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Sheila Isabel Irigoyen Zozaya joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in October 2015. Her thesis title is ‘Defining and restoring the cultural landscape and place-identity of historic cities: The case of Mérida, Yucatán, México’.
I heard about Oxford Brookes University through a personal recommendation from my Professor in Merida Arq. Edgardo Bolio Arceo, PhD, who previously studied at Brookes.
I was attracted to Oxford Brookes for many reasons. Firstly, through personal recommendations from some Professors and colleagues in Merida, and the amazing cultural environment in Oxfordshire. Secondly, I was attracted by the Research Group, particularly the research and experience of Professor Georgia Butina Watson. Her research and expertise is well known in Mexico. Thirdly I consulted the University website and other online reviews from students. So far, I must say, I am very satisfied with my decision.
I was combining professional practice with teaching BA in Architecture and Habitat Design at the Faculty of Architecture, UADY, in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. I also was painting in my free time the human body, experimenting with different techniques as well as urban sketching with ink and watercolour. I was very busy being a mum too and perhaps that is the reason it took me a long time to decide to start this PhD.
It was very easy to get used to everything, despite arriving a little bit late (first week of October). Everyone was very helpful from the beginning and that really made it feel like home. The research environment at Oxford Brookes is great. I have been very lucky with my supervisors Georgia Butina Watson and Laura Novo de Acevedo, who have been wonderful. Their guidance and professionalism has been essential to develop my proposal. My PhD colleagues come from different nationalities and I have learnt a lot from them. Therefore friendships and knowledge flourish in abundance because it comes from different sources and costumes. The resources available at the University are very good, although I wish to be more in touch with art groups, so I could learn new ways to involve art in the urban scenery which undoubtedly improves cultural landscapes.
Cultural landscapes are historically intertwined in the urban development of many cities. They provide a sense of cultural identity and help explain the relationship between natural and human processes through time (Radović, 2009; Plieninger and Bieling, 2012). In the past, traditional cultural landscapes were characterized by their symbiotic connection with local communities and their ability to adapt to the environment (Adam, 2011; Brislin, 2012). However, many of them have experienced fundamental transformations with severe impact on the ecosystem of human settlements (Butina Watson and Bentley, 2007; Hopkins, 2015). Unsustainable solutions in architecture and urban design, as well as the homogenization of cultural landscapes are becoming common phenomena affecting their local place-identity (Brislin and Pallasmaa, 2012).
The city of Merida is a representative case. Merida is the capital of the Yucatan state which concentrates the political, economic and cultural power in the region. For many years, these enticements and its geographic location have attracted changes in the urban scenery. From the sixteenth to the first half of the twentieth century, new trends transformed the Mayan cultural landscape; yet, key heritage values endured and evolved thanks to their effectiveness and resilience (Chico, 2002; Román, 2002; Espadas, 2003; Peraza, 2008).
Nowadays, these values have been forgotten and the city is becoming an anonymous entity, poorly defined and insensible to the value of environment. New developments usually imitate international consumer trends uncritically forgetting the lessons from the past (Peraza, 2008; Adam, 2011; Canto, 2013). Moreover, weak planning strategies, regulatory framework and governance processes foster the rise of incompatible land uses, impacting negatively on the continuity of traditional cultural landscapes (Alonso 2003; Bolio, 2012). This erosion is a major concern for the residents and various professional groups, who are seeking new ways to preserve their heritage in order to rediscover their identity and to achieve sustainable solutions at the urban level. Then, the challenge will be to promote an innovative approach in urban design that re-evaluates and integrates the essential components of the local cultural landscape and place-identity, to preserve the heritage and also to find equilibrium between nostalgia of the past and progress.
Therefore, the aim of this research is to develop a conceptual framework and methodology to define the cultural landscape and place-identity in the city of Merida, Yucatan and to develop theoretical and urban design propositions to achieve a positive and sustainable place-identity. This will benefit the local community to: a) preserve and revitalise their cultural landscapes; and b) add value to the urban development encouraging a sustainable design in Merida.
I think one of the most difficult challenges so far has been the time management between family chores, painting and research at the same time. My son is 9 years old and requires attention and support. I remember the first semester I struggled with research training times and deadlines. However, my husband, the staff and other PhD colleagues have been fantastic and really supportive. Another major challenge is that I live in Faringdon, Oxfordshire. It is a fantastic small community but it usually takes me more than an hour to travel to the University. The bus fares are expensive too. Despite the distance and cost, I discovered that the time I take to come to University it has helped me to feel and learn more of British cultural landscapes. I love the different scenery between Faringdon and Oxford, and walking through the city of Oxford which gives me time to read, perceive and analyse many things.
The research training at Brookes offers a wide variety of options and they come from different sources: from research seminars, lunch-time and Spark sessions or the research student training sessions. I particularly like that some courses are available more than once in a year. They are very well organised in advance stating clearly the purpose, duration and what you can expect to learn in each course. Moreover, you are not alone in this task. Your supervisors guide you to choose the ones that help you develop skills or new knowledge useful for your research training.
I would like to go back into teaching and continue doing research. I discovered that new knowledge is waiting to be discovered every day. I would like to continue with my art too.