GUEST EDITORIAL CONSULTANT
This issue proudly honors BETSY DAMON, a first-generation feminist performance artist and influential environmental art role model. From China to Pittsburg, she has made significant contributions to the art and understanding of remediating water for three+ decades. Sharing expertise, she founded the “Keepers of the Waters”—an artist-run nonprofit that helps other artists and communities create their own local water saving projects.
Social justice activist JOURDAN IMANI KEITH—a charismatic poet and spoken word artist, voices a visceral personal connection to water as an intimate living ecosystem that sustains us internally and externally.
STACY LEVY is known for visually arresting public artworks that combine the clarity of maps and diagrams, the pragmatism of environmental science, and a deep sense of site. She hopes to affect wonder and surprise, while illuminating hidden urban infrastructure systems.
JACKIE BROOKNER brings plant-based water remediation for parks, rivers, and wetlands together with habitat restoration, landscape sculpture, and active community collaboration. She creates evocative public places where people can connect with natural systems essential to supporting life.
British artist CHRIS DRURY relates his multi-year experience of working with a land trust and public input to create a wild “Heart of Reeds.” A dynamic living sculpture Drury’s “Heart” has increased the biodiversity of old railway land that has been left to “return” to nature.
Linda Weintraub perspective on Nigerian artist Bright Ugochukwu and the Swiss team of Gerda Steiner and Jorg Lenzlinger
Art writer-curator LINDA WEINTRAUB brings a broad, global perspective. Well-known for her art theory textbooks, (including To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet) Weintraub writes on three projects by four international artists: Nigerian artist Bright Ugochukwu Eke, Chinese artist Yun-Fei Ji, and the Swiss team of Gerda Steiner and Jorg Lenzlinger.
Chilean architect DANIELA CORVILLION has been traveling for several years to the city of Palma Soriano, Cuba to assist an on-going community based wastewater treatment project designed to combat garbage dumped in an essential local river. One of her collaborators is ENNEGRO, an Afro Haitian environmental art group that works to construct a sacred relationship between ecology and cultural religion.
For our op ed column “On My Mind”, esteemed artist-poet-writer-educator BASIA IRLAND laments the enormous growing litany of disease-borne pollutants spreading throughout the world’s waterways. She seeks an “ecological reverence,” hoping to affect behavior to protect earth’s finite supply of clean water.
Originally from Belgium, Australian multimedia artist SUZON FUKS created “Waterwheel”–an online international site where people meet to share, present and perform about water across disciplines, cultures and ages. Open to all, Waterwheel sponsors a web-based annual global symposium. The next will be in March 2014. Suzon writes about Waterwheel, and some of the many artists it has brought together.]]>
I. MY FATHER
I would ask my father this, if he were still alive, if his internal environment had not been polluted by the tributaries of toxins that flowed into his six-foot frame.
Standing in his hospital room, he handed me a note the doctor gave him, a small piece of white paper with the risk factors for his cancer. It was a checklist: saccharin in the products he used because he was a diabetic, asbestos in his childhood home and workplace, the cigarettes he’d quit smoking decades earlier, and the chlorinated tap water he drank for over 40 years. Looking up at him I said, “Well, you didn’t miss a beat.”
My father was a body of water. Like the rest of us, he was an estuary. We are 77 percent water at birth, and just as the land delineates the boundaries of the sea, our skin delineates the boundaries of our internal waters. Our bodies are like the planet’s estuaries—the bays, fjords, and sounds where fresh water surrounded by land meets the sea. We can protect what flows into us from the surrounding environment the way we protect the streams that flow into the planet’s estauries.
Just as contaminants pass through the soil and enter the water, so the contaminants we put on our skin enter our bloodstream. We know that we should not ingest estrogen-mimicking chemicals like BPA, but are less aware that our body’s largest organ, with its ample blood supply, is remarkably efficient at absorption. Ingesting or inhaling toxins may produce an acute response, but absorbing the parabens in lotions, hairspray, make-up, shampoo, and cleaning solvents through the skin is often overlooked—until an illness develops.
The paper my father handed me was carefully phrased. Risk factors, not causes, were listed for his bladder cancer. No single entity could be pointed to or held liable for his illness. As with the pollution that flows off roadways into our nation’s estuaries from our cars, lawns, and farms, everyone is responsible but no one is culpable. His first risk was when, as a boy with skinned knees and elbows, my father beat the pipes in the basement of his West Philadelphia home to let the powdery asbestos fall on his skin like snow.
II. EARLY YEARS
As a young man he began to smoke long slim cigarettes packaged in a golden wrapper. In the late 1960s the surgeon general’s announcement about the hazards of smoking filled the screen of our black and white TV, the warning repeated as men rocketed to the moon. Lung cancer could kill you. I was five years old, and used my voice to tug at him. “Daddy, if you love us, you’ll quit.” He did, eliminating one location at a time where he allowed himself to smoke, first our house, then the car. The last refuge was his office.
My father worked a white-collar job, as a real estate assessor for the city of Philadelphia. In 1986 his office temporarily moved from City Hall’s annex so that asbestos abatement could be done. He had worked for there for decades. By the time my father died from bladder cancer in 1993 he had been a nonsmoker for almost 27 years, but the cigarette smoke and asbestos particles he inhaled had flowed into his blood and urine streams, converging with two toxins he ingested, chlorine and saccharin.
When I was young, my father and I guzzled nearly a gallon of water a day, often racing each other in chugging contests. It was his way of making a sport out of being a diabetic; he would jump up and down so I could hear the water slosh in his stomach, with the thin orange insulin needle sticking out of his rounded beige belly. Then the water changed.
At first, our family thought “rinsing” the ice made it smell better. We took turns bringing beverages to the table, cracking the metal ice tray that stuck to our fingers before it was rinsed. Soon, all of us stopped putting the jagged frozen squares into anything that wasn’t strong enough to hide the odor. When we couldn’t stand the smell of the water, we substituted the non-caloric saccharin sweetness of soda, popping open the pink cans in order to quench our thirst. Labels warned us that saccharin caused bladder cancer in laboratory animals, but since we were not rats, we guzzled away.
In 1977, I sent a sample from our spigot to the independent lab that was suggested at the back of a vegetarian magazine I’d been reading for a year. I filled out a form describing the source of the water sample, the Schuylkill River and its municipal treatment site at the Philadelphia reservoir along Route 1. The results came back declaring the water was safe to drink, “but it was questionable whether we would want to.”
The Safe Drinking Water Act was only a few years old then. That lab report was like those nationwide reports today that show the trace amounts of rocket fuel, pharmaceuticals, and the pesticide atrazine that are considered safe for municipal water sources. At 63, my father died from the bladder cancer that metastasized to his colon.
III. OUR BODIES IN THE WATER WEB
Our bladder collects the urine that carries the toxins and pharmaceuticals we’ve ingested. The chemicals, which cannot be removed at the wastewater treatment plant, are released in effluent water. The effluent collects in estuaries, the planet’s bladder, before being flushed by the tide. The pharmaceuticals we ingest, the endocrine disruptors that leach into our food and water from cans and plastics, the personal care products containing parabens that we wash off our hair and skin, go back into the planet’s estuaries and eventually find their way back into our bodies.
It is what I call the water web. Unlike the traditional images of the water cycle, the water web connects our blood streams, urine streams, embryonic fluids, and breast milk to other bodies of water. The water web recognizes our bodies as part of nature. My father’s capillaries were creeks tainted by asbestos, streams of chlorinated water, rivers of saccharin, and floods of the kind of chemicals detected in drinking water today.
If you were taught that the environment was something else and somewhere else—important and wild, that it needed protecting but that it was seals, bears, and rivers and not your composition of cells, bones, and water —what would you do? If you found out that you were as contaminated as the estuary called Puget Sound, or as the endangered orcas that swim in those waters because, just like them, without your consent, you are exposed to known and suspected carcinogens on a daily basis, what would you do?
I asked myself this when, like my father, I got sick from ingestion of known and suspected toxins. The lump was the size of a quarter when I found it in my lower abdomen. Three weeks later when my naturopathic doctor examined me, the non-malignant uterine fibroid tumor had grown so large that immediate action was required. “Change your behavior,” she said, “avoid ‘extra estrogens’ from water and food containers. Extra estrogens make it grow.” I had been reusing plastic containers and the little white squeaky boxes of Styrofoam to keep them out of the oceans but I was polluting my internal sea. I was furious and heartbroken.
I grew up with the 1970s television ad of “The Crying Indian” in buckskin. He paddled his canoe from pristine rivers into a garbage-filled industrial waterway, where tankers and smokestacks polluted what had been his beautiful home. A single tear fell down his solemn face as a voice said, “People start pollution. People can stop it.”
I became an activist working to protect the planet, but I was putting my own health at risk. I lived by a single message, that “plastic and styrofoam is bad for the oceans and its inhabitants.” That myopic message is still broadcast today. Images of rivers, seals, whales, and humans all being polluted by the same toxins are never shown together. As Bill McKibben wrote, “So far the images and metaphors—the rich heritage of American environmental writing, on which the movement continues to draw—have proved insufficient against the force of daily habits.” Our images and metaphors reinforce a false sense of separation from the rest of the natural world. Humans are nature, we are estuaries—movable bodies of water splashing down the street.
Republished from YES! Magazine
Jourdan Imani Keith wrote this article for It’s Your Body, the Fall 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Jourdan is the founder of Urban Wilderness Project. She is currently working on her memoir, Coyote Autumn. This essay develops themes from her Tedx Talk.]]>
THERE’S “DIRTY WATER” AND THERE’S “DIRTY WATER.” Sometimes bringing dirt and water together is actually a good thing. This is when “dirt” means “soil,” and water is able to penetrate freely through it. Here microbes in the soil can convert the pollutants in the water into food for their own metabolisms or for plants. This is what happens in healthy natural systems, but is the very process that the hard surfaces of our cities prevent. This brings us to the other kind of dirty water.
In cities rainfall travels very quickly across the impervious surfaces of roofs, streets, parking lots and sidewalks, picking up various pollutants along the way, from oil and grease to salts, heavy metals, various chemicals, and animal droppings. All too often, the stormwater runoff then directly enters the nearest waterways, bringing its cocktail of pollutants along with it. This destroys the delicate chemical balance of the stream water to cause overpopulation of some organisms while killing off others. Water, the source of all life, now carries poisons to the organisms that live in it, bathe in it, or drink it.
One solution to this pervasive problem is to capture stormwater as close to where it falls as possible and allow it to either permeate into the soil there or somehow filter it before it can enter nearby waterways. While this takes care of the practical problem, it leaves its roots intact. The underlying source of the problem lies with what we value and what we undervalue. Stormwater runoff has been considered waste to be kept out of sight and gotten rid of as fast as possible. With water now becoming more scarce, we are beginning to realize that water can never be wasted. Because there is more than a practical problem here, working only on practical solutions is insufficient. We must also transform values, and for this we have to be affected in compelling ways—in heart, mind and body. Beauty, evocative imagery and active participation can be important allies here.
I will discuss three projects in which I have worked with “dirty water” in quite different contexts. Each project has been shaped in response to its hydrological and ecological contexts, its social contexts when possible, and to how it was commissioned. Urban Rain, a typical Percent-for-Art2 project associated with new building construction, had the most constraints and allowed for minimal community interaction. With Veden Taika, floating islands in a former sewage treatment lagoon, and The Fargo Project, which is transforming a stormwater detention basin into a resilient eco-social commons, I have had increasing freedom to define the project scopes and roles of community in them.
II. URBAN RAIN
URBAN RAIN, MY WORK AT Roosevelt Community Center in San Jose, CA, consists of two sculptural installations at the entrances of the building that collect, detain and filter stormwater runoff from the roof to help protect nearby Coyote Creek. The Coyote Creek Filter and The Thumbprint Filter celebrate what is often undervalued as waste, reveal processes that are usually invisible, and tell some of the story of how the building itself and everyone who uses it touch the surrounding waters.
The Coyote Creek Filter, at the south entrance, exposes the infiltration process that normally happens unseen, underground. It consists of a translucent amber glass and stainless steel rock-filtration system, and a stainless steel panel offset in front of it, set into a long rock-filled basin. Water coming from the roof passes through the scupper box into the glass filter where the rocks inside slow down the flow of the water and filter it through the work of the microorganisms that live in the spaces between the rocks. Usually we cannot see this process because it happens underground in the soil, which is the case here in the long basin.
A map of the Coyote Creek watershed is etched into the glass and cut out of the stainless steel panel. Its presence at the entrance highlights that the building is itself a watershed, and also part of larger watershed. The vein-like dendritic structure of the map suggests the links among our own bodies, stormwater runoff, and the river system. The filter is sized to detain and filter runoff from 7,800 sq. ft. of roof area from a 1/2-inch storm.
On the North side of the building, two water chutes receive the stormwater from the scupper. The water travels down the chutes and drops onto the Thumbprint sculpture in the pool 21 ft. below, where it is detained and filtered before it flows out into a bioswale. The volume is sized to handle runoff from 5,700 sq. ft. of roof area from a 1/2-inch storm. The spiral pattern of the stainless steel sculpture is based on a real thumbprint. The whorls of our fingerprints echo the spiral eddies of water, wind, and galaxies, revealing both our unique individuality and our common origin in the universe. The nearby boulder says: “The rivers engrave our palms, the galaxies our fingertips” and “Anytime we touch water, we touch the rivers and oceans.”
While the project originated in 2005 as a Percent-for-Art project associated with building the new community center, it was the San Jose Environmental Services Department that made the full scope of this project possible. I initially approached them to learn more about local stormwater issues and to find collaborators who could help with technical aspects of the project. We realized our common interests and missions, and they provided funding allocated for stormwater demonstration projects to this project, increasing the art budget significantly. Melody Tovar, Deputy Director of Watershed Protection, explains why the project was of interest to the ESD:
There are significant environmental benefits from this project. First, the stormwater system, integrated into the artwork, will reduce the volume and improve the quality of the water entering the storm sewer system, Coyote Creek, and ultimately the San Francisco Bay. Second, by providing demonstrations and monitoring, the artwork will expose and encourage these approaches to our community of developers and residents.
For the Stormwater team, the original goal was to showcase stormwater treatment measures. What emerged was a design that featured stormwater treatment as truly integrated into the design, both form and function, for the building. The design swiftly exceeds all expectation as it conveys through art work literally and figuratively the not often seen story of how rainwater connects us all to our creeks, rivers, and oceans. The artwork will raise public awareness of stormwater and the importance of a healthy watershed, fostering stewardship within the adjacent communities and for all visitors.
—Melody Tovar, Urban Rain/Stormwater as Resource, ORO editions, 2009, p.7
Urban Rain received several local and national stormwater awards including: Project of the Year, American Public Works Association; 2010 Top Storm Water Project—Storm Water Solutions; Green Project of the Year—Public—Silicon Valley Business Times; among others. The project also contributed to the community center achieving a LEED gold rating.
III. VEDEN TAIKA/THE MAGIC OF WATER
FOR SOME TIME I HAD BEEN FEELING that experiencing the art as a viewer was not enough to effect the kind of change needed and that involving people more actively in my projects might help build deeper connections. One project where this has been very successful is Veden Taika /The Magic of Water in Salo, Finland.
Veden Taika consists of three floating islands in lagoons that were formerly part of the Municipal Waste Water Treatment Plant. Because so many birds have been migrating and nesting at the lagoons since they were decommissioned, the lagoons were designated an official EU conservation site, known as the Halikonlahti Bird Pools. However, there were problems. The birds needed safe nesting areas isolated from surrounding land because small mammals were eating the eggs and young chicks. In addition, residues of heavy metals, oils, and fatty organic pollutants remained in the sediment, the legacy of the former uses of the pools. Dredging or chemical treatment had been recommended to remediate this, but were never done. Our water-quality studies revealed that the water had very high levels of nutrients and suspended solids and was often very low in oxygen, in part from runoff from the surrounding farms. I was surprised no one had recommended phytoremediation.
I proposed floating islands that could provide safe nesting sites for the birds and also plants to clean the water. The budget allowed us to create three islands. The largest island (92 x 25 ft.) has sculpted lightweight rocks to provide shade and roosting sites for the birds and a gravel-like substrate they like to nest in, with plants at the edges. The two smaller islands (36 x 20 ft.) are entirely for phytoremediation, with native plants that were all collected nearby. During the warm months a breathtaking cloud of mist rises up over the islands, partly as a reminder that these are human-built islands made for the benefit of other species.
Because the main agents in this filtration system are microbes that live in biofilms on the submerged plant-root mass, an important goal was to increase underwater microbial biodiversity. An aerator beneath the islands oxygenates the water and stimulates microbial processes on the plant roots, especially in winter when up to 50 cm. of ice covers the lagoon.
Long-term monitoring of the water quality—its physical, chemical and biological factors—is a significant part of the project. The detection of unexpectedly high phosphorus levels led to removal of 8,000 kilos of invasive Crucian carps that no one had noticed were there in such numbers. Phosphorus levels have now improved, the water is much clearer, and the nesting birds are at the maximum number the islands can accommodate.
An important goal of this project was to encourage new models of community cooperation for local environmental initiatives. Veden Taika was a groundbreaking collaboration between city agencies, such as the natural resources, parks and urban planning departments, that had never worked together before. It also created collaborations among the city’s technical and cultural agencies, the Vocational School, whose students helped with fabrication, and local grassroots associations.
The completion of the project was possible only with the invaluable work of my collaborator and local project manager Tuula Nikulainen. In 2007 Tuula invited me to propose a project for one of the ecological art biennials she and Georg Dietzler were curating. We had no idea we were going to end up as collaborators, but a natural partnership evolved. Without Tuula’s resourcefulness and network of associates, the project could never have had the wide-ranging local partnerships it has had. She also helped raise all of the funding beyond the initial funding we received as a Percent-for-Art project issuing from the upgrade of the sewage treatment plant. That original funding covered only about a fourth of the costs. Tuula secured two grants from a science funder, the Nessling Foundation, and a substantial grant from the European Union.
IV. THE FARGO PROJECT
IN 2010 THE CITY OF FARGO, North Dakota, invited me to think about what could be done with the large stormwater detention basins built throughout the city. These were constructed with a singular goal—to prevent flooding from torrential spring and summer storms. Water quality and aesthetic and social impacts were not considered. These large grass-covered excavations, traversed by concrete channels, are barren spaces that interrupt neighborhoods and disrupt connectivity.
I had been feeling that even the level of community participation with Veden Taika was not enough, partly because the sustained success of that project was too dependent on one person. I saw the Fargo invitation as an opportunity to push to a deeper level of collaboration, to foster creative agency throughout the community, with people more fully involved in the entire life of the project, from sharing authorship, to building it, using it and helping take care of it over the long term. I proposed a pilot project, The Fargo Project, in which socially engaged ecological art, ecological restoration, and active community process could synergize to transform one of the functioning basins into a multifunctional neighborhood commons.
Like many of the basins, World Garden Commons, our pilot project, is in an underserved neighborhood with low- and moderate-income residents, including many of Fargo’s “New American” population, refugees from 20 different nations such as Bhutan, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Iraq, and Bosnia. The project has been shaped to engage these communities to have a major role in transforming their neighborhoods. In order to honor and learn from the long experiences of Native Americans in this region and to ground the project in a place where Native American values and ecological values intersect, we have been working closely with interested members of Fargo’s Native American community as advisors and participants. Our public festival inaugurating World Gardens Commons as a place of celebration began with Native American prayer and continued with drumming and dancing. In fact, the name World Garden Commons came from that prayer.
During the project’s first year we created relationships with residents of all ages and backgrounds to understand the kind of commons people wanted. We consulted with natural resource and soil scientists to understand the research opportunities the site presents, and we explored ways to improve water quality and biodiversity. Our project team and other volunteers engaged over 400 people of all ages and backgrounds in the initial visioning outreach, culminating in the WeDesign Workshop (see a short video here). The team visited nearby residences, businesses, and churches, had participatory art events in the park, with the secondary schools, and in the high school, met individually and in small groups with people from many different cultures, and engaged with students and faculty from Fargo/Moorhead academic institutions.
We found that people wanted a place to be immersed in nature and revitalized by it. The resulting plan calls for a multifunctional commons with 17 acres of restored native prairie and wet meadows with walking trails; natural playgrounds; an amphitheater; an interactive listening sculpture; and places for contemplation, gatherings, cultural festivals, and for enjoying water. The area around the basin will have an orchard and a community garden that will feed over 50 families. The prairie plants will improve water quality. Encouraging a positive connection with water is extremely important in Fargo, where the Red River’s frequent flooding has deeply affected cultural attitudes toward water and the river. Water is all too often seen as the enemy.
When we asked the city engineers and our various soils, water and plant consultants about the best ways to proceed toward implementation of the plan, we found no consensus. Sometimes even basic knowledge didn’t exist. The basin worked, so no one had monitored things such as how much, how fast, or how often the water flowed, or its actual residence time in the basin. They only knew what it was designed to do, not what it actually does. Fargo’s unique soils and now extremely unpredictable weather compound the complexity of establishing native prairie in an environment that will be inundated. The varying opinions about when to plant what only met in the response “it depends on the weather.” Since the weather has gotten more extreme and unpredictable, we decided to take an adaptive design approach we are calling “Sketch and Test.” Rather than finalize full construction documents and then build, we are partially removing the concrete infrastructure and doing full-scale tests to see how the water actually behaves. In the second phase, after careful observation we will complete design for the inflow and outflow water features, design topographic contours in response to that, and finish planting. The third phase will include building the rest of the features and full rollout of programming.
Part of the challenge has been how to balance the need for special expertise with the community process—how to sustain a rhythm of condensing the process when expertise is necessary, and then expanding outward again to engage the community throughout all the different stages. A citizen’s group, Friends of Our Watersheds and Soils (FOWS), evolved as an umbrella organization for teams to come together as needed to develop design ideas and programming, which will include prairie-restoration job training for community residents; planting and harvesting of the orchard and plants; stewardship partnerships with nearby schools; festivals and celebrations; the community garden; and eco-labs for monitoring and research. Monitoring of the site through these phases and beyond will be in partnership with university research.Existing funding will take us through the first phase. We are seeking grants and potential public and private donors to take us through the second and third phases, and hopefully create a sustainable funding base for ongoing programming. While I wish funding were already intact to complete The Fargo Project, the lack of full funding has its positive side. It has allowed us to explore and develop an extremely layered and complex collaborative process, adapting to conditions and needs as they reveal themselves over time. Some have called this “Slow Design.” Water quality, flood control, biodiversity, cultural diversity, and human health and well-being will become the beneficiaries of recognizing and celebrating stormwater as a valuable resource.
1 Urban Rain, The Thumbprint Filter at the North entrance. The water travels down the water chutes and drops onto the Thumbprint filter pool below where it is detained and filtered by the rocks before it flows out into the bioswale. Jackie Brookner, San Jose, CA, 2008. (Photo credit: 2009 Cesar Rubio)
2 Percent-For-Art: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percent_for_Art
3 Urban Rain, Coyote Creek Filter, Jackie Brookner, San Jose, CA, 2008. Water coming from the roof passes through the scupper box into the glass filter where the rocks slow the flow of the water and microorganisms filter it. (Photo Credit: Jackie Brookner)
4 Veden Taika/The Magic of Water, Jackie Brookner, Salo, Finland, 2009. The three floating island in a former sewage treatment lagoon with a misting sculpture, here seen from shore. (Photo Credit: Jackie Brookner)
5 Veden Taika/The Magic of Water, Jackie Brookner, Salo, Finland. By 2012 the nesting of the Laughing Gulls had been so successful that maximum capacity had been reached. (Photo credit: Tuula Nikulainen)
6 Students from the technical high school and other volunteers building the floating 1slands of Veden Taika/The Magic of Water in 2009. (Photo credit: Lisa Shaw)
7 Panorama of the stormwater detention basin at Rabanus Park, Fargo, ND. This is the site of the pilot project for The Fargo Project, Fargo, ND, in 2011. (Photo Credit: Jackie Brookner)
8 The Fargo Project schematic plan developed from community input over seven months and at the WeDesign workshop, Jackie Brookner and Nicole Crutchfield, 2012. Some of the main features are 17 acres of restored prairie, walking trails, natural playgrounds, an overlook, an amphitheater, an interactive sound sculpture, an orchard and community garden, and water features. (Photo Credit: Jackie Brookner)
Photos taken by Jackie Brookner unless specified in photo caption.]]>
ROBERT SMITHSON’S SPIRAL JETTY is one of the most frequently referenced works of environmental art. This huge spiral has been an icon in environmental art since it was created in 1970 on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Spiral Jetty is the Mona Lisa of environmental art. This large earthwork berm helped spawn the “earthworks” environmental art movement in the 1970’s that continues today. Smithson’s genius was to use a base material of no previous aesthetic value, the salty rock and earth of the dry lakebed, and manipulate it into a classic form of great beauty, at a scale commensurate with that enormous open landscape.
Spiral Wetland follows in the tradition of Smithson’s great piece, but it breaks new ground as living environmental art that participates in the processes of nature and heals the earth. This spiral is composed of floating mats of recyclable synthetic material and native wetland plants. Throughout the world, floating wetlands are used to extract excess polluting nutrients from urban lakes and ponds leaving cleaner water that benefits the entire ecosystem. Floating wetlands also create habitat for a wide range of ecologically important species from micro-organisms that process excess nutrients to game fish and frogs and amphibians who use the shade and hiding places the wetlands create. The opportunity to use these prosaic, malleable forms to create a sculptural object on the scale of the open surface of a lake, a sculptural object of beauty that also processes pollution and makes the lake a healthier living place, immediately intrigued me.
I have tried to express the hidden processes of nature to a broad audience through art. My goal has been to reveal the flowing patterns of water, the transportation of sediments, the growth of plants and the presence of micro-organisms – amongst other phenomena – to people in places where they live, work and travel. My work is also very committed to making places for people – creating art in communities, schools, rail stations, airports and neighborhoods. I often work with community engagement in the creative process. Art historical references did not consciously contribute to the generation of my ideas and projects until recently.
In fact The first time I incorporated historical references in my work was Straw Garden (2012) at the Seattle Center, Seattle, WA. Straw Garden was constructed of straw and coir (coconut fiber) wattles, materials which are typically employed to control sedimentation at construction sites or to repair eroded stream banks. The wattles, long, netting tubes stuffed with straw or coir, provide temporary, physical stabilization. Plants are usually inserted into or around the wattles to grow and permanently stabilize the site with their roots while over time the wattles decay and disappear. I was attracted to this material because of its interesting form and the temporary but critical role it plays in the process of healing damaged sites.
I was given a site of a large open lawn area beneath the Space Needle. Perhaps it was the lack of inherently meaningful space or the two overhead views available from the Space Needle and the monorail that got me thinking of the Baroque gardens of Andre Le Notre in Versailles where endless geometric ornamentation was the object of design. These formal gardens are typically seen from above. Reaching back to those parterre forms, Straw Garden took an immense Baroque pattern and recreated it with a modern material, planted with native plants. This temporary piece thrilled visitors to the Space Needle and travelers on the Monorail with its complicated scrolling pattern seen from above and gave the visitors on the ground a flourishing display of flowers and foliage for nine months. Upon deconstruction sections of the wattles, now filled with mature perennial plants, were adopted by the Seattle P-Patch Community Gardens and Seattle Public Utility Lands and live on today in gardens and landscapes across the city. There was not a plant that did not find a permanent home.
II. DEATH BY ABUNDANCE: THE EFFECTS OF NON-SOURCE POINT POLLUTION
LAKE FAYETTEVILLE IS A 194-acre lake situated on the edge of the city of Fayetteville in Northwest Arkansas. The town is fortunate to have its own lake where people can fish, boat and kayak. But the lake is suffering from the impact of non–point source pollution. Rain that falls on lawns and farm fields washes fertilizer and pesticides from those land surfaces into streams and ultimately into the lake. Non-point source pollution is diffuse and difficult to trace. It does not come from a single identifiable source like a waste pipe from a factory. It comes from all of the lawns and fields of the community. The most problematic pollutants contained in this runoff are the fertilizers nitrogen and phosphorus that are used to make lawns grow green and field crops produce abundantly. When nitrogen and phosphorus reach the warm waters of Lake Fayetteville they stimulate the rapid growth of enormous masses of algae. Instead of greening up lawns, these lawn and agricultural chemicals ‘green up’ the lakes and ponds with an overabundance of algae that then dies. As this dead algae decomposes, it uses up the available oxygen in the water. This process is called eutrophication. Eutrophication starves other organisms of oxygen and ultimately contributes to the biological death of the lake.
The best way to address this problem is to reduce or eliminate the sources of nitrogen and phosphorus that are washed off the land into the lake. But because those sources are so diverse and diffuse – lawns, gardens, agricultural fields, and faulty septic systems – this can be very difficult to achieve. Another way to reduce the over-abundance of nutrients is to absorb the nitrogen and phosphorus into alternative food chains, so that species other than algae can utilize the nutrients for growth. Wetland plants like rushes, reeds, sedges and cattails use the nitrogen and phosphorus to grow their roots, stems and flowers. On their roots they also nurture large colonies of periphyton, a living mix of microscopic cyanobacteria bacteria and hetereotrophic microbes that absorb enormous quantities of nutrients. The more nitrogen and phosphorus metabolized by wetland plants and their periphyton, the less is available to feed the algae masses.
III. BIOMIMICRY AND THE BENEFITS OF FLOATING WETLANDS
WETLANDS ARE EXCELLENT AT processing nutrients. But many disturbed waterways no longer have any functioning wetlands along their shores. Sometimes the shore has been urbanized or invasive species have driven out the diverse native communities of plants that are so effective at nutrient uptake. Another problem are water levels that fluctuate wildly due to increased rain–water runoff from impermeable urban surfaces like streets, parking lots and building roofs. Water level fluctuations can alternately drown wetland plants during storms and strand them without water in drier periods. Floating treatment wetlands (FTW) are one way to replace the missing natural wetlands. These floating mats of wetland plants mimic nature, and provide concentrated areas of wetlands to absorb nutrients and provided missing habitat for fish and amphibians — just what a water body needs. Floating wetlands are frequently used to extract nutrients from polluted lakes, ponds and slow moving rivers in Europe, Southeast Asia and China. They “biomimic” the ecology of natural wetlands. They are indeed wetlands, but inhabit the surface of the water rather than the edge/shore line, and are not deleteriously affected by changing water levels, so they do not dry out in droughts nor get inundated in high water the way shoreline wetlands do. This kind of considered artifice seems a natural fit for sculpture.
The sculptural potential of floating wetlands first occurred to me when I was collaborating with Biohabitats Inc., a restoration ecology and design firm based in Baltimore, MD. We were working on the Washington Avenue Green project on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, PA. Biohabitats Inc. was testing floating wetlands in the river as a possible application for tidal situations. Unlike constructed wetlands on shore, floating wetlands are not eroded by the river. They simply float on the surface and move with the flow of water. Though wetlands installed on the edge of water bodies eventually become resistant to erosion, they are very fragile until the plant roots develop and interlock with the soil. But floating wetlands—a composite material or coir mattress with inserted plants—are resilient from the moment they are installed. When I saw Biohabitat’s square, floating wetland mats riding the surface of the Delaware River, I recognized the sculptural possibilities of this living material. Interesting and intricate forms could be employed to both function and have a compelling presence on the water. As I watched the wetlands grow over time, I thought how Smithson’s Spiral could be revisited with a new, living material.
IV. FLOATING THE SPIRAL
THE PERFECT PLACE TO CREATE the new wetland spiral arose when The Walton Art Center of Fayetteville, AK commissioned an artwork for Artosphere — an annual festival focused on arts, nature and sustainability for Northwestern Arkansas in 2012. The idea fit the mission of sustainability and art. Getting the project underway required extensive community consultation with natural resource organizations such as the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, Arkansas Fish and Game Commission, Beaver Water District, Beaver Watershed Alliance, Lake Fayetteville Watershed Partnership and the Lake Fayetteville Parks and Recreation Board. Fishing and boating concessionaires on the lake were very enthusiastic about the improved fish habitat that Spiral Wetland created. It was an important understanding by these organizations that art could do some ecological work. After many meetings and memos, this large scale art installation on the lake became a reality.
Volunteer kayakers, cave divers, surveyors and Walton Art Center staff all helped to assemble and install the project. The pattern was first laid out by surveyors on a grassy patch near the shore of the lake. The foam mat was cut to the giant pattern and stitched together with plastic hardware. The same spiral shape was then laid out on the surface of the lake using surveying equipment and anchors marked with buoys. The spiral mat form built on the lawn was then taken to the shoreline in smaller sections. While floating in shallow water, the mats were planted with 7,000 plugs of Soft Rush Juncus effusus, a native plant that inhabits the edges of lakes and ponds.
The planted sections each got towed out by kayak and attached to the 23 anchors in the lake. After a basic layout was anchored, Cave divers worked in the murky water to adjust the anchors so that the spiral shape would hold. Then strips of spikey bird wire, to prevent geese from getting on the spiral from the water and eating the young plants, was carefully sewn onto the perimeters of the spiral. Shore birds could land on the narrow mats but the ‘landing strip’ was too narrow for flying geese. The installation process, from land layout to final anchoring and attaching of anti-goose wire, took place over a three-week period and the spiral was completed in early May 2013.
Even in a small way, the spiral had immediate impact on the lake environment. Within days, common sandpipers and the rare to this region Dunlin (Calidris alpina) appeared on the mats while turtles swam nearby, attracted to the plant roots. The fishing community appreciates the addition of shaded habitat for fish. Though this size of floating treatment wetlands is too small to have a major impact on the overall chemistry of the water, it does create an example of how the lake water could be treated using plants to do the work of taking up excess nutrients. The piece works as a suggestion of the possibilities for a new kind of visually exciting, aesthetic engineering to improve the environment.
The Spiral Wetland is not permitted as a permanent installation. The piece can be moved around the lake or removed entirely with no disturbance to the local conditions. This flexibility and impermanence made the floating wetland much more acceptable to the stakeholders. But growing temporary installations can be similar to a Flower Show—a sort of plant- based spectacle that can be very wasteful of the living materials. I wanted the project to be sustainable, not disposable. So, as in Straw Garden “adoption” became the essential step to complete the project. When the time comes to remove Spiral Wetland from Lake Fayetteville, the floating wetland will be divided into segments that will be transported to other water bodies, like retention basins and backyard ponds. The plants can survive a quick trip to a new site, where they will continue to live out their days providing beauty and ecological functions in new venues. Disseminating the artwork is like spreading the creative seeds to the community and the local environment.
V. FROM SPIRAL JETTY TO SPIRAL WETLAND: THE MORPHING OF EARTHWORKS
SMITHSON’S SPIRAL JETTY WAS a powerful tour de force for its generation: one man’s gigantic vision, a berm of basaltic stone deposited on the yielding floor of the Great Salt Lake. And so as a monument it endures.
In a way Spiral Wetland takes the next step.
Spiral Wetland floats on the surface of Lake Fayetteville, anchored but flexible, laced with living plants breathing life into the water. Not permanent but transformative, a knitted part of nature, not something extracted from the Earth by machines. Spiral Wetland will live on not as a monument, but as a thousand leaves of grass.]]>
This project is based upon an investigation as to how cultural identity can be a social trigger to address ecological degradation. The research methodology draws from environmental, social and urban analyses in order to unveil the best strategy to address the ecological, river restoration and water treatment challenges in the city of Palma Soriano in southeast Cuba.
The project aims to promote the strength and capacity of local communities to protect their own environment based upon a master plan, which includes natural wastewater treatment, reforestation and the facilitation and utilization of a public space bordering the major river which flows along Palma Soriano, the Cauto. This project will contribute and produce healthy water recycling for the City of Palma, providing a potable water source for the city and ecological restoration of the riparian zone of the Cauto. It is designed to preserve the cultural identity and sacred spaces of the local community and to restore the essential balance between the community’s need to sustain both itself and the natural environment.
I got involved in this project because of my interest in local cultures with strong spiritual ties to their environment. I began work in 2011 with ENNEGRO in Palma Soriano through my professor Matt Kondolf at UC Berkeley, who introduced me to the community and its potable water problems. Profesor Kondolf works in river restoration and he was approached in 2003 by Maria Ayub, who did her Landscape Architecture thesis at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. He visited Palma with Maria because of the connection of the Berkeley-Palma Soriano Sister City Association to the project.
ENNEGRO is an Afro-Haitian Cuban environmental art group which based a sacred relationship between ecology and religion in their project The Vevé of Afá. The Vodou religion is known for giving spiritual values to the landscape. Its followers believe that ancestor spirits and gods live in the native forest. It is extremely important for them to keep rivers and streams clean and in continuous movement.
ENNEGRO made progress ten years ago, when the Cuban government gave them a site deemed sacred in their practice of Vodou at the intersection of the two rivers which form the Cauto, located just upstream from the City of Palma Soriano, where Maria Ayub did her thesis research and offered a possible proposal in design. They have an extensive plan for a land art project but not the financial support to build it.
Moreover, the poor urban conditions of Palma Soriano are destroying the ecology in a worsening cycle. The ecosystem of the Cauto River is extremely polluted with the continual flow of sewage into the river and the on-going deforestation of the surrounding area for firewood. The firewood is used in cooking and to boil water to make it potable. The only water source is from the contaminated Cauto River. We would change this pollution and integrate human water uses into the natural cycles. My goal is to help Palma Soriano restore the ecological balance and improve water quality.
A short film on Palma and the project has been produced by Green Cities Fund to illustrate the problems and the goals. It can be seen at:
In Cuba, agricultural exploitation since the 18th Century has left a profound impact on the local landscape. Consequences of this exploitation have been the loss of nearly 87.5% of island’s forest (Scarpaci & Portela, 2009), and the uncontrollable desertification of the watershed of the Cauto River in Eastern Cuba.
The Cauto River is Cuba’s longest river, with a length of 230 miles. The Southeast part of the Cauto River watershed supports one of the most vulnerable communities on the Island, the Afro Haitians, whose citizenship was recognized only after the 1959 Revolution. This community migrated to this area to escape slavery in Haiti and has continued in subsequent migrations.
The city of Palma Soriano is located in the upstream watershed of the Cauto. It is the biggest city in the Cauto watershed, with approximately 124,000 habitants.
II. THE PROBLEM
Cauto River urban settlements are contaminating their water sources, especially with respect to the city of Palma Soriano, where raw sewage flows directly to the Cauto River. The rudimentary conditions of the urban area have resulted in the contamination of the Cauto. Raw sewage from the city goes directly to the river, contaminating the water and producing a continued degradation of the ecosystem around it, affecting the surrounding communities. The Afro Haitian community of Palma Soriano is especially concerned about the degradation of water quality in the Cauto River and they have asked for international support.
The local problems provide an opportunity to develop design solutions that integrate social and environmental issues for a community in need of help. This problem has led to several damaging consequences not only to the environment but also to the health of the population, as the river is both the source for potable water and simultaneously the sink for waste water. Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, numerous outbreaks of cholera occurred.
The polluted drinking water has caused the spread of disease and in some cases deaths within the community. Many community members treat the polluted water by boiling it before consumption. Wood is collected from the riparian forest of the Cauto River for fuel. As a result of decades of this process and of high agricultural production, the Cauto River watershed is now severely deforested. The deforestation of the Cauto River watershed has led to an increase in sediment input and the degradation of the river’s ecosystem. It is very difficult to control the illegal deforestation, and this practice will likely continue if no alternative is provided. Treating the discharge into the river will improve the quality of drinking water for the community and mitigate the need to deforest the riparian forest.
It is crucial to resolve the problem by providing treatment for waste -water before it returns to the river. Conventional water-treatment facilities are multimillion-dollar, highly engineered facilities. They are designed with minimal regard to their environmental impact and their dependence upon energy and raw materials. These systems generate byproducts and pollutants during treatment (e.g. waste sludge, waste gases, and waste chemicals) and have a high operational cost (Yang 2006). The environmental byproducts and cost make it difficult and almost impossible to implement such facilities in Palma Soriano, where the cost and consumption of energy should be held to a minimum.
III. PROPOSAL SOLUTION
This project has two main goals: 1) to create a waste water treatment system for the city of Palma Soriano, and 2) to integrate the community with the project. A pond system and a constructed wetland will be used to treat the city’s waste water.
The waste water treatment system has multiple benefits. One component of the waste water treatment design is a reforestation project. As part of the tertiary system, the treated water will be used to irrigate riparian vegetation and fruit trees. The riparian vegetation will provide habitat for wildlife and improve the ecology of the watershed. The fruit trees will provide additional habitat for wildlife as well as provide a source of food for the community.
An additional component of the waste water treatment system is an aquaculture pool. After the waste water has been treated, the water will be directed into a pool that can be used for aquaculture. The community will be in charge of maintaining this system and can use the aquaculture as a source of food for their pigs, the main source of livestock consumed in the community.
To ensure the community’s engagement, the community will be involved in refining the final design, constructing the project and managing the system. The fruit orchard and aquiculture system will provide an additional incentive for the community to become involved in maintaining the system. If successful, communities both in Cuba and elsewhere can employ the project’s low cost, yet effective methods.
IV. THE MASTER PLAN DESIGN
The master plan proposal integrates all the proposed solutions into one overall project. It is extremely important to view this proposal in a holistic manner, as the relationship between individual portions of the plan must be maintained in order to accomplish the ultimate goal. Each part could be seen as an independent project; however, this approach would actually stress the system. Overall success and function of individual components truly depend on implementation of the entire master plan. As you will see, the master plan provides a macro scale solution for the city of Palma Soriano. This includes a new source of up-steam water and a new sewer system that permits drainage of waste water to an area that will provide natural waste water treatment. The new source of up-stream water and a new sewer system are part of the future plan of the municipality of Palma Soriano, under the proposal of “Saneamiento y Sanitisacion para Palma Soriano”.
The area of natural waste water treatment proposed in the master plan is divided into three stages of treatment: primary (a sedimentation and facultative pond), secondary (maturation ponds) and tertiary (a fish pond and constructed wetland). Treated water will be use for irrigation at a community farm and in the proposed reforestation area. Finally, the master plan locates and designs a pedestrian path that integrates the project into the surrounding area and provides an element of human experience. It is important to note that this master plan is a sketch design project that needs to be reviewed and modified by local professionals and participants from the surrounding communities.
V. PROJECT PARTS
1. New Source of Water Upstream
The city of Palma Soriano needs to access an upstream source of water. The primary objectives of this new water source will be to provide the city with fresh water and a continuous flow.
2. New Sewer System
The city of Palma Soriano needs to update their old sewer infrastructure and extend sewer service areas to the entire urban area. This expansion will control excess wastewater draining into the river and streams. The alignment of the pipe system is based on the natural slope-drainage and provides sewer services without requiring complex engineering solutions. To that end, the project includes a design of a new sewer system for the city.
3. Natural Waste water Treatment
From the base of the sewer system and the water coming in from serviced areas, it is possible to design a natural treatment system that digests organic matter through the biological process of degradation. In order to develop this water treatment it is very important to accurately project the volume of water that will be treated. Since this data is not available for Palma Soriano, our calculations (e.g. water volume and water retention time) are based on reference values from cities with similar characteristics (e.g. Lima, Quito, Bogota, San Francisco and Barcelona). We also used data provided by WHO and UNICEF.
From the water calculations, my results show a series of four ponds. The pond system is a very effective way to clean the water and does not need high levels of maintenance.
The first two ponds function to encourage sedimentation of solid sediment and start the process of organic composition that is the function of the next two maturation ponds. The shallow depth of the pond will allow more sun light penetration to the water and facilitate photosynthesis from the algae.
4. Fish Pond
After the sequence of maturation ponds, a fishpond would generate an aquaculture. Aquaculture techniques are used to feed populations without taxing natural fish populations. A fish pond that can be managed by the local community gives them products from water treatment, integrating economic opportunity for the community and an essential food source.
5. Constructed Wetland
The final element of the proposed master plan involves the construction of a wetland area. Wetlands are beds of aquatic life that grow in soils or, more commonly, sand or gravel. They provide wildlife habitat and have a strong capacity to support nesting and feeding of birds. The principal species proposed are based on native, non-invasive species in Cuba. Finally, the design and area of the wetland should integrate not only wildlife and hydraulic functions, but also include an interesting design that permits interaction of people with the place and engagement of people with the wastewater system.
6. Community Fruit Orchard
An additional element was added in order to construct a space for the community and to direct effluent water from the treatment system towards locally supported agriculture. This designated are will be a community fruit orchard. This treated wastewater has high levels of nutrients and is therefore appropriate for irrigating agricultural fields. I believe that the integration of fruit production into the project will incentivize the local community to participate and at the same time will help to show the importance of caring for the environment. Community involvement in this project will allow locals to understand how their food needs and waste disposal practices can be intricately linked to the surrounding ecosystem.
7. Reforestation Area
The plan proposes to irrigate an area of low dense forest and deforested patches in order to restore the Cauto River’s native riparian forest. This area is located on the border of the river and the reserve area – Veve de Afa. The native riparian forest restoration project will restore the native ecosystem of the river, create a barrier between the urban area and the protected area, and provide open space to the local community.
8. Design the PathAccess to the River and Public Spaces
By capitalizing on the opportunities associated with the wastewater treatment system and designing it with access and public spaces in mind for people to interact with the area, the project will encourage community participation with the treatment system and surrounding ecosystem.
Creating equilibrium between societies and the environment is not easy. Water management is an essential factor in sustainable development. A natural water treatment system improves not only the quality of the water discharged but also the quality of life for the surrounding community.
The master plan proposed and toolbox provided are essential elements to help initiate this project. With the participation of international NGO Green City Foundation in Oakland, California, and the high interest of the community, this project is moving to the next stage of development. Today we are working together with the local government and the planning department of eastern Cuba to make this project a reality. There are several stages that need to happen and monetary funding needs to be finally granted. Working from abroad is not easy and the process and changes are slow to come by. It is extremely important to educate the community and engage them in the development of the project. We have not started the construction of the project yet, but we are receiving a lot of interest of other groups.
1 Source: Instituto de Geografia de la Academia de Ciencias de Cuba y el Instituto de Geografia y Cartografia, Academia de Ciencias de la URSS 1970.
Drechsel, Scott, Raschid-Sally, Redwood & Bahri, (2010). Wastewater Irrigation and Health: Addressing and Mitigating Risk in Low-Income Countries. London: Earthscan Dunstan House
Marrero Baez, Yociel (2008). Estudio de las Eco tecnologías para el Tratamiento de Aguas Residuales en Zonas Urbanas. Instituto Superior Politécnico José Antonio Echeverría, La Habana 26.
Scarpaci, Joseph L. and Portela, Armando H. (2009). Cuban Landscapes: Heritage, Memory and Place. New York, The Guilford Press
United Nations General Assembly (2000). United Nations Millennium Declaration. Resolution A/RES/55/2. New York, United Nations
Yang, Jo-Shing (2006). Solving Global Water Crises: New Paradigms in Wastewater and Water Treatment. California, Earth EcoSciences Publishing Company.