Mayor Cory Booker said it well: “from the Transcontinental Railroad to the Hoover Dam, to the dredging of our ports and building of our most historic bridges – our American ancestors prioritized growth and investment in our nation’s infrastructure.” Throughout history the image of new infrastructure has been synonymous with progress. The need for newer, larger and faster services brings the perception of an advancing society. The perception of progress and political tenure have proven to go hand in hand, so we seem to be able to find money to finance large infrastructural additions.
But when we look around at our infrastructural landscape, most often it is not progressing, but languishing. This is partly because fixing old infrastructural systems is not nearly as glamorous as building ones. Whether its the systems that move water, power, waste or people, the neglect of these essential systems has left them decayed, at times to a point requiring wholesale replacement. There have been designs that reuse dilapidated infrastructure for something new, but what if part of the problem is not just that systems are old, but that their relationship to the public encourages their neglect?
While our urban buildings grow taller, the ground beneath us grows darker. The increase in saleable square footage does not offset the damage caused by the inadequacies of our neglected infrastructural systems nor the existing environmental damage lingering from a former era. Despite spending centuries crafting our cities around the sidewalk experience, these essential networks find themselves in an inevitable state of disrepair due to their hidden, subterranean existence. Rather than being isolated beneath the urban fabric, components of municipal functions can blend with and inform the public definition of a sustainable city.
Taking a site near to the Gowanus Canal, one of the most polluted water bodies in the country, a group of architects explored a new potential relationship between people and their infrastructure. Titled “Gowanus Commons,” the proposal pairs public amenities like parkscape, public pools, skate parks and community outreach with systems of clean power production, power storage, and retention of combined-sewer-overflow (CSO) discharge. Instead of the traditional separation of these infrastructural components, here they are overlapped and intermixed for a range of new experiences, bringing with them a new degree of awareness.
The chosen site is a full city block bounded by Douglas Street and Degraw Street to the north and south while constrained by Nevins Street and Third Aveneue to the east and west. Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal sits only one block away to the west (within the broader site of the Flowlands proposal by the same design team). The site was once the home of one of the three coal-gas plants that bordered the canal which are largely responsible for the layer of coal tar that remains at the bottom of the waterway to this day. Moreover, the site itself is a brownfield with some estimates putting the degree of contamination up to 100 feet below street level.
When looking to the future of our cities, what becomes of the countless sites that remain victims of the post-industrial era? While most clean-up efforts would need to resort to merely capping the damaged soil to protect residents from its interaction, that doesn’t dislodge it from the water table and greater environmental influence. The design team pushed further to propose the removal of all of the contamination, 100 feet below the surface. The result redefines the understanding of an urban redevelopment “site”: not only a two-dimensional, planar canvas, but an urban volume that inherently questions people’s relationship to the street and its role as a barrier between occupancy and infrastructural support.
Beneath the Umbrella of Infrastructure
The void itself is defined with sloped concrete walls to channel rainwater to the base. Inside, a grid of buttresses and piers rise up to carry services and support from the bottom of the basin to the top before culminating in a structural honeycomb to support the groundplain above. The traditional notion of parkscape as a consistent plain level with the street is broken into a series of occupiable plates arranged at different heights to provide not only different views of the city, but different views of the basin beneath and its contents. The outcome migrates away from a distinction of above or below ground to demarcating various levels between the clean soil and the sky.
The bottom of the basin holds a series of stormwater retention tanks meant to displace millions of gallons of sewage and rainwater overflow from emptying into the canal during a storm event. Our country still pours a disturbing amount of raw sewage into our natural waterways due to CSO systems. Instead of one large tank, the partitioned arrangement of screen, odor control and storage allows for individual segments to be added, subtracted or repaired without compromising the system.
Public program is then hung at different heights above including ball courts, fitness facilities and community offices, connected by a series of suspended pathways. These protected spaces can be used throughout the year while always in open view of the essential services that maintain them–be it HVAC ducts, electrical conduit, or sewage mains below. Yet just as important are the views to the passing pedestrians on the parkscape above and access to natural light that pierces into the space throughout the day. Finally, the public pathway traveling beneath the parkscape snakes down to the opening of a exhibition cavern for installations by local artists. The gentle climb returns towards the surface, ending underneath the canal before piercing through with an observation tower surrounded by the polluted waterway. The site-wide journey brings the occupant full circle: from existing sidewalk archetype, breaking the datum of the street, through the spatial void of reclamation and back to an urban view of how much is still in need of remediation.
The integration of these systems with the flora and fauna planted on the stepped surfaces of the park help distinguish the proposal as part of a transition to a green city, rather than just a garden city.
The Power of Water
Water plays a unifying role to the site and its various program pieces as a power storage facility. Beneath the retention equipment the basin can hold water as a vehicle for moving power–released into the basin when power is needed and pumped back up to the top when it is in excess. Beyond the swimming pool and children’s wading pool, a network of reflecting pools are spread across the park surfaces. These pools hold catchment basins of their own to store water until demand is at its highest when it is released via the waterfall, back to the basin below. The activity of water falling into the cavern becomes a signal to inhabitants that power demand from the city is at its height.
Why bother with power storage? Power storage is an important (albeit absent) part of our electrical grid and essential to the long term viability of renewables because we cannot always get the cleanest power when we need it. The dirtiest power in New York comes from coal-fired “peaker” plants that are brought on when the grid is stressed to its limits–often in the height of summer. By making and storing power when demand is lower (usually at night) it can then be released in a timely way during the afternoon to avoid ever having to turn on the most polluting plants.
The proposal stresses the synonymous nature between the words urban, public, municipal and infrastructural. The traditional sidewalk datum can be fractured, blurring urban spaces with the components required for their operation until the separation between the layers we historically created becomes indistinguishable. The result is a deviation from stratified city layers into a vertical, integrated urban ecology.
In order to maintain our modern lifestyle, infrastructure has become essential and this is more apparent in our cities than anywhere else. In order to collect the social, cultural and resource dividends from urban density, a massive, constructed ecology is necessary to support more people in less space. But as necessary as these systems are, in most cases we do not interact with them. Buried beneath layers of earth and pavement they lay hidden below the datum of the street and its unspoken role of serving as a barrier between the things we do and the things we need to do them. Breaking that barrier may be the first step in curbing the levels of degradation frequented by our nation’s infrastructure.
[“Gowanus Commons” is a proposal by Tyler Caine, Luke Carnahan & Ryan Doyle with renderings provided by David Villar. The design team retains all rights to all imagery]