Re-Imagining Infrastructure


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Following the 2008 "Re-imaging Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil symposium, Penn IUR solicited manuscripts on environmental and energy challenges and their effect on the redesign of urban environments.

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Re-Imagining Infrastructure

  1. 1. Working Paper Re-Imagining Infrastructure A working draft for Re-Imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil Jason Bregman, Director, Michael Singer Studio 05.03.09 Draft What does it mean to have aspirations for the future of an unseen and largely undesirable infrastructure? To aspire, to think beyond the expected and to innovate in the world was once the realm of artists, a role they embraced to reveal new points of view, shape culture and over time, promote change. Infrastructure by definition is the underlying foundation and basic framework for the public services that make societies functional. To aspire to- wards re-imagining infrastructure then is to promote innovation and change at the most fundamental levels of our society and therefore the basic systems that underpin the func- tionality, growth and sustainability of our cities. The role of the artist in contemporary society is to challenge assumptions about how we experience and understand the world and to question our preconceptions and values. Mi- chael Singer, the founder of Michael Singer Studio, is an innovator and designer but his work with infrastructure began as an artist engaging in the public realm. Because his work came from the perspective of an artist, he had no preconceived notions about infrastruc- ture or engineering standards and was free to question any parameter of a given project. In doing so he was able to transform a prosaic flood wall project during the late 1980s into a living sculptural wall that helped regenerate an urban riparian corridor in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The wall has since become an integral part of the Downtown Riverwalk and the local ecology. Similarly when confronted with larger more complex pieces of infrastructure, Singer re- jected the notion that these essential engineered systems were antithetical to communi- ties and had to be hidden from public view. Singer questioned the idea that infrastructure, which is largely financed—directly or indirectly—by the public and critical to their daily lives, should be separate from their experience of place and sense of community. Moreover, in questioning these assumptions, Singer began to see that the lack of public awareness about the value of basic infrastructure systems and the vital resources they signify was at the root of environmental degradation. Excessive water and energy consumption and care- less attitudes about waste disposal have created severe environmental impacts, in most cases without any awareness on behalf of the consumer. Through the design of key facilities, Singer saw the potential to alter how the public experi- ences and understands infrastructure. When these facilities were conceived in a way to attract and educate the public, especially school groups, the work began to reach beyond the design of a particular facility and became a tool for transforming values and habits. In effect, an artist could begin to expand our understanding of and respect for the basic sys- tems that underpin our lives. Infrastructure systems are so basic that we take them utterly for granted until essential ser- vices stop. Without reliable energy, waste disposal, telecommunications, water, transport, cities quickly grind to a halt, along with our livelihoods and quality of life. Yet typically, few people have any notion of how these services are provided and most people don’t really care. To aspire towards fundamental change in infrastructure then is to make these sys- tems experiential, comprehensible and integral to our lives in ways that inherently matter. 1
  2. 2. Working Paper Re-Imagining Cities After Oil opens the possibility for this type of change through a shift in values and the basic organization of these systems. While some suggest that the future for sustainable cities lies in distributed and self reliant systems, centralized systems will remain dominant for the foreseeable future based on the efficiencies provided by the very nature of cities and sheer the magnitude of historic investment in centralized infrastructure. Distributed systems undoubtedly play a critical role for the resiliency of an overall system, and will likely develop an ever increasing role within cities as localized energy production, for instance, improve over time. However, combined heat and power, water, transport, communications, and other systems will always be more productive than individual units within the urban environment. Proximity, economies of scale and perhaps most importantly, combined maintenance and economic incentives for the maximization of efficiency heavily favor centralized infrastructure within cities. This equates to trains rather than cars, water purification facilities rather than individual filters or bottled water, and power plants rather than photovoltaic panels on every roof, at least for now and the near future. Beyond the pragmatic, this inherent centralization offers a unique opportunity to see infrastructure as an integral part of our civic realm. As little as a century ago, the basic infrastructure of cities could be found in downtown cores and often were objects of immense civic pride and sometimes monumental beauty. While utility and cost were just as important to early builders and civic leaders as they are today, these facilities also served as potent symbols of common purpose and progress in young and rapidly growing cities. Clean water, sanitation and power were not yet taken for granted; in fact, the public eagerly celebrated their arrival. Magnificent structures offered testament to the crucial value of these services to peoples’ lives and livelihoods and the sacrifices required to create them. Unfortunately, over the last century these vital urban systems have largely evolved into a negative relationship with the public rather than a source of pride. Though the functional necessity of waste disposal services, water treatment facilities, and energy networks is in- disputable, these facilities are often planned and placed to be out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Essential infrastructure is cast in the public imagination as disruptive, hazardous and un- sightly. Frequently, the public considers visible infrastructure to be symbolic of government disregard for communal well-being. The work of Michael Singer Studio over the last twenty years has challenged these as- sumptions and advanced a different vision for infrastructure within communities. The Stu- dio’s collaborative work demonstrates that the responsibility of infrastructure, beyond utility, is to promote environmental justice, generate ecological renewal, inspire civic responsibil- ity and enhance quality of life without sacrificing economic viability. The next generation of energy sources, water systems and waste facilities must be conceived of with the sup- position that infrastructure represents an asset in each and everyone’s community. Michael Singer Studio recently co-authored a white paper with the Environmental Defense Fund titled Infrastructure and Community: How can we live with what sustains us? The purpose of Infrastructure and Community is to put forward concepts and ideas that can integrate in- frastructure with its surrounding community, encourage creative thinking, spark ideas that are outside of typical considerations, and result in new approaches in siting and design of infrastructure facilities. Infrastructure and Community can be downloaded for free at the Environmental Defense Fund website: 2
  3. 3. Working Paper Of Singer’s infrastructure work the exemplar remains the 27th Avenue Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Facility built in 1993 in Phoenix, Arizona as the result of a collabo- ration with artist Linnea Glatt and the leadership of Ron Jensen, the Director of Public Works for the City of Phoenix. Phoenix’s 27th Avenue Recycling Facility is a well-known national model that has won several awards, has been fea- tured in many publications and is credited with promoting aesthetic design excellence for infrastructure in the U.S. In 1993, The New York Times chose the design as one of the eight most important architectural events of the year. The facility was sited in a rapidly growing transitional area to reduce long-term truck hauling and corresponding fuel consumption, air pollution and cost. The facility also helped the Phoenix Department of Public Works site other waste transfer and recycling facilities in communities throughout the city, without contentious hearings and extended court battles. The project transformed “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” in- frastructure into a dynamic green facility that stands out proudly within the city’s landscape. At the forefront of the design is the use of all elements of the facility and site asTop, view of the primary public facade of the recycling and waste a way to engage the public in the citywide recycling initia-transfer facility which uses an elevated terraced landscape to tive and take pride in a public works civic structure. Withinseparate visiting pedestrians from the truck traffic below whilecreating a welcoming entrance. The amphitheater space (above two years, the Department of Public Works replaced the) is a large gathering space for tours and school groups with a original operating machinery with an advanced and fullydirect view of much of the active sorting machinery and other automated system to meet the unexpectedly large volumekinetic processes. of recyclable waste coming to the facility. Though originally criticized in the press as wasteful infrastructure spending, the re-imagined facility was built for $4.5 million dollars less than the original budget for the basic engineered box. 3
  4. 4. Working Paper Above, a rendered view of the proposed TGE Cogeneration Power Facility with green houses providing an urban agricul- tural system, offices, and educational and cultural facilities. The facility’s roof and walls provide the support for structures that wrap and create variation along the otherwise monolithic building. While the Phoenix facility is an excellent built example of infrastructure working within and transforming the values of the community at large, the 2002 Trans Gas Energy Corporation (TGE) project is perhaps more demonstrative of an integrated systems design. TGE en- gaged Michael Singer Studio to examine social, economic and environmental opportunities of its proposed Greenpoint, New York City 1,100 megawatt Cogeneration Power Facility. The facility was sited across the East River from Manhattan along a post industrial water- front adjacent to residential communities. The planning and design of the facility from the beginning was highly controversial and cannot be easily summarized in this essay. TGE sought experts in design and infrastructure development to assist them through the proj- ect but ultimately did not pursue many of the recommendations developed by the Michael Singer Studio Team or other consultants. The project remains in legal and political limbo and the site remains as a highly contaminated brownfield which operates as a fuel storage depot. Nonetheless, the concepts developed for this cogeneration power facility remain at the vanguard of design thinking about urban energy infrastructure today. Placing a huge new piece of energy infrastructure within a dense urban environment can achieve environmental and economic efficiencies that far exceed any similar project built far from the population that it ultimately serves. The single most important factor in the sit- ing of the TGE facility is the site’s proximity to existing networks of reclaimed water, gas, steam and electrical infrastructure. Transmission of electricity can often account for up to 15% of the energy loss from power facility to end user (depending on distance to end user, age of the network, etc..). Siting the TGE facility adjacent to an existing gas line and substation within the end-user community guarantees efficiency in transmission and the associated environmental benefits including overall CO2 reduction. The nearby Newtown Creek Water Pollution Control Plant as well as the de-watering facilities for nearby MTA subway stations offered ample non-potable water sources for the facility’s massive water consumption. A proposed under water interconnection to Manhattan would distribute high grade waste steam to the City’s existing steam infrastructure which is used to heat of over 2000 nearby buildings. These interconnections and the technological advances of a new gas cogeneration facility create efficiencies that would almost certainly put older coal facili- ties out of commission and result in major CO2, NOx, SO2 and particulate reductions. 4
  5. 5. Working Paper Above, select pages from Infrastructure and Community on the energy systems, site context and regenerative design systems proposed for the TGE Cogeneration Power Plant Facility. These urban interconnections are achieved through the adjacencies and economies of scale only found in cities, and through proper planning and negotiations, the economic gains of the developer can be leveraged for community benefit agreements that bring numerous resources into the community. The TGE building design shows how waste heat and water from the facility can be captured on-site and used in greenhouse-structured fa- cades to create vertical agriculture, nurseries and research labs while reducing the visual impacts of the monolithic building. New parks, access to the waterfront, community build- ings and remediation of the existing contaminated site are also proposed to help offset negative impacts to property values in the area. Each of these proposed community benefits are directly tied to the systems inherent in the power plant itself. For instance the greenhouses use the building façade and heavily structured blast walls for support while absorbing low-grade waste heat normally lost in a conventional power facility. The facility roofs were designed as expansive green roofs that provide avian habitat within a critical urban migratory path while also collecting and retain- ing water for the various façade greenhouses. The greenhouses are proposed for sev- eral possible uses including hydroponic urban agriculture that could be operated by local growers and distributors as part of a larger community supported agriculture organization. Another function of the greenhouses is to grow native wetland plants for wetland regenera- tion projects in the greater New York Metropolitan area which would reduce harvesting and trucking of plants from upstate New York. It was also proposed to divert some of the CO2 emissions from the power plant to the greenhouses to increase plant growth and produc- tion rates. This is currently being done at the Pernis Oil Refinery in the Netherlands where 8% of the facility’s CO2 emissions are diverted to 500 greenhouses for the production of flowers. Lastly, the greenhouses were proposed as a living evolving laboratory for educa- tional and private use. One of the proposed projects involved the use of algae as a carbon sink for CO2 emissions since the greenhouse facades could provide all of the main inputs for this type of research- water, light, heat, CO2 and abundant structured vertical space. These algae processes are currently being developed by groups such as Green Fuels Technology Corporation and deployed at power facilities across the United States. The harvested algae are being developed for use as a biofuel, which could be deployed in the future to reduce the facility’s fossil fuel consumption to produce energy. 5
  6. 6. Working Paper Integrated systems and community and environmental benefits from infrastructure facilities are not new but the deployment of these ideas within cities is still quite limited. Tampa Elec- tric offers an excellent example of a power facility integrating with its site and ecological context. For the past twenty years, the general public and school groups have visited the Manatee Viewing Center beside the discharge canal of Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station. This canal is where manatees gather when the temperature of Tampa Bay drops below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Regionally, other power facilities provide similar habitat ar- eas which help the manatees avoid cold stress and cold-related diseases which can cause this endangered species to die in large numbers. In a similar use of waste heat the Blue Lagoon in Iceland was built as the retention pond for a geothermal power plant’s excess hot water. The facility’s waste heat and water are used as a large public pool and spa and is one of Iceland’s most visited tourist attractions. In northern climates, similar power fa- cilities can create community amenities such as heated pools or even provide heating for entire new housing districts, schools and office complexes. These concepts are not utopian dreams but rather very real opportunities for direct community benefits from leveraged infrastructure investments. Funding for any and all of these concepts is the trade-off for the economic gains created by placing infrastructure within communities and maximizing efficiency. The day may come when the public will begin to see the opportunities created by infrastructure investments and begin to embrace these facilities within their communities. When we begin to re-imagine infrastructure, we can begin to re-imagine the very nature of cities and what it means to live and grow together in the urban environment. The 27th Avenue Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Facility in Phoenix demonstrated that the de- sign of infrastructure can transform our understanding of place and also have a major role in shaping values and habits within a community. The TGE project has the potential to go beyond this concept and begin to transform the way infrastructure is conceived entirely: advancing from a singular prosaic function to an integrated set of co-productive systems within our cities. This re-imagining of infrastructure in the heart of our cities creates new op- portunities to see infrastructure as an integral part of our civic public space, our collective wellbeing and a way of expressing and teaching our shared values. 6