From the Personal to the Planetary

Promising to cover infrastructure “from the personal to the planetary,” a panel on infrastructure mapping and information (part of a day-long conference on Landscape Infrastructure at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design) traversed very different scales. Presenters explored the relationship between landscape, infrastructure, and ecology, and the means we have at our disposal to understand these and communicate with each other about them.

Liz Barry, Director of Urban Environment at the Public Laboratory for Open Technology & Science (PLOTS), described their work to create “citizen cartographies,” technology for bottom-up activism in small communities that allow people to generate their own data. Barry presented a compelling example of their work: an open source toolkit for balloon mapping, which allows citizens to create their own satellite landscape images. During the cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this toolkit allowed activists to find out for themselves whether oil booms were working and where oil was gathering, and work together with local fishermen who had extensive knowledge of these sensitive landscapes. The material gathered could subsequently be used for restoration and litigation.

Kate Ascher, Milstein Professor of Urban Development at Columbia University, also emphasized the impact of infrastructure at a local scale. Her book The Works: Anatomy of a City explains graphically the workings of the major infrastructural systems of New York City. The project, she explained, was born out of the infrastructural failures in the wake of the World Trade Center bombings. To understand why infrastructure would fail, people need to know how it works. The Works makes visible the city’s invisible systems to deal with water, power, garbage (see an example of traffic calming infrastructure below).

Dawn Wright and Erle Ellis looked at ways to understand and describe highly complex global systems where all kinds of actors, ecosystems, and industries come together. Wright, Chief Scientist at Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) is an expert on ocean landscapes. Critically tied to urban infrastructure, oceans are extremely developed and industrialized territories and yet remain largely unmapped and unknown. Without knowledge of the oceans, Wright asked, how do we mitigate impacts of climate change, clean up oil spills, sustain fisheries, and ensure safety and security of seas? Wright presented a new collaborative tool for the geodesign of oceans, SeaSketch, which integrates information across a number of sources and can provide a shared platform for scientists, social scientists, architects and planners to work together on complex problems like coastal management.

Erle Ellis, Head of the Laboratory for Anthropogenic Landscape Ecology at the University of Maryland in Baltimore put infrastructure in an even larger, planetary framework. Ellis presented a perspective on landscape in the Anthropocene Age (Age of Humans) that turns the very idea of infrastructure on its head. As Ellis put it, nature is a land-use that “lives on our infrastructure.”

In Ellis’s view of the global landscape, distinctions between human and natural land uses disappear—they are multifunctional mosaics, rather than separate spheres. To make sense of this degree of interconnectivity, Ellis said, “perhaps we need global landcape architects—working at a global scale.” At all scales, from the local to the global, more coordination is needed among the many design disciplines to deal with the complex landscapes we’ve made.

This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, Ph.D. Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Image credits: (1) Balloon and Kite Mapping / PLOTS, (2) The Works / Streetsblog, (3) Anthropogenic biomes,

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