Rebuilding Infrastructure

After a full day dedicated to defining infrastructure and how we understand it, the Landscape Infrastructure conference at Harvard Graduate School of Design closed with an afternoon mega-panel examining landscape, infrastructure, and ecological systems. Eight speakers from the world of landscape architecture and engineering discussed their work. Introducing the panel, Chris Reed, ASLA, StoSS Landscape Urbanism asked how a shift in our understanding of ecology from static to dynamic systems has changed how designers work. Perhaps because so many concepts and techniques are new, many participants emphasized research, outlining new avenues to be explored in practice.

Water was the focus of many panelists’ work. Wendi Goldsmith, CEO of The Bioengineering Group, described how in New Orleans, the interdisciplinary group has attempted to “infiltrate” the Army Corps of Engineers, with the goal of making them “agents of sustainability.” The Army Corps’ shift in approach from storm protection to flood risk reduction emphasizes a combination of hard infrastructure, “soft solutions” (integrating landscape management), and community engagement. Goldsmith emphasized the value of multi-functionality in infrastructure investments, an approach also highlighted by Kevin Shanley, FASLA, and Ying-Yu Hung, ASLA, of SWA.

In equally flood-prone Houston, SWA has promoted multi-purpose programming. “We don’t have the money to do projects that are single-purpose infrastructure,” Shanley said, and described SWA’s work planning watersheds as infrastructure, with new parks that do triple-duty as stormwater collectors, recreation space, and wildlife habitats. Also, SWA’s Los Angeles office has been conducting exploratory research and external advocacy through a new research initiative with the University of Southern California.

Other speakers focused on the conflicts between urban development and the management of water. Arnavutkoy, a sector of Istanbul, poses fascinating and pressing challenges. Rapid and under-regulated development in the area is threatening its sensitive reservoirs, just as population growth is creating pressure for more water supply. Eduardo Rico and Enriqueta Llabres of Relational Urbanism emphasized how crucial political organization is to development in the area. 

Arguing that “more people can be better,” Dirk Sijmons of TU Delft and H+N+S Landscape Architects presented a proposal to bypass the dilemma between preservation and growth. New zoning around water basins and clearly defined uses can make borders legible and land more productive, protecting the water supply and providing space for recreation, “precision farming,” and new dwellings.

There were also different perspectives on infrastructure and ecology, emphasizing unusual points of view. Christophe Girot of the ETH wowed the audience with the results of his Landscape Visualization and Modeling Lab’s application of engineering equipment to model the landscape and transportation infrastructure of the Swiss Alps. Point cloud technology, a military tool, provides an astonishing 3-D electronic model of a region, “a beautiful image you can translate to pure topographical information.” The applications are as dizzying as the aesthetics. 

As opposed to the multi-point perspectives of this astonishing map/model, Peter Del Tredici sketched a plant’s eye view of infrastructure. Del Tredici, Senior Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum, discussed how plants interact with urban infrastructure. Road edges, highway salt, and acid precipitation are “huge selective forces that determine which plants grow where.” These emergent ecosystems are the realities that landscape architects must learn to work with. 

In fact, they are the “new normal,” Nina-Marie Lister, Affiliate ASLA, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University, concluded, suggesting that flexibility, adaptation, and resilience are the keywords that drive landscape infrastructure today. Rather than seeking a lost, static, “natural” state, functional ecosystems–familiar or not–are the goal.

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

Image credits: (1) 2009 ASLA Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou. SWA Group / Tom Fox, Rhett Rentrop,  (2) Arnavutkoy Drainage,, (3) Gotthard Project. ETH

3 thoughts on “Rebuilding Infrastructure

  1. Matt 03/27/2012 / 1:35 pm

    Any chance that this conference was taped and will be made available online?

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