Despite one of my New Years Resolutions being “write more”, I have only managed to write two posts and it’s already halfway through January. I’ve been taking advantage of the last few days of my winter break by starting a little story that was in my mind (apparently, it was in my mind for quite a while). I started with a clear beginning but now I have no idea how to keep going, I even considered just posting what I had and asking others where the story should go, that would certainly be an interesting experiment. But I’m not here to talk about what’s been going on in my life, no, I realize that for the past few posts that’s all that I’ve been doing and I’d like to go back to talking about the things that interest me (and that does not include me). So now that the incredibly lengthy and pointless introduction is nearing an end, let’s continue.
I recently came across a TV series called Earthrise on the Aljazeera network. Each 30 min. episode features around four stories that revolve around the environment – whether it is regenerating deforested areas, endangered species protection or sustainable projects. I spent the better part of the afternoon watching them, and I learned quite a bit (for instance, I can watch the TV and not take in a single word). But one of the most intriguing stories I heard was about the Arcata Marsh.
The Arcata Marsh is, as you probably have guessed it, found in the city of Arcata, California. The marsh is home to a variety of plants and animals (most famously, birds) and serves as a great place for walking and viewing the wildlife. But the most interesting fact about the Arcata Marsh is that the entire site actually serves as a wastewater treatment facility. Yes, Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary wasn’t always there, it used to be a landfill but was eventually designed to become a home for plants and animals, while treating human’s wastewater in a safe and innovative way.
The wastewater still needs to go through primary treatment to screen out all the large matter, like feces, food waste and trash. Suspended solids are used for compost and the methane is used for energy. Then the water flows into oxidation ponds which are filled with algae that give off oxygen which in turn feeds the bacteria in the pond that breaks down any remaining food waste. Next, the water flows into the treatment marshes which removes any leftover algae using plants, sunlight, machinery and chemicals. After the water is chlorinated and then de-chlorinated, it enters the public part of the marsh where a series of enhancement marshes remove organic matter, nutrients for algal blooms and heavy metals. A quick chlorination/de-chlorination ends the process and the now-clean water flows into Humboldt Bay. You can learn more about the process here or watch Episode 5 of Earthrise.
I really liked this story because it was a great example of the combination of the natural and built worlds. Humans created a “natural” environment in which wildlife could survive while at the same time utilizing the land for their own needs as well. It’s somewhat a form of symbiosis and biomimicry in that the treatment process takes advantage of natural, biological processes. It’s something I call “passive engineering” (It’s probably a real term) which I basically define as some system that doesn’t use any artificially generated energy. Passive lighting is basically a fancy phrase used in the architecture industry for sunlight. The marsh achieves a desired engineering goal by implementing natural processes and using no artificially created energy (well, if you only count the marshes and not the primary treatment). I really like passive engineering because it requires extreme forethought and smart design. And I’m more interesting in site design than actual structural design. I think one of the reasons I like built and natural environments is just the fact that there’s less moving parts. Everything is more or less stationary (although buildings are becoming more ‘intelligent’ these days. I think the best designs aren’t the ones that use less energy, but use no energy at all, many would disagree). I really like systems that are more or less stationary, it’s probably why I prefer plants over animals.I prefer a sight with a minimal amount of dynamics, it makes the movement all the more meaningful to me.
The Arcata Marsh is also a perfect example of how a city could present their infrastructure systems on a pedestal, instead of hiding them away in shadowy corners. Have you ever seen a waste/water treatment plant? Probably not, and I don’t blame you. They are usually placed pretty far away from human activity and look pretty ugly, like your standard warehouse. But Arcata turned their wastewater treatment plant into a community and natural hub where people, animals and plants can enjoy themselves. The birds get a fancy wildlife sanctuary, the Humboldt Bay gets clean water, Arcata has themselves a new source of income due to tourists, and people start learning about the waste water treatment process and what actually happens to their wastewater after it gets flushed down their drains. This last part is what I think is most important: education.
By beautifying and making infrastructure systems more architecturally appealing, you attract the public eye, instead of hiding from it. You get people interested about the system and wanting to learn more. You have people who actually take pride in their infrastructure and realize the importance of it. The issue suddenly becomes more relevant to them. America already has many failing infrastructure systems, now would be a great time to redesign them for the public eye. It’s no easy task and requires a lot of innovation and smart design (and hopefully, more passive engineering and biological processes) but I think it would be worth it. While it may not be sanitary to have rivers of sewage running openly around the streets (although I have always imagine a city full of running rivers and waterfalls…possibly a water treatment system?), it would be interesting to make the stormwater channels that flow into the sewers just a little more apparent so that when the rain comes, children can marvel at the newly created rivers that flow. Maybe we could do something like Arcata Marsh with the treatment marshes, but put them in an urban setting? Glass panels can be used to make the trash and recycling process more visible so that visitors can get a better sense of the system. Maybe it’s completely impractical. People often don’t think about trash and waste once it leaves their site, and why should they, it appears to be a hush hush matter that is surrounded by stink (I think if we put more effort in making things more clean despite the stinky nature, it would attract more interest). But perhaps we should start celebrating our infrastructure systems such as waste removal, water treatment and even electrical cables by making them attractive and something worth being proud of. Streets, bus stops and public buildings shouldn’t be the only thing we beautify. I’m not saying that aesthetics trump functionality (it shouldn’t, anything attractive should be functional); I just think we should consider “education” as a possible new function to prevent people from taking things for granted. Or at least let’s not hide the very systems that make it possible for us to live the way we do, we should flaunt it. I don’t have any solutions, but it’s just something that I think is worth thinking about. Let’s try turning gross places into landmarks and architectural and engineering marvels.