City Landscapes, Urban Habitat

The landfill of Kearny, New Jersey, is the site of Steven Handel’s early work restoring urban habitat. It is constructed on top of a wetland. The fill material specified for landfill cover make poor soils, and the railroads, interstates, and cloverleaf interchanges work as barriers to dispersal. His work began with a question: “What can a field botanist do to help this?”

The University of Virginia department of landscape architecture recently hosted restoration ecologist Dr. Steven Handel of Rutgers University for a presentation and discussion of his work in restoring urban habitat. Handel is the Director of the Center for Urban Restoration Ecology (CURE), a joint partnership between Rutgers University and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In the last decade he has worked as a consultant with landscape firms such as SCAPE, James Corner Field Operations, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, and Ken Smith on projects that have helped establish restoration ecology as an important component of urban landscape design. His presentation focused on the importance of ongoing monitoring and adaptation and the concept of stewardship in the creation of vital urban landscapes.

Handel discussed some of his early work at the Keegan Landfill in Kearny, New Jersey, and how that project led to work on Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, New York, and, eventually collaborations on landscape projects in Europe, China, and across the U.S. This work is best characterized not by the resulting images and supporting data that have become key components of landscape architectural presentations, but by the ecological approach itself. Each project is a dynamic constellation of actors and agents: gravel contractors, city bureaucracies, ecology students, groundwater, and honey bees. In this constellation the ecologist is not the mastermind, but rather one of the primary catalysts. The ecologist joins this willow tree with that robin, this compost depot with that acre of landfill cover in the interest of creating landscapes that include a wealth of inhabitants, from mushrooms and chimney swifts to willow trees and teenagers.

Maintenance and Ecological Thinking

Looking south over Fresh Kills landfill in 2002 empty debris barges from the World Trade Center site can be seen in the lower right hand corner. Steven Handel’s partnership with the Department of Sanitation began here in 2000 and took on new significance after 9/11: “what was a hated place became a sacred place.”

In the presentation, Handel outlined the two most important objectives when beginning any urban ecological restoration project: what is the ecological target for restoration?, and how can we rebuild the soil? Everything else follows from those two questions. For any kind of restoration project, whether it a piece of colonial architecture or a 2,000 acre municipal landfill, defining the desired outcome is the fundamental problem. The second objective is particular to urban ecological restoration projects. Handel noted that urban soils are notorious for their inability to support healthy ecosystems due to compaction, contamination, and a lack of microbes. What is more, they are extremely varied — one block is contaminated with high levels of lead and the next is choked with concrete and asphalt dust.

For Handel, the maintenance budgets of city agencies are poorly conceived and misappropriated. Maintenance takes on an entirely new definition when it is informed by an ecological approach. Tasked with the unenviable job of trying to maintain landscapes in a static state, current maintenance practice too often resists the other organisms at work in the landscape while doing too little to monitor and observe change. Project budgets are designed for major capital investments up front followed by a maintenance plan that aims to protect the landscape from change. Handel throws into relief the fundamental misalignment between maintenance policies and funding mechanisms that tend toward static and compartmentalized concepts of landscape and an ecological approach to creating vital urban habitat.

In many urban projects, the ecological constraints – opportunity for dispersal, regeneration of soils, disturbance regimes – are in conflict with the regulatory structures set by rigid engineering norms. Handel noted that scale-dependent ecological processes rely on a lapse of time, and, therefore, landscape projects need instruments and mechanisms that can hold a portion of the budget in reserve so that monitoring can occur over 10 years and adaptations to initial strategies can be incorporated. For him, the idea of ecosystem services–a movement to quantify the benefits of natural systems as economic value– is useful in this discussion because it inserts the animals, plants, topography, and other aspects of ecosystems into the budget and profit strategies that dictate the terms of development and management of most of our urban land. 

The Importance of Rhetoric

The concept of ecosystem services is contentious. In addition to being difficult to quantify, it suggest that costs that have traditionally been externalized (such as CO2 emissions) be accounted for. Nonetheless, in specific, localized situations, the idea that restoring a healthy ecosystem to a former municipal landfill so that it can serve as bird habitat and a community recreation area is one that is gaining traction and is worth an investment. 

Handel noted that prior to 9/11, the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island was a “hated landscape.” People wanted it gone, and if they could not make it go away then they certainly did not want to spend money on it. As the final resting place for the remains and debris from the World Trade Center, the landfill overnight became a “sacred landscape.” It was worth investing in. While undertaking his project there, he was working with communities and trying to help them understand the importance of bees in pollinating plants and creating healthy plant communities. He told an anecdote of going to a community meeting and trying to convince people that bringing bees back to this place would provide many benefits. This was not well-received. He realized that by simply referring to them as “pollinators” (the benefit they provide) and not “bees” (their cultural symbol with some negative connotations) the project won their support. This observation is the real contribution of Handel’s work: For him, ecosystems are not pristine examples of natural systems, but are messy networks of social and natural entities, all mashed together and trying to find ways of going about their business, whether that is pollinating a stand of service berries or trying to catch the 7 train.

A NYC subway car in 1973. This is an ecology too.

Scientific Stewardship and a Future Ecological Ethic

The presentation culminated with the importance of stewardship of the land and the development of tools and methods for engendering a more responsible environmental ethic. The stewardship concept itself is contentious, with notable scholars such as Carolyn Merchant rightly pointing out that the idea dates back to the origins of Judeo-Christian society and comes with a whole host of gender specific and anthropocentric connotations. At the end of her book Reinventing Eden, she suggests that the idea of kinship–a partnership among equals–might be the future environmental ethic, a suggestion that seems more in line with ecological thinking.

This emphasis of Handel’s would seem to be antithetical to the ecological approach, with the honey bee and the fungus carrying an important role in the ecosystem, right alongside the park user and the bulldozer operator. As a steward, you might care for the land, but you still survey it, decide what should be done, and then go back to your dwelling. There is a hierarchy and the human is at the top. It is the opposite of amongst-ness. But then, Handel is actually out there, digging in the stinking muck of Keegan Landfill and counting preying mantis on Staten Island. You don’t get much more among things than that.

A new ecological policy for the landfills of Jamaica Bay is the legacy of Steven’s work. Located in the center at the top of the image, the landfills are currently being maintained as an ecological restoration project, with the mowed grassy hills slowly changing into thriving upland ecosystems on the edge of the bay.

This guest post is by Brian Davis, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Virginia School of Architecture, and editor of FASLANYC.

Image credits: (1) Landfill of Kearny, New Jersey / Google Earth , (2) Fresh Kills Landfill / Cryptome, (3) NYC Subway Car, 1973 / U.S. National Archives, (4) Landfills of Jamaica Bay / Google Earth

One thought on “City Landscapes, Urban Habitat

  1. Lisa 02/07/2012 / 5:10 pm

    I am a masters student in Landscape Architecture looking for information on any firms or projects that have used any form of Mycoremediation to rehabilitate brownfields or other types of damaged or post-industrial sites. Any suggestions would be most appreciated!

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