Sunday, November 8, 2009

Shitty Eco-Urban Park-like Place

In the past decade or so many articles have been written and promising careers made by speculating on the potential of landscape and architecture for remaking infrastructure.  The movement has even given rise to the "emerging field" of landscape urbanism, home of such new school luminaries as Chris Reed, Liat Margolis, Pierre Belanger, and Kate Orff.  This movement, coinciding nicely with the rise of web 2.0 and parametric design capabilities, have given bldg blog and pruned a fertile field to plow.  Budding young academics have taken the mandate to make beautiful, bombastic drawings about just how fun and beautiful things will be if we make all infrastructure social.

The adoption of this mindset is now ubiquitous to the point of becoming almost passe [sic].  Every thesis from Penn or Harvard deals with this subject, and the revolution is coming to a university near you.  Despite all of this attention, the treatment of this new design paradigm is still largely superficial and celebratory, with little effort being made to discuss the real implications of a newly social/ecological infrastructure.  And so we end up with proposals like a new water infrastructure for the city of Chicago that conjures images of the White City, or the remaking of the notorious Gowanus Canal into a neighborhood amenity that resembles the banks of the Sienne.  Everything is beautiful and clean and new, except for the old things which are preserved as pretty relics.

Now, I should offer up here that most of the people making these proposals are much-esteemed and putting out intelligent work.  However, the tone of the writings and renderings tend to be one of placation as opposed to provocation (Julie Barmann et al not included).  There is a reticence to admit the fact that most of these operations they propose to incorporate into social urban spaces are messy.  In fact almost any place where work is done is messy, be it a healthy forest floor where bacteria decompose the detritus of the previous growing season or a concrete plant.  Yet, when designers claim they can take the stormwater infrastructure of a city and daylight it, making it a cultural amenity for all to experience we end of with projects like this

Now, the above project riles me up.  I love the idea, but the renderings are disingenuous.  They don't admit or address what will surely be a major issue with the plazas when they are built; namely they don't deal with the grime and dirt that comes from recycling a city's water.  This is major theme in landscape/architecture/urbanism- take the pretty, leave the ugly.  And this undermines our credibility in the eyes of the engineers, beaurocrats, and sensible citizens (as opposed to those unsensible ones). 

To seriously tackle the undertaking of constructing socio-ecological infrastructure- productive landscapes- designers can embrace the seedy underbelly of engineering.  This mind-shift, would give rise to a whole generation of Bukowski-esque landscapes.  Muddy zones in public plazas where seedlings are propagated, unkempt areas of public parks where people are able to dump their compost of or see their grey water at work, newly engineered bio-rafts accessible only by catwalk where the food waste of the West Village is composted. 

Landscapes that functioned as systems and not just as stages for entertainment would be deployed throughout the city, much like corrugated pipe and asphalt is today.  This is not a novel idea and most of the big ideas comptetitions these days deal directly with the topic.  But until we stop showing renderings that assume sewage is pretty, and trash smells nice, we will continue to implement these stategies in a superficial and piecemeal way, creating didactic landscapes that point out "I am a bio-filtration swale.  I filter stormwater" while the real infrastructure remains underground and out of sight.  Storage and staging grounds have always been a part of any working landscape, be it a backyard garden or Lower Manhattan.


  1. A few things:

    1) These "watersquares" are surge overflow spaces, meaning they will only fill up with water during the rare heavy storms. Whether these storms are 10-year storms or 100-year, I'm not certain.

    2) During the more common rainfall events, stormwater are stored temporarily (if it needs to be stored) in satellite overflow spaces, some of which are covered but the presence of water induces surface changes. Once the storm has passed, the water will be released slowly into canals and polders, bypassing the "watersquares".

    3) The project will not recycle Rotterdam's water.

    4) This project will not manage sewage, which will still be managed by an existing underground infrastructure.

    5) A filtration system isn't obvious in the diagrams here [pdf; 4.2MB; text in Dutch, unfortunately; 2007]. However, with a modicum of imagination, one could see lots of opportunities to implement such a system within intermediary spaces.

    6) I understand the concern for loosing credibility with disingenuous renderings. In the case of Florian Boer and Marco (not landscape architects by sect), however, their work seemed to have convinced city authorities to implement their plan, or at least construct a prototype "watersquare" to study the feasibility of the proposal.

    7) I'm very intrigued by these "Bukowski-esque landscapes." Have you blogged about them much here? Would love to here more.

  2. those are good points. it is clear in the diagrams that 'waterpleinen' only deals with stormwater but others (including the chicago project i link to) does deal with all of the water conceptually. I was bouncing between specific proposals and general trends. Sorry for the conflation.

    it is wonderful that these drawings were enough to convince the dutch authorities. no problem here with them being implemented.

    i haven't written about bukowski-esque landscapes, but i will. id love to see what you come up with as well if it interests you.

    and i resent the implication that i have even a modicum of imagination. i don't.

  3. Dear All,
    Alexander you studied our material quite well, thank you for that.
    Indeed the watersquare is no sewerage treatment facility. it catches the stormwater from public space and rooftops and that is filtered before running into the square. There it will be hold untill the "city system" is back to normal and the water can run of to the nearest open water (canals or a singel in the Rotterdam case). The water will never be in the square for a long period. Depending on the amount of rain falling, the worst case would be a 32 hours (once a year statistically). This will not be a health threat, even in summertime
    Some research still needs to be done off course. But as it is in Rotterdam, the municipality liked the idea and we are trying to get a more elaborate example to be built. In this sense not all has been solved but the dirt and debris are not that difficult to take care of. It can be filtered and the square will have to be swept clean afterwards obviously.
    As for deceiving renderings... They are three images that are popping up on all different kind of places and they start to lead a life on their own. They should not be judged by themselves.
    The whole idea of the watersquares originates from our desire as spatial designers to spend money used for flood basins in such a way that they become spaces people can enjoy. Most of the time these spaces can be used normally as public space, only 5% to 10% of the time the space is needed for temporal stormwater storage. Therefor money spend for technical infrastructure can be turned into money spend to create better places in the city. This is only applicable where there is very little public space and stormwater problems are urgent.
    In the dense urban fabric of the innercity our proposal makes sense because of pressure on public space and the need to spend money not just on technical facilities that only solve the technical problem, but leave no added value to the public space.
    we are preparing a modest book that explains the idea more thorougly. It will be published by 010-publishers in Rotterdam and will be in both dutch and english. In stores end of january, next year. So i hope all will become a bit more clear to you all then.
    Thanks for all the interest in our project.

  4. Thank you alexander and florian for the additional information. I do really like the project, which is why i seized upon it. I still don't buy the renderings and think my point stands, but i am thrilled the project is being implemented. If the renderings of future proposals provide a more in-depth treatment of concerns outside of social recreation, I think we can even get some of these built in areas where the beaurocracies aren't as sympathetic as they are in Holland. Thank you for commenting.