Remediation as Catalyst: Transforming an Industrial Landscape
Laura Kamin-Lyndgaard, Student ASLA, Amanda Olson, Student Affiliate ASLA and Malea Jochim, Student Affiliate ASLA
University of Minnesota, College of Design, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Faculty Advisors: Lance M. Neckar, ASLA; John J. Comazzi
"An important topic! Cities have to make decisions about brownfield sites and their use more and more frequently, so this is good work. The collaborative effort between landscape architecture and architecture is very clear."
— 2008 Student Awards Jury Comments
The St. Paul Ford Assembly Plant in Minnesota has been in operation for the past 80 years. As the Plant shutdown looms in the near future, this studio was created to provoke the city of St. Paul to address the economic, cultural, and environmental issues of brownfield redevelopment. Remediation as Catalyst, a collaborative approach between one landscape architecture and two architecture students, proposes an innovative strategy for reintroducing a highly contaminated industrial site into the existing urban fabric using remediation strategies as catalysts for design.
Project motivation and approach
The term superfund, according the Environmental Protection Agency, is the name given to the environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites. This term is important to understand and analyze, as the latest list of superfund sites in the United States reaches 1,500 in number. As superfund sites become part of everyday redevelopment plans, we must begin to question the role of contamination cleanup within the process of planning and design. Remediation as Catalyst was motivated by the potential for connecting research to innovative processes of landscape and architectural design; processes that capitalizes on the complexity of contamination cleanup, traditional barriers between industry and neighborhood, and the value of time sensitive design strategies. Our research and design serves to provoke neighborhoods and cities to question traditional methods of re-introducing superfund sites back into our everyday urban and rural fabrics.
Environmental, cultural and historical data and analysis methods
The analysis and collection of data was essential to our design process and planning strategies. The Ford Assembly Plant was originally named an EPA superfund site in the 1980’s, but taken off the list approximately five years later [for purposes unexplained]. Therefore, at the beginning of our research and design process, the severity of this sites contamination was not fully known by government or community members. It was only through an intense process of collecting data from local environmental agencies, newspaper articles, and government mandated soil tests that our group, along with twenty-four other landscape and architecture graduate students, began to unfold the severity of contamination within this 124 acre industrial site. The data collected by each student was then analyzed through a series of diagramming techniques that connect and interpret complicated scientific data. After analyzing each data set, the collective studio designed a template and method of organization for the research to be put into a 138 page book. This book served as the foundation for our design and planning strategies and as assistance to city officials and neighbors investigating the future of St. Paul’s Ford Assembly Plant. Specifically, the book was organized into city, region, nation and world and within each topic contained environmental data on contamination and clean up methods (chemical, natural, and mechanical), historical data on the development of the Ford Assembly Plant and surrounding neighborhood, and cultural data on the influence of the automobile industry and the St. Paul site specifically. Remediation as Catalyst focuses specifically on data, such as bioremediation and phydoremediation techniques for cleanup, as inspiration of a design and planning strategy that is dynamic in its organization and form. Imagine a place that slowly reveals itself to the surrounding neighborhood and where everyday learning meets scientific inquiry. This is where our project begins to grow and expand our collective professions of landscape and architectural into a world of creative systems analysis and network integration.
Planning strategy/Design Process
After the final analysis presentation, the two studios were asked to create three to four member groups that had at least one person from a landscape studio and one from an architecture studio. The three of us pared together for this initial charrette. We were charged with creating design strategies for the redevelopment of the St. Paul Ford Assembly Plant, using the research that had been accrued through both the landscape and the architecture studios.
Our group started with the levels and types of contamination and different ways it could be remediated. This led to plans that focused on the progress of time, and how stages of development could be phased according to economic, social, and environmental factors. For our initial presentation we set up a strategy around the idea of touching the ground lightly versus permanent fixture. We worked to integrate various temporary and permanent infrastructures into closed loop cycles of remediation. By researching various remediation strategies, we created plans that incorporated phytoremediation with biomass energy recovery and heavy metal extraction from the plants. We studied the use of living machines to treat area stormwater runoff and sewage waste along with contaminated groundwater before it was allowed to reach the Mississippi River. We also researched using bioremediation to treat soil deep underground using microbes and a mixture of oxygen to clean soil that plant roots simply can not reach. With all of this remediation we worked to create a viable pedestrian circulation [and later road infrastructure] plan that included existing rail lines, continuations of existing neighborhood grid lines, and new pedestrian facilities to create a multi-layered plan that would slowly integrate neighborhood amenities over the course of time. These were the ideas that we took to the initial charette review.
Each group presented their plans that they had created and then the studios were given the opportunity to switch groups, so that people could work on plans that suited their individual interests. There was no longer a requirement that a landscape student had to work with an architecture student. However, our group was so excited about our plans by the end of the charette we didn’t even consider splitting up. We were the only group that did stay the same throughout the semester and only one of two groups that maintained a mixture of both landscape architecture and architecture students.
We took the focus of time, and how systems thinking [connectivity between phasing contamination and design implementation] could be integrated into our overall planning strategies. From the charette forward our main goal was to create a plan that fully integrated our systems into as much of a closed loop as possible. This meant changing some things that were initially part of the charette plan, while at the same time adding new concepts and research. The language of time morphed into a series of planning sequences that we titled dig, fill, seed, grow, and cultivate. This sequence helped form the matrix for how we applied everything from circulation to water treatment to the development of buildings.
It quickly became apparent that if our strategy of time was to be effective we would have little to no control over a series of ‘fixed’ or ‘final’ images. Through discussions and research it was becoming clear to us that so often when faced with contaminated land, the answer is often to cap or to simply remove the contamination off site as a ‘final’ answer. Our question to this was why? Why can’t a more thoughtful and fluid development take place? One that takes into account the industry that has occurred for the past 80 years and the unknown futures. We did not want this history hidden, but rather we wanted a project that started to heal the wounds that had been inflicted on the site, while re-introducing the land to the surrounding neighborhood.
Our research in remediation techniques became catalysts for our design. These in turn informed decisions we made in terms of development phasing. Our final design strategy focused around a research center that we placed in the zone of highest contamination. When the Ford Site was cleaned, the research facility would shift its focus to a consulting climate lab that would facilitate remediatation research for brownfield sites around the world. The information gleaned from the research facility would be disseminated to the public through a series of kiosks that would be placed on the circulation system that runs through the site. These would explain everything from strategies for treating groundwater to biomass collection, to the phytoremediation of creosote.
Along with the research component of our plan was the phasing of infrastructure and building development. We felt strongly that integrating people in the site, as soon as contamination levels were safe, was important to the success of the project. Therefore, a typology of infrastructure [transformative infrastructures] was designed based on projected needs for building and circulation systems; which would transform in use and form throughout the process of remediation and development. We also explored higher density, sustainable development that would allow for experimentation in orientation and form. With this in mind, blocks of development were planned around key planting sites that were initially phytoremediation zones, and then, as they became clean they shifted to community gardens and central catalysts for future development and growth.
The final product was presented as a strategic diagram for implementing remediation, building, research, circulation, and water distribution. Discussions during the review focused on the idea that perhaps the fields of landscape architecture and architecture should not be as different as they are currently perceived. Why should architecture be presented as a final product at the beginning, and then go into a state of decay while landscape architecture is presented as a piece of torn up earth that slowly grows into magnificence? This project was our way of trying to address these questions. It is perhaps only the first step, but one that all three of us will continue to pursue for the rest of our careers.
Is this way of thinking, remediatation as catalyst for physical and intellectual development, possible in today’s fast paced economic and cultural market? To be honest our group was not sure…until we got a chance to present our project in front of the mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota. He acknowledged the viability of a project that not only looked at planning for today’s contaminated sites, but also for tomorrow’s state of unknown changes. And what better way to begin strategizing the economics and development of a site but to use the problem itself as a potential catalyst for redevelopment – contamination. It is the energy and complexity within existing strategies for contamination cleanup which we saw in the research phase of the design and brought forward into a collaboration between landscape and architecture. Our group was not afraid to embrace the challenges of contamination cleanup; rather, we used those challenges to create a site that maintained economic viability through phased development plans, researched initiatives stretching beyond St. Paul, addressed the curiosity of neighbors by reintroducing the site in safe and thoughtful moves, and utilized existing methods of clean-up to catalyze innovative typolologies of courtyard housing and city infrastructure. Therefore, the implementation of Remediation as Catalyst, although just an idea on paper right now, has the potential to expand the future of how we think, live, and play today within the industrial landscapes of yesterday.
P.s. On a personal note, glad see the University of Minnesota is being represented by such great company.