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Design Disrupted / featured

Disrupting the Surface of a City

Mary Pat McGuire

Chicago, like many modern cities, has a rain problem.

When it rains, water is whisked away, across Chicago’s paved surfaces and into the city’s stormwater system instead of being absorbed in the ground.

When it rains, it floods, especially in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.

When it rains hard, as it often does, Chicago’s stormwater system is overwhelmed. Stormwater spills into Lake Michigan and the Chicago and Calumet rivers, carrying wastewater and pollutants with it. The polluted water makes its way down to the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to an 8,500 square mile dead zone where algae bloom but aquatic wildlife struggle to survive.

Chicago’s solution to this problem is the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), an engineering project consisting of over a hundred miles of underground tunnels which divert stormwater into reservoirs. When it is finished in 2029, it is expected to be able to store 17.5 billion gallons of water. This will not be enough storage for the massive rain storms climate scientists predict will come, with increasing frequency.

University of Illinois professor Mary Pat McGuire has a different approach to this challenge, an approach that disrupts the surface of the city.

When Mary Pat moved to Chicago a decade ago, she wanted to understand the city’s relationship with water. She explored the surface as a “rain terrain,” noticing where the rain fell and where it traveled. Chicago controlled the rainwater, funneling it into underground tunnels and reservoirs. Instead of whisking the rainwater away, could it be absorbed on site and valued as a resource?

Mary Pat began to explore the natural history of the city. What was the surface like before the city was there, and what was beneath the surface? How was rain absorbed before the surface was paved over? “I started to noticed patterns of striped dunes and swales, sandy soils hidden beneath the pavement,” Mary Pat explains. These sandy soils, remnants of glacial deposits that retreated long ago, extended sometimes 25 feet below the surface, making them ideal for absorbing rainwater. What a shame they were paved over.

Mary Pat’s breakthrough was surprisingly straightforward. Could we map the soils beneath Chicago’s paved surface to identify where these sandy soils are located? Could we disrupt the surface at these sites, especially in flood-prone areas?

Mary Pat combined soil data, flood data, and surface pavement data to identify a network of sites throughout Chicago, sites where the surface could be disrupted to allow rainwater infiltration and prevent flooding.

Mary Pat’s current challenge is how to disrupt the surface at these sites. Is cracking open the surface enough? How about replacing asphalt with permeable pavement? One obvious design option would be to add green stormwater infrastructure, such as raingardens, at these sites. Chicago is already beginning to implement green stormwater infrastructure, and Mary Pat’s data could help the city know where raingardens and bioswales would have the most impact.

Mary Pat believes that the sites have even more potential. Rather than relying on out-of-the-box design solutions, she is working to understand the specific conditions of each site, inventing the sites anew through a process of addition and subtraction. She hopes to work with communities to design experiences and engagements at these sites, to design a “living infrastructure.”

By disrupting the surface, Mary Pat is disrupting much more. She is challenging Chicago and other cities to look past the engineered solutions that control the landscape and water and to instead unlock sites’ hydro-geological potential.

“Engineers, architects, and city planners often have little appreciation of the organic systems in play and the actual material basis of the sites they seek to improve. I want landscape architects to partner as design leaders, to join engineers, architects, and city planners at the ‘water table.’”

My name is Mary Pat McGuire. I’m a registered landscape architect and an assistant professor in landscape architecture here at the University of Illinois. I’m also one of the inaugural design research fellows in the College of Fine and Applied Arts.

My work is in water in cities and I decided to come into academic practice out of professional practice because I was working on projects – very high profile, very interesting projects – that we’re dealing with sites in a very finite way.

And I started to realize that there was a need for us to use design to look at problems of water in the city at a much broader scale. And for landscape architecture to get involved in that. It was something that maybe ecologists were doing with engineers, but designers had to get involved. We had to take all the skills and practices that we use for designing sites and apply that at a much larger scale.

My passion is in water. I grew up around the Chesapeake Bay and then I lived out in the San Francisco Bay. I’m really interested in different ecosystems as they get expressed through cities because of my experience in water and how informative that was to my senses.

When I moved to Chicago, I landed in the middle of a city that was highly modernized, highly industrialized, and that meant a high degree of control of nature. Chicago has one of the largest underground stormwater management systems in the world, if not the biggest, and yet it’s sitting right in the context of the Great Lakes. And it’s sitting between two of the major watersheds. It had an incredible design opportunity around it just trying to solve some of the stormwater issues.

Design research is really asking a question about how to reframe the things that we’ve already made as opportunities to remake them. I have a colleague named David Yackett who’s a partner at conservation design forum and he famously always says we have to basically remake, and we have to rebuild our infrastructure for the 21st Century. We have a phrase that “landscape is infrastructure because landscape does so many things and performs so many different functions.”

We have to remake this infrastructure. We have to make it through the landscape, but how do we do that? My primary medium is to target sites that have been identified as the urban surface of cities.

One of my initial inquiries into the history of Chicago and the Great Lakes region was to understand its own natural history so what was there before the city was there. That’s when I discovered that it had this incredible glaciation history, which I had never lived a glaciated landscape.

So, first understanding how those processes shaped the topography and then the soil systems that sit over original bedrock through glaciation was a bit of an educational process for me, but I was also looking to see what evidence of that glaciation history still existed.

And it was through flying in and out of the city for the first couple of years when I lived there that I started to notice these glacial remnant landscapes that were kind of tucked in between all the industrial urban fabric that dominates from Chicago down through Gary.

But I was noticing these glacial remnants, these striped dune swale landscapes that really triggered this fascination for me and I did a deep dive into the U.S. Geological Survey history of mapping for the area. Then my senses got completely awakened to what the place was.

The city was not designed, it was not planned with any of that geologic history in mind. So, the structure of the city doesn’t adhere or take advantage of any of the soil variations. My work is trying to reveal the presence of those soils particularly focused on the south side of Chicago where there’s a predominance of flooding.

These are the poor neighborhoods mostly; they’re underserved by design and I thought, “there’s a lot of vacant land down there. There’s a lot of opportunities to design a lot of opportunity for exploration design and a lot of interest in trying to make that region of the city better.”

Chicago withdraws all of its potable water from Lake Michigan – but it returns none to it.

It uses that water and sends it to the treatment plant. All the water that falls on Chicago also gets drained into that very same system. All that water gets treated and it gets sent down outside of their natural watershed.

Through this trip through the canal to the Mississippi River, there are pollutants and toxins in there and there are discharges that happen when the system overflows. We had not just discharged into the river, but we had a whole backup into Lake Michigan.

These are patterns that most people aren’t really aware of – why the river is flooding and why we’re discharging into the lake.

What’s really in that water?

We don’t need to be sending all of our stormwater into that system. It would be fine for the system just to handle our sanitary water.

My goal is to keep water out of that system. These surface interventions that are tied back to this glaciated soil system are actually really performing and doing a lot of work.

It’s not an “off-the-shelf” strategy that we can put in place. Instead, the whole idea about redesigning or remaking that kind of landscape is infrastructure. It’s derived from a deep reading of site history and of thinking about how to use that history for a more resilient future. What does the subtractive process really mean in landscape architecture?

It’s not about demoing a building, for example, but what does it mean to start to take something away? You don’t want to erase that history. You actually want to reveal something underneath.

What are the patterns that exist that you’re trying to make on site? What is the accumulated reading of the history of Chicago’s landscape that might be able to be read across or through a neighborhood?

I’m not just interested in solving problems. It’s almost too easy to solve problems. The long-term problem is how we change what we think of what’s called an ego psychological relationship of humans with their environment, so they’re actually connected to a place through a kind of deeper ecological relationship. That recognition of the impact of the environment on the body, on the senses, and on one’s psychology.

For some people, this is a radical idea, but it’s actually not that radical for cities to start thinking about in these more inventive ways about handling stormwater.

One of the keys to unlocking some of the institutional barriers around making these things happen is to let people see what’s there. So, we’re taking these soil cores – doing two or three soil cores on three different sites along these dune ridges – so we can start to measure the actual depth, thickness, and how they transition that section.

We’re taking these soil cores 50-feet deep and we plan to exhibit them in a large room so that people can feel like they actually understand the composition of the earth beneath their feet.

I think this is a really important thing for people who live in a city who think that sand on the beach gets replenished every year with the Chicago Park District when they’re actually sitting over the top of these sand dunes.

The interesting thing about the soil core is that we’re going to do one of them right in the northern part of Washington Park near the high school. The teacher heading up the science program there is having her students come out. We’ll be out there with the drill rig and they’ll be able to see the actual operation of drilling and pulling up these four-foot sections at a time. We’ll give a presentation the glaciation history and try to bring this thing to life because we’re so used to living in this overly paved environment, which is really a 19th-century technology that we’re still living with.

There’s been so much technological innovation in other realms of our life, but not in this, not in the way that we surface cities. But design occupies this really interesting place that’s kind of between art practices and something that might be more science or ecology based in terms of the knowledge that we’re drawing from. The design has a way of drawing from and fusing these practices together. How we do it is a really tricky part.

I teach a studio that I called a surface studio and it focuses on the urban surface. We look at the idea of a surface from a lot of different perspectives. We read from philosophy, we read from new materialism and ecocriticism. We read from art and architecture. We try to explore what the surface is. We study things that are not landscape. We study surfaces of things around us that are not landscape.

And then we look at projects from the last 20 years in landscape architecture that have been reinventing surface approaches toward the design of surfaces and landscape architecture. Specifically, to look at new tactics, new material strategies, and new hybrid approaches toward creating surfaces in cities that are also highly performative.

We do look at design as a kind of design precedent because I feel that these students need to be learning the tactics and strategies, and landscape architecture do these things. But then their design assignment is to solve a design problem with an RFP, which is a request for proposal. I play the role of the Commissioner of the de-paving commission at the City of Chicago and I give them the assignment to present what a de-paved Chicago may look like.

An intelligent, design-driven way to de-pave the city is not to say that we are going to completely take every piece of pavement out, but how we decide to slowly de-pave and convert our cities toward a higher performing overall surface. That generates a lot of different really great ideas.

The students have probably pushed further than I have in some ways and they take on this disruptive design process.

I’m hoping that the students take that with them into practice so that when they’re in an office and they start thinking, “okay, I’m not going to just specify the same old thing that was that is expected for a particular site,” and they start thinking about disrupting their own ways of thinking about designing surfaces. In practice, it’s still very normal for people to specify off-the-shelf materials or to allow asphalt itself to be put into sites which are a petroleum-based product, and again a very old technology. It makes you wonder, why are we still doing that?

Just to question that for them and give them a little bit more of a toolbox for thinking differently is the really pleasurable part about this. It’s not just your own research work, but it also then filters into the classroom and hopefully into the students thinking differently.