Sunday, May 29, 2011

New Orleans: Outpost for an Empire

[a bird's eye view of the Land-Making Machine in 1884, from the delta up to the Missouri]

[USACE engineer schematic of the Bonnet Carre spillway, north of Louisiana; the spillway functions as a flood release valve, siphoning floodwaters from the river and putting it into Lake Pontchartrain on the backside of New Orleans]


Many of you have probably heard of the flooding on the Mississippi this spring.  It is a captivating story of devastation and beauty and is tragic every time it happens.  Being removed from the situation, we here are fascinated by the actions taken both by large scale bureaucracies- the Army Corps of Engineers- and local homeowners, families, and communities.  For folks interested in some good writing about floods, we recommend heading over to mammoth and checking out their recent installments as well as the links they provide.

Here at FASLANYC we wanted to zero in a bit on the city of New Orleans as a follow up to our recent post on the land-making machine and the Louisiana delta.  Last year we looked at some of the hydrological infrastructures supporting the contemporary city and speculated that goatherds might be used in the vegetated spaces of the city as an alternative maintenance practice, with the little bearded munchers roaming the fecund vacancies of the delta, destroying weeds and engineering little ecosystems.  Of course, the delta is not their original habitat, and if they had the misfortune to be in the Bonnet CarrĂ© Spillway when it was opened to ease pressure on the New Orleans river levee they would have been swept away as they were back in the 1940’s.

Historically, urbanization at the site of New Orleans has occurred during four different empires- Mississippian, Spanish, French, American- and was always more an imperial commercial and military outpost than a population center.  Each imperial regime imposed different techniques and practices for living in the shifting, volatile geology of the region.  The French and Spanish, beginning with DeSoto’s ill-fated expedition and Bienville's dilemma, focused on mapping the delta and its network of lagoons, channels, islands, swamps, and forests.  The result was the construction of a strategic geography for trade and military purposes.  And though the maps belied a certain bias towards relative stasis- a wildly inappropriate assumption in the delta- they enabled a series of settlements, battlements, and canals for transportation and drainage.  The city was important but small with a heterogeneous population of 8,212 including French, Creoles, Spaniards, Cubans, Mexicans, Acadians, Anglo-Americans, British, Haitians, and Canary Islanders in addition to free blacks and slaves [for whom there is less specific information]. 

The advent of the American Empire [defined by the creation of the frontier concept] with the concurrent adoption of the steamship and the navigation canal boom of the 1820’s-1850’s changed things, and New Orleans began to be remade into a population center.  This came to fruition nearly a century later with the invention of the Wood Screw Pump and the implementation of flood control systems by the US Army Corps of Engineers up and down the mighty Land-Making Machine.

But what about that fourth empire?  How did they live?  Little of their legacy is now legible; we have the fantastical Mardi Gras Indian tradition and the names of a few geographic entities (including “Mississippi”).  But in light of the flooding of the river, what most interests us most about this empire are their mounds. 
[existing indian mounds outside of Kincaid, Illinois]


[an artist's rendition of the Imperial capital of Cahokia; the city may have supported a population of 15,000, connected to surrounding urban sites with specialized economies]

The Mississippians were a “mound-building people”, a fragmented and fractious empire loosely associated and bound together through cultural practices, trade, and their shared environmental situation.  The capital was Cahokia- at the time the largest North American city north of Mexico- and is a prime example of this cultural practice of mound-building.  While the archeological mounds are laden with cultural significance [and this is what anthropologists tend to focus on it seems], these constructions can also be seen as a dispersed, cellular adaptation to the dynamic hydrological condition of the Mississippi Valley. 

We find it interesting that even in this year’s record high flood, the indian mounds near Kincaid, Illinois stayed dry.  Trawling through the wildlife and game message boards [H. Willis does a lot of hunting and fishing], we came across this great thread where hunters are discussing the animals that have taken refuge on the local indian mounds, as well as the roofs of homes.  This activity is not limited just to animals.  In a 1927 issue of Science in an article titled “Indian Mounds as Flood Refuges” we read:
The thousands of terror-stricken people who have taken to Indian mounds to escape the flooding Mississippi waters are showing scientists how the Indians probably used these earthworks which they built in pre-Columbian days. 

And later...
“The buildings [on top of the mounds] were probably temples, altars and the habitats of chieftains,” said [anthropologist] Dr. Kidder.  “In time of flood a mound could accommodate the entire tribe, most of the members of which probably lived in the inundated area.”
Pyramidal in structure, but with a flat top to permit erection of buildings, the mounds are about 150 feet in diameter and some fifty feet high.  They are largely confined to the flood area of the Mississippi.

This practice of mound-building varied across the empire, from a few small hills near Kincaid to the imperial complex of Cahokia to the shell middens of the Louisiana Delta.  It happened at a regional landscape scale- across the entire Midwest and much of the Southeast.  And the mounds were not just burial sites, giant cosmological clocks, or the temple of the high priest; they were a multifunctional networked infrastructure- the construction of the territory as an articulated surface for resisting periodic inundation.

Formally these mounds and their function are reminiscent of the incredible constructions created by homeowners this spring to try and save their own homes as levees up and down the Mississippi were breached or blown, spillways were opened, and the Mississippi River reclaimed its floodplain for a time.  Along with the tragic losses, inspiring stories abound of families and small communities collecting bobcats and sand bags and performing what we might call a “series of tactical operations” to try and save a house. 
[a homemade levee near Vicksburg protects a house from the floodwaters of the Mississippi]



In considering the city of New Orleans, we are interested in how this concept might be applied during the next generation.  The draining and settling of the back swamp between the Mississippi River levee and Lake Pontchartrain first enabled the city to become the population center that we now know.  Rather than full-scale retreat, which seems untenable for a variety of social, economic, and environmental reasons, perhaps a new landscape theory drawing on the lessons from earlier infrastructural regimes could be developed to reconstruct the city as a hybrid of imperial outpost and population center that is able to resist inundation.

Taking a lesson from the Mississipians of 1000 years ago and the Medellin architects of now, and utilizing the resourcefulness of people and animals resisting the flood of 2011, we could imagine a site in each neighborhood of the low part of New Orleans- the church, the park, the school- being raised above flood level, with individual homeowners encouraged to acquire a small boat and to raise their own sites if they choose.  A timber source for piles and a sediment source for fill would have to be identified, and new cultural practices instigated.  But the result within a generation could be the construction of the city itself as an articulated surface.
[the bonnet carre spillway dumps a massive sediment plume into lake pontchartrain; massive sediment deposits are left behind in the spillway each time it is opened- approximately once per decade; the spillway then becomes a borrow pit for mineral deposits used in construction projects throughout the delta]


[the Parque Biblioteca Espana, in Medellin, Colombia, one of five different libraries with adjacent parks constructed in different, strategic barrios throughout the city]

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Mississippi River: Land-Making Machine

[A false color satellite image of the Louisiana Delta; the grey zones are urbanized areas, red areas are vegetated areas, blue is water]

Conceiving of a river as a land-maker, especially the mighty Mississippi, is not necessarily a novel idea.  But the Deleuzian term “land-making machine”, which we first heard coined by brilliant Tulane geographer Richard Campanella, is particularly powerful and we love it.

Let’s first briefly consider Deleuze and Guattari’s machine:
A machine may be defined as a system of interruptions or breaks.  These breaks should in no way be considered as a separation from reality; rather, they operate along lines that vary according to whatever aspect of them we are considering.  Every machine, in the first place, is related to a continual material flow that it cuts into.

That seems pretty clear, and directly relevant and if you want to read more excerpts can be found here.  It should be mentioned that Deleuze and Guattari’s machine is layered, relative, and causal.  Like any nerdy designer, we could spend the next 10,000 words misunderstanding and misappropriating it to justify our positions.  But let’s move on to talk about mud.  The point is, Campanella’s “land-making machine” [LMM] is an awesome term, and that’s how we’ll refer to the Mississippi River for the foreseeable future.

The LMM built the Louisiana Delta in the last 5,000 years with the massive loads of slurry it transported from the heart of the continent to the Gulf of Mexico.  It is estimated that before 1930 this load was about 400 million tons of sediment per year.  These estimates are variable with a large margin for error given inconsistency in testing methods and locations.  Nonetheless, when compared with post-1930 numbers they are instructive.  Since 1930 this load had decreased significantly, with estimates ranging from 145 million to 230 million tons per year.  This load reduction is attributable in equal parts to the revetments, levees, and enhanced agricultural practices that reduce the amount of sediment available, and the dams that trap sediment along the tributary rivers.
[historical deltas of the Land Making Machine; today 2/3 of the flow and sediment goes through the "Bird Foot Delta", 1/3 through the Atchafalaya River; image source Texas A & M Department of Oceanography]

[map of 1874 flood on the Mississippi; floods like this contributed to the imperative to build flood control measures up and down the river, culminating in the 1928 Flood Control Act]

Despite this massive reduction, the LMM still discharges a sediment load that approximates that of the next six sediment-iest rivers in the United States combined.  Most of this sediment is no longer used to continuously build the delta.  Rather, thanks to the 1830’s engineering of Capt. James Eads, it is shot out into the Gulf of Mexico.  As a result of his innovative jetty system, and the upstream flood control measures put in place a century later, a land mass approximately the size of Delaware has been lost from the Louisiana coast since the 1930’s.  But the potential of the LMM remains.

The massive potentiality of the LMM is the source of serious speculation, academic proposals, and pilot projects.  To make this notion visceral let’s consider the case of Cubit’s Gap, a major subdelta of the LMM.  The gap formed in 1862 after an oyster fisherman (Cubit) and his daughters excavated a small ditch in the natural levee between the Mississippi River and the oyster-rich Bay Ronde in order to portage their fishing boat more easily.  The following spring floodwater poured through, gouging a crevasse and depositing sediment.  Six years later the crevasse was 2,427 feet wide [1].  By 1940 a landmass larger than New Orleans had been created and the Bay Ronde had completely disappeared.  Today, the Cubits Gap subdelta is 40,000 acres of national wildlife refuge and is quickly subsiding back into the Gulf of Mexico.
[this map from 1839 predates the handiwork of Cubit, his daughters and the LMM; the Bay Ronde can be seen in the middle of the map]

 [this map from 1922 shows the resulting subdelta; source of images and account of Cubits Gap is Geoscience and Man, Volume XVI, The Mississippi River Delta, Legal-Geomorphologic Evaluation of Historic Shoreline Changes, David Joel Morgan.  School of Geoscience, Louisiana State University.]

The incredible dynamism of the geology and hydrology rolled together into a Land-Making Machine, paired with the image of an old fisherman and his daughters tugging a tiny fishing skiff is beautiful.  It also brings up interesting questions of agency.  The causal relations between army engineers, old fishermen and their daughters, and the Land-Making Machine itself smashed together here at the borderlands of intentionality suggest a richer, wilder concept of urbanization, inhabitation and infrastructure is desired. 

Massive engineering projects by corporations and bureaucracies may very well be key to working with the LMM.  Or perhaps we just need more nomads, surveyors, fishermen, and farmers.  Very likely, it’s some combination of both.  Such is the American landscape- MORE EVERYTHING!
[pelicans in Cubits Gap]

Monday, May 23, 2011

Today's Newsdesk: Welekia and the Worldwide Soil Map

Just a few bits of awesomeness to share today.  Recently in the great, horrible city of Los Angeles we had the chance to hear a fellow named Eric Sanderson speak about his project some of you may have heard about.  Manahatta brings together two of our favorite fields of inquiry- landscape archeology [the term is used loosely here] and landscape ecology with the idea of reimagining the island of Manhattan 400 years ago.  Sanderson has noted before that his interest in the landscape history of the island of Manhattan originated with the discovery of the incredible 1784 British Headquarters Map.
[the map that inspired a damn cool project- the 1784 British Headquarters Map]

We are happy to note that the much publicized book has evolved into an even more interesting project called Welekia.  The name seems to draw cleverly on the Wikipedia and Wikileaks projects, but it doesn’t.  It’s actually referencing the Lenape word for “my good home” and that part is important.  The Welekia/Manahatta project is not an effort to recreate the mythical wilderness that Europeans constructed on arriving here, but to recover the constructed landscape of the Americas.

To this end, the project reconstructs the human and non-human ecologies of the island of Manhattan from before European arrival, through the colonial period and up to the present day.  It does this through a series of GIS-dependent mappings, Muir webs, lists, and historical research all compiled in simple, sortable, searchable google earth maps; and it allows you to compare the bizarre ecology of the West Village today with what it was 400 years ago.  We appreciate this grounded concept of the place- understanding it as a continuous and contemporaneous condition, without emphasizing certain arbitrary species and associations.  What’s more, it is fun, and worth spending several hours playing around with.  What is more, this type of intelligible, connected reading of the site promises to support all manner of future landscape projects, be they interventions or educational projects.  We imagine that a complex and rich understanding of specific American landscapes, including those that pre-date colonization, will help develop a unique American landscape theory.
[Chief Tishcohan of the Lenape]

[Muir web of the island of Manhattan]

In a similar vein the Global Soil Map is a project that aims to map the soils across the globe “giving soil researchers unprecedented access to data. But they will also provide soil-management recommendations for a wide range of end users: scale-specific information for agriculture extension workers, agribusinesses, farmer associations, environmental extension services, policymakers, and civil society.”  The project recognizes that understanding and caring for soils can no longer remain the fiefdom of technocrats and seeks to use digital tools to better represent the dynamic nature of soil as a medium.

We can imagine this type of archeological soil mapping revealing how the terra preta soils of Brazil captured carbon and supported a garden city urbanism on a regional scale, sequestering carbon and enriching nutrient poor tropical soils.  And we hope to see future landscape projects focused on the agency of soil itself.  While the traditional capital project will remain important, essential in this effort will be the development of new methods and tools to expand agency in the landscape.
[a landscape architect/excavator with ceramic embedded in terra preta in the Brazilian rain forest]

[the agency of soil]

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Cosmological and Infrastructural Geoglyphs

[the glyphs constructed by the Nazca people of Peru at the base of the Andes mountains some 2000 years ago, now bisected by the interoceanica highway]

Our South American correspondent DRDLM brings us big news from the STLO (Southern Theater of Landscape Operations, or St. Louis).  Claiming he needed some “tiempo propio” (aka “me time”), he took off for Peru to check out the pre-Colombian geoglyphs of the Nazca people.  And to imbibe copious amounts of psychotropic ayahuasca.  When he finally resurfaced he filed this report.

The economic growth of China and Brazil in recent decades has stimulated Peru to complete the Carretera Interoceanica (Inter-Oceanic Highway).  The highway will connect the Brazilian and Chinese industrial and financial centers through Peruvian ports, with a side effect of serious cross pollination across Peru.  Possessing prime wharfage and situated between these two behemoths, Peru’s situation is like Holland happily finding itself between Germany, France, and Great Britain in the 1700’s, only with 1 billion more people involved.  The economists, industrialists, and most of the politicians are ecstatic, and as an alternative to mercury-intensive small-scale gold mining or devastating agricultural practices, infrastructures of commerce as economic driver has a certain appeal.
[agricultural clearing patterns in the Amazon rain forest]

[the last tree falls in flood plain of the Madre de Dios River]

The highway promises a shipping alternative to the Panama Canal or the treacherous Drake Passage, a prospect so enticing that Brazil built their road through the Amazon decades ago, the implication being “c’mon Peru, if I gave you some money out of my wallet would that make you feel better?”  This opened up the Brazilian Amazon to almost-unchecked exploitation by farmers and loggers, with fantastic short-term financial benefits.  Until now, a dirt track on the other side of the border was the only road and could take weeks to traverse in the rainy season, and so Brazil remained severed from the Pacific.

The ambition of this infrastructural project is on the scale of the US Interstate Highway System or the Incan Road, and will bring as many changes in the economies and ecologies that it is connecting.  The port cities of Peru stand to see a huge increase in activity, bringing with it opportunity and problems.  In Lima the port at Callao just signed a contract with Maersk to enlarge the Muelle Sur (South Dock) to handle PANAMAX and POSTPANAMAX container ships.  In the southern port towns of Puerto Matarani, San Juan, and Ilo tiny residential populations figure to double in the coming years, requiring infrastructures for drinking water and energy that are not yet in place.  Meanwhile the last remaining link, the Continental Bridge, is defying engineers’ attempts to complete it, with the anchor caissons on either side of the Madre de Dios Rio developing structural fractures when it was loaded back in December of 2010. It projects to finally be finished in June of this year and when it is, the changes that have already started will likely intensify by orders of magnitude.

[locals cross one of the new bridges of the inter-oceanica highway]

 [the inter-oceanic highway snakes through the Amazon state of Madre de Dios]

This highway project continues a trend of unification on the continent through environmental and engineering projects.  It is an infrastructural version of Simon Bolivar’s 18th century dream of a unified South America, albeit one not of political hegemony, but environmental heterogeneity.  Many environmentalists raise concerns about the project slicing through the Madre de Dios River basin, which is one of the most biodiverse areas in the Amazon, and rightfully so.  But as we’ve noted previously, infrastructural civilizations have existed here before and the result was so effective that the European mind literally exploded when they experienced it, leading to the invention of all types of silly concepts such as “wilderness”.  The infrastructure and increased connectivity itself isn’t a problem, just a situation, and one that should be approached intelligently.
[muelle 5 in the port of Callao, Lima, Peru]

[the Puente Continental, the longest span bridge on the inter-oceanica highway, spanning the Madre de Dios River]

Viewed in this light, Parag Kanna’s provocative claim that the cities, not nation states, are now the fundamental building block of civilization becomes more compelling.  What must first be embraced is the fact that cities themselves are only one piece of the urban object which is a larger network assembled from resources and waste sinks, tied together with infrastructures.  This is not to suggest that the nation-state will be going the way of the dodo any time soon, but the concept of the westphalian state was always and remains a tenuous-at-best proposition in the post-modern, post-colonial, mestizo condition of the Americas. 

We’ve mentioned before that the dominant infrastructural paradigm of the Americas has largely been that which was imported from the smaller geography Europe.  This has proven wonderfully efficient in certain applications, especially at first.  But it is limited.  Instead of wholeheartedly importing the newest ideas from Spain or Germany for high speed rail and park-ified cities, we would like to see the development of an authentically American mestizo landscape praxis, one which enables infrastructures to be constructed and adapted across the vast, variegated reaches of the continents, adaptable to the unmatched heterogeneity of the place.  The recovery and development of authentically American infrastructural urbanisms is key if we are to ever break out of our Europhilic infrastructural tautology.
[just Don Roman de la Mancha and the open InterOceanica Highway]