Reimagining Waste Spaces & Traces

image: Alexandra Hay

Visiting New York’s City Reliquary is like walking into one of artist Joseph Cornell’s boxes—every surface inside the three-room museum is meticulously adorned with artifacts and salvaged ephemera. Display cases are crammed with items (with drawers below holding even more), the walls are covered to the ceiling, and the dim lighting enhances the sense of being immersed in a contemporary take on a cabinet of curiosities.

The current exhibition focuses on one type of relic that can be found in particular abundance: those found in the trash. NYC Trash! Past, Present, & Future, on view through April 29, 2018, begins with the history of solid waste management in New York City, and then shifts gears to look at innovative ways waste materials and management are being reconsidered today.

The seven artists and nonprofits highlighted, including Hack:Trash:NYC, the Lower East Side Ecology Center, and Materials for the Arts, employ a variety of tactics and media to transform how waste is viewed and dealt with, from competitions to find ways to reduce what gets sent to landfills to photography and art initiatives that use waste materials as a medium or as inspiration.

image: Alexandra Hay

While smart technologies have been readily applied to improving the efficiency of waste management in the past few years, in the late nineteenth century, garbage on city streets was a sufficiently prevalent issue to serve as the basis for successful election campaigns for city government. Photographs by Jacob A. Riis from the time document the widespread refuse that made city streets hazardous to public health and sidewalks nearly impassable before citywide initiatives cleaned up the streets in the 1890s.

The exhibition also takes a look at a few of New York City’s former landfills and how they are being reclaimed for other uses, the most well-known example being Freshkills Park on Staten Island, a 2,200-acre park being developed in stages through 2036 on the site of the Fresh Kills Landfill, in operation from 1948 to 2001. The four hills on the site, from the tops of which you can see Manhattan’s skyscrapers and bridges, are made up of approximately 150 million tons of solid waste.

image: Alexandra Hay

Besides the obvious landfill-to-park conversions, waste management’s connections to different aspects of the urban environment are myriad, from environmental justice and the siting of landfills and waste streams, to the sustainable use of materials. A comparable focus on life cycles more broadly is also a clear focus of landscape architecture, from plant life cycles, to seasonality, and the emphasis on considering material life cycles, including a dedicated section within the Sustainable SITES Initiative® (SITES) v2 Rating System on the topic. There is also a growing interest specifically on the waste component of such cycles in recent projects and initiatives, and what can be done to divert, eliminate, or reimagine such waste.

Invisible Works: A Public Introduction to the Dynamic Life of Wastewater Treatment, winner of the 2017 Student Award of Excellence in General Design, is one example. In the project, Bridget Ayers Looby, Associate ASLA, SITES AP, explores wastewater treatment infrastructures and how to build connections between public works and the public realm. Last summer, Bridget delved further into mycelium, a byproduct of wastewater treatment, and its potential structural applications for a presentation as part of the ASLA Online Learning Student & Emerging Professional SPOTLIGHT mini-series.

A barge used for transporting sand, reminiscent of the barges used to transport garbage from New York City to landfills, transformed into a floating garden for Swale / image: Alexandra Hay

The December issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine highlighted Mahan Rykiel Associates‘ work using dredge materials from the Port of Baltimore in a variety of ways, from seed bombs to reshaping islands, in the feature article “Dredging Up the Future” by Kim O’Connell, while initiatives like the Dredge Research Collaborative seek new ways to improve sediment management.

On board Swale, docked off Brooklyn Bridge Park May-June 2017 / image: Alexandra Hay

As cities continue to grow, both in terms of population and density, what we do with waste spaces and materials—how formerly neglected places and waste materials can be repurposed and revalued—becomes increasingly urgent. With finite resources, nothing should go to waste, and landscape architects have the design imagination to ensure nothing does. Exhibitions like The City Reliquary’s help to illustrate how trash is just one stop on the material life cycle, with the potential for transformation just around the bend.

by Alexandra Hay, Professional Practice Coordinator at ASLA

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