Sean Burkholder has been thinking about the industrial landscapes of the Great Lakes for more than 10 years. He is currently an assistant professor of landscape and urban design at SUNY/University of Buffalo, and his teaching and research include topics that are salient to the region, including the reuse of urban infrastructure, urban vacancy, and the management of dredge materials. Next month, Burkholder will be launching the North Coast Design Competition with project sites along the riverfront in Toledo, Ohio. We talked with Burkholder about the region’s particular character, how the competition will harness local expertise, and why Toledo needs a dredge research site.
Tell us a little about the industrial landscape of the Great Lakes. What makes it different from other working ports, and how does that inform the competition’s program?
The interesting thing about the Great Lakes is that it’s a tremendous resource of fresh water. It’s 200,000 square miles of a drainage basin, and though that’s not big compared to the Mississippi River basin, it’s still 30 million people right on fresh water. With that access to fresh water comes the fresh water ecologies and habitat that are tied to it, so it’s a completely different system than on the coasts.
The Great Lakes was the industrial core of the country. Material made it to the Great Lakes and was then shipped out through the canals or the Saint Lawrence seaway. With changing populations, migration, suburbanization, and de-urbanization, the region has suffered in the postindustrial period. So, it’s a region that’s trying to reinvent itself in a lot of ways. I’ve worked in a lot of the cities around the Great Lakes region, and that work has primarily dealt with vacancy and postindustrial urban sites.
The competition is designed to look topically at issues that are in some ways endemic to the entire basin. The idea is to look at the issues at a graspable scale so that a designer can work on a problem with special contextual conditions in a specific place, but also allow for wide-ranging application.
You’ve put the use of dredged material and dredge research sites at the center of the competition’s program. Why?
Dredging in particular is something that does occur in the entire basin, and that’s increasing because of water level recession in the lakes. Shipping is the most cost-effective means of transport in the area, and it continues to be a better option for moving bulk materials. Shipping is not going anywhere, so dredging is not going anywhere. It’s an inevitable condition that needs to be addressed.
Toledo is in the shallowest portion of the Great Lakes. Because of that, the shipping channel in Toledo is 20-plus miles long, so imagine what an incredible amount of material that is. The only way of getting ships into the port is continuous dredge. As the region’s epicenter of dredging, Toledo is where there’s the most material. Right now, a dredge research site doesn’t exist. In order to be useful, the material needs to be tested and evaluated, and we need to experiment to see what we can actually do with it. There’s so much of it in Toledo, it makes sense for the experimentation to occur there.
It seems like a really progressive gesture for a city to embrace this kind of competition for something as visible and publicly accessible as its riverfront. What kind of outcome are you hoping for?
The city has begun looking at other parks along the water to develop, so there is an interest in turning back to the river. There is a series of waterfront spaces that are being redeveloped for new storm-sewer infrastructure and a series of publicly owned spaces that are incredibly underutilized along the waterfront; those are some of the sites that the competition is looking at.
The Toledo parks department and Port of Toledo are very supportive—Dennis Garvin from Parks, Recreation and Forestry is on the competition jury, as is Joe Cappel, director of cargo development for theToledo Port Authority. The idea with the jury is that everyone is from the basin. Some of the best known designers and some incredibly educated professionals are all here.
The basin has everything we need.
We are trying to generate ideas rather than a professional commission, but there should be a significant amount of press for those who do well. The following year we should have a publication on this issue and place as part of a series, Dredge Material Management in the Great Lakes Region, and we’ll use the competition projects. The next year after that we’ll do another competition at another site, and eventually we’ll have a catalog of conditions and ideas about how to address them.
One of your former students, Matt Moffitt, won the 2013 ASLA Student Award of Excellence in General Design with his dredge project. What’s your sense of student interest in these kinds of designed landscapes?
I think that for landscape architecture students, these kinds of projects are interesting because they have a series of characteristics. There are materials they should understand, like soil, but they’re also highly integrated into urban systems. We understand systems better than we ever have, so our ability to design for them is better. And they are completely novel. The idea of designing a dredged landscape as opposed to a community garden, which they may already be familiar with, is exciting. These landscapes are also really large and really close to city centers, and no one knows they’re there. They’re big soil dumps that no one ever thought about. The ability to reconsider them is something that’s really exciting and something you don’t get to do very often.
The North Coast Design Competition opens on February 1, 2014. Details can be found at www.northcoastdesigncompetition.com.