Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dead Zones

Alan Berger spends a lot of time poking around some of the most dangerously polluted places in the world, from the slums of Mumbai to the toxic slag pools of the American West. But where others might simply see cyanide deposits and smelly canals, Berger—a new-wave landscape architect and urbanist—sees a clearing.

Berger—the founder of P-REX, the Project for Reclamation Excellence at MIT—has a vast but profoundly singular goal: to change the world, literally, by altering the landscape.

Berger’s vision goes far beyond beautification. Where others might simply recommend that polluting farms and factories be shut down—or destroyed lands be returned to their natural, prettier state—Berger specializes in creating whole new ecosystems out of places that humans have left for dead, either from neglect or design.

Some places are so environmentally ravaged, he says, “you can never go back.” Thanks to new computer modeling technologies and newly available environmental data—from the spread of pine beetle devastation in the American West to the size of the hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico—Berger and his team don't have to. Instead, they design new ecosystems that use nature to heal itself.

Berger approaches each new project like a Digital Age detective: Using low-angle aerial photography, maps, computer models combined with complex data sets and other graphic evidence, Berger visually reveals evidence of landscape waste—dead or under-utilized land areas—and how they interact with the environment and man-made patterns of behavior over time. GIS (Geographic Information Systems) computer technology can, he says, stack information in a new way “to see relationships that the normal visual or physical experience in the landscape wouldn’t be able to reveal.” Then Berger will, in some cases, work to redirect the flow of water, move hills around, build islands where there were none and plant new species to absorb pollution, create more natural artificial landscapes that can ultimately sustain themselves.

Case in point: Berger's Pontine Marshes project along the Mediterranean coast of Italy southwest of Rome is attempting to re-create a natural wetland in a valley through which some of Italy’s most seriously polluted waters now pass; he aims to infuse this area with a careful, complex mix of the right kinds of plants, dirt, stones, and drainage channels, to serve as a natural filter through which severely contaminated waters can flow on their way through coastal residential areas and back out to the sea. “This area is so ecologically out of balance,” Berger says, that “romantic notions of a vacation landscape playground just south of Rome will be tempered by the very real pollution problems expanding there.” Berger told a New York Times reporter last fall: “You can’t restore [this area]. You have to go forward, to set this place on a new path.”

Besides the marshes project, Berger is working with the French government to analyze landscape waste around Paris; he also is involved in a 2,400-acre reclamation project in the French Gulch area around the community of Breckenridge, Colorado, that is part of a larger initiative to clean up an abandoned lead-zinc-copper-sulfide and gold ore mine as part of a Superfund cleanup underwritten by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Key to all of his work is the discovery of how life has adapted to spoiled environments; the French Gulch project is an example. “When non-native trout species were introduced to the mountain streams there (as part of an earlier reclamation effort),” Berger says, “no one realized that they would quickly out-compete the native trout species" and push them onto the endangered species list: Berger discovered that the polluted mine drainage waters are actually protecting the native species from being destroyed by the fish newcomers. "Clean this up and the native species will not survive," says Berger.

Berger is first to admit that especially internationally, what he does is still not universally embraced but he is optimistic. “I think what we are witnessing today is a renewal of landscape’s intellectual and critical dimensions,” he says. “Humans will continue to consume and abuse [the environment], but if we can find ways to coordinate those activities with information technology and the dynamics of ecology, that will be a true civilization-scale advancement.”

—Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration: Viridian for istock.com)

(NOTE: This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on PopTech.com)

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