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SPURSE & the BMW Guggenheim Lab Explore NY’s Most Astonishing Post-Natural Landscape

Posted By Rebecca Paul On September 9, 2011 @ 11:25 am In Architecture,Art NYC,Water | 1 Comment


At the start of our adventure, Inhabitat and several other attendees gathered at the LAB [9] in the East Village, and after two subway rides and a quick trip on the path train to New Jersey, we finally arrived at our destination. Standing on the shore of the Hackensack, we were greeted by Riverkeepers’ Captain Bill Sheehan and Hugh Carola [10] and we were then boarded onto a set of pontoon boats to embark on the second part of our journey.

Officially referred to as the New Jersey Meadowlands District, this 32-square-mile area is governed not by the sate of New Jersey, but instead by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission [11]. As we trolled down the river we learned the history behind this urban waterway [12], its harrowing destruction and its inspiring rebirth [13]. Our experience on Friday left us with at lot to consider, and now that we’ve been able to reflect on our expedition, we can’t help but wonder: Could this small pocket of earth be a micro-model with solutions for repairing our planet for the future?

History of the Hackensack and the Meadowlands

“If you look at how the natural landscape of America has been altered and changed since colonial times, you’ll agree that it’s a near-miracle that any habitats remain in the Metro area. But if you take the time to explore places like the real Meadowlands, Jamaica Bay, the Rockaways or the head of Long Island Sound you will see that nature not only survives – it thrives.”

- Hugh Carola Haskensack Riverkeeper

Starting in the 1600s when European settlers [14] first gave the river a name – followed by logging, then ditching, diking and draining – the Meadowlands that once stretched over 32 square miles encompassing nearly 25,000 acres of wetlands and waterways, was reduced to only a third of its former size. By the late 19th century [15] the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and factories from Hackensack to Newark bay were spewing untold gallons of untreated waste into the river, while raw sewage and refuse of all kinds were being dumped in and around the waterways.

This toxic combination left hotspots of chromium [16], PCBs [17], mercury [18] and other contaminants throughout the river’s ecosystem. The invasive and unnatural change in the river’s chemistry wiped out almost all of the area’s plant and animal life, and by the 1940s the common reed – Phragmites communis [19] – was one of the only plant species that remained. It was around this time people also started using the area as a regional garbage dump. Garbage trucks from scores of municipalities, including the Erie Railroad hopper cars, were filled with trash and unloaded onto the wetlands. We can presently count 34 historic dump sites. For some sites, fires were known to spontaneously combust, while others burned underground for years.

meadowlands environment ecology river water waste restoration wildlife wild preservation habitat sustainable industry environmentalism "environmental stewardship" advocacy education

The Future of the Meadowlands & The Hackensack Riverkeepers

By the 1970s most of the dumping had stopped, and as time progressed, the Riverkeepers and others managed to also stop the dumping of many poisons into the Meadowlands. Presently a number of superfund site cleanups are operating in their early stages, and a few of the landfills have been, or are being capped. What we see of the Meadowlands today can be described as 10% “clean up” and 90% entangled systems evolving – but their work is far from over.

“The biggest fear I have about the future is that someday people will not understand why places like the marshes of the Meadowlands were protected,” said Carola. “Despite all the work of activists and attorneys over the years to protect land and wildlife, unless people are educated as to the why – and why it should matter to them – then very little we do today will matter in the long run as our air and water get filthier, the last scraps of habitat are paved over and only rats, and cockroaches remain as humanity’s fellow travelers.”

meadowlands environment ecology river water waste restoration wildlife wild preservation habitat sustainable industry environmentalism "environmental stewardship" advocacy education

New Concepts and Ideas: How the Meadowlands Can Help Our Future

“The Meadowlands reflects the tension between human development and a sustainable planet.”

- Olatunbosun Obayomi

Every two and a half weeks, the events at the BMW Guggenheim Lab are currated by a new Lab Team Member [20]; the field trip to the Meadowlands was part of Olatunbosun Obayomi [21] program that took an in-depth look at the infrastructural challenges of waste and water.

When asked about Friday’s experience Olatunboun [22], a microbiologist and inventor from Lagos, Nigeria, said, The Meadowlands reflects the tension between human development and a sustainable planet. Man has developed cities with infrastructures that make the city livable but negates the environment. The city is a combination of systems and the environment a system that has not been recognized as a city system. Only when city infrastructures combine appropriately with the natural environment can we have a true livable city.”

meadowlands environment ecology river water waste restoration wildlife wild preservation habitat sustainable industry environmentalism "environmental stewardship" advocacy education

SPURSE [23] was also pleased with their afternoon of research. Iain Kerr of SPURSE explained, “Even this story of “human” shaping misses the complex co-shaping/co-evolving of this landscape — now, for example, the biggest “land developers” in the Meadowlands are the marsh grasses – negotiating with tides, muskrats, earthworks and ecologists…”

SPURSE later explained to Inhabitat that it is this complex system that inspired them to bring their research out of the Lab and into the field. It is their intention [24] to pose complex questions such as, “How are we of the world, as opposed to in the world?”

“We have stunted our abilities to think beyond our current ideas about nature, and yet it’s the very challenge we need to put back on the table,” says Petia Morozov also from SPURSE.

Based on the tone that carried through the afternoon, we have come to understand that the team isn’t focused on solving problems, but rather, figuring out what the most pertinent questions are. More specifically, “What does ecology mean today, and what it will mean as we co-evolve with environments like the Meadowlands?”

Inhabitat’s experience at the Meadowlands was more then just covering another event. We did the usual – took pictures, scribbled and notes – but we also had the opportunity to engage in a conversation about problems in our own city, through a platform that went beyond the computer screen. If you’re in the NY Metro area we encourage you to make a trip to the LAB. The lab will reamin in New York until October 16, and from there it will move on to Berlin and then Mumbai. You can also see all of their upcoming events [25] on their calendar [25].

+ BMW Guggenheim Lab [26]

+ SPURSE [6]

+ The Hackensack Riverkeepers [27]

Photos © Amanda Coen for Inhabitat


Article printed from Inhabitat New York City: http://inhabitat.com/nyc

URL to article: http://inhabitat.com/nyc/spurse-the-guggenheim-bmw-lab-explore-nys-most-astonishing-post-natural-landscape/

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[5] BMW Guggenheim Lab: http://inhabitat.com/nychhttp://inhabitat.com/nyc/bmw-guggenheim-lab-opens-hosts-free-urban-experiments-in-nycs-east-village-exclusive-photos/

[6] SPURSE: http://www.spurse.org/

[7] Hackensack Riverkeepers: http://www.hackensackriverkeeper.org/mission.html

[8] afternoon of research: http://www.spurse.org/category/live-feeds/

[9] at the LAB: http://bmwguggenheimlab.org/where-is-the-lab

[10] Captain Bill Sheehan and Hugh Carola: http://www.hackensackriverkeeper.org/who.html

[11] New Jersey Meadowlands Commission: http://www.njmeadowlands.gov/about/about.html

[12] history behind this urban waterway: http://urbanhabitats.org/v02n01/3centuries_full.html

[13] inspiring rebirth: http://www.njmeadowlands.gov/about/timeline/history_F.html

[14] European settlers: http://www.njmeadowlands.gov/about/timeline/history_A.html

[15] 19th century: http://www.njmeadowlands.gov/about/timeline/history_C.html

[16] chromium: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chromium#Environmental_issues

[17] PCBs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PCBs#Health_effects

[18] mercury: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury_%28element%29#Toxicity_and_safety

[19] Phragmites communis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phragmites

[20] Lab Team Member: http://bmwguggenheimlab.org/what-is-the-lab/people/lab-team-new-york

[21] Olatunbosun Obayomi: http://bmwguggenheimlab.org/what-is-the-lab/people/lab-team-new-york/olatunbosun-obayomi

[22] Olatunboun: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yL9uwTegryI

[23] SPURSE: http://www.spurse.org/category/blog/

[24] their intention: http://www.spurse.org/about/people/

[25] upcoming events: http://bmwguggenheimlab.org/whats-happening/calendar?reset=1

[26] + BMW Guggenheim Lab: http://inhabitat.com/nyc http://bmwguggenheimlab.org/whats-happening/calendar/event/live-feeds-feedforward-fieldwork-5-the-system-as-ecosystem?instance_id=592

[27] + The Hackensack Riverkeepers: http://www.hackensackriverkeeper.org/

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