Amidst the economic and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people see the process of rebooting society as an opportunity to do things differently. Some organizations are calling for large investments in infrastructure, both to create jobs and to promote green economic growth.
But projects that look valuable in the abstract can meet strong resistance when it comes time to start building locally. For example, in 2012 I was part of a committee tasked with selecting an energy supplier to build a solar park on a former landfill in the progressive city of Amherst, Massachusetts. Neighbors, who were not consulted, fought to preserve a bucolic lawn that had grown on the landfill. After several lawsuits, the project died unhappy.
This debacle got me thinking. As an architectural historian, he knew that Americans had not always been so disconnected from facilities that produced basic necessities such as food, energy and clean water. My new book, Landscape and Infrastructure: Reimagining the Pastoral Paradigm for the 21st Century, explores how Western views of the systems that sustain society have evolved. It also highlights contemporary projects that successfully connect infrastructure and communities in the places people want to be.
Art objects and tourist attractions
In 17th- and 18th-century European landscape paintings, such as Jacob Ruisdael’s Dutch landscapes, windmills compete with church steeples for prominence on the horizon. This wasn’t just an aesthetic choice. Painters focused on windmills because they generated wealth and prosperity.
Classic English landscape gardens include a feature called ha-ha: a grassy moat running through a lawn, reinforced by a sunken wall that was invisible from the main house. This created a vision of what appeared to be intact meadows, grazing sheep and cattle, key sources of wealth and prosperity, while also separating visitors from animals and their waste.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, a handful of architects and artists struggled between the weaving infrastructure and nature. Frederick Graff’s Fairmount Water Works in 1823 protected Philadelphia’s water supply and drew hordes of visitors to admire its Neo-Palladian architecture and landscaped park along the Schuylkill River.
And in the 1930s, Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned a utopian community called Broadacre City, his answer to Depression-era urban planning. This project, which was never built to scale, intertwined gardens, factories, and residences into what he called a Usonian society, a society that offered Americans deeper links to nature and productivity.
However, with the industrialization of societies, landscape artists and architects began to downplay or separate industry and infrastructure from their views on nature. People came to understand nature as pristine and separate from modern communities, a view that still dominates today.
As cities and suburbs expanded in the 19th and 20th centuries, power plants, water treatment plants and waste facilities also expanded. Increasingly, these structures were built on the industrial fringes of metropolitan areas, out of sight and out of mind. They often found themselves in disadvantaged communities that lacked the political power to oppose.
Even renewable energy systems, despite their ecological prestige, often perpetuate this destructive tradition. Many solar farms in the United States are lifeless slabs surrounded by chain-link fences, occupying land and habitat. For most of us, the idea that infrastructure can be attractive and aesthetic seems contradictory.
Productive and attractive
What is the alternative? In my book, I highlight recent infrastructure projects whose creative teams included artists, architects or landscape architects and invited community contributions. These facilities not only generate electricity or process waste, but also offer recreation and education and connect visitors to their energy sources and drinking water.
Hampden, the Connecticut water filtration plant, completed in 2005, is one of those ecological and aesthetic resources. The structure, which resembles an inverted silver tear, emerges from a landscape carefully designed to mimic the filtering processes that take place inside the building. The trails and ponds around the site provide recreation, education, and habitat for wildlife.