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.