Site cleanup effort gains

University of Virginia architectural experts help to reclaim polluted areas

April 02, 2000|By Ascribe News Service

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- A national movement is under way, combining the best efforts of communities, businesses and government, to clean up and reclaim the country's numerous pollution-scarred landscapes known as brownfields.

These former industrial sites, often in poor areas, present complicated challenges and usually aren't toxic enough to receive massive federal aid.

A varied group of University of Virginia faculty members, all affiliated with its environmentally conscious School of Architecture, are closely involved with this national effort.

Each site has its own history, problems and solutions, they point out. But a public-private partnership is emerging, and today brownfield sites are even being looked at as community resources, the University of Virginia experts say.

A new kind of vision

Challenging alternatives to the traditional cosmetic methods of "cap, cover, hog and haul" which have been the standard ways of dealing with contaminated landscapes, landscape architect Julie Bargmann is working with engineers and scientists, using emerging technologies such as phytoremediation (using plants that absorb heavy metals) and bioremediation (soil washing and soil flushing) in the design of earthen and planted forms.

Her methods take into consideration the constant evolutionary flux of the landscape.

Bargmann has worked on and studied brownfield sites in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Michigan. She uses an "integrated holistic" approach to the design and ecology of reclaiming polluted land and waterways.

This semester her students are studying design solutions for a polluted manufacturing site in Front Royal, Va.

"Given the complex layers of industrial sites, I realize that I am giving myself and my students a tough assignment," Bargmann said.

"Imagine what the place was, and what it could be. Understand the industrial processes and then remediation technologies. Scale over bureaucratic fences while fighting for design intentions.

Invent a landscape for which there are hardly any precedents. In short, take a pile of contaminated dirt, figure it out, then make something with it."

Sustainable design

The University of Virginia's Institute for Sustainable Design is collaborating on developing regulations for reclaiming land destroyed by mountaintop mining in West Virginia. Diane M. Dale, director of the institute, is working on the legal issues with a team of soil scientists, geologists, hydrologists, civil and mining engineers to ensure new homesteading regulations will re-establish the land's biodiversity and make these sites suitable for people to live on.

"Demonstrating the value of applied academic research in moving the state of brownfield issues forward is integral to the goals of the institute," Dale said.

The Institute for Sustainable Design was created by architecture professor William McDonough, one of the nation's leading environmental visionaries and former dean of the school of architecture, to create alternatives to conventional design and practices. He advocates innovative design approaches and restorative action based on principles of sustainability that recognize the interdependence of ecology, equity and economy.

An important component in the remediation of a contaminated site is the community. Often the community is at odds about the degree and kinds of contamination, the goals for reclaiming the site and the procedures necessary to return the land to an economic and environmentally viable state.

Frank Dukes, associate director of the University of Virginia's Institute for Environmental Negotiation, works with communities as an impartial environmental dispute-resolution specialist.

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