Infrastructure as Permaculture

February 16, 2017

Can our paved grid of roads and sidewalks evolve into an ecology of functions that benefit both residents and the environment?

Permaculture & Infrastructure

Rather than a road of consumption driven primarily by the use of fossil fuels, the design creates an armature of production, organized around the holistic cultivation of community resources. Perhaps the most important resource to a vibrant, local streetscape is the fostering the pedestrian presence. Preserving not only adequate sidewalk access, but also protection for crossing multi-modal transit paths are critical to convincing residents that their neighborhood is walkable. By dispersing new public space in the form of parklets and shortening crossing distances at intersections, pedestrians can come closer to parity within the spatial hierarchy of the boulevard while bikers can utilize the 3,300 linear feet of new protected bike lanes.

One of the repercussions of our growing (and aging) road network is its impervious nature, shedding precipitation in concentrated quantities rather than allowing for absorption back into the earth to recharge aquifers. Though some pervious, planted surface does currently exist, grass represents its predominant component. While still a natural analogue for the wild prairie, grass stands as yet another modern monoculture, often requiring a large amount of chemical care while providing relatively little in the realm of biodiversity.

Permaculture Planted Detail. Image Credit: DCP

Helping to support the natural environment does not begin with endangered species, but the foundation of ecological health at the smallest of scales. Building up from there helps rebuild ecologies and fortifies them in their entirety. Largely through the redistribution of existing planted space, new raised beds supply more than a network of dedicated, protected bike lanes, but acreage for food production via a new community garden. With the foundation of permaculture principals, a combination of bushes and ground with 100 new fruit trees cover can yield perennial crops with minimal maintenance–a source of renewable food for the community at large. These new plantings can be paired with a deployment of sunken bioswales whose rain gardens can increase the variety of habitats and collect an estimated 67,350 gallons of stormwater runoff.

Proposed Site Section. Image Credit: DCP

In assessing the impact of the daily freight trains, the design team added a new acoustic barrier for the freight right-of-way combined with two planted medians create a layered view across the street for pedestrians. The new raised planters take their form from concrete footing bolstered with recycled content like fly ash or ground glass to support reclaimed railroad ties. The goal of the designers was not to remove the cultural icon of the train, but rather dampen its negative side effects for the surrounding environment.  As we change the active role that cars and trains plan in defining the atmosphere, pedestrians and bikers can reclaim the street and help encourage the infill of adjacent lots with walkable retail and artisan program, eventually completing the street’s transformation.

Full Contact Infrastructure

The latent message in the proposal probes at the relationship between residents and the systems needed to maintain quality of life. For decades, the status quo has been to hide these systems to the best of ones ability while their functions are removed from the natural environment (even when nature could potentially perform some of them better than its replacements). A new idea of infrastructure could see more of its components including natural processes that engage residents while yielding better pedestrian settings in return.

This multi-layered ecology provides a number of dividends: solar shading, biophilic environments, rainwater absorption, air purification and a continuous production of seasonal fruits and berries. From there the ecologies can grow, starting at soil health fueled with local compost to the myriad of nature and migratory birds. Whether managed by the city or its residents, the communal orchard of South Mason Street could help to redefine the modern roles of infrastructure and its engagement with the community.

This article by Tyler Caine originally appeared on Intercon Green. Tyler is an architect in New York City continually exploring how sustainability can be woven into our lives.  After having spent nearly a decade between working at Lubrano Ciavarra Architects and COOKFOX Architects, Tyler founded the architectural practice DCP. Cover Image Credit: DCP

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