach and his passion for the field. He has recognized the incredible potential of our field and its social responsibility to the environment and the city.” Enea notes that his own office is almost entirely staffed by FIU LA+EUD graduates, which speaks volumes about Rovira’s leadership.

Laurinda Spear, principal at Arquitectonica, was once one of those grads; she received her master’s in landscape architecture from FIU. She says FIU student interns are well versed in environmental concerns and prepared to look for solutions to emerging challenges. “FIU is very lucky to have someone like Roberto leading the department,” she says. “His amazingly diverse background includes training in engineering and art, sailing around the world on tall ships in the Navy and a keen interest in maps, all of which give him a big-picture perspective in every aspect of his work.”

“We have a magnificently diverse city that is a thriving capital of art, culture and design,” Rovira says. “That diversity in this natural and urban context is a perfect opportunity to deploy landscape architecture and use it in ways to re-envision what is possible.”