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Can Designers Solve the Problem of Urban Wasteland?

Bonnie Richardson reviews Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America, by Alan Berger

Drosscape: Wasting Urban Land in America, by Alan Berger.my point of view: from an automobile in Phoenix, Az

Driving the smooth black asphalt from west to east along McDowell Road, I look forward to the expansive view of the east valley at the top of the rise, next to the modest amphitheater carved in the red rocks of the Papago Buttes. A short descent and a quick right turn take me right through the desert—real desert—open space where the mesquite flavors the air after it rains. Nearby the zoo and the botanical garden coexist with the coyotes and the rabbits.

I recall my surprise as I studied the photo in Alan Berger’s Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America, the broad aerial view highlighting the massive amount of acreage devoted to the Arizona National Guard military training grounds adjacent to the Buttes and urban desert. So much land in the middle of the Phoenix metropolis devoted to a use better suited to the city’s periphery. The site has been swallowed up by miles and miles of houses, strip malls, office buildings, and golf courses. Indeed, it is land waste so quietly contained we hardly notice.

the story of dross unfolds

Berger’s intriguing photographs tell many stories, and readers will have a visceral reaction to the beauty and the waste and the massive collections of things that have lost their value. The reasoned response follows, recognizing the failure of planning and zoning and the lack of knowledge or concern about contaminating the environment. Berger documents landscape, urbanization, and waste in ten metropolitan areas (Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, and Phoenix) and follows with an assessment of land waste by type (dwellings, transition, infrastructure, obsolescence, exchange, and contamination). The array of images makes clear that dross is undeniable across the country, as settlements grow into cities that expand and contract with changing markets and evolving technology.

According to Berger, drosscape is “a term created to describe a design pedagogy that emphasizes the productive integration and reuse of waste landscapes throughout the urban world.” He argues that the anti-sprawl and pro-sprawl rhetoric is too politically charged and is not productive in advancing knowledge on urbanization. The term “urban sprawl” is obsolete, irrelevant. This premise and the resulting proposal of a new vocabulary are “meant to initiate a conversation about landscape and urbanization, from which anyone may make more informed real-world decisions to affect design.”

the manifesto

An eight-point Drosscape Manifesto sets forth the principles of urban waste and the actions to be taken by the design community. It asks designers to consider working “in the margins rather than at the center and to shift the paradigm of what is considered urban design and what landscape means to urbanism and urbanization processes.” The author goes on to suggest that professionals move “toward the advocacy designer who engenders inventiveness, entrepreneurialism, and visioning.”

Acquiring the role of conductor or agent, the designer “does not rely on the client-consultant relationship or the contractual agreement to begin work. In many cases a client may not even exist but will need to be searched out and custom-fit in order to match the designer’s research discoveries. In this way the designer is the consummate spokesperson for the productive integration of waste landscape in the urban world.”

my point of view: as an architect, city planner, and educator in Phoenix, Az

Developing a new vocabulary to avoid the politically charged debate about sprawl and land waste and reuse only serves to complicate the important issues at hand, denying the critical time frame in which solutions must be formulated. The dialogue is interesting and challenging, but the academic nature of the discourse fails to acknowledge the need for immediate action.

I refer again to one of the photos: Arizona Mills Mall and the adjacent eight-lane freeway connecting Tucson and the lineal development along the I-10 corridor to Phoenix. The Arizona Department of Transportation is in the process of expanding this freeway. The project is cleverly named the “express/local lanes concept” in order to avoid drawing attention to the 24 lanes that will impact the existing homes and businesses. The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy calls this the Sun Corridor, suggesting Phoenix and Tucson will merge to become a megatropolis in the next decade, with a combined population of 10 million within 30 years.

Decisions made over the next few years will have a significant impact on pollution, infrastructure, congestion, and quality of life. Resource preservation and the availability of water may ultimately define the limits of growth in many parts of the nation. Berger suggests dross, whether good or bad, is a placeholder or land bank within the city. Yet delaying opportunities for quality infill encourages expansion at the perimeter.

Beyond the need for a frank discussion of the real impacts of land waste within the city and sprawl at its borders is a realistic understanding of the role of planners, architects, and consultants. A manifesto that calls for a designer to abandon a client-consultant relationship and contractual agreement, and to work on projects for waste landscape with the hope of finding a client that is a “custom-fit,” requires a financial freedom that design firms seldom experience.

It is not a designer’s lack of education or understanding of the important issues that precludes a solution to waste landscapes, but the structure of local, state, and federal policy and the market forces and inadequate public awareness that create the greatest challenges. Perhaps a rehabilitation of the current vocabulary, facing sprawl head-on, will be the most productive and timely response to the Drosscape Manifesto.


Bonnie Richardson began her career in the private sector, managing her own architectural practice in Tempe, Arizona. She was a visiting professor at Arizona State University's College of Architecture and Environmental Design. She is currently working for the City of Tempe as a transportation and land planner, introducing sustainable design with the development of the Tempe Transportation Center. She is a LEED-accredited professional and serves on the Board of Directors for the U.S. Green Building Council, Arizona.
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Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America

By Alan Berger

   Princeton Architectural
   ISBN 156898572X


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