WPA 2.0: Working Public Architecture Competition Announces Winners

UCLA cityLAB announced the winners of its WPA 2.0: Working Public Architecture competition, which claims “whoever rules the sewers, rules the city.” “Carbon T.A.P.// Tunnel Algae Park” by PORT architects won the professional competition, and “R_Ignite” and “Aquaculture Canal_New Orleans” jointly won the student competition. UCLA Architecture and Urban Design Chair Hitoshi Abe announced the winners at the end of day-long symposium at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Sponsors of WPA 2.0 include: The Graham Foundation, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, LLC, Buro Happold, UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, The Architect’s Newspaper, The National Building Museum, The Ziman Center for Real Estate Development, Sarah Jane Lind, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

According to the WPA 2.0 competition site, the winning project, Carbon T.A.P.// Tunnel Algae Park, would grow algae pontoons with car C02 emissions captured from New York City’s underground transportation tunnels. The algae would then be harvested for bio-fuel production. The pontoons would also provide the foundation for a sea level structure that would include an urban park with structured wetlands, aquatic and avian habitat, recreation amenities, as well as high speed bike lanes and public promenades. The proposal included a look at how algae pontoons could also provide a bridge between Brooklyn, Governor’s Island, and Manhattan in New York City.

“R_Ignite” was designed by Peter Millar, Jamie Potter, Andy Wilde and Stuart Wheeler, four graduate students of the Manchester School of Architecture. Their proposal would revitalize port cities and green the shipwrecking industry through the addition of recycling and social programs.  “Aquaculture Canal_New Orleans” was created by Fadi Masoud, a Master of Landscape Architecture student at the University of Toronto, John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. Masoud’s proposal re-envisions the New Orleans’ Industrial Canal, which is set to be closed by the Army Corps of Engineers, as productive infrastructure that can provide flood control and and enable aquaculture. More than 140 student teams from around the world submitted entries.

WPA 2.0: Working Public Architecture was inspired by the 1930’s U.S. WPA program. The organizers also see an enormous opportunity in the $150 billion of 2009 Recovery Act infrastructure funds. They hope policy makers and design professionals will use these funds to create a new, more positive role for infrastructure in urban design. Instead of creating more single-use infrastructure, the WPA competition organizers think the infrastructure of the future should be multi-functional, flexible, and play a key role in revitalizing urban areas. “For WPA 2.0, approximately 200 groups of designers envisioned a new legacy of federally supported infrastructure hybrids, projects that explore the value of infrastructure not only as an engineering endeavor, but as a robust design opportunity that can revitalize cities.”

The symposium’s keynote speaker, Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), framed the event in the context of the new federal partnership on livable communities (see earlier post). “What you design and build defines us as a people.” Sims argued that architecture, in part, defines who we are and “societies that husband their resources effectively last the longest.” New infrastructure ideas are desperately needed so the U.S. can “strike in a different direction and change the built environment so it serves the public good.” Sims thought the U.S. was at a “singular moment” in terms of rethinking its infrastructure, and “either we do this really well, or we will be mocked as a generation.”

High Point, a sustainable mixed-use, mixed-income affordable housing community in Seattle, Washington, was highlighted by Sims as a model. “Housing can be a platform for other services.” High Point, through its “Breath-Easy” homes and allergen-free landscapes, has dramatically reduced its residents health issues (and therefore health costs). The community has improved energy efficiency, reduced C02 emissions, and offers a new direction for housing.

Sims said “homes are the building blocks” of neighborhoods and “porches, sidewalks are part of the fabric of the surrounding neighborhood. They shape the way we live our lives.” In many cases, zip codes are key determinants of morbidity rates and provide clues to where the “undevelopable populations” are in the U.S. “Zip codes should be a place where you get your mail, not a life determinant.” To combat unequal distribution of education, healthcare, green space, and other social benefits, Sims called for expanded municipal programs, including Hope 6 programs, to abolish “superblocks.”

“We need communities that are safe from cars with clear sight lines, and backyards, porches, and safe places for kids to play.” Schools that are farther than 0.5 miles away are too far for kids to walk to and help create “obese children.” “We need to find recreational activities for children in inner-city areas other than basketball.” Many communities also lack access to fresh food. “17 million don’t have access to fresh food because they don’t live 1-1.5 miles away from a supermarket.” In a powerful statement, Sims argued that “your community and buildings in which you live and work define your life.”

The federal livable communities partnership has $150 million available in funding: $100 million will be used for municipal sustainable planning; $40 million will be alloted for zoning and land use to encourage increased density in localities; and $10 million is reserved for joint HUD – Department of Transportation research on the linkages between housing and transportation.

WPA 2.0 Professional Design Finalists

Through its selection of finalists, the WPA 2.0 design competition wanted to highlight “the infrastructure at the heart of the next generation.” The organizers described next generation infrastructure as multi-functional, sustainable (in all senses of the word), and public. New infrastructure should also give back to the community. Furthermore, the WPA organizers thought policy makers needed to systemically rethink infrastructure.

Local Code: Real Estates, Nicholas de Monchaux & Collaborators (Berkeley, California): In this proposal, unused urban public land can be turned into common ecological infrastructure. The proposal targets “unaccepted areas” that can’t be sold by the government. In many inner-city areas of San Francisco, in the zip codes Sims mentioned, streets aren’t heavily used and provide an opportunity to create “locally optimized landscapes,” sort of mini-street parks. De Monchaux saw a new role for ecological infrastructure as a “network logic of health” and “distributed immune system” for cities. In reference to big cities with big parks, he said “we should move away from the model of cities with central lungs.”

There are a range of environmental and social benefits: creating green spaces out of unused streets and other urban public lands can help reduce load on existing infrastructure through stormwater mitigation, reduce the urban heat island effect, and help spur “open source community engagement.” “Trees and bioswales can be the foundation for social ecology.” Furthermore, these local street parks could produce fresh produce for inner-city communities.  

There are opportunities across the U.S. — In New York City, the unused public lands, if aggregated, are larger than Central Park and Prospect Park combined.

Coupling Infrastructures: Water Economies / Ecologies, Lateral Office and Infranet Lab (Toronto, Canada): Mason White said the Salton Sea in California is now a “terminal lake” and is creating salt flats that will lead to toxic dust storms. To address the rising salinity, increasingly large algae blooms, decline in fishing related tourism revenue, and falling water levels (caused by agricultural use), White proposed “floating pools” or “water pods” on top of the Salton Sea. The pools offer a flexible system, which could function in a modular way, and could be used in variety of ways. For example, pods within the sea could become recreational areas, aquaculture centers, wildlife habitat, salt harvesting systems.

White presented the idea of new water-based infrastructure as a natural system. “Infrastructure can be adaptative, responsive, soft, flexible, instead of hard, fixed, mono-functional.” He also thinks increased population growth in the southwest, one of the driest regions of the U.S., will only lead to further pressure on existing water systems as the agricultural use of water expands. “Farming is a multi-billion dollar industry in the region, and water must be artifically sustained.” New thinking is needed on how to restore the sea and make it functional again.

Mason White and Lola Sheppard write more on this project in the “Water” issue of MIT Press’ Alphabet City journal.

Hydro-Genic City 2020, Aershop / Darina Zlateva and Takuma Ono, (Los Angeles, California): Aershop proposed decentralized urban water treatment systems that could also function as community hubs. The team saw “water as a binding mechanism” for social interactions. This hasn’t been done before because older technologies were high cost; new technologies enable these types of systems, says Darina Zlateva. The water treatment system would mimic’s natural processes, but would also incorporate renewable energy systems. The waste water would pass through treatment tanks, constructed wetlands, and processing centers, and then return into the water supply. “Recycled water extends supply. It’s not if, but how, are we going to recycle water?”

Throughout the process, decomposing waste water material would be harvested for methane. Fuel cells would help power the system for harnessing the decomposing gas. Solar panels, wrapped around tanks, would also help fuel the water treatment system, and cut down space used by the usual solar arrays.

The team also thought the decentralized, local systems would have a lower overall environmental footprint than massive water treatment plants now in use. “The cost of piping and pumping water from distant large-scale water treatment plants is huge.”

If coupled with public transportation systems, the natural water treatment systems serve as catalysts for smart growth. Both presenters highlighted that water loss is increasing with climate change. A sustainable water treatment system would focus on reducing waste and energy usage, reusing valuable water resources, and mitigating and adaptating to climate change at the same time.

Border Wall as Infrastructure, Rael San Fratello Architects (Oakland, California): The U.S. government will create 700 miles of border fence separating the U.S. from Mexico at a cost of $4 million per mile. The success of the fence is measured in part by the number of people captured trying to cross. While $2.9 billion has been spent so far, there have been more than 3,000 fence breaches to date. Over the next 25 years, an additional $49 billion will be spent to construct and maintain the fence. To ameliorate the adverse social and environmental effects of the fence, Rael San Fratello architects think “security should be put to work” through a variety of landscape architecture and architectural projects adjacent to the fence. “Around the fence, the land has gone fallow.”

In El Paso, a community facing water shortages, the fence could serve as a water catchement basin. Additionally, fence-based water treatment facilities can be used to capture methane energy, and provide irrigation water. “Why not locate these along the fence?” There are also renewable energy opportunities. The team saw large-scale solar farms (which would provide higher security) along the fence route. The solar farms could power communities along the fence and also create green jobs on both sides of the border. Lastly, water dispersers could aid immigrants crossing the dessert, and could help cut down the number of annual immigrant deaths from dehydration.

Free Water Districts, Urban Lab (Chicago): “Water will be the next oil, the most valuable resource.” In the U.S., the Great Lakes region provides 21 percent of the world’s fresh water and 84 percent of the U.S.’s fresh water. However, much of the major agricultural farms in the U.S. are found in the country’s driest regions. The team proposed providing incentives for water-intensive industries to move to the Great Lakes region through the use “free water districts,” which would also help revive the rust belt economy. “Water-based infrastructure” in the Great Lakes could be used to attract apparel, food processing, agricultural, beverage, high-technology, automotive and other water-intensive industries to the region.

“We have grey infrastructure, but no blue / green infrastructure.” While Iceland provides free geothermal energy to attract firms, and Vancouver has created a free labor program to attract the movie industry, free water could also serve as an economic catalyst. The team envisioned constructed water districts along the Great Lakes that would provide bioremediation through wetlands, cleansing landscapes, and infrastructural “bio-streets.” Indoor / outdoor bio-machines and outdoor, constructed wetlands can both be used in a modular fashion by water-intensive industries.

The team would target post-industrial landscapes, which they said are plentiful in the region, instead of unspoiled lakefront. Community and educational facilities could also be built into the water districts.

Lastly, the project would address the cost implications of existing water infrastructure in dry areas. “Moving around water is hugely energy intensive. Water infrastructure accounts for the largest carbon footprint of any system in a city.”

Carbon T.A.P. // Tunnel Algae Park: Mining Existing Infrastructure for Lost Efficiencies, Chris Marcinkoski and Andrew Moddrell, PORT Architects (Chicago and NYC): Marcinkoski and Moddrell, the competition’s winners, outlined a plan described in further detail above which would harvest car-produced C02 emissions from underground transportation tunnels for use in surface-level algae farms. The algae farms would form “piers” jutting out in the water, which could also function as parks.

The team argued that car-related C02 emissions account for 10 percent of U.S. total emissions. Carbon capture and storage is hugely expensive, and the side-effects of pumping liquid C02 back into the earth aren’t known. Furthermore, many firms are exploring adding algae farms to power plants that produce C02 emissions. Firms are exploring how to efficiently harvest algae for biofuels. The new idea in this proposal: creating multi-use infrastructure out of these combined C02 emission / algae farms.

The “vegetal terraces” in the algae pontoons would sit on top of “C02 bladders.” The pontoons would provide the foundation for structured wetlands, wildlife habitat, bike lanes, promenades — “public prongs.” The project seeks to reuse C02 and convert it into ecological and environmental value. They view the idea as applicable to almost 20 tunnel systems in the U.S. and other cities worldwide.

According to cityLAB, its organizers will present these proposals and other design ideas to government leaders on Capitol Hill.

Now read about how the impressive professional jury, which includes Stan Allen, Cecil Belmond, Elizabeth Diller, Walter Hood, ASLA, Thom Mayne, and Marilyn Taylor,  responded to the design ideas offered by the finalists, and discussed the future of green infrastructure. Read part two.

Image credit: Carbon T.A.P.// Tunnel Algae Park by PORT architects

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