Thursday, December 16, 2010

Requiem for a briny mud flat

As the winter descends slowly on the northeast our thoughts turn towards our avian friends flying south.  One of the few places that privileges these fellows here in the New York Harbor is Shooters Island, the most beautiful briny mud flat in the world, and one of the many uninhabited islands dotting the harbor.
[Shooters Island sits just off Staten Island's North Shore in the Kill Van Kull; the major shipping channel to Bayonne is just to the north; Shooters Island was nearly blown up in the 1960's to ease navigation in the Kill]

Shooters Island is administered by the New York City Parks Department and closed to the public, and that is all the more reason you should consider sneaking a boat into the South Shooters Island Reach of the Kill Van Kull and paddling through the petrochemicals over to the island.  The history of the place is immediately palpable, but just to render what you already perceive, we’ll note for you a brief synopsis:

The island was little more than a hideout and hunting reserve in colonial times and remained undeveloped until the 1860’s when the first small shipyard was established here.  During the early 20th century the North Shore of Staten Island became one of the biggest shipbuilding centers in the world.  The Townsend-Downey Shipbuilding Company began operating here, manufacturing world famous vessels for the rich and famous; in 1902, the island produced a luxurious yacht for the Kaiser Willhelm II of Prussia.  And then twelve years later it started cranking out gleaming war machines that would eventually rend asunder the good emperor’s navy.
["Yes, yes, your yacht is right this way Mr. Kaiser.  NO!  Please, emperor, you can't look at the warship we are building behind that curtain."]

[remnants of old ships' hulls and dry dock crumbling into the water]

The need for fill to enable the expanding shipbuilding operation made Shooter’s Island a convenient dumping ground for the dredge material from the adjacent Kill Van Kull and the island swelled beyond its primary bulkhead.  Not long after the end of WWII, shipbuilding on the Island was done and it was abandoned, left to soak in the petrochemicals and sewage overflows from surrounding industry and neighborhoods for the next 60 years and now the ever larger dredging operations are slowly eating away at the island.
[the USS Muscatine being fitted out at Shooters Island; it was a 4430 gross ton refrigerated cargo ship (with 10,562 tons of displacement) used by the Navy as part of the logistical supply line during WW1]

In researching this (we obviously use the term "researching" loosely), we came across some interesting web chatter:  a number of Staten Islanders seemed to remember an old woman who lived on the island for years, rowing herself to shore a couple of times a week for supplies and to wander flaneur-like up and down the heinous streets of Staten Island.  In recent years, the city of Bayonne, New Jersey has tried to sell its portion of Shooters Island, ostensibly to “close a budget gap”.  This may or may not be part of some new hard line conservative fiscal initiative, but regardless, whenever you stand to make a few thousand dollars by selling off a priceless ecological sanctuary that happens to embody some of the greatest story lines of your industrial past, you’ve got to do it.
[the NOAA navigational charts show the bathymetry of the channels swirling around Shooters Island.  The South Shooters Island Reach is a minor channel and is not maintained by the same Army Corps contracts as the channel to the north]

We here at FASLANYC are in awe of the lovely, dangerous, polluted island.  The juxtaposition of petrochemical industries and bird sanctuaries, an old boat graveyard and massive modern tankers, shipbuilding histories and hearty, homeless old ladies, all perfectly embodied by that sharp line bisecting the island, demarcating the tidal mud flat from the marshy island- it seems perfect, and makes us want to pan around and around in Bing (of course, we would never go to the island- we prefer to conjure landscape experience through the glowing screen).  We wonder what ever became of the idea floated out in this NY Times piece from the 1990’s, and whether anyone else has any designs on the drawing board for what the island might be.  At the very least, it should be the subject of a most excellent treasure map:  a carefully curated and choreographed journey aboard the Staten Island Ferry, down Richmond Terrace, through the numerous bands of chain link fence, careful to circumvent the combined sewer outfalls, ending with a straight shot across the South Shooters Island Reach of the Kill Van Kull.

[if you want to see me, make your way to Shooters Island; and even if you don't care for birds, it's still an amazing place]

At any rate, the great migratory birds that love the island are heading south for the winter, and we are too.  We still hope to get up some content occasionally, but things are likely to be a little slow until February rolls around and the first thaw begins to show up.  Hopefully we will be able to chime in with new developments, report a bit from down south, and we promise to trot out some new themes, interviews, and to bring you the most lackadaisical reporting around.
[Faslanyc, H. Willis Montcrief, and DRDLM- the turkey buzzard flock of the nerdy landscape blog world- prepare to head south for the winter.  Or is it west?  Do they have any idea of the direction they're headed?]

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Conscientizaçao of the Landscape: Urban Development as Educational Project

This is the second in a two part post on the Matanza Riachuelo Project in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  The project first caught our attention back in September.  You can also read DRDLM’s first post here which discusses the La Salada informal market located on the banks of the river on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Down along the southern edge of Buenos Aires runs the disgusting Matanza-Riachuelo River.  To deal with the 200 year long legacy of unregulated dumping and polluting, a new agency has been created with the mandate to clean up the river and manage urban development (industry, housing, environmental ecology) at the scale of the watershed with the ability to cross municipal and provincial boundaries and cut through the myopic self-interest that often handicaps such efforts.  This is significant.

We’ve previously mentioned the work that pioneer-adventurer John Wesley Powell did in the 19th century when he explored the American West and came back recommending that the territory be settled and managed according to watersheds.  This sage geopolitical advice was soundly defeated by corporate railroad interests and he was relegated to founding the USGS (for more on this story check Jason King’s recent post over on Landscape+Urbanism and this post over on the excellent Strange Maps). 
[Powell's map of the watershed of the arid American West]

But now Powell is having his revenge and scientists/planners/engineers/designers are all colluding, making the case for managing regions based on the watershed (Richard Forman and Kristina Hill’s work immediately comes to mind) and this is resulting in exciting work including Cap-Net and some aspects of water resource policy in Brazil (laid out here clearly in English by Monica Porto).

And so we come to the Matanza-Riachuelo project.  Here, not only has a new authority been created to advise on policy efforts, but the agency has capital- the ability to design and implement projects.  They have the money to build dams and dikes, to install new sewer systems and monitoring stations, and to work with communities on relocation or rebuilding strategies in addition to advising on policy or enforcing regulations and other initiatives that are necessary in urbanized flood-prone areas.  This is extremely rare (unless it’s not, we would love to learn of more examples)- most organizations that have the ability to implement capital projects such as the Army Corp of Engineers, the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board, or the NYC Department of Transportation, are not at all based on the watershed but rather various strategic economic and geo-political territories.
 [the Buenos Aires conurbation on the banks of the Rio de la Plata; the hastily drawn red line approximates the course of the Matanza Riachuelo; though it's at the southern edge of the city proper of Buenos Aires, it is surrounding by urbanization on all sides in the lower part of the basin]

[information on specific projects is published using google earth, increasing the accessibility of the information]

But that is not what truly fascinates us about the Matanza Riachuelo project.  For us, the most significant aspect of the effort is that it can be characterized as urban development as an education project.  The project goes beyond the technocratic intervention and management of a complex system with a focus on scientific monitoring and publication of results paired with community engagement, exploration, and production.  This entails many interesting initiatives that are experimental and educational, themes with a special place in our heart here at FASLANYC.  However, the initiative that most captures our attention are two related efforts:  Aguas + Trabajo (Water + Work) and Aguas + Cloaca (Water + Sewers).

These projects are a joint initiative of AySA (Argentina Water and Sewer), ACUMAR (the river basin authority), and some of the cooperativas of the municipalities and neighborhoods in the basin.  The project is an effort to bring water and sewer to 100% of the households of the Matanza-Riachuelo basin, a major effort:  within the basin 35% of the population does not have access to drinking water and 65% is not connected to the sewer system.  However, instead of AySA (a massive technocratic bureaucracy) designing, implementing, and maintaining a solution, they instead work with ACUMAR (who has the power to span municipal boundaries regarding water issues in the basin) and local cooperativas to implement a solution- AySA provides the funds and technical training, ACUMAR provides the coordination between municipalities and oversees the environmental development, and the cooperativas get job training, employment, and are agents in the production of space in their barrio.
[here a rather rudimentary temporary station is set up on the grounds of a local school in the Matanza Riachuelo basin; a volunteer from the school is helping to record air quality data with the oversight of a technician from ACUMAR] 

This type of lo-fi, educational approach is worth considering for landscape and infrastructural projects in the future.  Our current technophilic ideal and its concomitant complexity rhetoric is interesting but limiting.  It seems we adamantly refuse to recognize the truth in Paul Virilio’s theory of the Integral Accident in the military-scientific complex and to consider the conscientizaçao of the landscape- landscape intervention as educational project.  In the case of A+T this means employment and skills training for underemployed populations while they work on building their own barrio.  But one can imagine scenarios where future landscape projects include extensions of CLUI’s excellent adventures, widespread DIY aerial mapping of your own little slice of the world, proliferating urban agriculture, or creating your own flupsy for oyster farming in the New York Harbor
[DIY aerial photography of the Louisiana coast line, post oil spill; courtesy of grassroots mapping]

The educational project as opposed to the production and consumption of the commoditized environment- the Conscientizaçao of the Landscape.