On Waste

To mark the fifth anniversary of the launch of Urban Omnibus, we look at themes that have emerged in our content over time and think about what those threads reveal about the needs, desires, and priorities of the city today.

Waste is one of those curious features of the urban environment that we love to think about on Urban Omnibus. It is an oxymoronic element of city life: ubiquitous almost to the point of vanishing. Those mountains of trash bags lining our curbs are a facet of experiencing a street that New Yorkers are most skilled at editing out. As a city, we spend tremendous financial, material, and human resources to make waste “disappear.” Of course, our garbage does not simply dematerialize, and fortunately, we are now living in a world more conscious than ever of where, how, and by whom our trash is created and transported (Matthew Weiner’s indelible image of Don Draper chucking an empty can and Betty simply shaking trash from a picnic blanket — and our visceral response it anticipates — forcefully captures how far we’ve come).

The long and varied history of waste and its removal in New York from the 18th century onwards is the subject of Elizabeth Royte’s 2005 book Garbage Land and of the Urban Omnibus City of Systems video she narrates. In the video, Royte describes how her research into where exactly her trash was going after she threw it out has led her to become a more ecological citizen, with “a systems view” of our interconnected processes of manufacturing, transportation, disposal and re-use.

Indeed, sometimes the most interesting aspects of garbage are the physical infrastructures and places developed to process, sort, and transport it. An interview with Juliette Spertus about her exhibition Fast Trash! reveals as much about the still-operational pneumatic trash collection infrastructure on Roosevelt Island as it does the social and political philosophies behind the island’s master planning. In Manhattan, the future programming of the Marine Transfer Station and North River Waste Treatment Plant at 135th Street were both the subject of intense public debate, becoming flashpoints for community groups concerned with winning representation in the redevelopment of their waterfront.   

Artists have often reflected on our waste’s impact on the urban landscape. Lara Almarcegui’s Guide to the Wastelands of Flushing River reveals the waterway as a fertile subject reflecting the scars of last century’s discarded urban agendas. George Trakas, seeing potential in Newtown Creek, one of the most polluted waterways in the country, leveraged municipal funds made available through a $3 billion upgrade of the wastewater treatment facility to spearhead the development of a waterfront park along the canalized estuary. In fact, increasingly, the very management of wastewater is its own category of urban intervention.  

So next time you’re dragging trash to the curb, stop and think about where it came from and where’s headed, it just might inspire thought about how to design a better urban future.

Gabriel Silberblatt is an assistant editor at The Architectural League and Urban Omnibus, living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Follow him @GPS_NYC.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.