This was definitely an eye-catching title on the ASLA snippet blog The Dirt… ‘Don’t Look Back’, in response to a recent NY Times article that focused on a Alan Berger’s restoration efforts in Italian Pontine Marshes. In summary, this: “…proposal to basically invent a natural system to purify heavily polluted waters running into the Mediterranean Sea in Italy. While such projects usually focus on restoration, he says, areas such as this site between Rome and Naples are beyond such thinking, calling for far more dramatic measures. And he has the attention of the Italian government.”
:: image via NY Times
The Dirt then poses the burning question… “What if landscape architects took the next step and, instead of designing with nature, designed nature itself?”
Does this question strike anyone as a little odd…? I understand the concept that they are getting at, but it seems a stretch to think this is terribly foreign ground for landscape architects venture forth and to ‘design nature’… as opposing to all that ‘designing with nature’ we’ve been doing for some 100+ years. While the idea, obviously is beyond this – saying that mere healing isn’t enough, but more heroic measures are needed. This is where we get active, and take the bold move of designing nature.
Via the NY Times: “Designing nature might seem to be an oxymoron or an act of hubris. But instead of simply recommending that polluting farms and factories be shut, Professor Berger specializes in creating new ecosystems in severely damaged environments: redirecting water flow, moving hills, building islands and planting new species to absorb pollution, to create natural, though “artificial,” landscapes that can ultimately sustain themselves.”
:: image via P-REX
To set the record straight, this is not new territory. The extensive history of the profession has countless examples of significant manipulation of landscapes to provide machinic functions… and that we have used up the potential passive strategies and have become more active. The manipulation of significant natural areas in pastoral scenes is striking. The functional analysis and ‘creation’ of systems in the Back Bay Fens and the Emerald Necklace is just one example in history of this concept. On a smaller scale, living machines, constructed wetlands, artificial reefs, to name a few – create something ‘artificial’ but with a natural function. The question may be that of scale.
From the NY Times, the goal is to provide a large tract of land that can act as this machine: “He wants the government to buy a tract of nearly 500 acres in a strategic valley through which the most seriously polluted waters now pass. There, he intends to create a wetland that would serve as a natural cleansing station before the waters flowed on to the sea and residential areas. ” As Berger explains further in P-REX: “The site strategy is to artificially re-introduce a gigantic new “wetland machine” for filtering, habitat, and biological exchange. Choosing a gigantic, consolidated wetland site will likely be more viable in the complex patchwork of land ownership. Given Latina’s situation, distributed treatment areas would be both enormously complex to purchase and ineffective to manage.”
The origins of this ‘active’ and artificial approach may stem from a thorough reading of the site’s history – and the acknowledgement that the original environment may be lost. Looking at some of Berger’s work at the Pontine Marshes (initially discussed as well in L+U here), via the P-REX site. The summaries illuminate some of the history of the site, from draining, to facist restoration, to it’s current state of polluted cesspool – while giving some more relevance to this line of inquiry – by starting with historical origins: “How was the reclamation of a vast environmental system (the marshes) regarded over different period of history: from the pre-Romans to contemporary times. What was the intellectual and conceptual framework for this type of landscape reclamation, and how was it represented and described in maps, drawings and texts? What relevance might this historical precedent have for contemporary understandings of landscape reclamation and urbanism?”
:: image via P-REX
So perhaps there is some merit to us acknowledging that we shouldn’t look back to our old ways of doing things. This is progressive, important, and heady stuff. It reimagines the process and products of landscape architecture to include a socio-historical context, as well by manipulating ecology, seeing natural process as inventive technology. I think we’ve already made this step, perhaps in a tip-toe or baby step variety. So, on second thought… maybe this is the next step – we’re just beginning to make strides.