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“Yes, and…” Student Projects Expand Our Visions

May 19, 2014Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on “Yes, and…” Student Projects Expand Our Visions

I was fortunate to hear three of the Masters capstone thesis project presentations from our Department of Landscape Architecture last week.  These imaginative pieces, all concerned with urban waters, illustrate how well a new generation of professionals is engaging very broad questions through close examination and design of a particular site.

Newtown Creek, on the border between Brooklyn and Queens, flooded its surrounding neighborhood badly during Superstorm Sandy a couple of years ago.  Rehabilitation efforts have been hindered by polluted sites, legacies of industrial use that have been historically the dominant identity of the area but that are not central to the its  future.  So the big question student Solange Guillaume posed is how a site’s pollution can be remedied, the water that is central to the area protected from further pollution, all the while providing public landscapes and open space for the surrounding neighborhood, which is very densely populated and low income.

Erin Garnass-Holmes poses similar questions in his study of the Anacostia River, in Washington, DC.  Garnass-Homes’ site is a Superfund site, owing largely to its having been the location of trash dumping and storing for at least 70 years.  Remedies to the site’s physical contamination have to take into account issues of environmental justice; the nearby neighborhoods are among the most-impoverished in the region, and are very poorly served if “open space” is simply the answer to remediation efforts at this former dump.  Garnass-Holmes asks: What will this place be in 50 years, and how can it serve to remedy the legacy of inequality that created it in the first place?

The question of legacy is also part of Amber Hill’s concerns with the riverfront in Cedar Rapids Iowa.  After suffering devastating floods in 1993 and 2008, the community has worked with state and federal agencies, as well as private design firms, to develop a new vision for the river corridor  that runs through the heart of the city.  Hill’s addition to that work focuses heavily on creating a memorial, monumental landscape that pays tribute to people whose lives have been shattered by these floods.

The students’ focus on environmental justice and the populations surrounding these sites is admirable, and a welcome move away from just designing a pretty place with no thought for the surrounding context.  As they advance in their careers, the impacts of a changing climate will become an increasing part of the complex issues their work will need to face.  With a changing climate, of course, will come changing responses to phenomena such as floods.  For example, in the Cedar Rapids of 2064, 50 years from now, the flood levels seen in 1993 and 2008 may be regular patterns, the natural consequence of locating cities on rivers.  We’ll tell different stories about these floods, not the “heroism in the face of disaster” narratives that accompany “natural disasters,” perhaps, but stories as yet to be formulated.

Our designers will help forge both those stories of what it means to live with rivers, but also the means by which we do so.

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