Clippings to read, watch and listen

Archive for the ‘007/ Terrain Vague’ Category


leave a comment »

Urban Omnibus

From Brownfields to Greenfields: A Field Guide to Phytoremediation

by Kaja Kühl
November 10th, 2010

Underutilized or vacant space in the city can be a source of creative inspiration for urban agriculture, public parks, housing, community space, and the occasional mini-golf course. But prior to any contemplation of productive interventions into these sites, their environmental health and safety must be considered. Contaminated lots are known as brownfield sites, and the remediation necessary before development can take place is often a lengthy and expensive process. In PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg has identified brownfield remediation as a key initiative to the healthy development of New York, but urban designer Kaja Kühl (and her fellow researchers Lisa Brunie, Erik Facteau and Jay Tsai) was interested in finding smaller scale, cost-effective approaches to the problem. Here, Kühl presents A Field Guide to Phytoremediation, a handbook on how to remove contaminants from land using plants. Read on, and if you have property that might benefit from this approach, contact Kühl to help turn her research into action. -V.S.

Field Guide to Phytoremediation | Vacant Lots

According to the Department of City Planning’s most recent data, 7.1% of New York City’s land is vacant and, for the most part, underutilized. This is a rate much lower than the national average of 15% (in some cities the rate of vacant land is as high as 45%). However, taken together, these properties amount to approximately 11,000 acres of underutilized land — roughly the size of Manhattan (not counting streets). Imagine: across the five boroughs there is enough available land to fill Manhattan, with the potential to grow fresh food, create new parks or build affordable housing. But many of these vacant sites are potentially contaminated by previous industrial uses or leftover building materials, especially lead-based paint. Contamination and the potential health hazards to people who live, work or play on or near such sites become subject to oversight and regulation only in the event of a rezoning permitting residential uses. In those cases, a site receives an e-designation, which identifies it as potentially hazardous due to previous industrial uses. Once designated, site owners are obligated to submit to a process of site investigation and clean up.

50% of all vacant lots in New York City are smaller than 2,500sf and are owned by individuals.50% of all vacant lots in New York City are smaller than 2,500sf and are owned by individuals. Click to enlarge. 

In May of 2009, Mayor Bloomberg signed the New York City Brownfield and Community Revitalization Act, a milestone in the City’s commitment to cleaning up brownfields for productive reuse in accordance with PlaNYC. Citing the scarcity of land in New York City and the anticipated influx of one million new residents by 2030, PlaNYC identified the importance of cleanup and redevelopment of properties that are abandoned and underutilized due to the presence or perceived presence of contamination. As part of this effort, the City has created the Office of Environmental Remediation, which oversees the environmental review of brownfield sites and offers assistance to property owners on the path to a Green Property Certification and potential redevelopment.

50% of all vacant properties in the city are smaller than 2,500sf and individually owned. 80% are smaller than 5,000sf. Remediation, typically in the form of excavation of the contaminated soil, is costly, despite programs, assistance and grants now available. As a result, these small properties lie vacant for years, underutilized and toxic, their value further diminished by the appearance of abandonment and potential contamination.

Brownfields to Greenfields | A Field Guide to Phytoremediation

We created a Field Guide to Phytoremediation to illustrate how property owners can use these years to their advantage and initiate a slow but cost-effective clean-up process using nature as their ally to add 11,000 acres of productive, usable land to the City‘s healthy environment.

Phytoremediation is the use of plants to remove contaminants from the environment. By harnessing the natural capabilities of plants we can remediate toxic soils, groundwater, surface water, and sediments. Phytoremediation is a low-cost alternative to traditional brownfield clean-up. Instead of removing tons of toxic soil and filling the site with new clean soil, plants remove contaminants from the soil and store it within their plant tissue. In some cases, the plants themselves then have to be removed as hazardous waste, other plants break down the toxins and eliminate them altogether.

A Field Guide to PhytoremediationClick to enlarge. 

Contaminants successfully removed in field studies have included heavy metals, radionuclides, chlorinated solvents, petroleum hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides and explosives. In order to successfully remediate toxins in soil or water, the appropriate plant groups have to be planted and monitored. Different plants have different remediative qualities. Plants offer an aesthetic as well as an environmental value to the city beyond the phytoremediation process. Improved air quality and reduction of storm water run-off are among the additional benefits of planting on sites that would otherwise be underutilized until funding for soil removal becomes available.

The costs associated with remediating lead contamination on a 2,500sf lot through phytoextraction using Indian Mustard can be reduced to 10% of those using common methods of excavation and fill.The costs associated with remediating lead contamination on a 2,500sf lot through phytoextraction using Indian Mustard can be reduced to 10% of those using common methods of excavation and fill. 


The steps below describe a one-year process of testing, planting, monitoring and harvesting. Depending on the level of contamination, this cycle can be repeated for several years until levels of metal or PCBs in the soil reach the minimum recommended by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.

Collect a Soil Sample 1. COLLECT A SOIL SAMPLE
Gather soil samples by taking them from at least 4 different areas per every 400sf of space. Samples should come from approximately 6 inches below the surface and should not contain any gravel, grass, trash, etc. You can mix the samples to form a composite sample of your entire lot.
Send it to a Lab 2. SEND IT TO A LAB
Brooklyn College and Cornell University provide inexpensive soil testing services (approximately $30 for heavy metal tests). The NY State Department of Health also offers a list of certified professional labson its Wadsworth Center website. Fill a zip-lock bag with your soil and send it to the lab together with information about your site. You will get a report in about 2 weeks.
Create a Remediation Strategy 3. CREATE A REMEDIATION STRATEGY
From the test results, determine if and how you should remediate contaminants. See the chart at the end of this post to determine which plants would best help you clean up your lot and how many you will need.
Start Planting 4. START PLANTING
Most of the seeds you will need are sold online. Sow and germinate them in a small container and water them regularly. Transplant them to your site when they are about 3“ high and after the last spring frost. Manage them as garden plants and watch them grow.
Harvest and Re-plant 5. HARVEST AND RE-PLANT
After about fourteen weeks, your plants will be saturated with heavy metals, PCBs or other toxins. Harvest the entire plant, including the roots, stems and leaves, and repeat this growing cycle as often as climate permits.
Dispose as Hazardous Waste 6. DISPOSE AS HAZARDOUS WASTE
Some plants are hyperaccumulators. They store the toxins within their plant tissue and, after this process, will themselves be toxic. Check for the location of the Special Waste Drop-Off site in your borough and dispose of them as hazardous waste. Keep them away from children and animals.
Re-test your Soil 7. RE-TEST YOUR SOIL
At the end of the growing season, re-test the soil to track the improvements. You can also test the plant material if you are curious about the change. Depending on the level of contamination at the site, this planting process may have to be repeated over 2-3 years.
Get a Green Property Certificate 8. GET A GREEN PROPERTY CERTIFICATION
The New York City Office of Environmental Remediation, which oversees the City’s brownfield clean-up program, offers Green Property Certifications. This certificate signifies that a property has been investigated, cleaned, and is protective of both public health and the environment. To qualify, you can sign up for the NYC Brownfield Cleanup Program.


The table below gives examples of levels of acceptable soil contamination for certain recreational, residential or food production uses (as recommended by the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation) and suggests plant material most effective in remediating each contaminant.

A Field Guide to Phytoremediation 


We would love to help and put this research into action. So, whether you are an individual property owner or community group with little budget but plenty of energy and a vacant lot that might be contaminated, get in touch!


This project was originally submitted to the One Prize: From Mowing to Growing competition in May 2010. Lisa Brunie, Erik Facteau and Jay Tsai assisted in research for the field guide.


1. US Environmental Protection Agency. “Re: Contaminant Focus.” Contaminated Site: Clean-Up Information. US EPA Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation, Washington, DC, 7 Jan. 2010. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
2. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “Re: 375-6-8 Soil Cleanup Objective Tables.” Subpart 375-6: Remedial Program Soil Cleanup Objectives. NYS DEC, Albany, NY, 14 Dec. 2006. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
3. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. “Re: Hyperaccumulators Table – 1 and 3.” Redirected from, Phytoremediation, Hyperaccumulators. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. San Francisco, CA, 14 Apr. 2010. Web 22 Apr. 2010.
4. U.S. EPA. 1996. Soil Screening Guidance: User‘s Guide. Office of Emergency and Remedial Response, Washington, DC. EPA/540/R95/128.
5. Schippers, R.R. & Mnzava, N.A. Brassica juncea (L.) Czern. [Internet] Record from Protabase. van der Vossen, H.A.M. & Mkamilo, G.S. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. 2007. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
6. Duke, James A. Brassica juncea (L.) Czern. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished. Center for New Crops & Plant Products, Purdue University, 1983. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
7. Shayler, Hannah, Murray McBride and Ellen Harrison. “Re: Guide to Soil Testing and Interpreting Results.” Cornell Waste Management Institute. Department of Crop & Soil Sciences, Ithaca, NY, 15 Apr. 2009. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
8. Environmental Science Analytical Center. Soil Testing Brochure. Department of Geology, Brooklyn College, Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
9. Washington State Department of Ecology.  Dirt Alert – Soil Sampling Guidance for Owners, Operators and Employees of Small Properties Where Children Play. Publication #06-09-099. Olympia, WA, Sep. 1999. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.
10. New York City Department of City Planning (Land use summary, 2007)
11. Michael A. Pagano and Ann O’M. Bowman: Vacant Land in Cities, Brookings Institution Report, 2001


Kaja Kühl is an urban designer and principal of youarethecity, a research, design and planning practice interested in creating dialogue about the urban environment. She is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.


Written by James Thomas

09/01/2011 at 21:12

Who is Jack Gasnick?

leave a comment »


A real character, it would seem: A quick web search uncovered a 1994 Times profile that starts with the angling in the basement adventure. (Funny the folks at the Times couldn’t find anything more about this in their archives.)

The article locates “the pickerel” escapade in the basement of a hardware store at 992 2nd Avenue sometime in 1955 and clearly identifies post-hurricane flooding as the precipitating cause. But, amazingly, it turns out that this guy’s brush with subterranean sea-life is not all he’s famous for. Jack Gasnick wrote letters to editors all over town, in which, by turns, he told stories about Marilyn Monroe, Kathrine Hepburn and Irving Berlin (“the stingiest man I ever saw”), all of whom regularly partonized his East Side hardware store.

[Photo by Berenice Abbott-1936 via NYPL Digital Archive]

In the early 1970’s — unbelievably, given how influential Gordon Matta-Clark has become in the last few years — Gasnick began buying and collecting “gutterspace,” or small slivers of land left over from zoning or surveying errors. He said that after a little while he couldn’t stop: “It’s like collecting stamps; once you’ve got the fever, you’ve got the fever.”

He bought a slice in Corona just behind Louis Armstrong’s house, a piece near Jamaica Bay where he once filled a pale with sea-horses, and yet another adjacent to the Fresh Kills landfill where he claims an abandoned sea Captain’s house still stood… On the weekends, he would sometimes drive out to the tiny parcels and help the milkweed and laurel grow, tend to the turtles, and sit down for a picnic. “This jump of mine from flower pot to apple tree bears witness to the fact that it doesn’t cost much for an apartment-living guy to get a share of the good environment,” he wrote in 1974. To be exact, it cost between $50 and $250. But the taxes he had to pay were enough of a hassle that he gave away (or otherwise lost track of) all the pieces by 1977.

And believe it or not that’s not all. According to the Wikipedia entry on the longest-lasting lightbulb, the very same Jack Gasnick — owner of Ganisck Supply at 53rd Street and 2nd Avenue — was also the owner of the third oldest, continually running lightbulb on the planet. Apparently, though, it’s a distinction he vehemently protested. In 1981, the entry says, he wrote Dear Abby and denounced the oldest, or “alleged” oldest, running bulb in Livermore, California as a fraud.

Could he be the fraud? The lightbulb thing appears to check out: according to both Wikipedia and Roadside America, he holds third place for a lightbulb that ran continually from 1912 until 2003, when his building was demolished to make way for a tower of luxury condos. But another letter-to-the-editor in 1981 might cause you to think he’s prone to exageration:

“When I used to talk to Marilyn Monroe on those Thursday nights over the six-foot bar at Bill Chan’s Gold Coin, she once mentioned The Seven Year Itch. I have good friends like Sidney Skolsky, Earl Wilson, Humphrey Bogart and Billy Wilder,’ I recall her saying, ‘but the nicest is Tom Ewell, gentle, kind and worried.’ And here is Miss Monroe’s tribute to Jack Lemmon, for she added that it was a tossup when Billy Wilder in 1954 chose Ewell over Lemmon for the lead.”

Then again, maybe he was just a good talker. Jack, if you’re still around, here’s to you.

Written by James Thomas

09/01/2011 at 20:37

Posted in 007/ Terrain Vague

‘The Dead Zone & The Architecture of Transgression’

leave a comment »

http://www.gmdoron.com :

“The Dead Zone & the Architecture of Transgression” research centres on everyday life in non-planned urban spaces (mainly derelict sites, urban voids, in between spaces) vs. designed public space and the ways in which marginalized communities use both spaces. The research (conducted at the Bartlett, UCL under the supervision of Prof. Iain Borden & Prof. Colin Fournier) is multidisciplinary in nature, using architectural history, urban design, urban anthropology, human geography, and arts (mainly photography and film) while also looking at these urban spaces from discourse-critique, post-colonial, socio-political, economic and aesthetic perspectives. The research is international in scope and includes examples from Europe, America, Asia and Africa.


Written by James Thomas

23/09/2010 at 11:43

Posted in 007/ Terrain Vague

Inner city outskirts/*extend*

leave a comment »



4 Dome tents have appeared as a camp – lines are stretched beween them all as washing lines, cooking stoves in the centre and chairs made from scrap timber, pallettes, signage etc…

sat in a small area of woods inbetween the canal path and the playing fields/ good commuter distance from city centre…
a summer plan?
workers here for the summer camping to reduce costs?
very organised camp…

and https://jmtresearch.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/a-homeless-city-in-the-woods/

Written by James Thomas

22/09/2010 at 22:30

Posted in 007/ Terrain Vague

A Homeless City in the Woods

with one comment

http://www.nymag.com :

A crusading minister has built a forested Utopia for the itinerant and destitute. But is a social experiment what they’re looking for, or just a place to live?

The shower is a thing of beauty. Stainless-steel well point buried twenty feet below a cast-iron hand pump connected by gutter pipe to a 55-gallon drum draining through a garden hose into a propane-fueled heater hooked to an electric pump hooked to a car battery hooked to a gas generator. Flick a switch, turn a valve, and voilà: a hot shower in the woods.

Roughly three hundred feet down a rutted dirt road, in a dappled expanse of scrub pine and oak on the outskirts of Lakewood, New Jersey, about 40 men and women have made for themselves a provisional home. Dozens of tents sprawl across several acres. In addition to the shower, there is an outhouse tent with a flushable toilet pilfered from an old RV. There’s a kitchen trailer with a working range. There’s a community tent with turquoise leatherette sofas, and a washer and dryer that, when connected to the generator and filled with collected rainwater, operate as a de facto laundromat. There’s a chicken coop and a vegetable garden. There was even once a goat named Molly, passed off to a local farm because no one could stomach the taste of her milk.

The camp looks something like the scene of an extended hunting trip, but it is in fact a homeless encampment—possibly the largest in the tri-state area, not that any governmental body has bothered to keep track. Some call it Cedar Bridge, after the nearest paved road.

At night, its residents gather around campfires telling Tales of My Homelessness. Some begin with a release from jail, others with a failed business, a failed marriage, a failed drug test, or a failed ability to deal with the daily grind of a nine-to-five. Michael’s story began in New York City, where his work as a union electrician dwindled with the Dow.

“I was working with my landlord. I would send him 500 bucks, 300 bucks. Then finally I got a summons to appear in court.”

“Don’t you just love that?” asks Mary Beth, who is playing hostess tonight outside her low polyester tent.

“Three days later, I’m walking up to the apartment, I see the doorknob is different. There’s a sticker on the door: NO TRESPASSING. TENANT HAS BEEN EVICTED. Well, I managed to salvage what I wanted.”

Mary Beth nods in understanding. “I had the same thing happen, but I made sure I kept the windows unlocked, and I crawled through at night.” This was after she had been fired from Wal-Mart in what she believes to be a systematic effort to rid the company of full-time employees. “Wal-Mart sucks.” Her first night at the camp, listening to all the unknown noises of the forest, she was petrified. The next day she met Big Gerry, who had lost his house and his wife after his fitness center failed. She moved into his tent that night.

Tonight is frigid, the first unexpected cold snap of fall. Down the pathway, other fires flicker like a string of Chinese lanterns. Flashlights pass in the distance. A church group has arrived bearing large tins of pasta and salad. Tracy, who has recently assumed the role of one of the camp’s leaders, pauses in front of Big Gerry’s fire to spread the word. “There are people with food down there—kids and a lady. If anybody wants to go see what they have, now would be the time.” She perks up, remembering a bit of gossip about a new arrival to camp. “You seen the new kid yet? Wait until you see his face. He is cute as hell. He’s about 19. Tall, thin, lanky. But he has no brains!”

“Guess what he asked Mary Beth,” Big Gerry interjects. “ ‘What time do they come down here to pick up the laundry?’ ”

The absurdity of the question gets a rousing laugh out of everyone.

“I said, ‘Excuse me?’ ” Mary Beth feigns mock indignation.

“Well,” says Big Gerry, looking at her across the flame. “We’ll be out of here soon.”

They say it was once a dumping ground, but besides a few oddities found here and there—a rusted gun, a license plate from 1932—there’s no evidence of that now. The expanse is verdant and shadowed, with trees towering over a swath of land cleared of undergrowth in a long-ago forest fire. An idyllic place to set up camp.

Or so thought the Reverend Steve Brigham when he stumbled across it three years ago. He had a job with a high-voltage electrical contractor for the Port Authority—changing lightbulbs on the Bayonne Bridge—and made decent money. But since 1999, when God called upon him to help the homeless, he’s been providing the down-and-out he meets in Lakewood with provisional comfort: a tent, a sleeping bag, a propane heater.

Written by James Thomas

22/09/2010 at 22:17

Posted in 007/ Terrain Vague


leave a comment »

Cabinet Magazine:
In the early 1970s, Matta-Clark discovered that the City of New York periodically auctioned off “gutterspace” unusably small slivers of land sliced from the city grid through anomalies in surveying, zoning, and public-works expansion. He purchased fifteen of these lots, fourteen in Queens and one in Staten Island. Over the next years, he collected the maps, deeds, and other bureaucratic documentation attached to the slivers; photographed, spoke, and wrote about them; and considered using them as sites for his unique brand of “anarchitectural” intervention into urban space.

Written by James Thomas

21/09/2010 at 20:53

Luc Lévesque ‘Terrain Vague’

leave a comment »

Luc Lévesque : ‘The terrain vague as material’ :

At the crossroads of many, often contradictory trains of thought, jostled by the accelerated pace of change in modern society, the urban environment evolves along lines that are increasingly difficult to read. In this volatile context, a renewed interest in the ‘terrain vague’ has become apparent in the last fifteen years or so. Post-industrial urbanization creates more and more spaces whose murky status raises many questions.

Two opposing visions generally polarize discussion of these spaces. The first decries the disorder they represent in the city. The second, by contrast, highlights their potential interest as spaces of freedom in an urban environment that is increasingly standardized and regulated.

In the first view, the vacant, indeterminate zones that punctuate the urban landscape represent unacceptable socio-economic deterioration and abandonment. In the absence of the will or ability to overcome the root causes, the issue is often limited to one of ‘image’. The ‘terrain vague’ runs contrary to the desired image of a prosperous city. Because it punctures the ideal of plenty and order, generally associated with urban prosperity, it presents a problem. While waiting for future development to solve the problem, people try to ignore the ‘terrain vague’, abandoning it to lucrative parking lots or trying a quick cosmetic fix to minimize the possibilities for use.

For those who hold the second view, the ‘terrain vague’ offers a counterpoint to the way order and consumption hold sway over the city. Offering room for spontaneous, creative appropriation and informal uses that would otherwise have trouble finding a place in public spaces subjected increasingly to the demands of commerce, the ‘terrain vague’ is the ideal place for a certain resistance to emerge, a place potentially open to alternative ways of experiencing the city.

These two antagonistic views – briefly summarized here – are limited, each in its own way, by a degree of idealism. The ‘terrain vague’ may well symbolize economic stagnation, and, it is often associated with careless investors and permissive municipal authorities, but consigning it to urban decay, simply because it does not correspond to the ideal of a functional city, is reductionist at best. At the same time, to make the ‘terrain vague’, a priori, a territory of emancipation is to risk wallowing in a romantic vision with some disconnection with reality. The ‘terrain vague’ cannot be dissociated from the forces that produced it, forces linked in most cases to purely speculative motives unrelated to the public good; moreover, the forms of marginality it is likely to attract are of course not limited to the emancipated, creative and open-minded.

How can we move beyond these sterile arguments, which appear to limit the issues raised by the ‘terrain vague’ to an all-out struggle between order and disorder? To establish a hypothesis – ‘the ‘terrain vague’ as material’ – is to try to approach the issue by another path. It is to place in parentheses the qualities usually connoted by the ‘terrain vague’– whether debasement or emancipation – in an attempt to capture the conceptual and experiential dimensions, like so many substrates that might feed the eye and the intervention.

In this way, shifting from factual observation of the vacant lot to the more abstract concept of interstitial space expands our perspective to include a range of notions apt to stimulate discussion, whether linked directly to the ‘terrain vague’ or not. Etymologically, interstitial denotes something found ‘in between’ things. Referring to the notion of interval, it also means  ‘a space of time’. Thus the interstitial embraces not only such notions as openness, porosity, breach and relationship, but also those of process, transformation and location.

More specifically, it is also possible to approach the interstitial condition of the ‘terrain vague’ as an urban resurgence of the wild. At the confluence of modern brutality (industrial infrastructure, dominance of roads and highways, real estate tabula rasa, etc.), ruderal colonization (flora and fauna), and urbanity (collective appropriations, user-friendly, local practices, etc.), urban wilderness confronts us with raw environments that embody the troubling contradictions that societies tend to repress or mask elsewhere. They are remnants that speak, in many cases, of the violence and irresponsibility of a world devoted to breakneck production, but also of the adventurous, tenacious forms of life that emerge, strengthened, by these hostile environments.

The ‘open’ city can become the laboratory for an intensified experience that offers new opportunities for urbanity, as long as we do not keep insisting on standardizing it at all costs. The idea here is not to favour the temporary or the natural systematically over the permanent and the planned, but indeed to aim for an active amalgam of heterogeneous components that broaden the terms of the experience. This approach is still underused in landscaping, where the tendency too often is to create a decor that is complete in itself, that represses or forgets the crucial role of bodies, the plurality of material tonalities and the richness of the unexpected. By contrast, what we see as important in an urban intervention is its capacity to start from what exists and generate new connections to reality, new ways of experiencing and imagining the city. Beyond the notion of re-landscaping, the issue of the ‘terrain vague’ summons up ways of approaching urban intervention today. At a time when the immediacy of electronic networking constantly reshuffles our perceptions of the world, looking at the ‘terrain vague’ as material means working at building with the indeterminate to generate a hybrid dynamic, one that is ‘in sync’ with the issues of our time.

Luc Lévesque, 2002.


*This article has been published in HOUSE BOAT / OCCUPATIONS SYMBIOTIQUES , Hull/ Gatineau, AXENÉO7, pp.6-7. An earlier version of  this article appeared in Paysages, (newsletter of  the Association des architectes paysagistes du Québec), Montréal, June 2001, pp. 16–18, under the title “Le terrain vague comme matériau”.

FROM : http://www.amarrages.com/textes_terrain.html

Written by James Thomas

21/09/2010 at 20:52

Posted in 007/ Terrain Vague