“I wouldn’t say we are ashamed of our infrastructure, but we do tend to hide it. We tend to want it to blend in and not be noticed.” That’s according to Charles Houston, the City of Calgary’s Drinking Water Distribution Manager, who’s been working on Watershed+, an ambitious 25-year plan that embeds artists directly into the city’s Utilities and Environmental Protection department for short- and long-term projects, education initiatives, and residencies which aim to redefine infrastructure’s presence in civic life. Creative practitioners and UEP work together to design infrastructure projects that encourage city dwellers to rethink the presence of networked delivery systems by transforming them into something that can be understood rather than avoided.
Take the Forest Lawn Lift station, for example. Through Watershed+, a team made up of artists, designers, engineers, and architects worked collaboratively from the get-go to take a lift station, which serves the vital function of providing sanitary drinking water to northeast Calgary, and redesign it to explicitly reveal the oftentimes hidden interdependencies of urban systems. On two sides of the building, the team visualized an exact map of the pipes that connect the neighborhood to the lift station using LED lighting and sensors that monitor the flow in the station’s pipes. The map changes color in real time as its sensors measure response to the activity of the lift station, effectively alerting neighborhood residents to curtail water usage when the system is under pressure.
Whether we like it or not, we’re dependent on the built environment’s protective skin, and the veins and arteries beneath that skin, to delivery electricity, heat, water, waste removal, food supply, and transportation. We’re continually plugged in to each of these delivery networks that manage almost every aspect of human activity, but rarely do we scrutinize them as significant expressions of ideology or instruments of power. With extreme weather events, exacerbated by the effects of man-made climate change becoming the norm, rather than the exception, shouldn’t our relationship to infrastructure change too? Recent flooding in the Omaha Metro, has made it clear that our existing gray infrastructure is unprepared to cope when the levees break (both literally and metaphorically). Why are we taken by surprise? Could a more deliberate understanding of our infrastructure, that comes simply from seeing our city’s guts, make us more fully vested participants in civic life and help us prepare for what lies ahead, while advocating for greener, more just cities?
Mary Miss, an artist who has established a decades long practice that hinges on collaborative initiatives with city planners, architects, engineers, neighborhood residents, and government officials to successfully realize project-based work, thinks so. For almost 50 years she’s worked across the country and abroad to create systems that allow city dwellers to visualize their footprint in the built environment by excavating the bones of urban infrastructure. Whether it’s by creating a temporary memorial around the perimeter of Ground Zero, marking the predicted flood level of Boulder, Colorado, or authoring an atlas of water for the city of Milwaukee, her work transforms environmental and social sustainability into tangible experiences. Currently she serves as the first artist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Design and Construction and is working actively within the DCC to make Broadway the City’s next green corridor. The project titled BROADWAY: 1000 Steps (B/CaLL), is designed specifically “to foster public understanding of the natural systems and infrastructure that support life in the city [and] reveal our connections and dependence on both the resources supplied by the natural environment as well as the infrastructure that delivers those resources and services.” Learn more about BROADWAY: 1000 Steps (B/CaLL) by clicking on the image below and share your thoughts about how similar projects might take shape in the Metro.