Tour Guide: Green Design Trips

Like to travel? Like to volunteer? Like green design? We may have found the trip for you. Design-savvy voluntourists are the target of the new trip being offered by Elevate Destinations, a company we profiled earlier this year. They’ve partnered with the nonprofit Earth Train to create a slightly more preemptive voluntour experience in Panama next spring: Instead of simply building homes or cleaning up a landscape, visitors will collaborate with the local Kuna people on climate-adaptation design ideas. Their goal is to come up with community-influenced projects that can be built during future volunteer trips. Their inaugural trip to Panama, taking place from March 13-20, 2010, was developed by Andrea Atkinson, a sustainability consultant specializing in green design. I spoke with Atkinson about the innovative approach to voluntourism.
Who is the target audience for these trips?

The target audience is designers who are interested in working in the green space, and people that I would call ‘social entrepreneurs,’ who are interested in creating new and interesting things with a green focus. At the end of the day we’re hoping to have a nice mix of people – those with an intimate knowledge of green design, and those who are familiar but haven’t gotten deep into the principles of green technology. We’re looking for what we call “Intreprenueurs,” people moving things forward within a company, early adopters. The goal was really to take people out of their element and allow them to work together in a group on the topic of sustainability, focusing in particular on sustainable design.

Tell me a little about the plans for the Panama trip.

In Panama we’ll be working with Earth Train, a nonprofit that for the past 10-20 years has been doing some really great things. They’ve preserved 10,000 acres of rain forest and are now working to bring back deforested and degraded land. They have created a partnership with the Kuna people who live semi-autonomously on the Caribbean coast. Most of them live on the islands, and they’ve already started feeling storm surges into their communities that are the result of rising the sea levels. Earth Train has been bringing in outside designers, community leaders, landscape architects, and volunteers to become involved with the collaborative process. We’ll be working alongside architects from Earth Train and with Craig Roberts, who works with global design firm Hart Howerton. Whether you’re a student or someone who has worked for 40 years in the sustainability realm, everyone will take part in the brainstorming process.

What are some of the design elements you’ll be tackling during your brainstorming sessions?

It will vary slightly on where we are. In the more urban areas, a lot of our focus will be on redevelopment without gentrification and smart growth issues. In the rain forest, we’ll focus on climate change adaptation, working to help the community to withstand hurricanes and bigger storms, and how to deal with rising water levels.

Is there a volunteer component to the trip as well?

There are volunteer opportunities available at the end of the trip, guests will stay and work at Earth Train’s rain forest campus. Projects may include: design, landscaping and building work at Centro Madrono and Earth Train’s new Junglewood music project.

This is a bit like preemptive volunteering, as your group will be able to indentify problems and work on finding solutions. How would you compare it to Elevate Destinations’ other trips?

With volunteer tourism, typically, you’re working on a single project. What’s different is that with the design trip, you’re not actually implementing the project, but you’re part of the big idea.

runs from March 13-10, 2010 and costs $5,500 per person. Elevate Destinations will be hosting a webinar on December 15 for anyone interested in learning more. Email Andrea directly at with questions or to sign up for the webinar.

Photo: Elevate Destinations