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With an Eye on Sustainability, WSU Faculty and Students Redesign a Garden in Paradise

An important commercial center along the ancient Silk Road that once connected Europe and China is getting an economic and aesthetic makeover thanks in part to efforts by Washington State University faculty.

Clockwise from upper left: Phil Waite, WSU associate professor of landscape architecture; WSU landscape architecture graduate students Eli Kraft, Mason Shaffer, Ryan Anderson; and Kazakh students from the Academy of Architecture and Civil Engineering: Yedige (Eddie) Nesipbekov and Irina Rudakova.
Clockwise from upper left: Phil Waite, WSU associate professor of landscape architecture; WSU landscape architecture graduate students Eli Kraft, Mason Shaffer, Ryan Anderson; and Kazakh students from the Academy of Architecture and Civil Engineering: Yedige (Eddie) Nesipbekov and Irina Rudakova.

WSU’s department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture teamed up with International Programs Research and Development to participate in a project to reinvigorate and redesign a Soviet-era botanic garden in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Phil Waite, associate professor of landscape architecture, has traveled to Almaty several times to work on design plans and to present the plans to Kazakhstan officials and scientists.

“Traditionally, a botanic garden has five over-arching purposes: research, education, leisure, community life, and economics. The Almaty Botanical Garden has focused primarily on research for most of its existence. We’ve been asked to create a series of gardens that are attractive to the general public so that, in addition to research, the educational, leisure, and community engagement aspects are met so that the public will pay to come to the garden,” Waite said. “This is key to the sustainability aspect of the project, as fees from visitors will help pay for maintenance.”

Chris Pannkuk of WSU’s International Programs Research and Development initially contacted Waite and professor of horticulture Virginia Lohr to see if they were interested in participating in the project. Both were immediately interested and made a quick trip to Almaty during spring break to reconnoiter the garden.

“Chris called us on February 28. We were in Almaty on March 12,” Waite said.

What Waite and Lohr found was a 250-acre garden that had been sorely neglected for nearly 20 years due to lack of funding since the Soviet Union collapsed. Located in a highland valley and surrounded by the snow-capped Zailiyski Alatau mountains, the garden in Almaty is still home to thousands of species of plants, at least one of which is very familiar to Washingtonians. Kazakhstan is the ancient genetic homeland of Washington’s number-one crop, the apple. The literal translation of the Kazakh word “Almaty” is “Father of Apples.”

A plan for Kazakhstan: unlike the grid-like sightlines of the Soviet-era garden, WSU designers broke up the space with curves.
A plan for Kazakhstan: unlike the grid-like sightlines of the Soviet-era garden, WSU designers broke up the space with curves.

“The project has tremendous potential,” Waite said. “What we would say in design is that it has good bones.”

Waite and three graduate students in landscape architecture, Eli Kraft, Mason Shaffer, and Ryan Anderson, then paid another visit to Almaty early this summer. Since there are no maps or scale drawings of the garden, they arrived with laptops and the basic surveying instruments they needed to create a base map.

“We used Google Earth to get a rough base map to work from. We took GPS equipment with us in hopes of being able to use that to create a detailed map to work from, but GPS wasn’t accurate enough for our purposes. So we did things the old-fashioned way and spent a couple days walking the site, taking measurements and creating an up-to-date base map with the location of nearly every tree, shrub and feature indicated on the map,” Waite said.

“Once we had a base map, we produced four different designs for the north garden, an open, undeveloped area in the garden that provides a logical access point for visitors.” Waite and the graduate students pulled all-nighters in order to develop designs within the limited amount of time available to them.

In addition to Waite and the WSU graduate students, three Kazakh undergraduates, Irina Rudakova, Yedige Nesipbekov, and Il’yas Mukanov, helped with the designs. “There isn’t a landscape architecture program in Kazakhstan, so the Kazakh students were Town Planning majors from the Academy of Architecture and Civil Engineering in Almaty” said Waite. “The collaboration worked across disciplines as well as across cultures.”

The botanic garden in Almaty is home to thousands of species of plants.
The botanic garden in Almaty is home to thousands of species of plants.

The team had to keep in mind the types of materials available for construction projects in Kazakhstan. “For instance,” Waite said, “there is no pressure-treated lumber.” Plans also had to include detailed assembly instructions, as most construction in the region is best described as “traditional.” To add further time pressure, once the designs were finished, they had to be translated into Russian, the lingua franca of the former Soviet republic.

Once implementation of the landscape architectural design is completed in 2011, Virginia Lohr will advise officials and scientists on expanding the research and education potential of the garden.

“School kids already come and walk along what will be the new garden site. People are already going there. So the hope is that demonstrations and classes will have a multiplier effect in attracting users, donors and partners and in engaging the community as volunteers who maintain the garden,” Lohr said. “Part of what I’m doing is helping develop that part of it.”

WSU landscape architecture graduate students walk the garden with tape measures and clipboard in order to create a base map upon which to build their redesign of the botanic garden in Almaty.
WSU landscape architecture graduate students walk the garden with tape measures and clipboard in order to create a base map upon which to build their redesign of the botanic garden in Almaty.

A grant from Japanese Tobacco International is funding the botanic garden redesign. The grant is the result of a deal struck between the JTI and the city of Almaty, which gave the company permission to build a factory in exchange for some help financing economic development projects.

The botanic garden project is just a facet of a much larger collaborative project implemented by WSU’s International Programs Research and Development to develop sustainable agricultural in southern Kazakhstan. The agricultural project includes electricity development using renewable energy systems; water and hydro-energy development; water purification; drip irrigation for an increasingly diverse variety of crops; and refrigeration, processing and storage systems for milk and crops. All that is being coupled with enterprise development in order to help farmers and entrepreneurs develop economically sustainable businesses.

“In order to ensure the availability and affordability of the proposed technologies in the long run, we’re working to establish a local non-governmental organization. The NGO will work to transfer knowledge from WSU and our partners to local staff. The goal is for the NGO to procure or develop technologies appropriate to agriculture and enterprise in southern Kazakhstan,” said Pannkuk.

Partners in the project include Renewable Energy Solutions, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Union of Farmers of Kazakhstan, Institute of Botany and Almaty Botanical Garden.

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