An exploration of what it means to live in, build on, and design for a city of pervasive toxicity.
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At the end of January, a barge loaded with 1,000 tons of material dredged from the bottom of the Gowanus sank into the canal, the vessel itself now contributing to the pollution it was charged with cleaning up. The incident provoked a widespread media giggle at the permanent eschatological condition of the canal. But beyond a dirty joke, the submersion of the Weeks #71 barge, in the terminology of the official incident report, resembles an episode from the exertions of Sisyphus.
The shipwreck, quickly remedied, came less than three months after the commencement of dredging of the toxic black mayonnaise that lines the canal bottom, the first stage of a cleanup mandated in 2010 when the conduit and its surroundings were listed in the federal Superfund program — a designation which confers both official stigma and enormous sums (currently estimated at $1.5 billion) to erase it. The incident is an unintentional marker, too, of the slow pace of remediation efforts. In the meantime, a different kind of redemption has anticipated the area’s physical recovery: increased rents and land values, and new and planned developments to house thousands of more residents. Indeed, they too threaten its progress, as the sewage produced by new residents attracted to the area is expected to far outpace new measures to prevent its release into the canal in stormy weather.
The area’s renewed appeal and enduring toxicity collide in the current controversy over its rezoning, focused on a six-acre parcel once known as Public Place and now called Gowanus Green. The former site of a manufactured gas plant, the City-owned lot was slated for a park, but is now envisioned as affordable housing. Since the engineer in charge of the Superfund cleanup publicly suggested that the remediation measures planned for the site are not in line with residential use, health and safety concerns have been seized upon by opponents to the rezoning, who might actually oppose the lower-income housing which the new plan for the neighborhood would provide. The Gowanus plan itself seeks to offer a sort of recompense for past rezonings’ disproportionate burdens and gentrification pressures on low-income neighborhoods of color. This plan promises new, permanently-affordable housing in an already gentrified, more affluent and white area, and ties support for new development to funding the cleanup of Wyckoff Gardens, Gowanus Houses, and Warren Street Houses: neighboring public housing developments contaminated in their own way by lead paint and mold and requiring upgrades and repairs to the tune of almost $250 million. The tempest atop a tar-soaked tract leads us to ask: What are we doing when we are “cleaning up?”
If Gowanus, as a charismatic megasite of remediation, would be the first stop on any “toxic tour” of New York City, Newtown Creek is a close second. Highrise residences at the mouth of the Creek give way to miles of facilities for waste transfer, manufacturing, and fuel supply. The channelized estuary which separates northern Brooklyn from Queens is also a ground zero of the global petroleum industry, where Standard Oil originally concentrated its refining empire in the late nineteenth century. By 1880, neighbors of the dense industrial district complained of noxious fumes in the air and unidentifiable wastes in the water. Standard Oil later moved the majority of its operations to New Jersey, but left behind an oil spill that, at an estimated 17 to 30 million gallons, was long compared in scale to the Exxon Valdez disaster until BP’s Deepwater Horizon blew such scales out of the water. Oil leaked from refineries over the course of at least 50 years, and seeped across 50 acres, under 100 homes, and into an aquifer and the Creek. For decades, residents sought to expose and ameliorate conditions in the area. In 2010, a Superfund cleanup of the creek was announced here, too (it has yet to begin), and the combined settlement of three lawsuits against ExxonMobil mandated a cleanup of the oil spill and a financial penalty, including a $19.5 million fund for community “environmental benefit projects” in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The fund’s work concluded last year with the inauguration of a new library and environmental education center complete with rainwater collection gardens, native plants, solar panels, and low-toxics interiors, behind schedule and over budget, mostly due to unexpected asbestos abatement work. Watchdog groups complain about the slow pace of recovery of the oil, which ExxonMobil continues to pump from the ground and process for resale in New Jersey.
A toxic cleanup highlights tour might conclude at a third site of the city’s 21st century redemption: In Staten Island, the conversion of the Fresh Kills landfill from local blight and global monument to consumer waste into a 2,200-acre park and ecological preserve. The political grand bargain and landscape architecture emblem, intended to destigmatize the area and offer safe haven to native grasses and birds, is possible only through the purchase, at great expense, of clean soil trucked in from New Jersey. New York City’s waste and its toxic effects are now exported through local transfer sites to receiving communities in New Jersey, Virginia, and Ohio, among others.
The extraordinary nature of these sites and efforts — their scale, visibility, and expense — belies the pervasiveness and everyday experience of the city’s contaminants, and the uneven attempts to clean them up. A preponderance of land in New York City, containing everything from historic fill to volatile organic chemicals, qualifies for brownfield tax credits, grants, loans, and technical assistance for remediation before redevelopment. Then there are those former industrial sites built upon before remediation was required, and those soon to be left behind: dry cleaners, gas stations, auto repair shops. Parklands hold the measure of decades of leaded gasoline in their soil. Bodies of water (the Hudson River, Bronx River, Flushing Creek, Coney Island Creek, to name a few) receive and harbor sewage and legacy contaminants. Industries on a rising waterfront risk release of what are called “fugitive chemicals” with every storm. Aquifers, the city’s last reserve in case of drought or water system failure and Long Island’s sole supply of drinking water, are exposed to indestructible and bioaccumulating “forever chemicals.” Buildings (schools and residences especially) harbor lead paint and pipes. The air is compromised outside and in by emissions from highways and gas cooking stoves.
These are the contours of a “chemical environment” that both demands and evades reckoning. The urban environment is saturated with the residues of industrial activities, three centuries of production, consumption, and material transformation that define what’s come to be best known as the Anthropocene. “The contamination of the earth,” the title of a recent exhaustive account of industrial pollutions by French historians Francois Jarrige and Thomas Le Roux, is the combined, overlapping, and hardly accidental product of enlightenment rationality, industrial modernity, capitalist (and socialist) developmentalism, and an emphasis by the powerful on growth at all costs. To keep the process going, despite its persistent wreckage, requires a variety of practices to concentrate pollution in social and environmental “sacrifice zones,” and keep its burdens insensible to those who can maintain a safe distance. New York City fares well in this global equation: insulated by design from the worst conditions while reaping their benefits. Residents get energy, building materials, and consumables extracted and produced elsewhere, and send their voluminous waste, whether trash or carbon emissions, off again, to somewhere else. Reports of conditions in these “elsewheres” — terrorscapes of production, extraction, and dispossession from New Jersey to the Niger Delta — accumulate like the toxins settled there through neglect, deceit, or malignant intent. With a fundamental dependence on other people’s land as a sink for waste, scholar Max Liboiron argues in their new book, pollution is colonialism.
Risks and harms disproportionately land, and lurk in uncertainty, in the bodies of vulnerable people. Developmental delays, asthma, cancers, and other maladies concentrate in clusters and sap life: a phenomenon that is “neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive,” as ecocritic Rob Nixon has described the “slow violence” of the environmental calamities of this age. That violence is particular, brutal, and targets indigenous populations, and people of color, and laborers, and children, and pollinators. But a principal characteristic of chemical contamination is that as much as its harms are intentionally specific and unequally distributed, their effects are also, literally, universal. Displacement has its limits; in scale and by nature, toxic chemicals transgress and defy them. Fertile soil is finite, clean groundwater too, and also the carrying capacity of atmosphere to assimilate emissions without chaos to the earth’s systems. As endocrine disruptors wreak havoc with fertility, even the continued possibility of new human life is in question. What conditions can sustain life for those not keen on colonizing other planets and exporting ruinous practices there?
If, at its limit, a toxic existence saturates the ocean with microplastic and the galaxy with space junk, then it manifests with a particular intensity in the contemporary metropolis, where the density of habitation, the concentration of land uses and the pressures of development erase memories of earlier industrial discharges while they demand a reckoning with their residues. Thus, there is a growing movement to clean up: to remediate, restore, repair, or otherwise recover contaminated environments. Beyond the spectacle of the Superfund sites, New York City has enacted model policies on lead, operates the nation’s only municipal brownfield program, created an innovative clean soil bank, and hosts a rich ecosystem of activists, watchdogs, and stewards who monitor, restore, and tirelessly advocate for the protection of their communities.
These efforts are significant, and they are also piecemeal, scattered, and uneven. Stuff lingers, by definition and design. The idea of “cleaning up” is already rather superficial. Like a campaign against littering or graffiti, it suggests a concern with appearances (and property values) more than an attack on root causes and harms. Prevention and precaution have rarely been the priority in managing pollution. Instead, dilution, dispersion, and containment of contaminants to minimum standards of safety are the general rule. Thanks to the successes of the environmental movements of the 1960s and ’70s, local and federal regulations limit the release (and less often, production) of certain amounts of certain substances. These kinds of measures did not change damaged and damaging social systems but intervened in their management. Regulation operates on a continuum from haphazard to compromised, and in the last four years, sabotaged. With its enthusiasm for mitigating technologies, the last half century of regulation has been especially beneficial to the economic sector which developed to provide new “environmental goods and services.” Remediation allows certain actors to “clean up” in more ways than one.
The principal machinery of remediation in New York City, unsurprisingly, is real estate development. A state program providing incentives to those who would redevelop contaminated sites proved so popular it had to be rewritten to exclude most projects within the five boroughs. Still, city policies facilitate the recovery of land for profit in a process the anthropologist Melissa Checker calls “brown gentrification.” “A privatized model for environmental cleanup” means that remediation happens where property values are set to rise and not elsewhere. A streamlined cleanup process depends on standardized approaches. Tax deductions, liability protection, grants, and guidance provide a formula for developers to turn heavy metal brownfields into gold. Lenders and insurers can be confident that technology and regulation together will help them recover their investments without any unpleasant and expensive surprises. A logic of financial triumph over contamination operates more broadly: while brownfield cleanups recover the value of depreciated land, cash payments after disasters offset damaged lungs and fisheries. Survivors of great losses of life and livelihood after the toxic explosions of 9/11 or the Deepwater Horizon spill are made whole through carefully calibrated compensation.
Remediation as it is commonly practiced depends on formulas to guarantee safety, profit, and redress, and create distance from harm and litigation. It is focused on discrete objects: the individual site and project, the specific contaminant and its containment, even as these move across bodies and ecosystems, from soil to water to air and back. Yet a range of accommodations hedge against official certainties. Legal and physical barriers — a limitation of liability, a cap of asphalt — still represent a certain improvisation, compromise with what won’t go away. Conventional practices in planning and design create distance and the illusion of distance. They try to stay clean. Zoning pushes environmental nuisances away and concentrates their effects, architects wait for engineers to put pollution in a black box and then build on top, recovered landscapes obliterate or romanticize a less bucolic past, even as it remains below three feet of topsoil. Thus, builders develop on properties where easements limit certain land uses, people live in apartments on top of the two-story underground garage that separates any wayward vapors below from new residents above, and play in parks on grassy caps while methane is vented into the air, and workers transport heavy metals dredged from the water or taken up from the soil by plants across the country for dumping again. The urban landscape is formed by uneven practices of denial and redemption, while stuff stays with us.
Remediation is still incantation. We ask oysters, sunflowers, and algae to work magic, and make bad deeds disappear. The anthropologist Mary Douglas notably described the central role of pollution taboos and rituals of purification in the maintenance of social order more than half a century ago. Across cultures, the legitimacy of a worldview, not hygiene, was really at stake. For those still inclined to see contemporary environmental safety measures as highly rational, or distinguish between “primitive” faith and modern medicine, toxic chemicals transgress a germ theory of disease, and profit and growth is the dominant world religion. So that even after billions of dollars are spent, cleanups may resemble nothing so much as old Catholic indulgences (polluter sins, polluter pays), a form of buying absolution rather than putting an end to the sin.
Consider the Hudson River, lifeblood of the city and region, and an excellent candidate for a fourth stop on the toxic tour. After two General Electric plants discharged millions of pounds of PCBs into the river, a Superfund cleanup at a $1.7 billion cost officially concluded in 2019, only to be met by lawsuits and accusations that the work is not done. These rest on complex definitions of what is “protective” of human health and the environment, but ultimately, there is no foreseeable future where you can eat fish from the Hudson River without exposure to PCBs. For decades, environmental philosophers have been debating the meaning and value of ecological restoration. Given the impossibility of going back to a prelapsarian state of nature, what is restoration for? Atonement? Expiation of guilt? Utilitarian improvement? A sense of agency? These questions apply to the urban context as well, where the impossibility of a return to earlier times is clear, the desirability of maintaining status quo is nil, and the possibilities of engineering (or bioengineering) a new clean future are exciting, but limited, too. As more people embrace practices and principles of maintenance and repair in the built environment, what will they shore up? This special series takes up the critical and underexamined role of remediation in the development and experience of the city to survey the ways we live with and the actions we take to deal with the stuff we can’t see. What does it mean to remediate a toxic urban landscape? To what ends? For whose benefit?
If toxicity is a defining characteristic of the contemporary environment — and culture — the opposite is not purity. So, what is it? What could it look like to emphasize process, and prevention, to develop what some call new “arts of living on a damaged planet”? What other practices of living in, building on, or designing for a chemical environment could we foresee? Some would like to imagine a toxic commons as a way to foreground accommodation against separation, to socialize the risks and burdens of modernity so that not only those who can insulate themselves can flourish. Beyond the individual site and the expedient fix, other projects pursue remediation as restorative justice, community-led renovation, or as part of the democratization of work, or through traditional forms of healing, or in collaboration with other species. People learn to plant gardens that can grow on leaded soil, or design landscapes that prevent contaminants from migrating in the first place. Rather than cleaning up, what would be better practices of living with? A new ethic of remediation is central to the inescapably shared project of living on Earth, which is also both the difficulty and promise of the city.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.
An exploration of what it means to live in, build on, and design for a city of pervasive toxicity.