Infrastructure as Permaculture

render, infrastructure, ecology, permacultureThe majority of the developed, American landscape has been crafted around automotive transport. As auto technology matured, increasing amounts of resources and area have been devoted to expanding and solidifying our road network. The result has often been environments that are built for a monoculture of cars and their passengers rather than an ecology of transit that supports a variety of mobility options. In order for our streetscapes to evolve to cater to pedestrians more than cars, so too must the car-oriented infrastructure evolve in what kinds of services it provides to its municipality. A broader array of roles can allow infrastructure to improve quality of life in multiple ways with systems that complement each other. 

An Automotive Landscape

Fort Collins, Colorado shares many characteristics with typical, small, American cities. With roughly 150,000 residents in just under 56 square miles, Fort Collins hosts the campus of Colorado State University and a thriving local beer culture. Like so many other cities, Fort Collins has grown with its deference to car travel and has reached the point of problematic congestion on its road ways. Despite proactive efforts to promote biking, buses and modern traffic systems, car traffic has continued to rise along with its effect on the local environment. According to an article in the Coloradoan,

“Fort Collins traffic congestion has never been worse. The volume of traffic is at an all-time high, the city’s busiest intersections have gotten even busier and people are driving more than ever. What’s more, the exhaust that snakes out of all those tailpipes makes up about a quarter of community greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to rising temperatures and some of the nation’s highest smog-causing ozone levels.”

A new proposal by design firm DCP highlights opportunities for the paved grid of roads and sidewalks to evolve into an ecology of functions that benefit residents and the environment. The site chosen for the study was South Mason Street, a main spine for community not only due to its central location to the city and CSU, but also because it is the home of an active freight rail track with trains passing by at least twice a day. Cars and trains currently hold a disproportionate presence in the composition of South Mason Street that make it more of a road for cars than a street for people.

ecology, traffic, cars, DCP

Traffic Monoculture vs. Multi-Modal Ecology, DCP

One of the tricky (and unpopular) truths about mobility is that one cannot affect walkability without affecting car travel (usually an inverse relationship). This is only more true when starting with an existing landscape that is car-dependent like ours. As author and engineer Jeff Speck notes in his book Walkable City:

When more than a quarter of workers take transit, more than 10 percent go on foot. When fewer than 5 percent take transit, fewer than 3 percent go on foot. It isn’t just that transit users walk more, but non-transit users walk more in cities shaped around transit. For the most part, cities either support driving or everything else.”

Instead of promoting a monoculture of cars, DCP likened the infrastructural landscape as more of a permaculture-based system. With roots based in agricultural growing practices, “permaculture” is the development of complementary, interconnected systems to form a productive ecology–not dissimilar from the goal of a vibrant streetscape. The proposed design applies permaculture principles to South Mason Street to replace its transit monoculture with the cultivation of a multi-modal ecology. Area that has been doled out to high speed travel can be reclaimed for a more balanced distribution among multi-modal transit types to create a safe, walkable environment. Crafting new boundaries to the existing right-of-way could help decrease the sensory dominance that the train imparts on the street environment. A low screening element provides visual and acoustic dampening at the trains base and provides an additional layer of separation, aiding the pedestrian in returning focus to the walkable surroundings.

DCP, site plan, streetscape

South Mason Street Site Plan, DCP

Permaculture & Infrastructure

Rather than a road of consumption driven primarily by the use of fossil fuels, the design creates an armature of production, organized around the holistic cultivation of community resources. Perhaps the most important resource to a vibrant, local streetscape is the fostering the pedestrian presence. Preserving not only adequate sidewalk access, but also protection for crossing multi-modal transit paths are critical to convincing residents that their neighborhood is walkable. By dispersing new public space in the form of parklets and shortening crossing distances at intersections, pedestrians can come closer to parity within the spatial hierarchy of the boulevard while bikers can utilize the 3,300 linear feet of new protected bike lanes.

One of the repercussions of our growing (and aging) road network is its impervious nature, shedding precipitation in concentrated quantities rather than allowing for absorption back into the earth to recharge aquifers. Though some pervious, planted surface does currently exist, grass represents its predominant component. While still a natural analogue for the wild prairie, grass stands as yet another modern monoculture, often requiring a large amount of chemical care while providing relatively little in the realm of biodiversity.

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Permaculture Planted Detail, DCP

Helping to support the natural environment does not begin with endangered species, but the foundation of ecological health at the smallest of scales. Building up from there helps rebuild ecologies and fortifies them in their entirety. Largely through the redistribution of existing planted space, new raised beds supply more than a network of dedicated, protected bike lanes, but acreage for food production via a new community garden. With the foundation of permaculture principals, a combination of bushes and ground with 100 new fruit trees cover can yield perennial crops with minimal maintenance–a source of renewable food for the community at large. These new plantings can be paired with a deployment of sunken bioswales whose rain gardens can increase the variety of habitats and collect an estimated 67,350 gallons of stormwater runoff.

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Proposed Site Section, DCP (Click to enlarge)

In assessing the impact of the daily freight trains, the design team added a new acoustic barrier for the freight right-of-way combined with two planted medians create a layered view across the street for pedestrians. The new raised planters take their form from concrete footing bolstered with recycled content like fly ash or ground glass to support reclaimed railroad ties. The goal of the designers was not to remove the cultural icon of the train, but rather dampen its negative side effects for the surrounding environment.  As we change the active role that cars and trains plan in defining the atmosphere, pedestrians and bikers can reclaim the street and help encourage the infill of adjacent lots with walkable retail and artisan program, eventually completing the street’s transformation.

Full Contact Infrastructure

The latent message in the proposal probes at the relationship between residents and the systems needed to maintain quality of life. For decades, the status quo has been to hide these systems to the best of ones ability while their functions are removed from the natural environment (even when nature could potentially perform some of them better than its replacements). A new idea of infrastructure could see more of its components including natural processes that engage residents while yielding better pedestrian settings in return.

This multi-layered ecology provides a number of dividends: solar shading, biophilic environments, rainwater absorption, air purification and a continuous production of seasonal fruits and berries. From there the ecologies can grow, starting at soil health fueled with local compost to the myriad of nature and migratory birds. Whether managed by the city or its residents, the communal orchard of South Mason Street could help to redefine the modern roles of infrastructure and its engagement with the community.

All Imagery Courtesy of DCP