A concise model for Infrastructure Landscape Design (Part 1)

note: This is a three-part post. The first two posts describe my own infrastructure landscape design (ILD) projects and the third post will outline a methodology for ILD as a practice. 

Infrastructure is a kind of landscape.

In Forman's Land Mosaics, he defines landscapes as having repeated similarities over large distances. He writes, "Within a landscape several attributes tend to be similar and repeated across the whole area, including geologic land forms, soil types, vegetation types, local faunas, natural disturbance regimes, land uses, and human aggregation patterns. Thus a repeated cluster of spatial elements characterizes landscapes. (13, Forman 1995)"

The systematization and standardization of infrastructure imposes a sort of spatial organization into the designed world and the natural world. Some of those infrastructures are more visible to the public than others (e.g., road works & interstate highways), while others are less visible (e.g., supply chains). But infrastructure is pervasive in our world and it repeats itself over large stretches of land, at a granularity that ranges from fine to coarse as it moves between the visible and the invisible spheres. 

I gave a talk at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting in April about the ways that supply chains are a type of infrastructure and I made the argument that as a type of landscape, infrastructure offers designers an opportunity to "landscape the infrastructure". 

I made a series of core samples to index the anthropogenic shuffling of geologic sediments and to demonstrate how 5 test sites distributed across the continental US had the same geologic profiles. 

These five test sites were chosen because they each occurred along the long arms of the supply chain at discrete nodes of a retail network. Each site was a store from the same big-box discount retailer and I sampled a set of specific commodities in each of the stores: fuller's earth clay (found in cat litter), steel (found in steel wool), pumice (found in cosmetic tools), plastic and carbon (found in aquarium filters), and salt (found in food products). I then created six foot long core samples of speculative sedimentary horizons from the commodity sediments I collected.

The main idea behind this was that these commodities at some point come out of the ground somewhere, even the plastic originates from petroleum which, if you don't know, is a resource that comes from deep underground. Basically, these commodities used to belong to a place before they became a product. Let's look at the cat litter for a moment. It's a sediment clay that moves from the quarry to processing to distribution to retail to cat litter box to municipal dump. As a mineral in the ground it is part of a place (where that quarry is), when it becomes a product, the place is liberated and given a limited freedom of movement. When that product is used and discarded, it enters the geologic profile of a new place (whatever city it happens to be discarded in). 

The US clay industry is scattered across the continent because clay is a typical geologic stratum, but, while pervasive, clay substrates are not homogenous. Clusters of clay types emerge to reflect deposits that are known or have been discovered and exploited. 

But the two types of clay used in cat litter production are bentonite clay and fuller's earth, and this map marks out the dominant producing areas:

Bentonite and fuller's earth are used for a number of industries including petroleum production (clay is mixed into a slurry for drilling mud to be used in hydraulic fracturing and other techniques), binders for pelletized iron ore (taconite), fillers in animal feed (a kind of cattle geophagy), cosmetics, wine making, and absorbents with pet absorbents being a leader. The bulk of bentonite is used for other purposes with cat litter being only a small percentage of use, whereas the bulk of fuller's earth is used for cat litter. 

The core sample form was chosen because it references the practice that geologists and geographers use to quantify the stratigraphic profile and sedimentary structure of a site. All of the materials (clay, steel, pumice, plastic, carbon, salt) were available at each of the five sample sites (California, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, Florida), the idea that the sediments were part of the speculative profile of the test sites comes out when the sediments are viewed as speculative core samples.

Places become products and ultimately join new places. They move from the quarry to the landfill  and do a lot of traveling in between. These five sites reveal the homogenizing force of the supply chain. Homogenized retail means distributed access to off the shelf "places". The relationship of source geography to destination geography is not a one-to-one relationship. The cat litter used in this project is sourced from a single manufacturer operating two quarries. As these five core samples show, a common source geography is distributed geographically as the supply chain distributes the clay to retailers. In fact this is a one-to-many relationship between source geography and destination geographies.

Sparing some of the details of my talk, the point is that the force of the supply chain reorganizes geography faster than nature does. It is kind of unnatural that clay from a Georgia clay pit ends up in a California landfill. The same is true for all of the sediments in these core samples and for any sediment commodified into a product. And the product cycle is months, not the millennia of slow geologic shift. When a source geography becomes part of a destination geography it becomes part of the record of that new location. The designation geography is forced to adopt the immigrating sediment commodity into the geologic profile. That's just the way we have organized our world. And just like human immigration over time produces a new type of local citizen as generations root and anchor themselves to a new place, so too these sediments establish themselves as new local sediments. A new type of "local" emerges.

In the next post I'll describe the second half of my talk which focused on the convergence of sea water components in grocery stores, and then in part three I'll outline a model for an infrastructure landscape design practice.



update! my project was successfully funded on Kickstarter, thanks to all who backed!

My latest project lets you taste oceans that don't exist.


Supply chains are a kind of infrastructure, they move something from somewhere to somewhere else, stopping all kinds of places along the way. The products and commodities that move through the supply chain do a lot of traveling and it means that products from really far away show up in your local neighborhood at local stores. What ends up on the shelf, though, is something that is more than the sum of it's parts. It's latent seawater, ready to be reconstituted and converted into a new type of enhanced sea salt. 

This is one way that I'm working to landscape the infrastructure of supply chains. I've just launched the Improbable Oceans Sea Salt campaign on Kickstarter campaign for my latest project: Improbable Oceans. You can back this project and actually get some of this salt for yourself as the reward for backing. 

If you like the kind of work I do, please back this project and share it with your friends. Follow the project on Twitter @ImprobableOcean and use the hashtag #TASTEMYSALT for the extended story.


Looking at Trees, a sensory pod design

I recently collaborated with GeoCog member Dru McKeown (TOI STUDIO) on a project design for an immersive pod environment designed to help kids and adults learn to see trees in new ways. Here's the poster followed by the design narrative:

Can a tree compete with the digital screen in your pocket? We’ve answered this question through a modular pod system treehouse to help people experience the natural world both here in the garden and in the routines of their daily lives after they leave the garden. We’ve cast nature-deficiency as a social problem with a secret solution that lies at the heart of imaginative play. It’s a secret so powerful that it builds memories and radically shifts the way people see the world.

Before we discuss the solution, it might be helpful to explore how nature-deficiency affects your life. When was the last time that you looked intently at the bark of a tree? If you’re like most people, you might not remember the last time you looked at a tree. In the hectic grind of daily life we’ve forgotten the primal skill of wonder. We designed this pod system as tool to build deep wonder through sensory encounters because we believe that wonder is one of the fundamental building blocks of imaginative play. What world does not open up when you look more closely?

Adults and kids both forget to engage the natural world with curiosity and it stems from how we choose to control our attention. These pods hack into basic human attention patterns by reframing the world at kid-scale. This framing relieves kids of the weight of digital bombardment and frees them to experience agency in how they engage nature and it allows adults to experience respite through the luxury of play. Both adults and children experience this scale framing as an attention shift toward some aspect of nature.

Our design places focus on the tree as a tool for building wonder because trees are ubiquitous in our daily lives. If every tree you pass becomes a potential portal into another world, the trees themselves leverage the outreach of the botanical gardens beyond being a destination. Every tree has the potential to become a moment of memory recall of some emotionally imprinted experience of the garden. Every tree becomes a sensory tool that helps people build an enduring fascination with nature and every tree becomes a place for imaginative play.

The four pods in our system focus on different sensory experiences of a tree:

  1. The Wattle-Pod recalls a nest and invites visitors to experience the tree and canopy from the visual perspective of a bird by raising a periscope into the canopy.

  2. The Wood-Pod helps visitors experience the environment behind the bark by a design of annular rings, a vertical grain, and the textures of phloem and heartwood.

  3. The Dapple-Pod evokes the immersive sensation of forest-filtered sunlight by using a light filtering technique to illuminate the pod with light that shifts throughout the day.

  4. The Fabric-Pod creates a soundscape and a smellscape that focuses on the sound and motion of wind moving through the trees to evoke a moment of calm and comfort.

These pods help city dwellers (kids and adults) to develop a habit of wonder for the natural world. We’ve leveraged primary research in cognitive science to design this immersive sensory installation. Our published research (Dewey 2012; Dewey 2014) focuses on how people use attention patterns to make meaning in the natural world and we’re adapting these findings to the pod design. We’re curious about how emotion and perception shape people’s experience of place, and so we’re using this design as a form of cognitive engineering to help people see the world in new ways through the lens of play.

Dewey, Ryan. (2014). Hacking Remoteness Through Viewpoint and Cognition. In KERB 22, RMIT: Melbourne
Dewey, Ryan (2012). A Sense of Space: Conceptualization in Wayfinding & Navigation. Masters Thesis, Case Western Reserve University.

Tree circles as interfaces between biological and architectural

I just posted the photo-documentation of a walk I recently took near my old neighborhood in Waikīkī. There are 310 images of tree circles showing the diversity of treatments in the urban fabric. Tree circles mark a porosity of the hardscape. They connect the dots of the canopy and reflect the view of what a tree offers to the construction of place. Tree circles are an element of civic heritage because they are a mood-crafting element of the landscape image of the street. They pattern in ways that mark the passage of time in a place with continuity, discontinuity, salience and backgrounding. Take a look at the data set and see if you can spot how the images parse into categories of morphology, placement and variation.

Virtual Places: Core Logging the Anthropocene in Real-Time

I'll be presenting at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting in April 2015 on my project that reveals traces of the anthropocene in local neighborhoods. The presentation is the documentation of a performance work that explores speculative core samples of the ad hoc geology of retail shelves. Here's the abstract and a picture of my initial test cores, although for this project I'll produce an entirely new cycle.


Supply chains have broken the first law of geography by creating localized convergences of materials gathered over massive distances. Through mines and quarries, minerals become commoditized “sediments” and experience speeds and distances of travel that surpass those otherwise possible through natural means in the same amount of time. Erosion, sedimentation, and deposition are no match for the intermodal logistician. Supply chains are geologic forces whose movement is visible in the stratigraphy of sediments on the shelves of discount department and home improvement stores. The movement of these anthropogenic patterns of geologic flow can bring together bentonite clay from Wyoming with fuller’s earth from Florida and Pacific sea salt with salt mined in Ohio all under the same roof.

This convergence of geologic materials from multiple disparate places creates a new category of local “place” that is otherwise geophysically improbable without the help of supply chains and retail shelves. This project presents a series of core samples of these displaced convergences of materials as evidence of the geography of these ad hoc virtual places. 

By recasting retail shelves as stratigraphic layers of some infrastructural landscape, core samples of this condition reveal a new sort of geologic time: the real-time accumulation of distributed-on-demand geologic components. This renders sediments as both discrete objects in packages waiting for purchase, and also as potential new elements of sedimentary deposition in the substrate of whatever town to which the logistician determined they should go.



core samples of the anthropocene

Two Models for Path Design

In 2012 I did some research on the way that people draw on visual resources and sense memories to comprehend an experience. I looked at what factors influence a particular type of cognitive simulation (or mental imagery) called fictive motion. This experiment was conducted in an immersive forest setting along the green trail on this map:

I learned from this research that when a person can take a spectator view of an experience that they are participating in that they are more likely to use fictive motion in their descriptions of the experience. This suggests some things about the way people engage in online processing of experience, and it suggests a lot about how to better design experience to evoke these kinds of cognitive simulation during those experiences.

Kerb 22 Remoteness & Emotional Hacking

I won't give away the secret just yet, you can read about it in my article that is featured in the August 2014 issue of the landscape architecture journal KERB. What I will say now is that this research is useful for path design of any sort, whether it is a path through a room, a market, a gallery, a building, a city, a landscape, it works to compress large-scale experience spaces into human scale experiences (which is also the tack that I am taking with Geologic Cognition Society to compress geologic-scale issues into something humans can comprehend). 

Here are two models of possible paths through natural landscapes that might evoke experiences of cognitive simulation (along with some other really fascinating effects). If you want to know why and how, pick up a copy of KERB 22 in August (start at page 24), it will be an excellent issue full of ways to implement empirically validated techniques into your design practice.

nested containers
sequenced containers

Creating Experiences of Remoteness in Landscapes & Geographies

I've just written an article about the idea of remoteness for KERB (the Landscape Architecture publication from RMIT, Melbourne). Remoteness is hard to come by because everything we do is so proximal and interconnected. Learning to design spaces and paths that evoke notions of remoteness is an important task for helping people encounter a world that lacks the moments of refuge that spatial remoteness provides.

My article outlines an initial remoteness typology, describes cognition research that seems to support the value of remoteness in types of cognitive simulation and mental imagery, describes the rhetorical use of disorientation as a tool for crafting an artificial remoteness, and sets out a series of methods that landscape architects and urban planners can use to design and build remoteness into the built environment. 

I think there are two basic types of remoteness: negative (where remoteness = isolation) and positive (where remoteness = refuge). Both types entail a series of design requirements that shape the experience.

Here's how this fits with some of my other projects (like Geologic Cognition Society): I feel that remoteness should be a heritage resource that people have access to because it is brings the larger oceanic sensations of our experience of the size of the earth to the foreground of our attention. It gives us a tool that lets us see ourselves in scale with the earth, an important process in this time of the Internet of Things, the felt effects of the Anthropocene.

It is important to see our smallness with respect to the largeness of the earth. and the disjunction in people's minds between experienced local climate conditions and global climate conditions is a clear example of the fact that we don't comprehend the geologic scale of the earth as a system. 

The issue comes out in August, and I'll be posting more about the topic of Remoteness as time goes by. I'll post a link to the issue when it publishes. 

Geographical Urbanism - How Landscapes and Geography Contribute to Experience of the Built Environment

Cover: ©MONU.  Image on Cover: “AMARC#3; Tucson, Arizona, USA, 2006” from Edward Burtynsky’s contribution “Seduction and Fear”. Photo ©Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/ Flowers, London.

Cover: ©MONU.  Image on Cover: “AMARC#3; Tucson, Arizona, USA, 2006” from Edward Burtynsky’s contribution “Seduction and Fear”. Photo ©Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/ Flowers, London.

My article "Agency and the Multifaceted Stories of Hybrid Places" appears in MONU #20 Geographical Urbanism (April 2014).  The final draft ended up describing my old neighborhood in Honolulu and also a little about Paris. I compared and contrasted a range of topics showing how a large part of culture is shaped by landscape and also looking at the ways landscape interfaces with cognition. 

Here is the original abstract to the article: 

Cities and landscapes tell a multifaceted story that invites us to participate and observe - a story of relationship and a story of agency, where mountains and valleys and rivers act like characters in the same way that buildings and streets and neighborhoods have a life of their own. Both cities and the geographies that support them converge in a story of identity and imageability, making geographical-urbanism a sort of autobiographical tale of this hybrid place. 

Consider the type of language we use to describe landforms and urban forms, it is a dynamic language giving mountains and Main Street the muscles to move. Landforms can do all sorts of things: run, rise, plunge, extend, descend, meet, leap, twist, turn, spring, jut, meander, wind, or zigzag. Consider “The ravine runs along the edge of the city” or “Corcovado rises above Rio De Janeiro and looks down onto Sugar Loaf Mountain” or “The peninsula springs out into the ocean nearly a mile before coming to an abrupt stop”. Architecture and the built environment also come alive in order to: overlooktower, to line up, to face each other, to cluster together; cities grow and expand, sometimes they shrink and occasionally they die. This is more than figurative language - it is a type of cognitive simulation called fictive motion, a sort of mental imagery that helps us reason about the organization of the space around us. In a way, this motion language turns static scenes into dynamic stories and otherwise inanimate objects come alive like characters on the screen. What other stories unfold at the confluence of city and geography?

We might say that a timeline of some sticky plot develops into a nonlinear narrative as geologic time and civic time mingle and juxtapose. Neighborhoods inhabit the heights and hills while urban rivers (the Thames, the Seine, the Chicago) meander through architectural canyons; at every moment the urban dweller has one foot in the present and one foot in the past. Cities like barnacles and lichens cover the natural form, two timescales coexist, coextending side-by-side in cultures of urban adaptation and geologic adoption. The narrative of culture flows from the structure of landscape - in fact, cognitive ethnography has shown how conceptual structure and cultural networks sometimes mimic surrounding geographical structure. Geographical urbanism develops as an entanglement of relationships to gain critical mass and form an identity unique to that particular locational marriage of space and structure. What moral will this story offer?

Narratives become tools to make sense of details, and as the details of the city uniquely blend with the details of the landscape, the story is more of an autobiography of a hybrid place, and the narrative weaves itself through the life of the location. This article uses tools from cognitive science to give a simple and accessible reading of the story of hybrid geographical urbanism, exploring how people think about their environment and providing a cognitive basis for the relevance of geography to urban experience.

You can buy MONU #20 at select bookshops, order an issue online, gain digital access through the MONU app, or browse the issue on YouTube.

A Granular Wash of Disorientation

Viewpoint has an influence on orientation and modulating viewpoint can produce interesting experiences for people as they loose and gain orientation in the event. My research looks at the ways viewpoint affects cognitive simulation and I'm interested in ways to create disorientation as a rhetorical tool. My recent installation of the immersive pod with Geologic Cognition Society is an example of how space and time can be used to create a moment of disorientation. Here is the video that was played on the textured ceiling of the pod - it loses some of the effect when viewed on a screen rather than being "tented" under the image while laying down. The idea was to have a granular blur wash over the viewer. You will be able to see how the motion lingers after the film ends, I wanted this constant pushing of the image to work with saccades to control the eye. Participants in the experience reported varying experiences of time, some felt time speed up and others felt it slow down. We ran this project as a way to think about how to play with people's sense of time and space as we keep working on our larger geologic deep time piece. Anyway, you can read more about it in the earlier posts.

Spring Therapy: a Prototype Immersive Experience Pod


I recently prototyped an immersive experience pod for Geologic Cognition Society that we used in our booth at the Cleveland Mini Maker Faire held at the Cleveland Public Library in March. The structure was cobbled together from honeycomb walled cardboard, EPS foam, and nuts and bolts and a lot of hot-melt glue. John Daniel (Geologic Cognition Society's electronic musician) wrote a quick track for the pod and I quickly paired it with some iPhone captured video. We didn't have a lot of time from start to finish, but we pulled it off and people had a great time. This project was my first attempt to design and build a pod for GCS, and we'll be working out the details of materials and production for GCS's Geologic Deep Time pod described here. Check back later this week for more information about the immersive content presented in this installation.

Designing Immersive Experiences of Geologic Deep Time

experiencing geologic deep time

I'm working to design an immersive experience with Geologic Cognition Society. It is a project that explores how to tell the story of geologic deep time using ambient sensory structures (like video and music) with content that has been empirically linked to conceptual structures in broader cross-cultural cognitive science research.  These conceptual structures are image schematic and overlap with the schematic structures of some of the most basic events in geochronological mappings of the sedimentary history of our planet. I'm currently mapping between the conceptual structures and the geologic events and creating a set of primitives that will be used to build out the experience. Using these structures, a multimedia experience will take listeners along a journey through deep time, compressing time-scales and unpacking sedimentary history in the process. The immersive experience will be presented in natural history museums and art galleries, where participants will sit in individual enclosures (immersive pods) which deprive the listener of other sensory distractions. Visualizations are projected onto screens within the pods, and participants are plunged into time in ways that Jules Verne would covet.  

Geologic Agency and Geographical Urbanism

The Ko‘olau Range intermingles with neighborhoods of Honolulu. [Image: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Frame: 2109” [aerial photograph]. Scale ~1in:1km. Flight line No: 018. 16/5/00. Downloaded from http://magis.manoa.hawaii.edu/viewer/ on 15/2/14. ]

The Ko‘olau Range intermingles with neighborhoods of Honolulu. [Image: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Frame: 2109” [aerial photograph]. Scale ~1in:1km. Flight line No: 018. 16/5/00. Downloaded from http://magis.manoa.hawaii.edu/viewer/ on 15/2/14. ]

If you read MONU Magazine, you're familiar with their approach to content: every issue takes the term "Urbanism" paired with a descriptor that focuses on some theme at the forefront of urban theory.  This next issue is MONU #20 Geographical Urbanism (releasing in April), and I have an article in it titled: Agency and the Multifaceted Stories of Hybrid Places. The article explores how a variety of dimensions of hybrid places and our interactions with those places work to animate landscape and to help us understand civic time with respect to geologic time.  I'll post a link to the issue when it publishes.

Human Attention and Film Syntax

All artists engage in directing attention. I'm always asking the questions "what makes something stand out?" and "what makes something meaningful right now?" Asking these questions brings scientific knowledge to design tasks where directing and harmonizing attention is an essential goal. 

Caleb Brown (Philosophy In Motion) and I have just presented some of our research on film syntax and attention at CamraPenn's Screening Scholarship Media Fesitival (SSMF) at the Annenberg School for Communication in Philadelphia. We took apart several scenes from Hal Ashby's film Being There (1979) to show how directors can use basic patterns in human attention to create meaning and to heighten attention. We looked at the way that eye contact is used to negotiate meaning in conversation and we looked at the ways joint attention can be established through careful editing and shot framing. It seems that a lot of the communicative power of film can be traced back to basic attention patterns that viewers identify with as they watch film

You'll notice in the images below that several visual elements (e.g., the rule of thirds, lead room violations, mise-en-scène) work to establish points of salience. These work together with the editing techniques and the framing of the shots to reify joint attention as we move from attention contact in the wide shot to attention following with the two shot.