Petrochemical Industry Has Left Deep Marks in the Landscape


Delivering the 2012 Howland Memorial Lecture at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, Kate Orff, ASLA, founding principal of SCAPE, discussed her recent work mapping the landscape dynamics of southern Louisiana in what she has deemed “Petrochemical America.” The design research project, published as a book in collaboration with photographer Richard Misrach, follows the petrochemical industry and the deep marks it has left on the landscape of the lower Mississippi region across seven chapters: oil, infrastructure, waste, displacement, ecology, food, and landscape.

Orff, a New-York based landscape architect and assistant professor at Columbia University, began the lecture pointing to a time line of fossil fuel use, emissions, and population, pausing to highlight our current moment, where crises in energy, climate, settlement and biodiversity are converging. Orff sees landscape as the space where patterns of fossil fuels use, production, and settlement intersect to produce these crises, and, in turn, the space where these interactions can begin to change. In Petrochemical America, she applies her view of landscape architecture as a way of understanding and intervening at micro-scales to produce macro-scale effects, to map the rich and complicated history of the southern Louisiana landscape.

Petrochemical America maps the cycles of petrochemical production and consumption, energy extraction and waste, in order to show how those cycles can break. Through mapping, we can begin to understand southern Louisiana and how it reached its current state of degraded wetlands, socioeconomic disparity, and petrochemical dependence. Orff points to geological, ecological and social processes and connections that go beyond the scales of our comprehension, and come to rest in the landscape of Cancer Alley, the infamous 100-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. With that comprehension, the application of a glossary of terms and solutions starts to piece together the ingredients for positive change, from grassroots organizations to public institutions to design options.

The method consists of intricate and layered maps and sections, which she calls “timescapes,” as well as diagrammatic presentations of different drawings on the same theme that pulls out flows and connections, across scales and systems. Misrach’s photographs, taken in 1998, are interwoven and interpreted within Orff’s drawings, serving as the “site” to analyze, sequence, and build into a narrative in her project. The photos are “grenades” or “Braille,” which she reads with a landscape architect’s eyes, appreciative of the beauty of a photograph of a pipeline running through a degraded bayou, but also outlining what’s in that pipe, how it got there, and where it’s going. For Orff, a landscape architect’s perspective is critical to these questions inherent in the photographs. This perspective allowed her to draw connections between the moment in time represented in Misrach’s image and the dynamics, natural and man-made, that produced those conditions.

One such series explores the complex and diverse ecological cycles and interactions of a healthy bayou, and arrives at the truncated, linear pathways, and declining biodiversity that characterize many of Louisiana’s bayous today. The effects of the loss of “looped and living” ecological systems in the bayou are traced outwards, from the contribution of these organisms, such as brown shrimp, oysters, and blue crabs to the economy and history of the region. In mapping “America’s wetland” at this pivotal moment, Orff is also looking at what may soon be lost from the region, with the erosion of the coastal wetlands, changing salt, and freshwater levels, and the fragility of these systems in a place where Deepwater Horizon is only one of many industrial accidents seen on a yearly basis.

In addition to representing the landscape within Cancer Alley, Orff tracks the ways that the conditions along the lower Mississippi cycle through the rest of America and the world, often returning to their place of origin, the Louisiana Delta. Whether it is in the form of fertilizers produced in factories along Cancer Alley only to return as agricultural run-off from the upper-Mississippi River watershed, or the industrial waste stored in the delta’s salt dome formations, the waste of Cancer Alley and of much of the country, they live in the Louisiana landscape. Beyond the waste we can see, she also explores the ways petrochemical products and by-products live in us, from the vitamins and household products we use all over the country to the exposure communities experience from living side-by-side with refineries. In both cases, there are consequences we still do not fully understand how to measure, control, or treat.

Orff concludes the book and her lecture with a map of the United States, expanding her analysis to understand how our national map is also being redrawn. She argues that we are all part of the problem, and that is inspiring, rather than defeating, since we are then all part of the solution. Hopefully, then, Petrochemical America can serve as a call to action to “consciously, creatively and collaboratively redraw the map” of the landscape we have made. In the “Glossary of Terms and Solutions for a Post-Petrochemical America,” scenarios for action and spotlights on organizations show how people are already taking charge of the map of Louisiana, providing a toolkit for leveraging Orff and Misrach’s analysis into action in the landscape.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Rachel Stevens, Student ASLA, Master of Landscape Architecture and Master of Urban and Environmental Planning candidate, University of Virginia.

Image credits: Petrochemical America / Aperture Books

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