It was an uncharacteristically sunny morning as Marcela Angel MCP ’18, flanked by a drone pilot from the Boston engineering firm AirWorks and a data collection team from the Colombian regional environmental agency Corpoamazonia, climbed a hill in the Andes Mountains of southwest Colombia. The area’s usual mountain cloud cover — one of the major challenges to working with satellite imagery or flying UAVs (unpiloted aerial vehicles, or drones) in the Pacific highlands of the Amazon — would roll through in the hours to come. But for now, her team had chosen a good day to hike out for their first flight.
Angel is used to long travel for her research. Raised in Bogotá, she maintained strong ties to Colombia throughout her master’s program in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). Her graduate thesis, examining Bogotá’s management of its public green space, took her regularly back to her hometown, exploring how the city could offer residents more equal access to the clean air, flood protection and day-to-day health and social benefits provided by parks and trees. But the hill she was hiking this morning, outside the remote city of Mocoa, had taken an especially long time to climb: five years building relationships with the community of Mocoa and the Colombian government, recruiting project partners, and navigating the bureaucracy of bringing UAVs into the country.
Now, her team finally unwrapped their first, knee-high drone from its tarp and set it carefully in the grass. Under the gathering gray clouds, the buzz of its rotors joined the hum of insects in the trees, and the machine at last took to the skies.
From Colombia to Cambridge
“I actually grew up on the last street before the eastern mountains reserve,” Angel says of her childhood in Bogotá. “I’ve always been at that border between city and nature.”
This idea, that urban areas are married to the ecosystems around them, would inform Angel’s whole education and career. Before coming to MIT, she studied architecture at Bogotá’s Los Andes University; for her graduation project she proposed a plan to resettle an informal neighborhood on Bogotá’s outskirts to minimize environmental risks to its residents. Among her projects at MIT was an initiative to spatially analyze Bogotá’s tree canopy, providing data for the city to plan a tree-planting program as a strategy to give vulnerable populations in the city more access to nature.
And she was naturally intrigued when Colombia’s former minister of environment and sustainable development came to MIT in 2017 to give a guest presentation to the DUSP master’s program. The minister, Luis Gilberto Murillo (now the Colombian ambassador to the United States), introduced the students to the challenges triggered by a recent disaster in the city of Mocoa, on the border between the lowland Amazon and the Andes Mountains. Unprecedented rainstorms had destabilized the surrounding forests, and that April a devastating flood and landslide had killed hundreds of people and destroyed entire neighborhoods. And as climate change contributed to growing rainfall in the region, the risks of more landslide events were rising.
Murillo provided useful insights into how city planning decisions had contributed to the crisis. But he also asked for MIT’s support addressing future landslide risks in the area. Angel and Juan Camilo Osorio, a PhD candidate at DUSP, decided to take up the challenge, and in January 2018 and 2019, a research delegation from MIT traveled to Colombia for a newly-created graduate course.
Returning once again to Bogotá, Angel interviewed government agencies and nonprofits to understand the state of landslide monitoring and public policy. In Mocoa, further interviews and a series of workshops helped clarify what locals needed most and what MIT could provide: better information on where and when landslides might strike, and a process to increase risk awareness and involve traditionally marginalized groups in decision-making processes around that risk.
Over the coming year, a core team formed to put the insights from this trip into action, including Angel, Osorio, postdoc Norhan Bayomi of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and MIT Professor John Fernández, director of the ESI and one of Angel’s mentors at DUSP. After a second visit to Mocoa that brought into the fold Indigenous groups, environmental agencies, and the national army, a plan was formed: MIT would partner with Corpoamazonia and build a network of community researchers to deploy and test drone technology and machine learning models to monitor the mountain forests for both landslide risks and signs of forest health, while implementing a participatory planning process with residents.
“What our projects aim to do is give the communities new tools to continue protecting and restoring the forest,” says Angel, “and support new and inclusive development models, even in the face of new challenges.”
Lifelines for the climate
The goal of tropical forest conservation is an urgent one. As forests are cut down, their trees and soils release carbon they have stored over millennia, adding huge amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Deforestation, mainly in the tropics, is now estimated to contribute more to climate change than any country besides the United States and China — and once lost, tropical forests are exceptionally hard to restore.
“Tropical forests should be a natural way to slow and reverse climate change,” says Angel. “And they can be. But today, we are reaching critical tipping points where it is just the opposite.”
This became the motivating force for Angel’s career after her graduation. In 2019, Fernández invited her to join the ESI and lead a new Natural Climate Solutions Program, with the Mocoa project as its first centerpiece. She quickly mobilized the partners to raise funding for the project from the Global Environmental Facility and the CAF Development Bank of Latin America and the Caribbean, and recruited additional partners including MIT Lincoln Laboratories, AirWorks, and the Pratt Institute, where Osorio had become an assistant professor. She hired machine learning specialists from MIT to begin design on UAVs’ data processing, and helped assemble a local research network in Mocoa to increase risk awareness, promote community participation, and better understand what information city officials and community groups needed for city planning and conservation.
“This is the amazing thing about MIT,” she says. “When you study a problem here, you’re not just playing in a sandbox. Everyone I’ve worked with is motivated by the complexity of the technical challenge and the opportunity for meaningful engagement in Mocoa, and hopefully in many more places besides.”
At the same time, Angel created opportunities for the next generation of MIT graduate students to follow in her footsteps. With Fernández and Bayomi, she created a new course, 4.S23 (Biodiversity and Cities), in which students supported by MISTI traveled to Colombia to develop urban planning strategies for the cities of Quidbó and Leticia, located in carbon-rich and biodiverse areas. The course has been taught twice, with Professor Gabriella Carolini joining the teaching team for spring 2023, and has already led to a student report to city officials in Quidbó recommending ways to enhance biodiversity and adapt to climate change as the city grows, a multi-stakeholder partnership to train local youth and implement a citizen-led biodiversity survey, and a seed grant from the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium to begin providing both cities detailed data on their tree cover derived from satellite images.
“These regions face serious threats, especially on a warming planet, but many of the solutions for climate change, biodiversity conservation, and environmental equity in the region go hand-in-hand,” Angel says. “When you design a city to use fewer resources, to contribute less to climate change, it also causes less pressure on the environment around it. When you design a city for equity and quality of life, you’re giving attention to its green spaces and what they can provide for people and as habitat for other species. When you protect and restore forests, you’re protecting local bioeconomies.”
Bringing the data home
Meanwhile, in Mocoa, Angel’s original vision is taking flight.
With the team’s test flights behind them, they can now begin creating digital models of the surrounding area. Regular drone flights and soil samples will fill in changing information about trees, water, and local geology, allowing the project’s machine learning specialists to identify warning signs for future landslides and extreme weather events.
More importantly, there is now an established network of local community researchers and leaders ready to make use of this information. With feedback from their Mocoan partners, Angel’s team has built a prototype of the online platform they will use to share their UAV data; they’re now letting Mocoa residents take it for a test drive and suggest how it can be made more user-friendly.
Her visit this January also paved the way for new projects that will tie the Environmental Solutions Initiative more tightly to Mocoa. With her project partners, Angel is exploring developing a course to teach local students how to use UAVs like the ones her team is flying. She is also considering expanded efforts to collect the kind of informal knowledge of Mocoa, on the local ecology and culture, that people everywhere use in making their city planning and emergency response decisions, but that is rarely codified and included in scientific risk analyses.
It's a great deal of work to offer this one community the tools to adapt successfully to climate change. But even with all the robotics and machine learning models in the world, this close, slow-unfolding engagement, grounded in trust and community inclusion, is what it takes to truly prepare people to confront profound changes in their city and environment.
“Protecting natural carbon sinks is a global socio-environmental challenge, and one where it is not enough for MIT to just contribute to the knowledge base or develop a new technology,” says Angel. “But we can help mobilize decision-makers and nontraditional actors, and design more inclusive and technology-enhanced processes, to make this easier for the people who have lifelong stakes in these ecosystems. That is the vision.”