Post-Industrial & Toxic Sites Can “Exude Optimism” When Reclaimed Aesthetically (Video)

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Waste production, greenhouse gas emissions, and aggressive industrial resource extraction have accelerated, ushering in an era of unprecedented environmental destruction. Remediation of often dangerous post-industrial and toxic sites, though, can reinvigorate a long-established connection between aesthetics and the environment. Reclamation is an ideal space where aesthetics and design can aligned in order to overcome the human errors of the past and build a sustainable, visually appealing landscape.

What gifts do aesthetically reclaimed landscapes offer?

  • They prioritize the landscape’s ability to serve a safe and productive human use.
  • They represent ways that sites are already claimed by history, memory, sensory experience, and non-human processes.
  • They use beauty and taste to construct knowledge about life’s fluctuations.
  • They ascribe multiple meanings and values to the natural world.

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Differing Perspectives about the Value of Reclaiming Toxic Sites

Land revitalization is a beneficial, yet costly, process to undertake, as lands are often contaminated with harmful substances that require expensive procedures to treat. Architectural design is a companion to land revitalization and is shaped by its environment and natural forces. Both areas have evolved to link cultural landscapes, production systems, and living spaces.

Some experts have determined that, despite the potential gains for both the environmental and human health, it remains uncertain whether the benefits of interventions to clean-up hazardous sites outweigh the costs. Local development can veer in different directions than aesthetics when the purpose is to initiate social and economic progress while dealing with production adjustments and economic crises.

Others insist that Superfund sites (at least the ones with completed human exposure pathways) without any remediation strategy could cause billions of dollars in the form of medical costs and lost productivity alone. These contaminated sites damage the health and well-being of the 50 million US residents that live near them, according to a 2021 study by University of Houston researchers that looked at the impact of Superfund sites on life expectancy. Removing contaminants can become so important with this perspective that the aesthetics of the remaining landscape become secondary.

Still others argue that aesthetic reasons for environmentalism fail to address the consumptive practices and cultural detachment from nature fueling our environmental crisis. These critics of aesthetic landscape reclamation say that alternative frames that ascribe intrinsic value to ecology beyond its aesthetic qualities are necessary to motivate pro-environmental behaviors and policies that are part of land reclamation.

toxic sites

But none of those perspectives was identified this year by the Cultural Landscape Foundation as they awarded the first $100,000 Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize to Julie Bargmann. The Prize is bestowed on a recipient who is “exceptionally talented, creative, courageous, and visionary” and has “a significant body of built work that exemplifies the art of landscape architecture.”

Bargmann, a professor at the University of Virginia and founder of D.I.R.T. (Dump It Right There) studio, has spent the last 30 years transforming postindustrial and sometimes toxic sites into aesthetically appealing spaces. Multi-disciplinary collaborations with architects, historians, engineers, hydrogeologists, artists, and, most importantly, the residents of the area in which she is working are hallmarks of Bargmann’s approach.

The Oberlander Prize Jury Citation notes of Bargmann: “She has been a provocateur, a critical practitioner, and a public intellectual. She embodies the kind of activism required of landscape architects in an era of severe environmental challenges and persistent social inequities.”

An Urban Park Replaces a Postindustrial Toxic Site

What is the best way to address the excruciatingly slow pace of clean-up for the US most contaminated toxic sites? Many seemingly forgotten sites are concentrated in areas where communities are already marginalized, illustrating how poverty can be made worse by slack environmental regulation. Forbes describes how living near Superfund sites is proven to have life-and-death consequences.

Yet a wasted area can become a new kind of community park. That’s what happened when developer Philip Kafka of Prime Concepts brought in Julie Bargmann to the Core City Park site in Michigan. When Bargmann visited the site, her first instinct was “to dig.” The garbage-ridden, overgrown parking lot was surrounded mostly by abandoned buildings. Once Kafka’s team started excavation, they discovered that an old, razed firehouse once stood on the site. An retrieved stone slab had the the year “1893” engraved in it. Bargmann realized that buildings had been pushed into basements, so she decided to invert everything. The team moved the ground up and incited the woodland to descend below the surface.

“Every day was gleeful” due to the prospect of what they would find, Bargmann says, and those surprises helped to mold the organization of the park. “It was an amazing opportunity to explore that way, to take risks and grow.” She noted that neighbors were watching the construction site — which had no fencing — and emerging park with interest. Reclaimed landscapes like Core City Park are now recognized as a heritage that gains added value through community participation, voice, and action.

Nearly everything eventually used in the construction of the 8,000-square-foot Core City Park was unearthed on-site, including pieces of a demolished late-19th century fire station, the walls of a bank vault, and other excavated artifacts.  Now about 100 trees punctuate the park — it’s an urban woodland with clearings and groves that allow visitors to break away from the city without leaving it.

Bargmann’s goal, as related by the Washington Post, was for the park to release feelings of hope. “If you make something exude optimism, it is accessible and welcoming.”

From an Abandoned Waterworks to a Reflecting Pool

Turtle Creek Water Works in Dallas, Texas was an abandoned historic pump house with large reservoirs that once supplied the neighborhood’s water. Today it is a deconstructed residential garden made possible through recycling of the entire site. It is a transformation of the industrial into the artistic, incorporating original mechanical equipment, gears, and valves, as well as elements of sustainable design and the strategic use of water.

The project was a “process of curation, of restraint, of testing,” Bargmann notes. The 1-acre scale of the site offered her a framework, as did the original pipes and reservoirs. “Bringing the waterworks to life” started by locating plumbing, as the original owners “just up and left.” Eventually, that plumbing became part of a reflecting pool.

A “difficult undulating terracotta piece” was transformed into a place to lounge where spillway, creek, and plane of a lake were visible. The design process was one of restraint, with each decision treading lightly on the site, per request of the current owner. The result was reuse of original building materials and the inclusion of native plant materials into a structure that is both a private residence and an arts center.

The end result “feels good,” admits Bargmann.

Tackling Superfund Post-Industrial & Toxic Sites

Several types of benefits result from hazardous waste cleanup. These are:

  • direct benefits, such as in the number of health effects (e.g. asthma cases, lung cancer, malformations)
  • aesthetic benefits, such as decreases in odor and renewal of green spaces
  • social justice built into the foundation of a just city
  • indirect benefits, such as productivity increase of real estate properties

Bargmann collaborated with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on design studios focused on 12 Superfund sites, including Avtex Fibers in Front Royal, VA and Roebling Steel in Roebling, NJ. (Note: Roebling is site of the design and manufacturing of parts for the Brooklyn Bridge.) The toxic sites provided lessons in looking at how to apply emerging technologies, rather than defaulting to conventional practices.

Toxic sites become isolated by necessity but don’t go away, so D.I.R.T. sought to find ways to reconnect them to adjacent neighborhoods. Bargmann has consistently operated with the theory that industrial and social histories combine to create the connective tissue that reforms and revitalizes communities.

Images provided by the Cultural Landscape Foundation

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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