Unraveling Urban Life and Space
What's the cost to wildness of updating infrastructure?
“Urban wild” immediately brings to mind corridors, the linear routes of infrastructure like interstates and power lines. Paul Gobster lists such corridors as one type in his typology of wildscapes, so I’m not alone in this observation.
Let’s think about these corridors as spaces. These are perfect examples of forgotten spaces that we train ourselves not to see, yet they are large swathes of the city. Utility corridors and freight rail corridors tend to run along the backs of properties - or better said, the properties around them align along the corridors - so it’s easy to miss them in everyday life. These corridors are negative space framing the positive space of the lots around them. The more overgrown (wild) they are, the more they disappear. Interstate corridors are really a contradiction, because we drive through them constantly. Yet what forgotten invisible spaces they are. Here in Syracuse and back in Ann Arbor, and surely a host of other places, interstate corridors are popular spots for homeless camps, which is the best proof you could have that most residents don’t see these spaces. They also collect trash - lots of trash- and are frequent sites for graffiti, both suggesting that these are seen as spaces no one owns. Invisible, yet right in front of you.
Why are these spaces wild? Sometimes they aren’t. In Indiana my husband and I own a rental property in a subdivision that’s bisected by high voltage lines. The space under these lines is kept mowed, if not manicured, and includes some businesses, restaurants and offices. Within the subdivision, the space under the lines contains a retention pond that the houses look out on. Elsewhere in my home state, the interstate right-of-way used to be (maybe still is) kept mowed. You probably know other stretches of highway that were mowed like this. Although interstates are federal, of course, the mow/don’t mow decision varies by state: Indiana mows; Michigan doesn’t. The interstate right-of-way is suddenly wilder as you go north.
It’s more popular now to not mow. We know why that is. It might be habitat or carbon reduction or some other ecological rationale, but primary or secondary rationale is always money. Mowing cost seems negligible, but…it’s all the time, over and over, year in, year out. Someone pays for it, and why is that, again? Why mow all of it, or any of it? Over the past few decades it’s become more popular to plant wildflower mixes (sometimes natives, sometimes not) in interstate margins like this and stop mowing. The same belt-tightening reflected in the maintenance (or not) of transportation ROWs is surely in play with utility ROWs as well; even less reason to mow land no one sees. Possibly there is advantage in having utility corridors and substations and other assorted bits and pieces of the equipment that keeps the lights on be unnoticed by the general public. You don’t vandalize what you don’t see, and neither do you pay too much attention to what’s going on there or fuss over trees topped to stay clear of lines or whatever. It’s the power company’s business what happens in their little wilderness, and maybe they’d prefer that no one else go there.
Except…people do go there - see above re: homeless camps and graffiti. See all previous discussion about transgressive spaces and cues to care and loose space. Wild spaces are loose spaces, the international waters of urban life, where anything can happen. And if a utility corridor is a wild space, well, it’s loose, too.
So infrastructure corridors are wild spaces, socially and naturally, but why “vanishing?” At the risk of mixing a metaphor between “invisible” spaces and “vanishing” spaces, follow this logic:
Energy and transportation are on the cusp of a sea change (to add another metaphor into the mix). Use of fossil fuels faces questions about supply and peak oil, political instability, and the increasingly serious need to address climate change. There are great gains to be made in efficiency, including the landscape-scale issue of where we live in relationship to where we work, and how we get around. Much of our transportation infrastructure in the US dates from the years following World War II, when the interstate highway system was constructed, giving rise to a million suburbs on the public dime. We know this story: the suburbs boom, the cities bust, and we all drive - a lot, alone, in Detroit steel, then massive SUVs. Denser development is more sustainable development. Denser development requires less transportation, is better suited to mass transportation, and at the very least, is more feasibly served by a diffuse grid of surface roads than by limited access highways. This isn’t the end of interstates, but they’ll be less emphasized in the future, and probably share the space of their roomy corridors with other uses and transportation modes. And yes, perhaps some will be dismantled or converted to other uses or downsized. Exit one type of infrastructural wild.
What could make a much bigger difference is a switch to more distributed energy production. Distributed production means energy produced near its point of use, at many locations, in contrast to one large generator, like a power plant. Distributed production is inherently more resilient, because it’s many instead of one, and in many locations instead of one - the eggs are separately arrayed over a large space instead of being all in one coal-fired basket. Distributed production dovetails nicely with clean energy generation, and with smaller-scale energy systems (microgrids) that can remain functional with or without the larger grid in operation. So distributed energy production seems to be the way of the future for several reasons.
If you think about it, and most of us don’t, the current electrical system requires a lot of moving power from place to place, to speak in a decidedly non-technical way. Electricity is generated at large power plants, then travels along a series of increasing smaller lines until it reaches the outlet in your wall. It’s a lot of ground to cover, to say nothing of transporting the fuel to the power plant to begin with. As electricity travels, some of it dissipates, so distributed production means less of that loss; a benefit maximized by placing generation next to use. It seems inevitable that this will mean vacating some of the existing system of lines and structures that currently move electricity from power plant to use.
High voltage corridors are large. Look at an aerial photo, and they stand out, x-ing across miles. That they are corridors is in itself valuable, because corridors are difficult, impossible, really, to assemble through land that’s already owned by many different entities and developed into different uses and buildings. A vacated corridor is an intact corridor, and it could be intact for something else, even if it’s merely a right-of-way or easement and not owned outright by the electric company. Corridors preserve protected routes for wildlife movement, helping counteract habitat fragmentation. This aspect of utility corridors is even more important in urban areas, where the surroundings may be entirely built out and thus inhospitable to most wildlife.
It’s worth thinking about and assessing what they do for us in their current state, these infrastructural urban wilds. They do all the things vegetation and permeable surfaces and wildlife do for you anywhere - all those ecosystem services, cognitive and health benefits, views out your back door. We take them for granted, because we don’t see them, remember? But should they vanish, we’d notice the effects. We’d feel the loss. Better to notice and value what they do for us before that time comes.
A new guest column out today in Microgrid Knowledge, featuring the big story from the microgrid-revitalization-replicability study I did last year at Syracuse University. Read the whole thing here.
Snacks, drinks, intriguing new ideas about how to accomplish REV's goals on actual pieces of land in Syracuse, free parking - how could you refuse? See you there-
Final poster session, featuring student designs for Energy in the Landscape, bringing REV4NY’s goals to Syracuse’s urban spaces.
5.5.16, 4-6 pm. Syracuse Center of Excellence.
If you're reading this, you're welcome to come: past students, well-wishers, community collaborators.
Come for 15 minutes, come for two hours. This isn't a critique. #redesigningdesign
Hope to see you there!
(Posted here a bit late - SD)
It has to start somewhere
t has to start sometime
What better place than here
what better time than now?
(R.A.t.M., “Guerilla Radio”)
This studio began with Joe Romm’s observation that climate change will be the big story of the next 25 years, like the Internet has been the big story of the last 25 years. If you’re in college now, that’s the big story of your career. Impacts on business, economics, and human use of land and buildings will be/are so pervasive that climate change will/is shaping your future, no matter your politics or professional field.
In turn, one of the biggest stories of climate change impacts and adaptation is how we don’t/use energy, both fossil fuels in decline and clean energy in ascendance. Energy use in business, industry, construction and demolition, human comfort, and transportation is a major shaper of the landscape, especially in cities, so with energy change comes landscape change. Yet big public projects on the scale of the interstate highway system or rural electrification now face seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Our cities face real challenges, distilled at the opening of this studio into data|heat|neglect. However the next 25 years unfold, solutions will have to engage with these challenges, leveraging them as forces to improve environments for all residents, human and otherwise. Solutions that are finding traction now are frequently urbanist in outlook and grass-roots in execution. This is the moment of small interventions guided by global goals, of tiny steps scaling the mountain.
How does your big Energy in the Landscape idea change a specific site in Syracuse?
Project site: One site (1/2 acre max; include both landscape and building(s)) selected by individual students from within the City of Syracuse
What to do/design program:
Th 4.7 Part II brief distributed; Part II begins. Syracusesketchbook.weebly.com live COB.
Tu 4.12 Regular studio meeting in Slocum
Th 4.14 NYS Green Building conference at Oncenter; no regular studio meeting; email me for appointment if you want
Tu 4.19 1:15 Guest lecture in CoE 203: Richard Graves (U. Minnesota and USGBC); in-class digital presentation of *final* drawings (not layout).
Th 4.21 Regular studio meeting in Slocum; work on layout and digital production of final exhibit pieces.
Tu 4.26 5:00 p.m. Energy in the Landscape boards due to class folder (in pdf) and online posts
(Print, mount, etc. poster session exhibit pieces)
Th 5.5 3:00 pm -6:30 pm Final poster session exhibit at Syracuse Center of Excellence, second floor (or as announced)
(Fill out Survey Monkey re how all this went)
Copyright © 2016 Susan Dieterlen
Assorted drafts, previews, and outtakes from the book I'm currently writing about the impact of vegetation and neglect on urban life. I also take other thoughts for a test drive here, including nascent design and research ideas.