Posts by Cristhian Barajas

Houston Texas interstate highway; photo from Alan Berger's "Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America".

Houston Texas interstate highway; photo from Alan Berger’s “Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America”.

In our previous post, we read about the typology of wasted surfaces in the urban environment. Professor Alan Berger and writer of Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America, also comes up with a new manifesto for those professionals who would like to venture into the drosscape practices. Today we present a ‘quommentary’ on each of these points, approaching it from the landscape architecture perspective.

The Drosscape Manifesto:

1. “Dross is understood as a natural component of every dynamically evolving city. As such it is an indicator of healthy urban growth.”

Our quommentary: Many have written “never judge the past by the standards of today”. Presentism asserts that current morality is the only valid one. This is fallacious. We have to embrace the industrial processes as what they are, a reflection of progress. We have to acknowledge and accept the fact that industrialization, in some way or another, will always exist. How this process is performed is a whole different topic, and of course, here we can look into all the currents and practices that seek out more sustainable results. Before judging or going rampage against any infrastructure projects or blocking the possibility for progress, we should consider exploring all options that answer how this project can be more beneficial for the environment, for the community, and for the local economy.

2. “Drosscapes accumulate in the wake of socio- and spatio-economic process of deindustrialization, post-Fordism, and technological innovation.”

Our quommentary: “There is an optimum numerical size, beyond which each further increment of inhabitants creates difficulties out of all proportion of the benefits. There is also an optimum area of expansion, beyond which further urban growth tends to paralyze rather than to further important social relationships” — Lewis Mumford in “What Is A City?”.

Of course, Lewis was referring to problems like overpopulation and urban sprawl, but these very factors will determine the number of dross elements in the city and will also condition the manner in which drosscaping should be executed. It is important to accommodate drosscapes in a time frame, addressing a particular problem. But at the same time, a drosscape should also be timeless and inclusive enough to be able to satisfy the needs of all sectors of the population and foster these interpersonal relationships and activities – a perspective Mumfords acknowledges to be the very core of the city.

3. “Drosscapes require the designer to shift thinking from tacit and explicit knowledge (designer as sole expert and authority) to complex interactive and responsive processing (designer as collaborator and negotiator).”

Our quommentary: “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.” — Cesar E. Chavez.

Interdisciplinary teams, public agencies, and the community should work together as one entity to pursue a better environment. The designer is a catalyst – the piece that starts unscrambling the puzzle of the complexity of the site – allowing themselves to interpret the opportunities offered by this situation as a gamma that may suit the needs of the community, it shall never be a single-minded, one-sided answer for the sake of mere creativity. (more…)

A spread from "Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America"

A spread from “Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America”

The concept of ‘drosscapes’ was coined by Alan Berger in 2006 in his book, Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America. In his preface, he addresses landscape architecture as a discipline blind to the opportunities that drosscapes represented, an blindspot that still affects us today. Academic programs should adopt and be adapted to other outside-the-box philosophies. For example, the first time I heard about Resilient Urbanism was during the UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia. Planners, architects, landscape architects, interior designers, industrial designers, engineers, and other disciplines are coming up with theoretical models as an alternative to challenge our current system and to develop ideas from concept to the object.

Berger’s framework is one of those models encouraging landscape architects to achieve a more holistic, forward-looking planning. A drosscape as Berger defines it is “the creation of a new condition in which vast, wasted, or wasteful land surfaces are modeled in accordance with new programs or new sets of values that remove or replace real or perceived wasteful aspects of geographical space (i.e., redevelopment, toxic waste removal, tax revenues, etc.)”. As a verb, he sees the ‘drosscaping’ as the practice incorporating social programs and activities into the transformed waste landscape. One must not commit the mistake to call an abandoned train station by itself a drosscape, for example. In this instance, a drosscape would be the integration of new horizons onto the unused site, which by itself it is only dross.

In an attempt to understand these urban wastelands according to their perception, Berger proposed classifying a differentiation between waste landscapes (places that store, manage or process urban or industrial waste), wasted landscapes (polluted or abandoned sites), and wasteful landscapes (huge extensions of developed land with virtually no use for the community).

Fashion Island and its surroundings in Newport Beach, CA. Newport center, its parking lots and its surrounding golf clubs may be a good example of a combination of wasteful landscapes. As Berger comments on golf courses, these spaces are the most representative Waste Landscapes of Dwelling (LODs). The city of Newport Beach has around 6 golf courses inland and in its coast, surpassing by far the total acreage by local neighborhood parks and even the Bay Nature Reserve. Besides the beach, there are no urban parks capable of housing big masses recreational activities, most of the recreation areas are located in these residential ‘voids’. Creative Commons Photo by WPPilot

Fashion Island and its surroundings in Newport Beach, CA. Newport center, its parking lots and its surrounding golf clubs may be a good example of a combination of wasteful landscapes. As Berger comments on golf courses, these spaces are the most representative Waste Landscapes of Dwelling (LODs). The city of Newport Beach has around 6 golf courses inland and in its coast, surpassing by far the total acreage by local neighborhood parks and even the Bay Nature Reserve. Besides the beach, there are no urban parks capable of housing big masses recreational activities, most of the recreation areas are located in these residential ‘voids’. Creative Commons Photo by WPPilot

In terms of use, Berger suggests the following classification for these wastelands:

  • Waste Landscapes of Dwelling (LODs).
    In this category we can find amenities that serve nearby residents of housing developments, like trail networks and private golf courses, either open to the public or private facilities. Landscape vegetation areas which serve as reserves or transitions between the infrastructure are also included in this category.
  • Waste Landscapes of Transition (LOTs)
    Here we have those spaces that are victims of real-estate speculation, designed as interstitial land uses: “staging areas, storage yards, parking surfaces, transfer stations, etc.”. One can even say that some of these waste spaces are product of past investment trends, like self-storage facilities, for instance.
  • Waste Landscapes of Infrastructure (LINs)
    In this list we have “easements, setbacks and rights-of-way associated with transportation, electric transmissions, oil and gas pipelines, waterways and railways”. Some of these ROWs have been already explore in the past AHBE Lab posts.
  • Waste Landscapes of Obsolescence (LOOs)
    Places that are built specifically to allocate waste, such as landfills, salvage yards, wastewater treatment facilities and reclamation plants.
  • Waste Landscapes of Exchange (LEXs)
    This category encloses semi-active or non-active urban developments such as decaying shopping centers and vacant regional malls. Supercenters also enter in this category, big individual stores that for one reason or another end up closing to the public.
  • Wasted Landscapes of Contamination (LOCOs)
    Sites here vary a lot more in comparison to the previous categories, since it includes “airports, military bases, ammunition depots and training grounds, and sites used for mining, petroleum and chemical operations”. It entails all those abandoned facilities that are polluted. Most of the sites targeted by the NPL belong to this category.

Have you identified potential sites around you that could be drosscaped? What type of projects would you envision in such places? What would be the impact for the community?

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Post-industrial landscapes have caught the attention of the public by providing a great mix of experiences and reflections. All over the world these abandoned places that could only be used for recreation in the UrbEX context are now accessible to the community. Reclaiming sites have become a statement of post-modernity, where nature and community coexists with rusty machines and metal structures.

In postmodernism, ‘memory’ constitutes a concept that characterize these landscape interventions as unique and informative, endorsing it with a higher and deeper level of experiences. Bright minds like Sebastien Marot, Frances Yates, Robert Smithson and Peter Latz associate memory as an important aspect of design.

Having previously participated in a project where industrial infrastructure and landscape had to be connected, AHBE Lab explores worldwide a specific type of post-industrial intervention of derelict facilities: production plants. In this category we can find old mining stations, power and water stations, coal mines, steel mills, construction factories, assembly yards, etc. Here are some of the best examples:

Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord / Latz + Partner
A public park in Germany born from an abandoned coal and steel production plant. The site remained heavily contaminated after these activities and the actual landscaping is an attempt to heal and to communicate the industrial past of the site. The existing infrastructure like concrete bunkers, old gas tanks, concrete walls and the courtyard of the factory were reused to bring forth a unique program, rich of experiences.

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LUX Stahlhof Belval-Ouest / AllesWirdGut Architektur
This famous promenade-square is located in a steelyard which was once populated by pioneer plants such as moss and birch. The island incorporates sitting areas and vegetation, leaving plenty of open spaces as restorative landscapes. The project incorporates natural looking materials that are able to portray an atemporal aesthetic, such as concrete, wood, and untreated steel.

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C-Mine Square / Hosper
This public square is located on a former coal mine in Belgium. It is the central space of the new cultural center of the city of Genk. Not only is the square reclaimed, but a lot of the program elements are located in the surrounding buildings, which used to be mining buildings. The project incorporates a theater, a cinema, restaurants, and a design academy.

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Fonderies Garden / Doazan-Hirschberger
Stored under the canopy of the former Atlantic Foundries, this garden located in the island of Nantes, France, houses exotic species like rhododendrons, azaleas, hydrangeas, magnolias, camellias, etc. The whole site is covered by a polycarbonate crystal canopy and pre-existing steel roofing. The garden is divided in two parts: the ‘furnace garden’ and the ‘voyage garden’.

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Sustainable Evergreen Headquarters / Diamond Schmitt Architects + du Toit Architects Ltd
Once a brick factory in Toronto, Canada, this new space has become a community environmental center; the site plays host to commercial, educational, and cultural activities. The Evergreen Brick Works project is accredited as LEED-Platinum in sustainability.

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MFO-Park / Burckhardt + Partner & Raderschallpartner
Located in Zurich, Switzerland, the Manschinefabrik Oerlikon Park is housed under a steel trellis that used to be part of a factory belonging to the same company. Vertical green columns, a set of terraces and viewpoints, a large semi-covered central space and a fun play of lights versus shadows have already granted this project seven awards.

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Levitt Pavilion, SteelStacks, Bethlehem Works, Sands Bethworks and the Arts Quest Center / Wallace Roberts and Todd, SWA Group, Spillman Farmer Architects.
This site’s program is comprehensive, starting with the conversion of an old steel mill into a venue for concerts, performance, and cultural activities known as the SteelStack Arts and Cultural Campus. The Levitt Pavilion is a unique architectural centerpiece and refuge for these events. Across the street, the ArtsQuest Center is edified in the heart of the industrial park for indoor events like festivals, visual arts, education and outreach, and other performing arts. Less than a mile to the east, a thrilling landscape design furnishes the main intersections of the road networks in the area.

Gas Works Park / Richard Haag
Opened in 1975, this reclaimed urban park contains part of the infrastructure of the former coal gasification plant. A part of the old plant now functions as a children’s play barn. It has become an icon for peace rallies, concerts, anti-war protests, and a civic symbol as well, hosting Fourth of July fireworks events for the city and becoming a landmark for local cyclists.

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Fundidora Park / Grimshaw Architects
By far one of the most successful projects in Mexico showcasing the re-adaptation of existing industrial architecture for civic use. The project’s ‘Horno3’ used to be a steel mill and is now a steel museum which adds a restaurant and terraces. This urban-scale park is the core for recreation and social life in the city of Monterrey, hosting world-class events such as the UN and OEA summits, the Champ Car World Series Grand Prix, the A1 Grand Prix race series, and the 2007 Universal Forum of Cultures. The urban park incorporates as icons other elements, such as the Monterrey Arena, the Sesame Plaza playgrounds, an artificial lake, and the Santa Lucia Riverwalk.

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Burbank Water and Power EcoCampus / AHBE Landscape Architects
Being included as one of the original Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) pilot program, the BWP’s EcoCampus reclaims a substation, turning the structure into a giant metal trellis for the new Centennial Park. This repurposed canopy is covered with vines that turn the original structure into a real green habitat. Sustainable techniques such as rooftop gardens, water reclamation and filtration systems and solar power are present all over the site, making the project worthy of three awards in the last 4 years.


More and more often, designers and developers are choosing to reclaim abandoned industrial infrastructure to become an active heart of community life. Large-scale projects such as the Battersea Power Station Redevelopment – carried out by Gehry and Foster in London – demonstrate that industrial zones, brownfields, and other once undesirable spots in the city are no longer taboos for developers, planners, architects and landscape architects to work with. The hope is these once neglected spaces will be adopted once more by the community, no longer as centers for industrial production, but for social productivity.

Smithson thought that memory recalls the past, but in a way that applies it to new things. In this matter, Mark Twain wrote once:  “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”. What can we learn from the past of these sites, and how are we applying this knowledge to our present?

Washington & Old Dominion Trail. Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Emw.

Washington & Old Dominion Trail. Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Emw.

Though not very attractive, transmission lines offer many opportunities for creating linear outdoor spaces for recreation and mobility. In 2014, Houston city officials declared the importance of utilizing transmission lines as recreational spaces for the community. The ROWs have been used to provide walking and biking trails to nearby residents.

All over the nation, linear parks have become favorite destinations for hikers, bikers, and families seeking outdoor space. Here are only some of the most famous “transmission lines” trails in the U.S. (for a more comprehensive list visit here and here):

  • The Arizona Cross Cut Canal in Scottsdale, Arizona
  • Centennial Trail, Lake Stevens, Washington
  • Cherry Creek Trail, Denver, Colorado
  • Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, Ocala, Florida
  • Springwater Corridor Trail in Portland, Oregon
  • The Power Line Trail in Horsham Township, Pennsylvania
  • Katy Trail in Dallas, Texas
  • The Washington & Old Dominion Trail in Falls Church, Virginia

California is following the same steps, slowly turning its attention to transmission lines sites. According to the California Energy Commission, the state of California has about 200,000 miles of overhead transmission and distribution lines, and an additional 70,000 miles of underground lines. In some cities, the rights-of-way have been turned into trails or neighborhood parks.

LA Transmission Lines graphic by the California Energy Commission

LA Transmission Lines graphic by the California Energy Commission

The LADWP and Southern California Edison offer a guide for designers and stakeholders to refer to, in the hopes of ensuring a proper blend of their future use with the functionality required by the existing electrical infrastructure. Among the design considerations include:

  • Include drought tolerant vegetation
  • Avoid surfaces, materials and elements that can become obstacles
  • Vegetation shall be spaced from 2’ to 12’
  • Only 20% maximum of landscape can be occupied by plants
  • Water-efficient irrigation fixtures are encouraged
  • Plants must be easy to be removed, 3’ high and 5’ across maximum for groundcovers; other plants can be 15’ tall maximum and all must be slow growing
  • 15 gal trees and shade structures shall be 10’ tall and located outside the power lines. Site canopies shall not be flammable (i.e. wood) and must be easy to be disassembled
  • All metal structures shall be electrically grounded
  • No removal of existing soil
  • Plants shall not be closer than 100’ from the electrical infrastructure
  • Water lines must be buried 24” minimum and sprinklers shall be directed away from structures
  • Decomposed granite shall be no closer than 10’ from the structures
  • Include and integrate a 20’ patrol road with a gate-controlled access at the center of the right-of-way for maintenance purposes. Such trail shall be clear at all times and preferably separated from the existing trails in the site
  • Do not use boulders, benches or other fixed ornamental structures / urban furniture
  • No unleashed animals (6’ maximum leash)
  • No wetlands or other sensitive natural habitat

One particular case representing equal parts glory and shame in the matter of a few miles is the power lines corridor in the city of Irvine. Along a section of Barranca Way the corridor appears way out of context, but a few miles further on the Harvard Side Path, the corridor is perfectly integrated.

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As Walter Rogers correctly appoints, one of the duties and competences of a landscape architect is to provide assessment and solutions for new power line corridors. But in my experience, sometimes I feel the profession only roughly touches upon these issues, wrongfully prescribing to the myth that “only engineers can do this, and only them alone”. Or that “it is impossible to do projects in these kinds of locations”.

The Land of Giants. Photo by CHOI + SHINE ARCHITECTS

The Land of Giants. Photo by CHOI + SHINE Architects

English landscape architect Sylvia Crowe devoted her entire life to study and provide aesthetical and planning solutions to the unappealing visual of the electrical infrastructure. In her work The Landscape of Power she portrayed the present challenges of her time regarding these metal giants using sketches and photographs. But as the Landscape Institute in the UK very properly denotes, these challenges could also be applied today. Crowe believed that buildings belonging to the emerging energy, transportation, and communication industries needed to be properly incorporated into the landscape, redesigning “the entire surface-cover of the land into one flowing comprehensive pattern.

Similarly, CHOI+SHINE Architects ‘Land of Giants’ proposal for Landsnet, Iceland attempted to turn the existing transmission towers into a true artistic masterpiece: power lines in the shape of giant human figures scattered across the landscape. Arphenotype, Bystrup Architecture Design Engineering, and other firms have additionally come up with more aesthetical appealing solutions for power pylons, all easier for the human eye to accept and for the landscape to embrace.

The Straw’ Power Pylon by BYSTRUP

The Straw’ Power Pylon by BYSTRUP

Perhaps if energy companies incorporated these solutions into their infrastructures, we wouldn’t be seeing cases like the one in City of Chino Hills a few years ago, where residents successfully opposed the installation of monstrous pylons in their backyards. Two aspects shall always be considered when dealing with these sites: 1. the perception of the utilities infrastructure,  and 2. the negative perception toward electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Studies conducted on this matter point to inconsistent and contradictory results. The National Trails Training Partnership recommends to leave those fears behind and to “avoid the numbing ‘everything-causes-cancer’ mindset, which can distract you from taking the steps that are known to protect your health“.

Replica of the ancient Lepidodendrons or giant clubmosses at the Evolution Garden. Photo: Creative Commons

Replica of the ancient Lepidodendrons or giant clubmosses at the Evolution Garden. Photo: Creative Commons

Species come and go, sometimes as part of the evolutionary process of natural selection, other times due to natural catastrophes, or in the worst case, for anthropogenic factors. Unlike animals, plants don’t have any mechanism for surviving if their habitat is destroyed. Hence, they are more vulnerable to extinction; and even when they do survive, they can’t spread because new soil conditions favor other dominant species. Of the 30,000 plant species known to mankind, 12,914 of them have been evaluated, and is estimated that 68% of these are threatened species (Source: IUCN 2016).

The number makes sense when put in the context that more than 99 percent of all species that ever lived on Earth are now extinct. According to American biologist, researcher, and environmental theorist E.O. Wilson, by the year 2100 it is estimated that half of the current species inhabiting this planet, plant and animals, will be extinct. We are experiencing what scientist call “the sixth wave” of extinctions in the past half-billion years. The normal rate of extinction was about one to five species a year, but now it is 1,000 to 10,000 times this rate.

De-extinction is the process of bringing extinct plants and animals species back to life through cloning or selective breeding/seeding. Botanists and paleobotanists are now investigating this technique to resurrect ancient plants to our modern world. In 2012, National Geographic published an online article about Silene stenophylla, the oldest plant to be regenerated, which was grown from 32,000-year-old seeds. The efforts were led by a Russian team and they managed to germinate new seeds, using plant material trapped in the ice 124 feet below ground. The experiment suggests that the permafrost might be a depository for ancient plant and animal material.

With all of the controversy attached to de-extinction, this could be a corrective solution to our modern problem, but the mindset should change before going into this. It never hurts to remind that first mankind must take the preventive solutions to the possible extent, by avoiding activities that could end up destroying our biodiversity.

As landscape architects, we could look at what we have done with cycads– usually planted in interpretive and educational gardens – one of the oldest plants specimens to ever grow in our planet. And yet, their palmetto-looking form makes it fit for the aesthetical appeal in the profession. Can we picture now true prehistoric gardens in our communities? What about restoring entire plant communities? Only time will tell whether the era of the Anthropocene will be catastrophic or one of revitalization through technology…