2020 Masters in Landscape Architecture Thesis Prize: Chelsea Kilburn’s “That Sinking Feeling: Subsidence Parables of the San Joaquin Valley”

At this site, the parable of density at the Fresno Fairgrounds, a path on what was formerly a canal for water floats above the water of a lowering ground. This is a scene of the last stage of the life of the site, where groundwater extraction and site management through regrading have transformed this place into a new type of artificial recharge project.

by Chelsea Kilburn (MLA I AP ’20) — Recipient of the Landscape Architecture Thesis Prize

This thesis explores the dissonance between the naturally blurry edge of groundwater and the structures of management that define the surface landscape of California’s San Joaquin Valley. In this region, extreme groundwater extraction causes land subsidence, thus physically and directly altering topography. The project frames a reality where imminent coastal migration leads to a soaring urban population in the Valley, further intensifying the need for extraction that not only provides drinking water but sustains some of the nation’s most productive agricultural ground. Sites of intervention consider local groundwater management typologies and imagine near-future scenarios in which design of the landscape can be used to rethink subsidence not as the effect of groundwater extraction but as a generative infrastructural force able to meaningfully shape the ground for the retention, remediation, and distribution of water that can then be utilized in the recharge of a critically overdrafted aquifer as well as in a speculative subversion of California’s constructed natural history.