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Industrial wastelands seen as parks in the rough

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

Cheerful tourists on a pristine ridge juxtaposed with an abandoned factory framed by mountains were two of the slides shown at a recent talk by Julie Bargmann, a U.Va. assistant professor of landscape architecture.

"How do we reconcile our idealized view of nature and the industrialized landscape we've created?" she asked, adding that we have a tendency to want to erase what doesn't fit our ideal.

"Our landscape is green and brown and gray and rusted," she said. "We need to embrace industrial sites as part of our cultural [heritage]."

Bargmann is doing just that through her research, her teaching and her landscape architecture practice, trying to create a role for designers in a field heretofore occupied by "engineers providing a quick fix."

Reclamation usually means remediation, the correcting of a wrong, but Bargmann prefers the term "regeneration," which entails "creating something new, seeing the landscape in a revolutionary way," she said.

Landscape architecture professor Julie Bargmann, center, takes U.Va. students to reclaimed landfills and other waste sites in New York and New Jersey, such as this one, the Roebling Steel Cable Manufacturing Company. Today an EPA-designated Superfund site, the factory provided steel for the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, Bargmann noted.

"Only in the past decade have people come to see that sites need more than an engineered solution," she said in a recent talk that was part of the Architecture School's new lecture series, "The Finding Eye of Ethics." "There's real cultural value to many of them. That's something to build on, not to erase."

Bargmann and her students are exploring reclamation options in a studio this spring, focusing on the Avtex Fibers plant in Front Royal, a 440-acre site on the Shenandoah River where rayon and polyester were manufactured for 50 years.

Avtex is in the "heat of trying to get the community's approval of their remediation and redevelopment plans," some of which efface parts of the company's past, she said in an interview.

Bargmann's students visited an 80-year-old former plant manager who is arguing for the preservation of the site as it is, though his views aren't popular.

By examining actual sites, "students get exposed to how complicated it is to deal with social and political and economic issues," she said. "It's good for them ... to see that designers don't just barrel on in and offer solutions."

In general, "regulations tend to be buried in bureaucratic jargon, and the level of contamination is usually downplayed," Bargmann said, noting that acronyms like BAOC -- "back to the approximate original contour" -- don't convey how the "reclaimed" landscape might look.
Stephanie Gross
Julie Bargmann
Landscape architect Julie Bargmann admits that working on the reclamation of polluted industrial sites is a tough assignment to give students, as well as take on herself. "Imagine what the place was, and what it could be. Understand the industrial processes and then remediation technologies. Scale over bureaucratic fences while fighting for design intentions. Invent a landscape for which there are hardly any precedents. In short, take a pile of contaminated dirt, figure it out, then make something with it."

Her students have combed through reports, clarifying concepts enmeshed in impenetrable language and illustrating them with drawings. One of the two most prevalent approaches to remediation is "cap and cover," where toxic materials are buried and covered with grass -- "it's like putting lipstick on a pig" -- ignoring the hazard and leaving it for the next generation, she said. The other is "hog and haul," where waste is excavated and taken to another state (or country) and buried. "That's heralded as the most economically feasible remedial action to take," she said. "No one is saying, 'What if there were nowhere to take it?' Virginia is saying, 'Bring your trash here. We want it.'"

In her research and teaching, Bargmann is reviewing emerging technologies to detoxify industrial sites, such as bioremediation (soil washing and soil flushing) and phytoremediation (using plants that absorb heavy metals from the soil).

This kind of approach "is not as proven as 'hog and haul', and is more expensive, but more of a long-range solution," she said.

Bargmann's favorite example of a reclaimed industrial site is Duisburg Nord, a vast new park in western Germany designed by landscape architect Peter Latz. The Emscher River by which it is situated has been cleaned, but the lichen-covered blast furnaces, ore bunkers and elevated rails haven't been touched, she said.

She admires how the site "accepts the post-industrial landscape as it is," she said.

There are few examples of such an approach in this country, but Bargmann is excited about a project she's involved in to regenerate Ford Motor Company's Rouge River Plant in Dearborn, Mich. Architecture professor William A. McDonough has been commissioned to transform the $2 billion, two-square-mile site into a model of sustainable industry.

Closer to home, Bargmann taught a class on the Ivy Landfill last year in which her students proposed a wide array of options for the site's future, including a park for extreme sports, she said. "There are so many sites that are invisible because they're off the beaten track, like the Avon Street landfill in Charlottesville that has [toxins] leaching into Moore's Creek," she said.

"We are surrounded by the wealth and devastation of progress. ... [We live in a time when] we're measured by what we've made," she said. "But what about the landscape left in the wake of all this progress?"

"We don't greet 'growth' with open arms anymore. We ask what the consequences will be and have them enter into the decision-making equation."

U.Va. takes on the challenge of brownfields
A national movement is under way combining the best efforts of communities, businesses and government to clean up and reclaim the country's numerous pollution-scarred landscapes known as "brownfields." These former industrial sites, often in poor areas, offer complicated challenges, and usually aren't toxic enough to receive adequate federal aid.

A varied group of U.Va. faculty members, all affiliated with the environmentally conscious School of Architecture, are closely involved with this national effort. In addition to landscape architect Julie Bargmann's work, the Institute for Environmental Negotiation and the Institute for Sustainable Design are also working on reclamation projects.

Each brownfield site has its own history, problems and solutions, the faculty involved point out. But a new public-private partnership is emerging, and today brownfields are even being looked at as community resources, experts say. The sites can combine the memory of the past and the dreams of the future of the community.

A closer look at the U.Va. institutes working on the issue:
  • Institute for Environmental Negotiation: As an impartial mediator, Frank Dukes, associate director of the institute, works with communities in environmental dispute resolution. The EPA recently awarded the institute one of nine national pilot contracts to work with the Harrisonburg Community Mediation Center. They are helping the town of Shenandoah redevelop the Big Gem brownfield site, an iron furnace in the center of the town that was in operation until 1910. Workshops, attended by 50 to 60 people, have been held to generate ideas from community members, according to Dukes. The next phase will concentrate on training the people involved in conflict resolution and consensus building.
  • Institute for Sustainable Design: Established by architecture professor William McDonough, the institute is dedicated to creating viable alternatives to conventional design and practices, advocating innovative design approaches and restorative action based on principles of sustainability that recognize the interdependence of ecology, equity and economy.
The institute is currently helping develop regulations for reclaiming land destroyed by mountain-top mining in West Virginia. Diane M. Dale, director of the institute, is working on the legal issues with a team of soil scientists, geologists, hydrologists, civil and mining engineers to see that new homesteading regulations ensure that these sites are made suitable for people to live on and to reestablish their ecological health and biodiversity. "The value of applied academic research in moving the state of brownfield issues forward is integral to the values and goals of the institute," Dale said.


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