The way of water

Episode 4 of Season 4 — Hosted by Emily Harwitz.


Photo of Daniela Peña Corvillon
Daniela Peña Corvillon

In this fourth episode, host Emily Harwitz chats with Daniela Peña Corvillon about her work as a water architect, a term she coined while studying landscape architecture and realizing that water is the foundation for life in any landscape. Where water flows, life grows, and water always finds a way. Redwood ecosystems are a great example of that, like at one of Daniela’s favorite projects, the ‘O Rew Redwoods Gateway. Through Daniela’s stories about her artistic perspective, design philosophy, and ecological thinking, this episode will change the way you experience landscapes and open your eyes to the way water shapes us all.

About our guest

Daniela Peña Corvillon is a Chilean Architect who holds an MLA in Environmental Planning from UC Berkeley (2013). She focuses on the design and restoration of natural ecological functions at the interface of human and wild spaces. As owner of the architecture firm Wild LandArch, Daniela plans, designs, and manages multi-scale projects that integrate humans into natural areas and restore natural functions in the urban environment in California, Chile, and abroad. Daniela defines herself as a Water Architect due to her profound connection with water and her deep understanding of water systems. Find her work on Instagram @WildLandArch

Read Transcription

Episode 4: The Way of Water


Emily Harwitz (host), Daniela Peña Corvillon (guest)

Emily Harwitz 00:01

Hi and welcome to another episode of I’ll Go If You Go. I’m your host, Emily Harwitz. On today’s episode, we’re talking to “water architect” Daniela Peña Corvillon. If you’re like me, you’ve probably never heard a “water architect before.” That’s because Daniela coined the term herself, after studying landscape architecture and realizing that water is a key defining element of any landscape. By shaping the way water flows, collects, and drains, you can shape the landscape itself. That process of sculpting the land is called “grading,” which is an important term in architecture and in this episode .

I think this is a really cool way of thinking about it because it asks us to consider the natural flow of movement across the landscape, as well as the underlying processes that shape it . Daniela also has a background in design, and I love the artistic perspective she brings to this work—like at ‘O Rew.

‘O Rew is a site right on Prairie Creek and in the middle of ancestral Yurok territory in northern California. In the mid-1800s, settlers tried to remove the Yurok people from the land and they established a lumber mill at the site to log trees, like the huge old-growth redwoods! It operated as a mill for more than 50 years and was known as the Orick Mill Site. in 2013, Save the Redwoods League purchased the site with the original vision of creating a redwoods visitor center, but that vision has evolved into something new.

Earlier this year, the Yurok Tribe, Save the Redwoods League, National Park Service and California State Parks signed a historic agreement to transfer ‘O Rew back to its original steward, the Yurok Tribe. “O Rew will be comanaged by these four partners, making this the first time ever in National Parks and State Parks history that they’ll co-steward with a tribe on tribe-owned land.

That’s all I’m going to say for now because Daniela gets into the juicy details in this episode. So, let’s get to it!

[MUSIC fade]

Emily Harwitz 01:58

Daniela, how’s it going?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 01:59

Hi, Emily, here very well, thank you so much for inviting me.

Emily Harwitz 02:02

I’ve heard of architects, I’ve heard of landscape architects, but this is the first time I’ve encountered “water architect.”

Daniela Peña Corvillon 02:07

“Water architect” comes from traveling mostly in Chile, going from south to north and seeing the Andes Mountains coming, creating the valley and then the coastal mountain and then the ocean. The landscape is very similar to California because you can go from the desert to a deep forest. I started to realize that that landscape was actually shaped, in many ways, by water. So I started to imagine water coming from the mountain and water coming from the ocean in different geological times and processes, and that creates the space that we live in, maybe on the coastal plains looking to the ocean or maybe just in the valley, the hole in between the mountains. 

As an architect, we construct the space where we live in, so we construct houses that are shelters, or even spaces outside that hold us. So how I moved from architecture to ecology, my deep intention was to understand the water system so I can understand the deep ecology and answer like, figure out where us as humans, where we belong in the system. Maybe it’s a little complicated, but that’s how I call “water architect” because I work on the space of the territory of the landscape. And that’s why.

Emily Harwitz 03:30

That’s really cool. So, because water shapes the landscapes that it flows through, by altering the course of water flow, or by directing water to flow, you’re then helping water to shape the landscape in a way that’s ecologically sound for the location.

Daniela Peña Corvillon 03:48

Right. Also, water is a big component of different types of ecosystems. For example, in the redwood forests, like the Sequoia sempervirens or the coastal redwood, they like to be in wet areas, right? So water is a component of that ecosystem. Even if we don’t see it, that root system is in areas where water likes to be pumped under the soil, or like in areas that are very wet. There are different types of ecosystems, for example, like the grassland, that water kind of [gets] absorbed very quickly and is more exposed to the sun. So I feel like water is also a component of the environment that we live in. And it’s something that sometimes we don’t see. We see creeks and rivers, but water is present in every single ecosystem and defines them.

Emily Harwitz 04:37

Can you give me an example of what it looks like to work with water?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 04:40

The person that we’re with water is a person that works with grading. We grade or regrade the site, so we help water run in the system in different ways. One example: in Redwood National Park, the project that we have been working on the most intensively is in Orick where there’s a confluence of Redwood Creek and Prairie Creek. That site had been disturbed for many years and the floodplain of the river had been flattened. There was no slope, so the water and how the river overflows—the floodplain—didn’t create much diversity, so the river didn’t create these multiple connections and different layers. As a water architect, I have been regrading the site with the engineers to create different ecosystems along that floodplain with different slopes and different dimensions so that different plants [and their] habitats can establish over all of that floodplain. So we create diversity by giving different slopes and different momentums for the water to pump, to run, to not create erosion or maybe create erosion, but mostly, no, just thinking how the water will run during the rain.

Emily Harwitz 04:40

And the site you’re talking about, that’s ‘O Rew?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 05:32

Yes, that’s ‘O Rew.

Emily Harwitz 05:43

That’s cool. I really see where the architect part comes into this because you’re shaping and building up the land. And as you create those different elevations in the landscape, the water can either flow faster, or it can spread out. And like you said, when the water is able to spread out across its floodplain, then you can sink water into the ground so the ground can stay moist for plans and promote vegetation biodiversity. And then that begets wildlife biodiversity because then it creates habitat for more different animals to come in.

Daniela Peña Corvillon 06:34

Exactly, so water architect is really [about] reshaping the land, essentially.

Emily Harwitz 06:38

I want to hear more about this designer element to your work. When you said you were the first designer, does that mean you’re bringing a more artistic lens to it? Or do you mean like Design Thinking?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 06:46

I went to my master’s program already with a professional degree in architecture and all my classmates were coming from hydrology, ecology, geology. So I think I was the first from the artistic side going into a science.

Emily Harwitz 07:02

That’s very cool. How do you think that informs your perspective and makes your work different than someone who came from the scientific side?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 07:09

Even the most scientific project, I will say they happen because there is a kind of human component or economical component or artistic component that helps the project be real. So it’s a win-win on this matching between artists and science.

Emily Harwitz 07:26

I agree 100%. Can you provide an example of a project that you’re proud of?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 07:33

Well, I call it my “baby project,” but my favorite project is what we’re doing in Orick with Save the Redwoods League. I feel that project is, from all my experience internationally and in California, the most progressive project. Today, that land has been given back to the Yurok Tribe. It’s a land that has been recovered after years of abuses. That site was the mill where they cut millions of giant redwoods on all of that coast. And today, that site has been treated, like, restoring the whole ecology, providing us as humans access to there to learn about it, and given back to a community. 

Something that I love about the Yurok [that I learned] when we started to work on that project: when the Europeans came and said to the Yurok people, ‘hey, who owns this land?’ They said, ‘no one,’ because in that concept in their minds, they don’t own the land; the land owns them. So they work daily to maintain the land in a healthy way so the land allows them to continue living there. And I found that beautiful. And the community there and the people that I have the chance to be working with, in their daily lives, they do that. And it’s just amazing.

Daniela Peña Corvillon 08:56

And the other thing that amazed me about the Yurok and in the whole coastal redwoods in northern California, is like—I come from probably the same word that we all live [in], the way we have the north, we have the south, we have the east, and then we have the west, right? And we are oriented in that way. But the Yurok, no. The Yurok people are oriented by how the water runs, so it’s down river, up river. And that is really interesting because again, it comes from a component of the water and understanding water as a basic system, the essence of the land in many ways. The main groves, many of them are on this land where the soil is so spongy. I don’t know if you feel when you walk on the [trail] in the redwoods that sometimes it feels so soft and nice. It’s because all of these root systems are like a big sponge. So the restoration of that site and also seeing what Save the Redwoods League has been doing in terms of navigating this project as a public project, and with different agencies and different components, and changing so many times, different things, it just—it really amazed me because I think it’s a great team that has been making this dream real. And we will all have access to that sacred land in a very beautiful place.

Emily Harwitz 10:21

That’s a really exciting project. And, Daniela, I want to hear more about the restoration of the site. How do you go about planning water restoration as a water architect?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 10:32

Well, first, I need to say it’s not all my work. This is a team of people. But let me tell you a story: The first time we went there to work with the architect, we were going to do a new visitor center for Redwood National Park that said that [Save the Redwoods League] was going to give this site to them. And so we go there for our workshop, and we are meeting with the people of the community, and in that workshop, we learn something—that everything was about salmon. No one was mentioning the trees. And I remember the architect was like, ‘wow,’ like, ‘now what?’ You know, like we are working for the redwood forest, but everything’s about salmon. And then you realize how this [living] system that is so alive in that part of the world, how the redwoods are correlated with the salmon because they provide essential habitat. And it’s been beautiful [to] see how this, finally, salmon habitat restoration that happened in this floodplain that has been restored, is the basis of the ecology to restore from the center of the creek to a forest, a whole habitat, with different types of species, from the elk, to salmon, to the bears, to us as humans to have access to see it, to explore, to enjoy it—it’s magical. That process was a lot of regrading, so we were working mostly like passing contour line from landscape architecture to engineer, incorporating architecture as well. So we designed the entrance sequence [for] humans [while] promoting better habitat for different types of species, and plant species as well.

Daniela Peña Corvillon 12:30

There is another project that I like to call water architect, even if we (didn’t work so much with) water, but it’s creating access to Bridalveil Falls. In Yosemite Valley, there are millions of visitors and some of the paths need to be upgraded to accommodate more people, and also decrease the footprint of the path, or the impact of us humans. So for that specific project, we were working on accessibility and creating all of that entrance sequence. The first project that we got in Yosemite was because the public sent the park to a court for [mistreating] the river. So they created the Merced River Master Plan. In order to protect the river in that master plan, they were requesting to remove all the infrastructure that was on the floodplain [and move it] to upper areas. So we have to move around 700 parking spaces from the floodplain and put it in upper areas. And that project was very fun because we created—this in the Village and in the lot—and specifically in the Village—imagine, like, 720 parking spots, it was so man,y plus all the buses that you need to accommodate and everything—but you also create the arrival point. So when you imagine, Yosemite is kind of far away from almost everyone. You arrive, the first thing you want [is] to go to a bathroom, so okay, but you also want to see Half Dome or like Yosemite Falls, you know. So creating that initial perception and from that, invite people to take trails, is challenging when you are surrounded by trees and you don’t want to cut the trees.

Emily Harwitz 14:15

I really see where the art and design element comes in. Because you have to think about, like, what is the human experience of this and, like you said, designing the arrival point— how do you welcome people in in a way that they feel like, ‘okay, this is accessible, I feel safe here,’ but also introduce them to the awe and just connection to nature that they get from these places.

Daniela Peña Corvillon 14:35

Yeah it’s very challening, especially in such a big area when you get so many visitors and you want to bring people in an intimate connection with nature, right? I mean, you don’t want to feel like (you’re) in the shopping mall parking lot and but being in Yosemite. So we work that in two scales. One is trying to understand that the footprint that we are placing in this place is connected with the large view, the large opening, or some type of what the landscape is telling you where to look and feel it. And also with the small scale that is connecting people with the details, for example, there are trees that are just stunning, and you want to feel people see that. So you make sure that the trail pushes you to see that, or creates shelter under some trees. In some of the projects, also we know where the birds are nesting, or some type of or animal that we want to protect. So we want to give some kind of connection of human with the nature of the place without disturbing the place itself.

Emily Harwitz 15:40

So would you say that’s your favorite part of your job?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 15:42

Yeah, my favorite part is creating that connection of humans with nature, in all senses—from the understanding of where the sun rises to where the water is flowing, the seasonal changes of the forest or the garden—because I think we are all missing a little bit of that connection with nature.

Emily Harwitz 16:02

Yeah. So you’ve mentioned a project up in the redwoods at ‘O Rew, you’ve mentioned Yosemite, you’ve mentioned Patagonia. What’s the commonality between these projects and all these far away and sometimes local community places?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 16:16

The common thing is what we are talking about, the connection between humans and nature. And the second is that all of the places are open for the public. This is not private land. This is for everyone. And that is also an important component because we all need to have access to Earth, no matter the property lines. And we all belong on this planet.

Emily Harwitz 16:39

Switching topics a little bit, what do you remember most about your first experience with the redwoods?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 16:45

Well, I got to know redwoods through the National Geographic magazine. I was just graduating from the architecture department here in Chile and my partner at that moment in business wanted to do green walls. We were in this new journey of transforming the city to be green and we want to make the walls green, so that means vertical gardens. It’s very complex and it’s very difficult. Jacinta came with a National Geographic magazine that opened up to a big redwood and she showed me the redwoods say, you know, these three have different species growing at different heights of the tree. If these trees can do it, we can do it. And at that moment, immediately the redwood [impressed me very deeply] and I started to research about them, to understand the water running down the redwood, you know, like understanding the fog, understanding also how the redwood takes water from the bottom, but because it gets heated on the top, it moves the water to pump up, pump out. So the region of the redwoods is a correlation between the fog and how [high] the redwoods go up, so like it’s all about the water. So since the beginning, they were like my teachers. We call in Spanish ‘maestro,’ but yeah, they were my professors. So that was my first experience just through a magazine. And then as soon as I got to California, I went to see Muir Woods and I just—I mean what can I say, I just love it. The color, the texture, the ferns. They are here to help us to do this transition, be more green, and keep them alive.

Emily Harwitz 18:44

Hearing you describe that makes me think that redwoods are like water architects, too, because they suck water from the ground, their root systems provide homes for baby salmon, and the creeks run through. They also capture fog from the air.

Daniela Peña Corvillon 18:57

Yeah, I think they’re amazing. And my hope—the first time I went to see Orick in North California, we went in a small airplane so I got to see all the transitions, from the oak woodlands of the Bay Area to the deep redwoods on the north. I also saw all of these firs that have been cut, so you see first the alders and these first generation redwoods and I feel redwood is not a tree. I feel redwood is an ecosystem, is a family, is a forest. The root system is there and they are all connected, and they are going to recover and I feel like they are going to continue teaching us about being a community; our understanding that we are not solo, that we are [who we are] because we [are surrounded by] elements that make us who we are. I think we need to love them and we need to protect them and we need to enjoy them.

Emily Harwitz 19:55

How do science-based conservation efforts come into play with park designs? I’m wondering at what stage do you incorporate that and to what degree does it inform your designs?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 20:07

Since the beginning. I think science and conservation go together. I think that, through science or through a knowledge of science—or also, a lot of funding for the project comes through as well. So when we think about a place, before we can do anything we want, or we wish or we need, we just want to see what the place itself is. We will use any resources—we will use scientific resources, we will use community knowledge, we will use historical elements—anything that can tell us what the place itself is, because the place changes over the years. And what we are seeing today is much more complex than that, so we need to understand the process of how that place have been constructed, and helping to that process for like, resilience space. [Music]

Emily Harwitz 21:06

And now we’ve reached the lightning round part of the episode. Daniela, are you ready?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 21:13


Emily Harwitz 21:13

All right, first question: if you could work in another capacity in the outdoors, what would you do?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 21:20

I would like to help people to go into the water. Anything from like river guiding, helping to swim, playing on the beach—anything that is related to people in water. I feel like sometimes we carry so much structure that society has given us and I feel like water is so playful. So I would like to be kind of an outdoor guide or an outdoor therapist—I don’t know, something that we can just jump into the water.

Emily Harwitz 21:48

Yeah. I love that! Water is so playful, you’re right.

Daniela Peña Corvillon 21:51

Yeah. And it’s always different.

Emily Harwitz 21:53

Yeah. You never look at the same river twice—or no, what is that saying? You never step into the same river twice.

Emily Harwitz 21:58

Yeah, exactly. Right.

Emily Harwitz 21:59

So question number two: if you were a redwood, where would you be and why?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 22:04

You need to help me with the pronunciation of the ‘O Rew site.

Emily Harwitz 22:07

Yeah, that’s good.

Daniela Peña Corvillon 22:08

In that intersection of Redwood Creek and Prairie Creek close to Orick, I found that place my favorite place. It just—you can see the ocean, you are surrounded by this forest, the salmon are running through this beautiful Prairie Creek. I mean, it just seems like magical. You got both things, like the coastal sun exposition and the forest protection. And I would like to be there, a little—not next to a creek, a little more up, with a good sun exposition, looking to the ocean and refreshing by all my forests around me.

Emily Harwitz 22:47

Sounds like a beautiful life. I’ll come visit you. Alright, and last question. You’re going to spend a day in the redwoods? What are three things you’re bringing with you?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 22:56

Well, I will bring time because I like to relax. I don’t want to be pushing myself that I need to leave. No—when I am in the redwoods, I like to feel it. I want to sit, not think about a thing, I just want to, like, be there, so I don’t want any stress so I will go with time. That first. Second, I will bring some water and some food. I think because I just like to be comfortable.

Emily Harwitz 23:20

What kind of food?

Daniela Peña Corvillon 23:21

I really like nuts so I eat a lot of different nuts because it’s easy to carry and give me energy. So yeah, anything that can be a little salty, crunchy, and filling will be great.

Emily Harwitz 23:35

Yeah, well, sounds like a fun time! You’re all set for a day in the redwoods. Thanks so much for joining us today, Daniela. It was really fascinating to hear about what you do as a water architect and your perspective on working with nature to help bring those connection points to people.

Daniela Peña Corvillon 23:53

Thank you so much for inviting me and I hope we can both go to experience maybe the Montgomery Grove—they have water and it feels like no one has been there—and just laugh and enjoy it and get inspired by that beautiful ecosystem.

Emily Harwitz 24:08

Yeah, that sounds lovely. I’ll go if you go!

Daniela Peña Corvillon 24:10

Yeah, we’ll go together. Buenos noches. Ciao.


About the podcast

I’ll Go If You Go, a Save the Redwoods League podcast.

On I’ll Go If You Go, we have thought-provoking conversations with emerging environmental leaders from diverse backgrounds who explore and work in the outdoors. By examining how we think, work, and play in the outdoors, we’re building community and illuminating how Californians from all walks of life experience nature and conservation, in the redwoods and beyond.

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About the host of Season 4
Emily Harwitz (she/her) is a journalist, writer, and filmmaker who works at the nexus of science and art to catalyze social and environmental change. Trained as a scientist and journalist, she also draws from her experience working in conservation and the outdoors to tell stories that inform, inspire, and rebuild connection with the beauty of nature we’re all part of.

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