Nov 23, 2015
THEME: Sustainability

Artful Brownfields: Transparency through Creativity

There is something mysterious about brownfields. They are part industrial and part natural; something that we as designers sometimes romanticize. They are, however, less picturesque to the communities that grew up around the pollution, contamination, related health issues, job loss, and deterioration. How can we as designers and community engagement specialists close this perception gap and employ design to give transparency and humanity to the process of remediation and redevelopment?

Thriva-Almono site

Events can reintroduce the public to post industrial sites and shift perceptions. Pictured here, a music event at the Almono site in Pittsburgh, a brownfield-turned-masterplan designed by Perkins + Will.   Image courtesy of Thrival.

For one, landscape and art can create trust and improve the perception of community brownfields. Phytoremediation is the use of plants to clean contamination. It is most effective on shallow contaminants. This method provides the feeling of a garden, offering an affected community a place of interaction and chance to take an active part in cleaning a site through gardening. Due to the long timescale of many large remediation projects, phasing a community’s reintegration onto the site can be gradual and build a feeling of ownership.


Before (left) and After (right) Slow Cleanup, Chicago 2009, ©2015 Frances Whitehead for Embedded Artist Project

Before (left) and after (right) Slow Cleanup, Chicago 2009, ©2015 Frances Whitehead for Embedded Artist Project

In addition to the community integration benefits, this process can offer cost benefits. While many longer-term and larger-scale remediation projects can be cost-prohibitive, phytoremediation is relatively inexpensive. It can be used most effectively on shallow contamination or as a polishing treatment for low levels of contamination that meet regulations but may not be clean enough for a community garden for example. But even deeper treatment is possible by digging deep trenches and using specially grown poplars. Just as important as treatment, plantings can be designed as contamination prevention. For instance, a new gas station could be designed with phytoremediation plantings as a part of the landscape design that treats contamination as it happens instead of waiting to do a larger clean-up later.

Phytoremediation does have its limits. As mentioned above, its effectiveness is limited to surface area contaminants. It also requires a long-term commitment ensuring the land can be used for plantings more than a single season. Plant survival is affected by the toxicity of the land itself, so the condition of the soil must be considered when choosing the appropriate phytoremediation tactic.

After speaking at the National Brownfields Conference in Chicago, I received many questions and expressions of interest in starting “Phyto Gardens” from across the country. For the phytoremediation novice, Phyto is an excellent beginner’s guide (published by my former professor Niall Kirkwood and Kate Kennen). It is written to be read by non-scientists, with lots of helpful diagrams for the visual thinker. It is a great resource for plant palettes, common contaminants, and useful precedents. It is written mostly with East Coast planting palettes in mind so my team is hard at work translating this thinking to the West Coast. More to come!


Slow Cleanup, Chicago 2009, ©2015 Frances Whitehead for Embedded Artist

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  1. santh
    1:49 am on April 4, 2016 | Reply

    good post

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