[the protocol for removing trees from the Commons evidently entails busting up the brick and placing an orange cone on the stump]

[the protocol for removing trees from the Commons evidently entails busting up the brick and placing an orange cone on the stump]

 

The 40-year old pedestrian mall at the center of Ithaca, NY is currently being reconstructed according to a design by Sasaki Associates.  The project will cost an estimated $10 million and is projected to continue in two phases through June of 2014.  While a bit difficult to discern from the published documents, it seems to be what you would expect — contemporary, thoughtful, well- executed, and a bit generic.  Small nods are made to both place-specific qualities and regional characteristics while the landscape is organized according to generally acceptable principles like flexibility, durability, and change through the seasons. 

What I am interested in regarding this project is the possibility of a provisional landscape.  That is, a landscape which is both temporary- adopted for the time being- and which provides things.  With any public landscape, especially complex undertakings such as building new infrastructure or remediating superfund sites, the amount of time during which construction and maintenance operations render the public landscape private is substantial and results in a loss of use-value.  I’ve written before here why the recovery of this value is an opportunity for an expanded range of aesthetic experiences and should be of concern to designers of public landscapes.  It is, however, a very difficult case to prove.

The first iteration of the Ithaca Commons was constructed in 1974, giving the landscape a useful life of 39 years.  If that is taken as a stand-in for this next iteration, then by using the capital cost of this project projected out over 39 years, we know that there is a capital use-value loss of $384,000 due to the temporary privatization of the public landscape.  This is different from the direct use-value loss, which is the lost value of services (such as recreation) that can be provided by for-profit facilities, such as a gym or rock-climbing wall (in any case, these tend to be negligible in pedestrian malls, and higher in Robert Moses-style recreation parks).

[the plan for Ithaca Commons by Sasaki Associates]

[the plan for Ithaca Commons by Sasaki Associates]

 

This loss is in addition to the burden placed on businesses, which is substantial and a major cause for concern.  In response the phasing and staging of the project have been designed so as to minimize this disruption.  In the words of current Mayor Svante Myrick“We’re going to do [the reconstruction] in the most careful and deliberate way possible so that all of these businesses on the Commons can stay open and continue doing business for the entire time the construction is happening.  We’re going to phase it so that the obstruction is as minimal as possible.” 

A quick survey of the results of public meetings that occurred during the design planning process note under “Construction Planning” the following goals: 1) Construction must interfere as little as possible with the operation of businesses, 2) Access to Commons, businesses, and universal accessibility must be maintained, 3) Careful scheduling of construction hours, 4) Transition period should be a major focus of the plan.

What stands out is how the entire construction process is being defined negatively; it is something to be mitigated and finished as quickly as possible.  However, I am interested in the possibility that an instrumental approach will allow aspects of the provisional landscape to be turned from private to public, with the result being that the act of remaking this civic space becomes something to be celebrated and experienced in its own right.

[Robert Irwin's "Two Running V-Form"; Irwin recontextualized a banal material using paint and a new placement to expand the range of aesthetic experience they offer]

[Robert Irwin's "Two Running V-Form"; Irwin recontextualized a banal material using paint and a new placement to expand the range of aesthetic experience they offer]

 

Public landscapes in our society are generally spaces of consumption (we consume experiences as well as goods and services in them) and the material practices that make it possible are viewed as a bothersome molting period that just has to be endured, or ignored, until it is over.  This can be clearly seen in a quote by the local executive director of the Community School of Music and Arts, who noted that they were “really looking forward to a revitalized Commons, once it’s done.” That is an appropriate response considering how construction and maintenance is plotted and executed.  It is also indicative of the low value we ascribe to the material operations that make our cities and landscapes possible.

However, it is a misconception that the Commons landscape is in a larval state right now.  The fact is, it is a landscape in its own right, one undergoing a process of radical change, offering its own aesthetic experiences, open to interpretations.  It is just as finished right now as any landscape ever is.  A stroll down the commons reveals a number of materials and objects in changing relation to one another, governed by a series of specific protocols yet bringing their own desires to the party.

On my recent walk through the Commons-under-construction, a backhoe excavator and jackhammer were each aligned with the street, bucket and hammer resting gently on the ground surface.  This is the result of a protocol, likely reading something like “all backhoe arms and treads shall be aligned lengthwise with the street so as to minimize transverse dimensions; all buckets and hammers shall be rested on the existing street surface to reduce strain on the hydraulic joints.”  So we have here the intentions of the builders (minimize physical obstructions and strain on the equipment) with the demands of the instrument (my dimensions are huge relative to the cross width of this street, and my bucket is way too heavy to hang in the air off my arm overnight) in a sort of duel, each compromising and negotiating to conjure forth a public landscape of conflict and a muddy, metallic strain of beauty.

[the backhoe excavator beside a jackhammer resting on the Ithaca Commons; observed by the author on a recent walk to the Commons]

[the backhoe excavator beside a jackhammer resting on the Ithaca Commons; observed by the author on a recent walk to the Commons]

 

There is something at stake here.  With our approach to landscape-making we are deciding whether all we care about is the product, or if we are interested in the process.  Do we only value landscape in terms of composition and meaning, which our art-historical bias has pushed us towards, or are we interested in and capable of understanding and engaging our cultural heritage of labor, machines, and technological expertise also, thereby expanding the range of aesthetic experiences in public landscapes and recovering lost capital use-value.

If we are, then I think there are three guiding lights we might turn to in order to develop the conceptual and technical tools to design provisional landscapes:  the history of technology, land art, and the trades.  I’ll write more on how landscape architects might engage the history of technology, draw from the land artists, and work with the trades in the future.  For the moment, it is interesting to think about what sort of provisional landscape might be conjured, and how it might define the processes and material operations of construction in a way that positively affects the local businesses and street life.  Small observation towers might be constructed, or new protocols written for the arrangement of construction machinery at the end of the workday, when the evening life of the Commons begins.  Or a simple but extensive scaffold system might be designed that both structures the phasing of construction and allows pedestrians to traverse the Commons.  The range of technical expertise, material choices, and machinery at work in the landscape might become an object of fascination and revelry, the Commons a landscape offering aesthetic experience beyond the thoughtful-but-generic composition that is a backdrop for community life.

[aerial view of the existing commons exploring how a scaffold system might arrange staging and phasing in construction while allowing pedestrians to experience the provisional landscape]

[aerial view of the existing commons exploring how a scaffold system might arrange staging and phasing in construction while allowing pedestrians to experience the provisional landscape]

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Last week I had the chance to visit the Seneca Army Depot thanks to the Seneca White Deer organization.  The Depot occupies over 10,000 acres by the town of Romulus in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.  It was constructed as part of the national effort to prepare to enter WWII, and the site was selected because of its proximity to the east coast and Great Lakes ports, and relative invulnerability due to its inland location, and the high amount of cloud cover in the Finger Lakes region.  Currently many areas of the Depot are slowly rewilding- the firebreaks are turning in to forest, the steel cages of the igloos are rusting shut.  The Depot was decommissioned in 2001, and while some zones have found new users, the brutalist infrastructure and ammo dumps and “miscellaneous component burning sites” keep the USACE busy and industrial businesses away.

The spatial organization of the Seneca Army Depot was structured along very clear lines; it is a landscape of blast radii, fire breaks, access control, and lines of transportation infrastructure layered on top of glaciated highlands, historical family farms, and the climax forest of upstate New York.  These clear intentions have had some interesting side effects- large osprey nests can be seen throughout the Depot, and the world’s largest concentration of white deer inhabit the depot.  A white coat is evidently a recessive gene, and when the depot was fenced in 1941 with 8-foot high chain link, a number of white deer where captured inside.  Anecdotally, it was the whim of a few controlling officers who decided that no white deer could be hunted, even though brown deer were freely hunted to keep the population down and prevent starvation among the deer.

Today the white deer nearly 200 strong, and are something between a mutant and a cyborg- they exist thanks to a natural but rare genetic mutation, and a very precarious relationship with a now-rusting, 70-year old chain-link fence.  This landscape also provides an extreme example of my evolving definition of landscape- that they are nothing but instruments in dynamic relations within a bounded territory.  I say instruments, instead of objects, because there is always some measure of intentionality present- a landscape is not a natural scene but rather a historical assemblage.  And a landscape like the Depot brings up a point- it is the liminal space between intentionality and reality that is really at issue in landscape design.  It is this space that offers a sort of frontier, demanding new tools and ideas to grapple with it.

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There is one other important concept that underlies that seems to underlie the theory of landscape instrumentalism; that of radical difference.  This is built on a foundation of Deleuzian philosophy and the idea of an affirmative definition of difference:

Negation is difference, but difference seen from its underside, seen from below.  Seen the right way up, from top to bottom, difference is affirmation.  This proposition, however, means many things:  that difference is an objects of affirmation, that affirmation itself is multiple… It is not the negative which is the motor.  Rather, there are positive differential elements which determine the genesis of both the affirmation and the difference affirmed.  It is precisely the fact that there is a genesis as such which escapes us every time we leave affirmation in the undetermined, or put determination in the negative. [p 67]

[oyster shell cages near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, acting as erosion control; notice the difference creates between sediment deposition on the land side and the river side]

General applications of Deleuzian philosophy have been explored in landscape practice for a least two decades, although the concept of positive difference has remained relatively unexplored.  Levi Bryant, a Deleuzian object-oriented philosopher, writes at length about an idea called the ontic principle.  This principle makes clear that objects have an effect on the world, and this effect supersedes any intention from another object that they may carry with them.  No mere vehicle for the mep engineer that specified its installation, a silt fence may be installed around a perimeter to reduce off-site sedimentation, but it will always have more effects than intended.  And it is this fact that landscape instrumentalism is attempting to wrestle with.

By theorizing every object in the landscape as an instrument- including people, rats, tennis shoes, silt fences, plane trees, and building facades- landscape instrumentalism works to grapple specifically with the forms and effects of every single specific instrument through the development and application of techniques and conceptual tools.  As a for instance, if a particular textile is imagined as a tensile device for guiding rainwater and stormwater and this textile-instrument is considered in terms of the conceptual triad (form-effect-assemblage), then the actual textile might actually be a range of different materials.  However, the same material applied in a different way- perhaps as a shading device- would be considered a radically different instrument because its effects are radically different.  (Admittedly, this is not a new realization, but theorizing it opens up new possibilities in the design process, and ultimately the creation of new types of landscapes).

The theory must be further elaborated (at some point) but if for a moment it can be accepted, then the work of the designer is left to two areas:  (1) determining which instruments are actionable, accessible, or otherwise important to model, trace, map, and develop possibilities with, and (2) understanding at which point changes in the assembly of instruments introduces a radical change in the landscape and fundamentally alters the type of landscape itself (the form, the effects, or the assemblage it takes part in).  This brings up the necessity of the concept of radical difference; deciding it, and recognizing when something else decides it. This concept is something which shall be further explored in the future, but for now it is useful to take the example that is the object of this study- the Riachuelo.

[the Riachuelo was once a bathing promenade and resort located on the outskirts of town, promising mid-20th century relief from the bustling industrial core in Buenos Aires]

The Riachuelo was originally a sinuous river, then remade as an ad-hoc industrial thru-way, later fashioned into a full-fledged industrial shipping canal and port facility, then taking the form of a sanitation canal, and finally becoming a remediated site that generates new port economies and park ecologies throughout the river basin.  At what point does it stop becoming the Riachuelo landscape?  This is contingent, based on the project.  Ultimately one could argue that it always persists- the Riachuelo is the riachuelo landscape.  But what if the water course is diverted?  The low part of the city floods?  Or the river dries up completely?

Ultimately this seems to be a topological question, one concerned with processes of continual change over time.  It calls for a reckoning in landscape practice with the fact that all of the various conceptual forms might be actually the same, or relatively irrelevant, but simple changes in maintenance practices, municipal funding, or erosion control regimes can summon an entirely new landscape.  This understanding requires a position, a politics of design, and a realization of the statement by Graham Harman that “you can never go back in space, but you can always go back in time.”  The specificity required by this realization is attempted in this landscape instrumentalism project through the instrument table and the correlation wheel in particular.  In the future I imagine many more and better techniques might be developed.  

The ethical implications of this theory that says everything, even humans, in a landscape is to be understood as an instrument must be addressed, and for this the concept of radical difference must be addressed. Through the theory of instruments it is possible to understand that an instrument is not a dumb receiver of intentions but rather an object with its own agency, that can only be partially perceived at any moment. Landscape instrumentalism is a theory that valorizes the singular.  It is a queer theory that pursues difference instead of seeking normalcy or totalizing concepts.  Landscape instrumentalism is a materialist theory, one that places execution on equal footing with conceptualization.

[jibaro house on eroded tobacco slope in Puerto Rico, 1938 by Edwin Rosskam; the field has its own form, its effect on the slope, the river below, the house above, viewers from the next hill over, and it takes part in a larger farming landscape; in this way it can be understood as an instrument in the farming landscape]

Within a theory of landscape instrumentalism it is necessary and possible to probe just what an instrument is.  If an instrument is any entity understood to exist at the intersection of perception and reality, and these entities make up a landscape, then how might they be conceptualized?  From Harman we learn that any instrument that is perceived is but a sliver of the object reality of that instrument, that it always maintains something in reserve and that this is always present.

I’ve stated that a working theory of landscape instrumentalism suggests a need for more specificity, for techniques that allow us to grapple with the autonomy and potency, the generative capacity, of things themselves in the landscape, and not just human users.  At first glance this might seem futile at best, dastardly at worst; an attempt to categorize and over-analyze all of the living, breathing objects that comprise the fantastic landscapes where we live our lives.  It rings of the negative connotation conjured by recent theorists who lambast any notion of objectification and deride scientific or analytical attempts to grapple with things.  However, Harman again uses Heidegger to show that this is far from the truth when he states that “the [tool] continues to sustain its [tool]-effect, no matter how obtrusively analyzed or how directly perceived it might be in any specific case.  In short, to engage in ever more explicit encounters with specific objects does not entail negating or rising beyond the cryptic tool-being of these things.”

Instead, I would suggest that as persons tasked with a conceptualizing and important role in the creation of specific types of landscapes considered to be of great value (a new neighborhood park, parking lot, or corporate garden) we must develop techniques that allow us to grapple with a range of entities in conceptual terms.  In recent decades the map has achieved a sort of hegemony in terms of landscape architectural practice, reinforced by flow diagrams and claritin drawings.  James Corner has argued persuasively that the map is not a representational technique but is generative, and the work of Bradley Cantrell and others is pointing a way toward new methods of modeling, which are more than mere representation but are actually modalities of translation.  This is what technique is and should be- a constant search for appropriate modalities that allow us to translate the forces of objects and their relations to other objects.

[a drawing from Halprin's "motation" studies, developing notational techniques to examine the way that people move through a landscape and create space]

To achieve this it is important to understand the instrument as consisting of a conceptual triad:  form, effect, and the assemblage it takes part in.  The form of an instrument pertains to its shape, its effect can be understood as its relations to other objects.  The final leg of the stool is related to the effect and is particular to landscapes.  The assemblage something takes part in refers to the larger activity or set of actions that is tied to but related to a certain object at a particular time.  For instance at a recreational lake there may be several boating docks and many paddle boats, along with the water in the lake and human users.  All of these objects are part of the same program activity- the boating assemblageat the lake- but not all of them relate to one another at the same time.  This difference among things is important, this separation of levels, because it allows for more specificity in the design of the space.

One technique that I favor for exploring this conceptual triad is the use of multiple sections, cut through the same place but at different times.  Speculative or not, this simple maneuver allows one to examine the changes in arrangements of objects and their relations over time:  the forest is similar but the leaves have changed color, the water level in the canal is higher, there are more people in boats or on the boardwalk, birds are nesting in the high grasses or not.  The weakness to this technique of using sections is the primacy on form.  There is a need to develop techniques to be explicit about the full triad in the same way that the section allows us to be about form.

[here stacked orthographic sections indicate the shifting forms of the Riachuelo Canal landscape; these forms provide the basis to key in the instrument tables which are explicit about the effects of the individual instruments; the correlation wheel in the upper right hand corner allows for a general, color-coded indication of different program activities; in a next iteration these might be made to correspond to a color table attached to each instrument table to indicate the larger program activities for each instrument]

The key for my project, drawing from Halprin’s work, then seems to be to develop a notational system that will allow the designer to be highly specific about the conceptual triad:  the form, the effect, and the larger assemblage.  The current results of this effort can be seen above and are explained in more detail over on the tumblr site here, here and here.

In recent decades any notion of instrumental theory has generally been ridiculed by critics and thinkers.  Instruments and instrumentalism have been converted to mean a sort of dumb matter completely at the mercy of hegemonic power structures and the nefarious intentions of social beings, such as the omnipresent bourgeois.  While well intentioned, this tendency has rather unimaginatively demonized and diminished the role of instruments and equipment, not only impoverishing the project of Heidegger which pointed us toward a richer understanding of the role of tools in the world, but also stripping instruments of their autonomy and agency, leaving them unable to do anything except fulfill the intentions of the user.

[the geotube manifold system in a dewatering process for consolidation and containment of dredged materials]

One of the major issues that has continually come up in this project as I bore down on the relationship between landscapes and instruments is the seemingly insurmountable gap that is always present between the intention behind any given instrument and the reality.  This gap seems to always be at issue, and is something that has consistently troubled, and animated, the practice of landscape  architecture from the beginning, as we can see here in Olmsted’s 1866 report to the Brooklyn Commissioners:

But to this process of recuperation a condition is necessary, known since the days of Aesop, as the unbending of the faculties which have been tasked, and the unbending of the faculties we find is impossible, except by the occupation of the imagination with objects and reflections of a quite different character from those which are associated with their bent condition.  To secure such a diversion of the imagination, the best possible stimulus is found to be the presentation of a class of object to the perceptive organs, which shall be as agreeable as possible to the taste, and at the same time entirely different from the objects connected with those occupations by which the faculties have been tasked.  And this is what is found by townspeople in a park.

If now we ask further, what the qualities of a park are which fit it to meet this requirement? we find two circumstances, common to all parks in distinction from other places in town, namely scenery offering the most agreeable contrast to that of the rest of the town; and opportunity for people to come together for the single purpose of enjoyment, unembarrassed by the limitation with which they are surrounded at home, or in the pursuit of their daily avocations, or of such amusements as are elsewhere offered.  [1866 Report to the Commissioners of Brooklyn]

Considered both historically and theoretically it seems that the production of liminal space between intentionality and reality is ontological to landscape practice.  Traditionally we have dealt with this fact through contractor change orders, addenda to construction documents, and other conceptual and practical techniques including the generally agreed upon notion that not everything is going to turn out precisely as we had imagined, which seems to be a fairly reasonable approach.

This condition is not necessarily unacceptable, though it is the root of many lawsuits and much stress and client strife as well as contributing to the death of well-conceived projects that just don’t come off.  The problem, however, is that this space that is created in any landscape project is fertile ground being lost due to our contemporary over-reliance on architectural pedagogy and technique.  And we might grasp this territory as energetically as we have with the other aspects fundamental to landscape practice including setting a bounds or limit, the idea of generative capacity, and the importance of respecting difference.  The fact that we don’t or haven’t recognized this only further confirms my intuition that one project that is needed is the definition of a landscape ontology.

[landscape architect Horace Cleveland's map for expanding the municipal parks system of Minneapolis and St. Paul, 1883]

However, in this effort to explore an instrumental theory of landscape the work of philosopher Graham Harman is useful.  His work Tool-Being, which offers an illuminating and suprising reading of Heideggerstool-analysis, is helpful to understand the real metaphysical implications of instruments and tools:

Equipment in action operates in an inconspicuous usefulness, doing its work without our noticing it. When the tool fails, its unobtrusive quality is ruined.  There occurs a jarring of reference, so that the tool become visible as what it is… there is thus a double life of equipment- tool in action, tool in disrepair… the visibility of Heidegger’s “broken tool” has nothing to do with equipment not being in top working order.  Even the most masterfully constructed, prize-winning tools have to regarded as “broken” as soon as we consider them directly; the broken/unbroken distinction does not function as an ontic rift between two different sorts of entities.  Thus, as ought to have been expected, Heidegger teaches us not about smashed-up blades and chisels, but only about beings in general… Whether it is “out of order” or not, the visible tool is simply not the tool in its being; in this way, insofar as they are ever encountered, all beings are broken equipment

This is an apparently radical stance to take on, seeming to objectify everything in the world down to the level of a dumb hammer or chain link fencing.  But the opposite is true:

Contrary to the usual view, what we really want is to be objects- not as means to an end like paper or oil, but in the sense that we want to be like the Grand Canyon or a guitar hero or a piece of silver:  distinct forces to be reckoned with.  No one really wants to be a Cartesian subject, but everyone would love to be some version of Isis, Odysseus, Aquaman, Legolas, or Cordelia. [p 140, Guerilla Metaphysics]

As Harman shows it is the traditional philosophical stance that denies any agency or potency to the hammer or the fence, the nighthawk or the kentucky coffee tree to extend beyond the intentions of the designer or the user- the human- and this has been largely true since the adoption of the work of Kant and the resultant linguistic turn. This includes most of the philosophies that have been influential in contemporary landscape design including the phenomenology of Husserl and the writings of Deleuze, though more recently the work of Bruno Latour does point towards a new materialist understanding.  Harman’s philosophy, and that of others working in the contemporary philosophical movement known as Speculative Realism, shows that it is actually all entities that possess this intention, and all have the capacity to supersede, wiggle out of, or come up short of another object’s intention for it.

[here the hills are instruments for growing grass, for shedding water, for framing views; the river is an instrument of conveyance, of material sustenance, an excavator; the road is an instrument to collect heat, to mark an edge, to propel automobiles]

Considering this we can see that in a landscape the objects and things themselves have their own desires, and intentions.  At times this might be similar to what we’ve attributed to humans- imagining how users might react, gather, or what they might gaze upon- and at other times not.  Harman’s philosophy shows that any perceived object is already the broken tool- any tree, any change in slope, and carousel- that seems to jump out of the background and figure itself in relation to another object (be that a cyclist, a chimney swift, or inanimate objects such as a stormwater drainage).  Much of the most exciting and powerful work in the field in recent years has set out to draw on the agency of things.  This can be seen in the increased interest in material reuse in Brooklyn Bridge Park by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and carpenter Hector Ducci or the mappings of Anu Marthur and DIlip DaCunha that work to highlight the generative agency of specific species or material practices, and in the writings by the Research Dredge Collaborative which look to understand dredging operations and the acceleration of sedimentation processes as a sort of duel between US Army Corps, maritime commercial interests, river hydrology, and clastic sedimentation from the pleistocene.

As landscape architects continue to evolve an authentic landscape practice and to break away from the hegemonic influence of architectural technique, it seems incumbent on us to grapple with the agency of materials and humans, of all classes of objects.  To do this it seems we will need specificity and technique, and ability to realize that just as concrete and steel and compacted earth and platanus occidentalis saplings are not dumb inert matter waiting to be given meaning by the intentions of people, they are also not the same as people, or each other, and cannot be treated as such.  As designers we need methods of representation, modeling, and experimentation that can deal with specificity, an understanding of the topological aspect of any landscape.

The development of new drawing techniques, building on the work of those mentioned above as well as people such as Bradley Cantrell, seems necessary for the next step in developing an instrumental theory of landscape.  It seems possible to understand that indeed everything in the landscape is an instrument, a tool/broken-tool as Graham Harman puts it.  If a space is a landscape, and not some other type of space, then all of its objects and their changing relations are instruments; but not dumb inanimate drills, retaining walls, and land use policies, but rather objects receiving the intentions and being acted upon by other objects while simultaneously asserting their own autonomy and agency, even if only for a moment.

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I’ve recently uploaded a bunch of new work over on the tumblr site.  Right now the majority of the work will continue over there, given that the bulk of the production is currently being done through drawing and modeling as a way to test the ideas explored here.  

I do intend to get up some writing here in the next few weeks further working out the theory of landscape instrumentalism, especially considering some of the works of Harman, Delanda, and Bennett, and Latour.  In the mean time, please head over to the tumblr; feedback enthusiastically welcome.

satellite image of the Rio de la Plata; the large amounts of freshwater pouring from the Parana and Uruguay Rivers mean that the water contains almost no salt at Buenos Aires; strong, sustained winds out of the south east over the atlantic ocean can push a wall of water up the estuary, backing up the flow of the Parana and Uruguay- flooding the delta- and backing up smaller rivers such as the Riachuelo, resulting in floods in the low-lying areas of Buenos Aires

Sudestada events are meteorological phenomena particular to the Rio de la Plata estuary.  They occur when sustained winds out of the southeast push ocean water up the estuary.  When combined with high tide these events can raise water levels in the estuary 13 feet or more.  These events can cause flooding in low-lying urban areas, especially the densely populated zones around the Riachuelo, and when combined with heavy rains they effects can be devastating as the stormwater has no outlet.  When these floods occur inhabitants are in danger from the overtopping of bulkheads and levees by the disgusting and highly contaminated waters of the Riachuelo, as well as sewers backing up into the streets and basements of homes.  Personal damage to property and long-term health effects are proving devastating to residents.

A 2004 report in the Journal of Climatology classifies a sudestada as an event that raises the water level 8.25 feet or more for longer than 24 hours.  In the fifty year study period from 1950-2000, these occurred an average of six times per year, with a slight uptick in recent years.  At 10.25 feet the protective bulkheads and levees along the canal are overtopped in some vulnerable places in the lower portion of the Riachuelo basin.  These events occurred on average more than once per year during the study period and seem likely to increase given effects of possible sea level rise on the estuary in the future.

To combat the most serious flooding issues- caused by a sudestada combined with overland rain- ACUMAR is developing a macro/micro drainage strategic plan.  This plan calls for the creation of 10 large reservoirs in the upper basin of the Riachuelo (macro-drainage) and for new urbanization patterns to focus on minimizing damage to property, health, and habitat in the urban areas.  This is opposed to the historic strategy of simply trying to flush the water away as quickly as possible, which often causes issues downstream, especially when the water cannot go further downstream because of a 10 foot wall of water being pushed up the Rio de la Plata.  Under this strategy stormwater in urban areas (micro-drainage) should be retained and allowed to percolate into the soil or small-scale surface or subterranean reservoirs where possible.

a map showing ACUMARs macro-drainage strategy for the Riachuelo watershed; the metropolis of Buenos Aires is in grey, the watershed of the Riachuelo the irregular red line, the macro-drainage reservoirs are in blue positioned outside of the city; this strategy will reduce flooding pressures on the Tierra Plastica site near the mouth of the Riachuelo during events when a sudestada combines with overland rain

Objective

Given the frequency and severity of these events the design strategies for Tierra Plastica must be aimed toward the objective of retention and percolation.  In addition, while the bulkheads and levees in the lower basin prevent all but the most severe flooding, and there is a tradition of private adaptation (building the first floor higher) in the neighborhood of La Boca, the long term strategy of Tierra Plastica must take in to account more severe and frequent sudestada events as indicated by the trends of the last 30 years, as well as the effects of possible sea level rise on the estuary.  Lastly, while damage to health and property must be limited, the phenomenon of flooding itself is an important cyclical aspect of the hybrid ecology of the Riachuelo.  The salt water intrusion and elevated water levels bring seeds, sediments, salt, and organisms to the ecosystems as necessary nutrients and provide a sort of inadvertent locomotion for certain residues and organisms in the landscape.  These annual cyclical events should be leveraged as power- as work- for their instrumental effects, a moment when humans retreat inside from the weather, and a new world is created.

sections through the Tierra Plastica portion of the Riachuelo; the text on the left side of the channel in the sections indicates the historical depths of the channel and the white layer is newly accumulated sediment since dredging ceased; on the right side of the channel in the sections are the water levels along the floodwall of during specific events such as daily tidal fluctuations, an average sudestada, a major sudestada, and the highest ever recorded

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