Bringing out the Best


Mouth of the Gowanus Canal (Source:

The Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States. Located in Brooklyn, NYC, this mile and a half long Canal was used as a commercial and industrial waterway for the numerous industries and businesses in the surrounding area. Large ships carrying coal, cement, machines and tanks of natural gas and oil sailed through every day. During the industrial revolution, environmental regulations were near non-existent, and many industries simply deposited their waste into the waterway, polluting the water with heavy metals, pesticides and organics. Additionally, many of New York City’s combined sewers flowed into the Gowanus Canal, meaning that during periods of heavy rain, when the city’s wastewater treatment plants could not handle the combined flows of sewer water and stormwater, the sewers directed flows into the Gowanus – untreated. As the lowest point in the immediate area, any water that landed in the surrounding six square miles flowed into the Canal, picking up all sorts of pollutants on the way.

Currently, the Gowanus is undergoing a $506 million clean-up, which should be complete by 2022. With Downtown Brooklyn less than half a mile away, relators and other investors are beginning to realize the potential in the Gowanus neighborhood.  Gowanus by Design, a community-based urban design advocacy group, hosted its third annual Axis Civitas international design competition to invite design firms to envision a possible future for the Gowanus Canal, based on its rich and complex history. Entries had to have two components: 1) Conduct research on the current economic, environmental, or social conditions of the area and 2) use this research to provide a new community “Urban Field Station” to enable sustainable development and growth.

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MKE H20 101

History Lesson incoming.

Having gone to school in New York, I’m often asked why I decided to come back to the Midwest after graduation. One of the main reasons I came to Milwaukee to start my professional career was due to the city’s history and optimistic future with water and water technology. I thought I’d spend this post by (very) briefly covering the history of Water in Milwaukee so that readers gain a greater appreciation for Milwaukee, and just urban water management in general.

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How smart does a “Smart City” make us?

Source: Intel

Thanks to the marvels of technology, we’ve managed to give life to inanimate objects. Our homes can now tell us it’s too warm, refrigerators remind us when we’re running out of eggs, and our cars can call in an emergency when we’re unable to do so. What I’m talking about is this rising phenomenon called the “Internet of Things” (IoT). By installing all sorts of sensors imaginable, we can take real-time measurements on properties such as energy usage, weight, temperature, etc. This constant stream of data is then processed and analyzed along with countless other streams of data and then well-informed decisions are made – most of the time automatically. It’s this network of objects “talking” to each other that makes up the “Internet of Things.”

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An Irrational Request

(C) Luc Schuiten

As a fan of the fantasy genre, I have always been attracted to the concept of tree architecture. Almost every fantasy world has some magical city hidden in the forest, where the branches intertwine into canopy walkways and the trunks serve as dwellings. Belgian architect Luc Schuiten has taken this idea and applied it to the urban space, imagining sprawling cities made of twisting trees and illuminated by bio luminescent leaves. His drawings seem both fantastical and futuristic. I highly recommend you check out his work.


Schuiten is not the first architect to imagine the use of trees in urban design. Mitchell Joachim of Terreform ONE developed the Fab Tree Hab as a home that operates symbiotically with it’s surroundings.

(C) Luc Schiuten

It would be my wildest dreams come true if any of these ideas were to become a reality. There is an art known as tree sculpting that can shape trees into desired patterns and structures. However, the key obstacle to any of these designs (among many) is that trees take quite a long time grow to a usable size. Trees often outlive humans, so any endeavor would require humans to plan far in advance and be well-invested in the future of the species (and we all know how hard we struggle with that).

So I am putting a call out to the genetic engineers of the world – figure out a way to accelerate the growth of trees. I don’t know how you’ll do it, or if it can be done, but I assure you, if you can do it, you would drastically change the world as we know it today. We could have the amazing cities we read about in books. This is the irrational part of my brain speaking, and it’s really only for the aesthetic purposes, but please, make it work.

The Art and Engineering of Infrastructure

In a previous post, I brought up the idea of making our city’s infrastructure more aesthetically pleasing. Infrastructure – almost by definition – is hidden, buried underground or constructed in a far-off area away from the central city. By making our infrastructure aesthetically pleasing and placing it at the center of attention, the public has a better chance of appreciating the complex systems that support our modern lifestyle. There’s a good chance that our relationship with our built environment can rapidly change when we begin to appreciate the beauty of the systems in place.

The Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), has this exact goal in mind. According to their website, LAGI wishes “to advance the successful implementation of sustainable design solutions by integrating art and interdisciplinary creative processes into the conception of renewable energy infrastructure.” This requires the collaboration of architects, urban designers, landscape architects, scientists and engineers all working together to create a work of art that generates physical and emotional value.

Every two years, LAGI holds a design competition that combines a major infrastructure sector with public art. In 2012, the competition centered around New York City’s Freshkills Park, drawing 250 submissions from around the world to redefine waste management to the public. This year, 2014, the project description was to design a public sculpture that also continuously distributes clean energy into the electrical grid, proving that our energy infrastructure can be both essential, and beautiful.

The first place winner was designed by Santiago Muros Cortés. Titled, “The Solar Hourglass,” this sculpture acts as a solar central receiver, concentrating solar energy through the use of flat mirrors to heat up a steam turbine and generate 7,500 MWh/year. Aesthetically speaking, the sculpture is quite elegant, consisting of two simple pieces that mirror each other, with the bright glow of the sun at the center (whether this would be a danger to eyesight remains to be seen). It certainly looks like something that should come out of a science fiction novel.  You can find the other winners and submissions at the competition website.


What attracts me to this competition is the idea that both science and art can be blended seamlessly together to create a product that could not have existed without this collaboration. I’m glad there are organizations like LAGI who strongly believe in the benefits of this intersection. The built environment inherently contains character, and this character must be expressed in order to garner full appreciation. Additionally, the built environment must also support the livelihood of the people that inhabit it. This requires design guided by scientific principles and engineering thinking. As I learned recently, architecture that does not consider engineering cannot fully unlock its full potential, and engineering without art cannot truly connect with the people.

By making our infrastructure the center of attention, our entire perspective regarding the built environment changes. It may not be easy to see at first, but consider how our line of thinking and behavior would change if we were cognizant of the many systems that support our way of life. A greater appreciation for the built and natural environment develops, and we are more aware of our place and effect we have on our surroundings. It may take a little more money to hire an architect to design something like a power plant, but consider the added benefits it will bring. What a world it would be if there were children pulling their parents by the hand, saying “Let’s go visit the garbage plant!”

Service that Inspires

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)

Kickstarting Glowing Plants

In an earlier post, I had posited the question of whether it was more “sustainable” to have traditional street lamps or genetically engineered bioluminescent trees. It appears that this idea has been in the mind of many researchers and is finally reaching the public in the most public way possible: kickstarter. A team of researchers have put together a kickstarter initiative to generate enough funds to mass-produce bioluminescent plants. The project has already surpassed its goal and as of this post, there are still 42 days to go. Clearly, this project has triggered the imagination and enthusiasm of the public. The application of bioluminescent trees/plants as public infrastructure is clear, and it makes sense that the public should be the ones to fund such an initiative, making such public infrastructure truly public.

As the video mentions, “Synthetic Biology is the future,” and I strongly believe that the technological future will shift towards synthetic biology, no matter what technical field. Synthetic Biology has uses in the fashion industry, the technology industry, the automobile industry, the healthcare industry, ect. Our world is shifting towards one supported not by mechanical systems, but by biological ones. This project is surely a “Symbol of the future” as it represent imagination turned into reality. Even the craziest ideas can be created with scientific principles and an innovative mind.