Reading the Missouri River as a complex, hybridized infra-natural system

Mammoth has been doing a summer long, series of posts on floods (both national; international) and flood control (man-made;natural responses) explored through the lens of the infrastructural landscape. All of the posts are excellent and thought-provoking but I wanted to respond to two  in particular: six dams and six reservoirs and dredging fort peck.

Chiefly, because they allow me an opportunity to refer to a fascinating book I read earlier this year, River Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America. Published by Houghton Mifflin in 1999, it was written by Ur-American traveler writer, William Least Heat-Moon. The book chronicles the author’s successful attempt to cross the USA from East to West traveling solely (almost completely), by river boat or canoe alone.

I had previously published a short post, Discovering the Garrison Dam inspired by my ongoing reading of Heat-Moon’s book. At that time I wrote the following:

Suffice to say, the tale (particularly the part from whence the above passage is excerpted, regarding the author’s time on the Missouri during his cross country, East to West, only by river navigation) is deeply fascinating for what it says about America, rivers and a sense of nature and place. It especially makes me think about my time in the Midwest and of the fact that my father’s land of birth is up North, near the Missouri headwaters.

Meanwhile, Mammoth has argued for viewing the current flooding, occurring along the Mississippi and Missouri for instance, as “not natural disasters, but infra-natural disasters” . 

What exactly does this mean? As Mammoth described it, the infra-natural disaster is a complex hybridized entity “rather than merely natural disaster; nature may have provided the floodwaters, but the specific velocity and volume of floodwater was produced by the configuration of infrastructural systems, and the confluence of physical and legal infrastructures controlled where disaster appeared.]

Heat-Moon has much to say about this hybrid state of the American waterways. The waters are to him: historic, mythic yet vibrant, urban-rural, wild and natural but also controlled and man-made…

Mammoth’s six dams and six reservoirs focuses on the six reservoirs of the Upper Missouri — Fort Peck Lake, Lake Sakakawea, Lake Oahe, Lake Sharpe, Lake Francis Case, and Lewis and Clarke Lake. Heat-Moon was about two thirds of the way through his cross-continental adventure by the time he reached the Upper Missouri. What is interesting about this section of the book though is that he describes  the flip-side of the condition Mammoth has documented this summer. While Mammoth highlights the flooded conditions of this stretch of the Missouri and the fact that the Army Corp is having to discharge high volumes of water from the six reservoirs, during Heat-Moon’s visit the Army Corps was “releasing minimal water” (pg. 303) as a result of the high water levels further downstream and the chances of Heat-Moon reaching Garrison Dam are described as “aught to naught“.

Heat-Moon describes the way the contemporary river has been changed by the Corps from the river of “ten thousand channels, chutes, islands, towheads, meanders, marshes, backwaters, slackwaters, sloughs, sandbars, and wrenchingly tight bends into a ildly curving conduit” (pg. 211) All of this was done for the purpose of ensuring navigational usage of the river. Resulting in what some groups would argue is a market skewing , un-needed high-rate of industry subsidization. Industry groups would counter however, that barging is used chiefly for high volume, bulk commodities. Barging, therefore earns the support of many environmental groups because it is highly efficient, in terms of energy usage and carbon reduction.

Heat-Moons’ thoughts on the equation though, are clear. He writes “Channelizing destroyed thousands of acres of natural habitats, removed spaces that formerly absorbed high waters to lessen the impact of floods, and forced Americans to pay millions of dollars to benefit a few companies and bottom farmers and people who should never have built houses and businesses in the altered floodplain in the first place.” (pg. 211)

The passage I quoted in my earlier post perfectly illustrates the immensity/scale of our conceit. Garrison Dam is just one node with an enormous infra-natural project, which has resulted in the current complex, hybridized system that exists today.

More than two miles long and 219 feet high, it is one of the largest (eds note: the fifth largest per Wikipedia) earthern structures in the world, a thing so massive, from the river at least, it didn’t look big, any more than, say, North Dakota looks big from a highway; it was just simply everywhere.  (pg. 307)

While awe-inspiring in scale and ego, the folly of such attempts are made clear.  But the river’s hybrid condition is not the fault of dams alone. All manner of industries benefit from subsidies at the river(s) expense. Heat-Moon again does not hide his sympathies. Besides the six dams and their reservoirs how patterns of land use on river adjacent lands have also  totally, the riverine ecologies that once existed. Exclusively, for the good of man. His travels bring Heat-Moon to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge , where due to the antiquated Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, the “foul stench of cattle manure made us hurry our snack” (pg. 253). Aside from this more aesthetic condition a host of other ills result from the $500 million subsidy to corporate cattle operations. One reads, “Considered against declining species-birds, plants, animals-the need for more meat in this nation is ludicrous; considered against the soil erosion and siltation that cattle create, the consumption of more beef is stupid; considered against the fecal pollution of our waters, the sale of more franchise burgers is criminal.” His solution? “Windmills and pumps should water stock, not natural waterways.”  (pg. 353-354)

Finally, in a recent Sunday Edition of the NYT, an article discussed the possibilities of a new and different era wherein Americans’ relationship with (the) river(s) could change, for the better. In After Floods, Debate Over Missouri River Rolls On we read:

Asked about the continued emphasis on navigation despite the sparse traffic, Jody Farhat, the chief of water management for the Missouri River Basin for the Army Corps of Engineers, said: “The primary reason is it’s because it’s the law. The Corps of Engineers does what Congress tells us to do.”

This passage makes clear the Corps is just serving it’s mandated purpose. Design-as-intended. As mammoth has elsewhere noted, this “success” points to the fact that the Corps may be one of the most pre-eminent organizations of practicing landscape designers. Particularly, in terms of scale and ambition. What the above passage and Heat-Moon’s contempt for the Taylor Grazing Act  both suggest is that re-shaping the landscape, either by re-orienting the Corps mission or landscape management practices of the BLM, through the legislative, rule-making process, could hold the key to the beginning of a re-engagement with the river(s). It could be argued that this sort of affective, political design, is a great example of “going soft“. Dealing not with the hard (current) infrastructural realities (a la dam-busting). Rather, reshaping those realities, via “soft power and soft politics“. Such a trajectory could be extremely meaningful. Moreover, emphasizing the fluid, time-tested processes of natures’ design as opposed to the hard infrastructure of dams and control structures, is the easiest way to develop, ecologically balanced design.

For as a young Corpsmen said to Heat-Moon.

It was just imbecilic to think we could dam off one of the biggest rivers on the planet in fifteen different places and not upset balances…I’m not really an enviro, but if I were, I wouldn’t be running scared. Green thought has the whole natural system on its side-thats about three billion years of trial and error posed against a couple thousand years of human engineering.”  (pg. 259)

Urban (space) food truck, trends…

What role do urban food trends play in our public space? Is it better to have a parking-lot full of food trucks or a real public square? Why  not both? Do food trucks really “activate public space” as David Weber, president of the New York City Food Truck Association argues to the author of Should Cities Drive Food Trucks Off the Streets?

Or are they just “hipper food courts” ? Gainesville has just started to jump on the food truck craze so it is hard for me to say. But I do like the food I have had. Friends have called them “Roach Coaches” or made other claims about the quality/cleanliness. None of which I really buy. I have always been a fan of food carts and I don’t see much of an difference. Nothing that a properly enforced food-safety regime can’t handle.

I actually would agree  that food trucks can be a quick/flexible/soft tool for contemporary urban intervention. Activating un/under-used public, private, recreational, open space. Though there is one legitimate issue which is raised in the essay.  That too many food trucks may flood a market and because of lower-overhead be more competitive than a traditional restaurant. Therefore, actually serving to lower overall number of businesses, by driving out already existing businesses, in a given area. For example

But many restaurateurs are sick of seeing competition literally drive up outside their windows. 

“It’s ignorant of people in the community to think that buying from food trucks instead of from local restaurants doesn’t hurt the community,” said Melissa Murphy , who runs two Sweet Melissa Patisseries in Brooklyn. “There’s just not enough to go around right now.”

There are I think however, at least two responses to such a criticism. First, while food trucks might compete (although not in price) with fast-food, the experience of eating from a food truck is not the same as going out to eat at a sit down, full service restaurant. It would seem to me that they would be targeting a different audience/price-point. So I am not sure how much of a conflict there really is without a whole lot of other infrastructure like seating, restrooms etc. Additionally, proper regulation, in terms of managing the overall number of commercial-food industry entities (food-truck or not) through permits and licenses would also help to maintain the desired balance.

Social Design using feedback loops: guides and manuals

For Wired Magazine, Thomas Goetz looks at the idea of feedback loops and how they can be used as a powerful tool that can help change people’s behavior in Feedback Loops Are Changing What People Do.

The basic premise is that technology has advanced to a point that sensors have become cheap and powerful enough that data (ie: ubicomp) the key and necessary precursor to establishing a feedback loop, can be captured and transmitted about a wide range of factors. Which creates the possibility of increasing energy efficiency, medication administration compliance or calming traffic. The key however is for the design to be straight-forward. Goetz quotes David Rose

The best sort of delivery device “isn’t cognitively loading at all,” he says. “It uses colors, patterns, angles, speed—visual cues that don’t distract us but remind us.” This creates what Rose calls “enchantment.” Enchanted objects, he says, don’t register as gadgets or even as technology at all, but rather as friendly tools that beguile us into action. In short, they’re magical.

To me this implies a sort of pre-cognitive design. Reptilian or primordially evocative. Something that is almost instinctual affective. Early versions of this sort of interventional designed trigger ie: can be found in the example of  projects like Amphibious Architecture

which submerged ubiquitous computing into the water—the substance that makes up 90% of the Earth’s inhabitable volume and envelops New York City but remains under-explored and under-engaged. Two networks of floating interactive tubes, installed at sites in the East River and the Bronx River, house a range of sensors below water and an array of lights above water. The sensors monitor water quality, presence of fish, and human interest in the river ecosystem. The lights respond to the sensors and create feedback loops between humans, fish, and their shared environment. An SMS interface allows citizens to text-message the fish, to receive real-time information about the river, and to contribute to a display of collective interest in the environment.

How could such designs use feedbacks loops to highlight a psychology of ecologies. Creating social ecologies that are based on visible data, instruments for evolving environment ecologies. Wherein the idea of prosociality has been extended to include all species not just our own? This could result in an experimental altruism of ecological infrastructure(s). Soft infrastructures of resilience.

Next, think about the  idea of gamification. Of social gaming or networked social economies. Non-currency based earnings. Recently I read

A few hours of raking leaves might build up points that can be used in a gardening game. And the games induce people to earn more points, which means repeating good behaviors. The idea, Krejcarek says, is to “create a bridge between the real world and the virtual world. This has all got to be fun.”

Could this idea be applied to infrastructural, urban landscape design? I have wondered before about how one might create a less capital intensive form of maintenance. Could one solution be a form  based more on a knowledge building, community creating, recreational-volunteerism? It seems like one could take the growth of games like FarmVille to the next level.  Applying the concept of gamification to community development or urban ecologies. The result being a sort of social design (by designing social interactions and using social interactions to shape more traditional designed things/scapes) using feedback loops to develop recreational modes of doing and learning.

Finally, their would be in such a program a need for an owner/player, manual of sorts. Every game has one, right? Recently,  faslanyc in Surveying the Field: Guides and Manuals, wrote about the possibilities of the manual.

we are interested in the possibility that landscape and architectural practice might move away from the plan set and capital project as the sole primary document for design and towards a more open arrangement defined by the manual.  As Brett Milligan of F.A.D. and Rob Holmes of Mammoth recently noted, we had a chance to work this idea out a bit in the most recent issue of MonU.

He went on to contrast two genres: guides  and manuals. Whereas “the guide is a commercial endeavor” focused on identification the “emphasis of the manual is technique- the manner and ability of a person to employ the specialized skills to execute specific procedures.  The manual is instrumental and operational”  Then closing with “When the maintenance manual- already a part of traditional design projects, albeit a neglected and unglamorous part- is considered in conjunction with the theoretical and speculative efforts to construct landscapes that are more open, performative, and adaptive over time, the manual might be repositioned in design projects as the primary document, with plans becoming secondary.

 In conclusion what is the importance of manuals?  I would argue that particularly in the current economic times of austerity the importance of manuals is increased. For after all aren’t manuals more about manual (labor) rather than capital (flows). Many people also have more time than money now. Even in my case a manual could be a tool for strategizing. For the manual helps to sort the easily achievable from the more prophetically desired. In the end a manual can perhaps be thought of as a document focused more on the how to (including whens and wheres) than the final what. Yet, I would like to think that the manual can also be a form of critical speculative design as others have already articulated more clearly

The landscape of prosociality

Published online 8 June 2011 | Nature 474, 146-149 (2011) | doi:10.1038/474146a

In Evolution: Darwin’s City, Emma Marris explores the work of David Sloan Wilson who is using the lens of evolution to understand life in the struggling city of Binghamton, New York. Wilson comes originally from the field of  evolutionary biology with a long-standing focus on understanding the puzzle of altruism. However, his work has turned so much towards a mixture of evolutionary social sciences, community organizing and urban design that he is sort of viewed within his field as a oddity.

Marris writes about how Wilson’s studies led him to “see whether he could raise up the prosocial valleys by creating conditions in which cooperation becomes a winning strategy — in effect, hacking the process of cultural evolution (see ‘A map of prosociality’). He set about this largely by instituting friendly competitions between groups. His first idea was a park-design project, in which neighbourhoods were invited to compete for park-improvement funds by creating the best plan.

Urban-personality differences and hacking urban development

The following articles illustrate different effects/reactions to two very contemporary, models of urban action: namely alternative transportation and hacking the city (aka re-development).

In Boris Bikes Roll in London, Tim Adams suggests velophilia is the urban philosophy of Boris Johnson’s, post-austerity, London.

A key quote: “If you asked any Londoner to describe the sum total of visible changes made to the city in the nearly three years of Johnson’s tenure, a single phrase would dominate: Boris Bikes.” The piece is more a critique of Johnson’s tenure than a real exploration of: a bicycle urbanism.

It will be interesting to see the long term sustainability of the London model though. I think as NYC fabled DOT head has shown, following in the footsteps of Jamie Lerner, a key factor must be the removal (if only partial) of the automobile from the top of the transportation hierarchy. However, Adams rightly points out that Londons velophilia is facilitated primarily by Barclays subsidization as a branding campaign. Although, one wonders whether the implementation of congestion pricing over the last few years has has any effect on bicycling adoption rates. To be a real transportation model though London will have to go further. Adams notes, “Sponsoring 5,000 bikes is one thing; building mythical “bike superhighways” on streets in which every square inch of asphalt is already fiercely competed for, moment by moment, is another.

I found the above an interesting contrast to this next article in NY Magazine about NYC being Not Quite Copenhagen. The article asks Is New York too New York for bike lanes? Despite the work of Sadik-Khan’s DOT or perhaps in spite of it, Matthew Shaer writes “And so it has come to this: Bike lanes, not so long ago a symbol of a boldly progressive New York City, have sparked a bitter row on the hushed and leafy streets of brownstone Brooklyn—just one part of a biking backlash rippling across the five boroughs.” It seems though that the real takeaway from the article may have more to do with a critique of the process behind DOT’s implementation and consultation rather than a innate NYer hatred towards a progressive pro-bicyclist agenda. Is the uproar perhaps similar to the current populist, anti-European Tea Party conservative current more visible in American politics today? This passage seems to summarize the situation best: ““Mayoral agencies could do a better job with speaking with community boards, earlier and at more depth,” says Community Board 2’s Robert Perris. “Community boards could be more open-minded and less prone to nimby responses. And bike riders need to understand that as the New York transportation paradigm gets changed, they need to find a graciousness about this, if only for their own self-interest.”

Finally, two separate essays in the Sunday Magazine explore the range of methodologies available to the urban actor who wants to hack or interface with/affect the urban fabric. In The Supersizing Architect of Brooklyn, Andrew Rice uncovers the means by which architect Robert Scarano was able to “interpret” or one could say “hack”, zoning codes in order to gain extra marketable square feet. His efforts resulted in hidden rooms and storage space that transformed into bedrooms. Scarano was able to turn code into an aesthetic. As the author explains, ““The population of factory buildings was unfortunately being used up,” Scarano said. “So what did we do? We created the factory aesthetic in new construction.” And he didn’t just take the aesthetic — he also adapted the zoning rules that applied to warehouse conversions. Under certain circumstances, the code classified loft mezzanines as storage space, not floor area, and Scarano assured developers their new building plans could slip through this loophole. Effectively, he said, he could fashion double-decker apartments, in buildings that were four stories for legal purposes and eight stories for marketing.” Although in many cases this creative, design thinking was not legal, Scarano was able to hack the code to create the desired spatial conditions, a turn of phrase that is especially applicable because of the ambiguous legality of what he did.

Finally, Scarano’s example can be favorably compared to a piece on retired N.Y.P.D. officer Greg O’Connell’s who is a fan of Jane Jacob’s and was influential in the recent rehabilitation of Brooklyn’s post-industrial Red Hook. In The Last Townie, Dwight Garner looks at how O’Connell has now focused his efforts on remaking Mount Morris, a small town in upstate NY. O’Connell it seems focuses on systemic and soft change. Ronald Shiffman, co-founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development, the nation’s largest public-interest architectural and community-planning organization is quoted as saying ““Greg builds relationships with low-income populations, and he doesn’t take quick profits,” As O’Connell himself notes “I invest in people not businesses.” His model is obviously successful, as today he is the largest landowner in RedHook. In comparing Scarano to O’Connell one also contrasts two differing modes of development. One is fundamentally about people, relationships and building communities (soft infrastructures) the other is about maximizing ROI and pushing the boundaries of legal and ethical practices… So hacking code vs hacking systems/relationships?

The hackjob

So apparently this was one of the 2011 Super Bowl XLV commercials. I was grilling a lot this year though and didn’t see as many memorable commercials. I just saw this the other day when I was watching Butler vs Florida for the 2011 NCAA Mens basketball finals competitions.

What I think is interesting is the idea that maybe corporate advertising in this case has a clear understanding of the role of soft systems.

So the basic idea of the ad is that all the renovator did was a hackjob. Meaning instead of actually doing any physical reconstruction/upgrading, he simply provided some iced down beer in a bucket. Let us, think about that because what is interesting I think, is the presumption is obviously that the beer is best (on a side note the only acceptable Budweiser product is Budweiser, period), better than any actual home renovation. But could one argue that the real lesson is that the provisioning of certain types of programming, by their very nature lend themselves to soft, yet structural impacts? Such as the creation of social encounters or interactions. Simply by providing beer, something is designed. Also, note the fact that the project is both in the kitchen and of the landscape. Now within the context of a home improvement show I think a key question would be one of a type of metric. Can the argument be made that such interventions have a beneficial impact to the real estate value? Maybe not value but certainly I think end user experience. Soft, social structures I think “beer” a lot of watching…

In terms of public space one could also look to the beer garden, or the productive industrial scape of hop growing and beer production as example of landscapes of intoxication….

structured data, object models and zero-configuration networking as the tools of urban design

What would it mean to think of a city as a dense mesh of active, communicating objects — each one able to gather information from the environment around it, routinely share that information with other objects as well as human users, even act upon it where appropriate? And if we can treat the things we encounter in urban environments as system resources, rather than a mute collection of disarticulated buildings, vehicles, sewers and sidewalks, what might we do with them?

Greenfield goes on to call for the need for the city to be open in terms of data, ownership and usage (w)rites. In this vein he makes a call for something that came up often in last years Infrastructural City blog-discussion, lead by Mammoth, “Just as the novice programmer is invited to learn from, understand, and improve upon — to “hack” — open-source software, the city itself should invite its users to demystify and reengineer the places in which they live and the processes which generate meaning, at the most intimate and immediate level.

Via Adam Greenfield over at Urbanscale (here)