Counterordinance: A Manifesto on Maintenance

Regional Open Space Comparison. The City of Somerville, Massachusetts, is the densest municipality in New England and the fifth densest in the country. With little undeveloped land, the City lacks the resources to expand existing open space or to create new ones.

by Cali Pfaff (MLA ’14) recipient of American Society of Landscape Architects 2015 Student Award

The procedures and protocols that make up a city’s maintenance regime have profound spatial implications. This project retools and reimagines maintenance as a generative, rather than suppressive, force for at risk urban ecologies. Through the proposal of networked test sites along the rail corridor in Somerville, Massachusetts, the examination of these practices will aim to expand habitat for a target population (pollinator species), while testing the bounds of acceptability for wildness in public landscapes.

The current directive towards maintenance in the City of Somerville centers on the advancement of cleanliness and safety for its citizens. This directive is supported by a web of planning ordinances and DPW standard protocols that emphasize the suppression of emergent vegetation and order in the landscape. While these city ordinances are well-intentioned, acknowledging budget limitations, workflow familiarity and popular taste, the inadvertent effect is that the natural world becomes, in law and parlance, an enemy of the state: fallen fruit becomes grounds for a citation, perennials over ten inches are labelled as rat habitat. This project uses the existing fleet of machines and manpower to radically different ends. Rather than invest the energy of DPW into controlling urban ecologies, the project rethinks maintenance as a generative tool to advance biodiversity, (in this case, among pollinator species) and, simultaneously, to diversity the types of open space available to urbanites. Honey bee populations have been collapsing the world over since the onset of Colony Collapse Disorder in 2006. The dominant theory for the sudden disappearance of the bees ties neonicotoid pesticides (pesticides that are embedded in the plant from seed) with the loss of the bees’ homing mechanisms. While this has made front page news, the collapse of native bee populations and butterfly species is happening largely in silence. Unlike honey bees, most bees are solitary, live in the ground, and have much shorter life cycles than honey bees. Their habitat needs vary greatly from species to species and unlike the honey bee, bumble bees, mason bees, and thousands of others are native to North America. The silver lining is that insects of all kinds are showing greater resilience in cities than rural areas. Furthermore, honey bees are showing higher survival rates and honey yields in urban areas. The great white hope for insect survival is, perhaps counterintuitively, urban ecologies. What threatens this hope, however, is the banality of the public landscapes generated by current maintenance practices. This project focuses in on Somerville, Massachusetts for a few key reasons. For one, it is the densest city in New England with little space left for development or to expand open space. Somerville has the smallest proportion of open space in the Boston Metro area at just 6%, compared to adjacent cities, Cambridge at 13% or Medford at 31%. Somerville is historically a working class city now going through the upturn of gentrification. It, like so many cities across America, lacks the funds to invest in open space. The city is however progressive in its policies, though short-sided in their implementation and articulation. For instance, the city passed the Urban Forest Initiative, which catalogued the health and species of all the city’s street trees as green infrastructure. There was no study, however, to look at the ecological efficacy of the trees themselves. As a result, 90% of the trees are wind-pollinated, offering little to no benefit to pollinators. Through the reformation of three key maintenance maneuvers (snow removal, overgrowth management and wildlife management), this project looks beyond the narrow confines of the “health and safety” directive towards environmental stewardship and system resilience. Key to this is the idea that the natural world expands our own capacity for resilience rather than threatens it. This project situates itself along the rail corridor, as it offers the largest tract of underutilized land in Somerville and trisects the city. The rail corridor offers the additional advantage of allowing certain areas to be inaccessible wildlife areas due to trespassing laws along the tracks. The site plan shows the greatest possible extent of these practices along the rails without threatening traditional forms of recreation, such as ball fields and playgrounds. The railway also offers up the opportunity to design for multiple speeds and integrate new landscapes into the extension of the Green Line T. Currently, snow removal procedures in Somerville direct drivers to stockpile remnant snow on parking lots. This procedure was predated by the dumping of snow into the Mystic River, which was banned by the EPA due to its creation of hypoxic zones. Unfortunately, the current system acts as an elongated version of the latter as the stormwater system still drains into the Mystic. This procedure proposes to use the snow melt and embedded road salt to generate brackish marshes that filter and desalinate the water before it enters the Mystic. Through the leaching of retention pools, salinity levels are lowered to support a palette of purple marsh species that support butterfly populations. Color, throughout the project, is used as an indicator of intentionality and cue to what kind of pollinators the flowers support as well as the maintenance regimes that shaped them. ‘Overgrowth’ management, a term used by the city to denote any plant over 10”, is currently a “mow everything” regime. Compared to neighboring cities, Somerville’s mowscape is extreme and the city limits become evident in how the grounds are maintained. The procedure proposed reduces the amount of energy invested into mowing, while diversifying open space areas. The procedure divides the test plot into 3 sections at the discretion of the crew supervisor. One third is then tilled and seeded with one of two municipal seed blends, which consist of an all yellow plant palette favored by short-tongued bees (mason, leafcutter, cuckoo, etc). Blends are alternated each year and vary slightly in color profile. Another third is mowed monthly and used as informal recreational space. The last third is left untended. In the fall, the plot is examined for a number of caterpillar host species, which are then flagged and mowed around. The plot is re-divided every year, creating a cumulative layering of textures. Public decks are moved along the decommissioned raillines, allowing visitors to discover lookout points and create networks of informal pathways. The wildlife management area situates itself in areas of the rail corridor where the train bed is above or below grade. The scheme consists of a four component retaining wall system that takes on the erosion control issues facing the city, while creating an inaccessible habitat zone for long-tongued bees (honey, bumble, etc). Using a pink color palette, the corridor is interspersed with planter boxes containing azaleas, osier dogwood, and phlox. Two different habitat boxes support bees that burrow in bare soil (bumble bees and carpenter bees) and those that prefer dry caves, such as honey bees. Canopy on private property is expanded into the rail corridor through the planting of long-tongued bee-friendly trees along the top of the wall. The planter boxes vary in length to allow a variety of plant sizes and generate a pattern for those passing on the train based on train speed and acceleration. A new pathway along the railway allows residents to view the flowering system up close, while not disturbing the nesting insects. Shrubs are pollarded every three years to keep them from obstructing the trainway. This project opens the door for closer collaboration between city governments, maintenance crews and landscape architects. As cities across the globe continue to grow in scale and density, cohabitation with urban ecologies will become increasingly necessary, challenging, and potentially repressive. Counterordinance aims to show the impact our profession can have in the review and revision of zoning laws and defacto city processes. The popular perception of a well-groomed lawn as a stand-in for one’s capacity for care is an assumption this project challenges. These speculative procedures are the beginning of an exploration of a more nuanced form of care in which our own needs (for connection with nature, wildness, creativity in our work) are expanded in tandem with those of the natural world.