Remediating Ecocide

From "Ground Rules in Humanitarian Design," a book written by Solight Design's CEO and co-founder Alice Min Soo Chun, and Irene E. Brisson:

Particularly in the context of humanitarian architecture, we are in pursuit of radically ecological and natural methods of engaging with the environment. Owing to current and historical trauma caused by industry and petrol pollution, the land across continents has degraded to exponential levels. Landscape has often been conceptualised as a natural environment existing prior to human intervention. In this essay, the utilisation of natural systems for the reform of brownfield and contaminated land is demonstrated by Latz + Partner’s land reform project. Latz designs a project undertaken in a landscape that is in every way a man-made environment. Design takes advantage of existing topographies, including structures, and acts to remediate environmental damage to create an oasis of public activated domains. Land reform itself requires its own set of Ground Rules.

The environment has long been a metric for the ecological trauma that has pervaded regions taken over by large corporations mining for oil. Industrial waste is a common offender creating environmental distress. Nathanial and Bardos’ 2004 book on land contamination highlights numerous incidents that have captured the media’s attention internationally...

... Nathanial and Bardos highlight how the perception of industrial contamination has evolved from that of a few isolated catastrophes to far-reaching infrastructural difficulties caused by the presence of long-term industrial waste processes. These sites are now in an apparent state of degradation and disaster, perpetuating a decline of entire districts and communities. Research shows that there are approximately 400,000-600,000 brownfield sites in the United States alone (1)...

... Land reform and redevelopment works on multiple levels. If existing infrastructure can be used to cleanse contamination through the application of natural systems, green fields can be left in their natural state. In this way, repurposed brownfield sites may lead the way in sustainable planning. This strategy will thwart sprawl, reduce carbon emissions and encourage reinvestment in adversely affected communities. Designing with land and water, allowing the rich harmony of disparate natural elements, must be the new paradigm for land remediation. Landscape architects Anneliese and Peter Latz of Latz + Partner in Germany have made the issue of design a critical element of land reformation. The practice counters ecocide by using natural local materials and systems in their designs. In her essay 'Regenerative Landscapes: Remediating Places,' Anneliese Latz describes the aesthetic demands on ecological design:

The project, Landscape Park, Duisburg Nord: a Metamorphosis
One of Latz + Partner's biggest tasks of the last fifteen years has been the redevelopment of the former Thyssen steelworks in Duisburg. This transformation of 568 acres (230 hectares) of industrial contaminated wasteland into a new urban landscape has had a strong economic and social impact on the local neighborhoods in the immediate vicinity (2).

Duisburg is located in the Ruhr region of Germany, one of the largest coal-mining and steel-manufacturing centres in 19th-century Europe. The design strategy for land reclamation in the city could ultimately transcend cultures, continents and scale, and be applied to brownfield sites in Africa or the remediation of poisoned ecosystems in Japan. Land and water design strategies provide rich opportunities to integrate less wasteful models of basic infrastructure and so create new public spaces with a social function and purpose. Such opportunities enable reciprocity between human wellbeing and a strategy for ecosystem services.

The Landscape park retains structures that symbolise the site’s industrial heritage as a former steel plant. These include a blast furnace and storage bunker. Latz + Partner took advantage of these emblems in their design by transforming them into iconic landmarks, engaging visitors in a collective history of the area...

... Water management is a common challenge in brownfield remediation. Since there was no natural water remaining on the Duisburg site, the higher areas of land had high levels of pollution that required addressing. The ‘Old Emscher’ tributary had carried untreated sewage across the entire park from east to west. As a first step towards cleansing the site, all sewage was transferred underground in a sealed clay channel. The former open sewer system of collecting wastewater became part of a new clean water system, to avoid contact with polluted land. Collected rainwater travels in overhead pipes and new rivulets, which allows the water to oxygenate before finally falling into the former cooling basins. Aquatic life thrives in the clean water and water lilies and irises help to maintain and support the new water biotopes. The existing settling tanks once held tons of arsenic mud but this was cleared and now the tanks serve as a clean water reservoir. The ‘old gasometer’, a former gas tank, was filled with water and transformed into the world’s largest indoor diving centre.

This strategy for ‘water paths’ allows visitors to be entertained by the sound and movement of the water as it oxygenates through the watercourses...

... Water strategies are designed to be an open architectural element in the process of cleansing and maintaining the natural ecology of the park. The park is founded on an inherent respect for our natural environment, and the aim is to create a design solution that fully tackles the devastation caused by industrial pollution in a demonstration of positive and far-reaching problem solving (3).

A recurring difficulty for land remediation schemes is the provision of a connected network of rainwater management, which is separate from wastewater. The biggest challenge is the implementation of rainwater harvesting because usually it is incorporated in government water policies...

... In many cases, water management is based on renewable water, which is surface and ground water, with little consideration for rainwater. Rainwater is taken as a ‘free for all’ commodity with little or no design integration. The increased pressure for available water in many regions of the world has drained water resources drastically, reducing the availability of water for downstream users and the ecosystems they inhabit. In some places it has been sufficient to trigger water conflicts. For a sustainable use of water resources, it remains critical that rainwater harvesting is considered as vital a water source as ground and surface water (4).

This brings critical questions into focus: does rainwater harvesting offer increased health and welfare benefits to users and their ecosystems? Could an increase in rainfall harvesting be used innovatively and integrated into infrastructures at both small and large scales? What if harvesting rain could create synergies to nurture and sustain the growth of natural ecosystems?

As demonstrated by the design strategies implemented at Duisburg Nord, the task of dealing with environmental pollution has become an opportunity to create a multilayered section of past debris and new levels of urban metabolism. Technology, chemistry, and ingenuity fill the gap left by industrial pollution, creating an ecologically literate, resourceful, and spatially enchanting urban space.

Latz + Partner solved problems by developing strategies for remediating pollution with water, movement, and air. First, by disposing of contaminated demolition waste and building new strata. For example, the roof gardens on the bunker site not only cover but also filter any toxic material that is buried deep below the surface. A simple natural mixture of lime and slag is used to encourage the immobilisation of heavy metals. In the former blast furnace, gas is allowed to slowly emit over many generations, reducing contamination over time. The contamination levels are low and still allow for activities such as walking and cycling in the immediate vicinity...

... Located at the core of the blast furnace is the Piazza Metallica, which symbolises the transformation of the steel plant into a public space. Forty-nine cast-iron plates have been rejuvenated from a life of lining casting moulds and are positioned in the centre of this majestic piazza. As the weather reacts with the iron ore, new layers of erosion and depth occur on the surface of the plates, marking the passing of time. The surface displays a new landscape of erosion that reveals the promise of its new 'post-industrial' surroundings. Compared to building new constructions, this resourcefulness with leftover materials saved time and money. The decision to reuse existing weathered materials was a conscious design choice, which poetically evokes history and memory. Reimagining these materials created a harmony between the landscape design and the endeavour of ecological resilience (5).

1. John Joseph Parker, Global Initiatives, Brownfield Redevelopment, LSRPs, Green Buildings, Solar Power and Emissions Controls, 8 November 2013, http://commercemagnj.com/global-initiatives-brownfield-redevelopment-lsrps-green-buildings-solar-power-and-emissions-controls/#sthash.xAUJQwM3.dpuf (accessed 10 January 2015)

2. Anneliese Latz of Latz + Partner, 'Regenerative Landscapes-Remediating Places,' L Tilder and B Blostein, Design Ecologies: Essays on the Nature of Design, Princeton Architectural Press (New York), p 190.

3. Ibid, p 195.

4. Rainwater Harvesting: A Lifeline For Human Well-Being, United Nations Environment Programme and Stockholm Environment Institute, 2009.

5. Anneliese Latz of Latz + Partner, Regenerative Landscapes-Remediating Places, p 195.