Perceiving Sustainable Design

New York City Highline ParkPart of ensuring that sustainability is more than just a technological fix to supplement a wasteful lifestyle is using design to reveal processes and concepts to onlookers that result in actually imparting knowledge. This can make the jump from simply catching attention to raising awareness and understanding. Designers are often presented with opportunities to decide whether a sustainable component will only be a hidden part of the inner workings of a building and landscape or a feature that is incorporated into how the design is perceived and experienced. If the goal is to change the course of our culture to more sustainable ends then some of the most successful designs are the ones that can successfully allow people to interact with sustainability itself.

One of the best local examples of this occurs on the Highline. As perhaps one of the best urban parks I have ever experienced, the Highline exists on the top of an elevated freight rail that snakes down the west side of Manhattan and once delivered goods to and from warehouses on the piers strewn along the banks of the Hudson. After existing as vacant, derelict piece of outmoded infrastructure, the icon has been remolded into a unique public space that people utilize everyday. This in itself is a prime icon of urban scaled sustainable reuse and re-appropriation.

Sustainable Water Fountain

A water fountain on New York City’s Highline

The proposition of the Highline exemplifies the idea of sustainability on many levels, but my particular focus has to do with the water fountains designed along the gardened path. Now when first looking at them one could be confused as to the source of my fascination. After all, it is not as though it is an organic form in brushed stainless steel or a marble effigy of Al Gore that spits water from its mouth. The design seems simple, painted in a muted green tone that peels up out of the stone walking surface of the park. Nothing remarkable? Perhaps.

Notice first the piece of metal grating on the ground sitting beside the fountain. Then, take note that there is no drain near the spout that we would normally expect to see. In fact there is no drain at all. When you drink from the fountain, that which misses your lips flows down the grooved track, slips over the spine and down into the grating right into the planting system of the park. Perfect.

The “waste” water (which like much of what enters our sewers isn’t really waste) does not disappear into some nondescript drain pipe to speed off towards oblivion, but rather takes a visible route to irrigating the park itself. If the designers of the part (Diller, Scoffidio & Renfro) had simply used a fountain with a normal drain that lead into a cistern and was pumped to irrigation sources the process may have resulted in the same thing. Instead, the cyclical and regenerative nature of how the water is used is visible to every person that takes a drink. This walks the same line that sits between a Garden City vs. a Green City.

Until the day that sustainability is the standard for our spaces there is a great deal of merit to embodying the aspects of in the experience, not just the image, of our designs.