Brooklyn, New York
The waste and water infrastructures of New York City are its shadow heroines and background music— overburdened, outdated, and continuously processing, transferring, and accumulating the city’s and our own outputs. Heaps of unwanted trash bags ready to be trucked out of the city every day and leaky, overflowing sewage pipes offer a counter narrative to modernist progress. These infrastructures mediate repressed and abject materials and fluids, and are not so much smooth and fast technological machines, as they are forgotten systems inundated by excess. It is in this excess that we might explore a different kind of nature and definition of environment, a Third Nature (borrowing a term from anthropologist Anna Tsing) that accepts our environment as compromised as a starting point, and admits coexistence with contamination and waste as a given to open up hopeful new design possibilities for our strange time.
New York City is a hydropolis, surrounded, governed, and shaped by its waterways. Water both binds and divides the city, a collection of islands that historically prospered due to its critical aqueous position for international industry, transport, immigration, and trade. But these days, water is a slippery thing, quite literally difficult to grasp, at once charismatic and hostile. New York presents a contradictory attitude towards water and its public perception in how water contributes to our urban experience. On one hand, New York City is developing an engaged, resilient edge of parks, recreational activities, and greater public accessibility to the water for leisure and enjoyment. On the other hand, with mounting anxieties due to global warming, rising water levels and the realities of the impacts from Hurricane Sandy, the city’s response has also been one of fortification with barriers, walls, and big Us. This response suggests that water, and nature by extension, should be feared, opposed and controlled.
New models are necessary for designing infrastructure at a time of new normals when global warming is no longer a looming threat but amongst us and the need for collective civic design is critical. While the design of infrastructure has been limited because of a technocratic approach, in fact infrastructures have alternative capacities precisely because they are not necessarily buildings. Rather than relying on a modernist attitude of problem-solving, functional efficiency, and sterile designs, can we produce frisky infrastructures that propagate and spatially risky proposals that have new energetic capacities for the city?