Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Septuagenarian Sewers and Superfund Sites: the Northeastern Urban Condition

Just last week in NYC Mayor Bloomberg announced ambitious plans to invest up to 1.5 billion in green infrastructure:  "environmental techniques to reduce the flow of sewage into the city's waterways".  In the same week, a twister touched down in Brooklyn and dumped a heavy rain shower in the sewers, causing this heinous, Delillo-esque "stormwater outfall event" in the Gowanus Canal.
[image courtesy of the Infrastructurist.  Check out this great interview from their archives on the topic]

The initiative shown by the mayor is encouraging and landscape architects are salivating at the chance to implement some of the forward-thinking policies that have been developed through pilot projects and speculative designs for decades, but first things first.  We suggest poking around on this excellent and informative website for all things sewer-related, from ancient history to the historical debate surrounding combined vs. separated sewer systems.  And for those of you with a New York City-bent, please check out this study put together by National Geographic (just click on the individual categories on the right to learn more than you wanted).  A cursory glance through back issues of the free MSW magazines is also necessary.

The notions of creating a permeable city, papering it over with performative layers, constructing the city as an articulated surface, or creating cyborg cities are all valid concepts.  What these grandiose visions really represent is infrastructure as a combination of mechanical and landscape systems at multiple scales.  Variations of this concept have been studied and piloted in smaller cities for decades (and we would argue, is fundamental to the very idea of infrastructure).  And the fact that they may now be implemented as policy in New York City, where entrenched corporate and political interests, centuries of de/construction, and layer upon layer of bureaucratic oversight often combine to choke out innovation, is significant in its own right.  This is a good thing.
[this articulated surface created by ancient amazonians is a pure landscape 'infrastructure']

[this articulated surface, created by modern americans, is also landscape infrastructure]

Of course, it is nothing new.  In fact, all of our "infrastructures" can be seen as a combination of landscape and machine; in the case of sewer systems in NYC, stormwater runs along a street curb (landscape), drops into a pipe (machine), gravity feeds to a larger sewer pipe carrying stormwater and sewage (landscape + machine), is pumped to a treatment plant (machine) and is released out into a water body (landscape).  Unless, of course, there is too much water within a short period of time.  In that case, the unholy mixture of row sewage and petroleum-infused stormwater gushes into the nearest adjacent body of water.

We love the idea of simply multiplying the scales at which sophisticated systems of landscape and mechanical infrastructure are working and expanding the scope of issues they are affecting.  The inherent capacity of the Landscape, its bigness in scope and scale, lends itself to this.  Instead of limiting the systems to stormwater and sewage, the systems will also become social amenities, create places of work and leisure, provide productive ecological habitat, and create opportunities for silviculture, aquaculture, and even agriculture.  All within the context of a serious appreciation for the mechanical systems of the 19th and 20th centuries and an understanding of the unintended consequences and opportunities created by that modernist teleology.
[the cover of Scientific American showing the construction of a 19th century NYC sewer]

None of this is new, but it is a new development for New York City, one building on the earlier efforts of city agencies, private-sector consultants, and academic researchers from far and wide (curiously, the efforts and voices of citizens and residents is not clear) and the well-connected and well-publicized designers du-jour (favorites of the mayor) are likely licking their chops.  And we hope that most of the projects will be administered by the DOT and the DDC- currently the most innovative of the NYC agencies- with oversight and input from the DEC, DEP, DPR, Office of the Mayor, City Planning, EPA, DCA, DOB, Design Commission, NYCHA etc (at some point there, we just started making up acronyms).  As the major urban center in the northeastern conurbation where combined sewers, a bureaucratic quagmires, and superfund sites are endemic, it is a move that could have implications in cities across the northeastern US.  It will be interesting to see what happens.


  1. Perhaps a Minds in the Gutter like call for proposals will unearth a new cohort of designers....

  2. That wave of brown pushing through the blue of the canal is just disgusting...