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RS1: The Lithium Triangle

Shangwen Mao

Shangwen Mao is graduating from the Royal College of Art with a Masters in Environmental Architecture. Shangwen completed his BA in Environmental Art Design at Hubei Institute of Fine Art in 2018, graduating with an Excellent Graduation Design Award. He went on to work at architecture practices in Atelier cnS, Guangzhou, before joining the Royal College of Art. He has been working on the urban renewal of architectural projects.

During his study at the RCA, he participated in group works with different objectives. In term 1, Shangwen collaborated with his colleagues to focus on the conflicts in the Lithium Triangle. This project focuses on the political and ecological tensions that characterise processes of lithium extraction across Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia - an area also known as the 'Lithium Triangle'. They focus on the disputes between indigenous communities and global mining corporations in Salar de Atacama, Chile. In term 2, Shangwen and his colleagues worked with a community being constituted by the peoples of two ayllus, Tulor and Beter, in San Pedro de Atacama, the main village nearby the Salar de Atacama. Together with the constitution as a community comes a responsibility to devise a process of environmental management of their ancestral lands. The process is based on anthropological work and several interviews with village elders, about their relationships with the land, water, and the mountains.


Degree Details

School of Architecture

RS1: The Lithium Triangle

With the development of human society and rapid population growth, urbanisation has become an increasingly common phenomenon, and countless infrastructures are constructing day by day on a global scale. Urbanisation not only promotes economic growth but also creates a series of problems. The predominant problem caused by urbanisation is the environmental crisis.

Throughout Shangwen's MA, he has developed a critical approach to his areas of interest through the environmental impacts caused by urbanisation, in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Specifically, during his individual project at RCA, he practiced addressing soil permeability and flood issues caused by urbanisation through urban spatial interventions. In addition, this new form of intervention engages with communities and promotes cooperation. The use of low-cost design and indigenous methodologies became a means of synthesizing his research into environmental-concerned transformation.

As a design project based on the Environmental Architecture research study, his project explores the coexistence of urbanisation and the environment; the coexistence of immigrants and indigenous communities; repairing the environment and promoting collaboration through urban spatial interventions. The interventions can be immediately mobilised by those communities that are more affected by environmental destruction. An ideal sustainable urban ecological system is one that maintains and improves the living environment, protects the territory, environment, and all species.

The Unique Climate in San Pedro de Atacama

The climate in San Pedro de Atacama is a desert climate, and there is virtually no rainfall during the year. Because San Pedro de Atacama is located in the rain shadow between two mountain ranges, the Andes and the Chilean coastal range. Most winds that reach the city are hot and dry or cold with low humidity.

But in recent years, with global climate change and local climate changes, the originally arid areas have been hit by floods. Due to climate change, the precipitation and discharge from the Andes will increase. While some areas will flourish, others will be devastated. And people living in densely populated areas are at higher risk of flooding, as buildings and roads further limit the amount of rainwater that can be absorbed by the ground. With the progress of urbanisation, more and more houses, roads, and facilities have been built, and flood disasters have become more serious. In San Pedro de Atacama, rain becomes more and more dangerous.


Qgis Mapping
ClimateDesertPrecipitationRain ShadowTerrainTerritories

Urbanisation Area and Water Pathway

Schematic Diagram of Water flows from Mountain to Urban Areas

The Decline in Soil Permeability

In the past few decades, San Pedro de Atacama has experienced rapid urbanisation development. The main reason for urbanisation is the development of the tourism industry and the immigration of tourism and mining industry workers. With the rapid development of tourism in San Pedro de Atacama, the city not only attracts tourists but also attracts more and more people to work here. This phenomenon has led to population migration and the rapid increase of low-quality urbanisation. Because the city needs more space to serve tourism and mining industry workers, and the old town is no longer sufficient for the outside population to live in, the city began to expand rapidly.

During the construction of the new urbanisation area, there is no professional planning. Most blocks only meet the residential functions without considering sustainable development, and they are not suitable for long-term living. The increase in uncontrolled urbanisation has revealed several problems, for instance, the construction of concrete roads and houses both declined the soil permeability, which resulted in flooding and soil salinization. It adds further pressure on social and natural ecosystems and soil.


Mapping, Drawing, Storytelling


Fabric Cover

Rain Garden

Rainwater Harvesting System and Tree Pit

Permeable Sidewalk, Water Canal, Bioretention Area

Retention Ponds

The first consideration is to deal with environmental problems, mitigate flood disasters, and improve soil permeability. The roots of vegetation can expand the space between soil particles, so the soil can absorb more water, improving soil permeability. And the permeability of roads can be improved through the graded pavement and the planning of different road materials. Permeable pavement allows water to enter the soil layer through the pavement structure to store surface runoff and plan the water circulation route. Retention ponds can be used to control flood flow rates, and water will be stored during a flood and released after the event. Eight interventions will be introduced: Fabric Cover, Rain Gardens, Rainwater Harvesting Systems, Bioretention Area, Permeable Sidewalks, Water Canal, Retention Ponds, Tree Pits.

The second consideration is to use a low-cost design. Interventions in public spaces do not require an adequate and expensive approach to have a transformative impact, improving social and urban problems through precise interventions to improve the vitality of urban areas and to consolidate urban planning strategies. Local vegetation, such as the Tamarugo tree and the Algarrobo tree, can be designed in the interventions. And the choice of materials should also be acceptable. For instance, the most common materials, textiles, can be used to create shadows for Tamarugo and Algarrobo trees. These low-cost interventions are acceptable for not only immigrant workers but also indigenous communities.

The third consideration is to promote cooperation through interventions. Some interventions will be taken in private space, while others will be taken in public space to promote cooperation among residents, such as water canals and retention ponds. For instance, immigrant workers and indigenous communities could clean the water canals and maintain the retention ponds together regularly.


CAD Line Drawing

Fabric Cover

Rain Garden

The fabric cover is using textiles secured between tree trunks, which can collect air humidity and provide shadows for vegetation and the roots of trees. The roots of vegetation can expand the space between soil particles, so soil can absorb more water, improving soil permeability. Textiles are a common and cheap material in daily life, but can provide unexpected functions, such as creating wonderful microclimates for not only vegetation but also humans. And they can be easy to retrofit, used at a variety of scales.

Rain gardens are vegetated areas that can be used to attenuate run-off and help recharge groundwater through infiltration. Rain gardens are most likely to be implemented on private property close to buildings. In order for roof water to reach a rain garden, property downpipes are often disconnected from the drainage system and redirected. Rain gardens should be planted up with native vegetation that is happy with occasional inundations. They can be easy to retrofit, used at a variety of scales, and require minimal land. They have attractive features that can help to improve open space, particularly when positioned adjacent to residential developments or in urban areas. If designed correctly they can be installed into contexts with impervious surfaces. They require minimal maintenance but provide useful functions.

The new urban interventions not only proposed to address the environmental issues, but also enable the workers and the indigenous communities to enjoy a better living environment. Transforming the urban space will have profound social participation, physical activity, emotional impact, and well-being on those occupying it. All these interventions would affect the private and social life of the inhabitants. Not only these spaces have a positive impact on the environment, but they generate recreational space to exercise, play, meet, and socialise with others. When inhabitants use intervention to transform their living environment, it promotes communication, cohesion, and a sense of belonging among neighbors, for instance, inhabitants could repair and maintain these interventions together regularly, and local farmers can teach workers to take care of local vegetations. This would enable the workers and the indigenous communities to enjoy diverse living modes.



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