Despite being essential for the function of society, infrastructure is often shunned or avoided by the general public. Facilities such as wastewater treatment plants, landfills, and gas plants often have a difficult time being constructed as no one wants to live near an ugly, smelly, or “dirty” site. While some transportation infrastructure, such as bus stations, are welcome by neighborhoods, other examples such as highways are opposed due to the increase in traffic and noise. This pubic behavior of NIMBY-ism (Not In My BackYard) results in costly construction (and transportation) costs, a lack in appreciation for infrastructure services, as well as discrimination and segregation (landfills are often found near neighborhoods of lower income, as these neighborhoods lack resources to oppose unwanted development, which drives down property values).
The New York City Sims Municipal Recycling Facility seeks to change the way the public views infrastructure. This state-of-the-art recycling facility was built to process 20,000 tons per month of NYC gas, plastic and metal while displacing 150,000 truck trips (260,000 miles) annually by utilizing barges on the Brooklyn Waterfront. This $110 million project transforms the old South Brooklyn Marine Terminal (which was used as a police tow-pound) into an exemplar of Infrastructure Design.
Instead of design taking a backseat to function, as is often the case in infrastructure, this recycling facility employed the services of Selldorf Architects. While hiring architects to design infrastructure facilities is not unheard of (see BIG’s waste-to-energy/ski slope), the design of the Sims Facility includes not just the aesthetics, but the function of the facility within the community. Selldorf, which is known for their simple, yet elegant and economic design, used recycled materials to construct the facility, and powered the buildings with solar and wind power. The challenge of working with a constrained budget did not deter Selldorf, in fact, it seemed to breed creative solutions.
As recycling is a harshly scrutinized practice by critics and city officials due to its low-profit margin, the Sims Facility set out to sell the idea of Recycling to the public. Aside from the aesthetics, the Facility also includes a visitor and education center that houses classrooms to hold visiting students. The department of Education is working on a curriculum to teach kids recycling processes and bring them to the facility to experience the process first hand. Selldorf was also careful to showcase the environmental benefits of their design by using renewable energy, including bioswales to treat stormwater runoff and having the foresight to elevate the facility four feet above the city minimum which protected it from major flood damage when Hurricane Sandy arrived.
Clearly, the design of the facility intended to show its worth to the public not just as a recycling center, but also as a social educator and respectful member of the community. This is a great example of Infrastructure achieving the ultimate goal of Service. The Sims facility should be an example to future infrastructure facilities. Infrastructure should be not only a place for efficient function, but also as places for education, appreciation and inspiration. It is not just aesthetics, but also the role of the facility within the community that makes the project so noteworthy. The collaboration between engineers designing the processes and the architects designing the program can change public opinion regarding these life-supporting systems. Sure, some infrastructure will always be shunned, but we should really try to change public perception of infrastructure in general. Infrastructure should not be something that drives off the public, it should be something that attracts the public as a source of pride in the community.
But will it work? The Sims Municipal Recycling Facility will be open sometime soon, so we will have to wait for a while before we can determine if all the efforts paid off. Will the facility achieve all it set out to be and bring about a new appreciation for infrastructure? Or will it fall flat and serve only as a monetary sink for the city? Even if the facility doesn’t turn out to be a huge success, we can still learn from its failures and work on other solutions to bring about public appreciation (and therefore, funding) for the essential systems that support and serve our society.
Infrastructure should Inspire.
(For more information on the design of the building, see this excellent NY Times article)