Beyond the Routing of Large Pipes

…Continuing the recent discussion via FASLANYC (also here) and mammoth regarding:

  • what added value architects/landscape architects can provide to infrastructure
  • ‘craft’ in the expanded field of contemporary design
  • the design of industrial conveyance systems in the landscape
  • and the potential reconfiguration of industrial processes

I’d like to add a current infrastructure debate from the Pacific Northwest to the discussion:  the proposed Palomar Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) Pipeline and staging terminal on the Columbia River.  As described in the Oregonian:

” In all, the pipeline would extend 210 miles, feeding into a natural gas network east of the Cascades. Work crews would cut through public and private land using backhoes, rock cutters, tractor-mounted mechanical rippers and blasting tools. Palomar officials say they would minimize environmental damage while providing Oregonians with jobs and a reliable source of energy…Critics say the project would degrade wildlife and fish habitat, destabilize soil, kill endangered species, spread invasive weeds, destroy patches of old-growth trees and open public forest to all-terrain vehicles…

Palomar would ship supercooled liquid natural gas imported on tankers from Russia, Indonesia, Australia and the Middle East to a terminal near Wauna, on the Columbia River. The fuel, warmed to a gas state, would flow through a high-pressure line, providing enough energy to supply thousands of West Coast homes and businesses.”

The construction of the pipeline would cut a swath of land approximately 120′ wide along the route, excavating and then burying the large pipe seven feet beneath the surface.  The 210 mile transect skirts around the Portland metro region and rips through a variety of natural and anthropogenic biomes, including coastal forest, agriculture of the Willamette valley, the Cascade mountains, and high altitude sagebrush desert.  The map below shows the general route and the connection to the existing interstate pipeline at the eastern endpoint:

(more detailed maps of the proposed route available here)

The purpose of the Palomar pipeline is to create another portal for foreign imports of LNG to connect to the vast network of LNG pipeline crisscrossing the U.S.:

Map of gas pipelines with requisite compressor stations

From a client-based design perspective, the role or ‘craft’ designers have played in this project (as delineated in earlier RFPs) is limited in scope to ameliorating the visual impact the pipeline will have on ‘scenic’, forested and other lands by applying the Bureau of Land Management’s specified Guide to Visual Resource Inventory, which defines scenic quality as “a measure of the visual appeal of a tract of land.” Within the inventory’s process, “public lands are given a rating based on the apparent scenic quality which is determined using seven key factors: landform, vegetation, water, color, adjacent scenery, scarcity, and cultural modifications”.

The BLM manual is an interesting study in the codification of something as vague as scenic value.  The manual is often applied to large-scale infrastructure and resource extraction projects with the intention of minimizing the visual presence, or relic of the disturbance.  Certainly there is value in this, as it avoids the complete trashing of the landscape and hopefully minimizes detrimental effects to the environment as well, yet how beneficial is it to try to conceal the presence and effects of industrial infrastructure and production?    Arguably, the more visible energy and other infrastructures are, the more likely we are to realize our relationship and reliance upon them.  Rather than appreciating active infrastructure (Center for Land Use Interpretation and others exempted), we seem to have a tendency to revel in such infrastructures when they are after-the-fact ruins, such as Gasworks Park, Duisburg-Nord Park, etc.

Faced with only the option of choosing the ‘best’ route for the Palomar pipeline to slice through is (for me) a losing proposition because the entire project and the operational setup seem like poor ideas for plenty of reasons, including:

  • the pipeline extension continues along a doomed centralized, fossil fuel dependent infrastructure
  • the money and effort could be better spent on investment in renewable energies
  • the design role is professionally marginalized to scenic amelioration rather than operational/functional process, and
  • there are questions regarding the self-serving embedded corporate and governmental agendas behind the project (although with new leadership at FERC under the new administration there is hope that Federal opinions might be changing)

Like adding more lanes to over trafficked highways, the Palomar pipeline is a band-aid on centralized infrastructure premised on unsustainable, globally-scaled extraction networks and top-down processes.  I’m of the opinion that we can do better.

Embedded in situations such as these,  it’s evident that the ‘craft’ of design needs to be retrofitted, or at minimum expanded.  Physical design will always be an essential part of the craft we do, and hopefully with a more inclusive range of possibilities.  But a new component of the craft of landscape/architecture/urbanism, particularly in light of the infrastructure debate and lessons learned from the current recession (for example, who knows how many currently out-of-work designers will be ironically working on this competition), begs for more craft in strategic proactive design, design advocacy and activism.

A difficult (and perhaps now required) challenge is to find new ways of defining how we work and where that work comes from; meaning less passively received design agendas and more proactive defining of the agendas that should be pursued.   In order to bring about any sort of massive change,  it’s the craft of skilled advocacy and communication that leads to better opportunities to apply the physical part of the craft. It’s the strategic reading of the physical/political/economic terrain to anticipate what value we can add, and channeling potential client relationships and the public down those avenues via creative means and communication that’s important.   It’s the craft of redefining agendas and relationships on better terms.  As designers we have so much more capacity to lead the agenda instead of waiting to passively receive one to act on.  Such a practice could render well-considered design as integral rather than value added.

In the academic realm there are plenty of great practitioners of proactive design.  The likes of Alan Berger, Teddy Cruz, and Sergio Palleroni immediately come to mind amongst many others.  Academic positions are relatively privileged realms that allow for expanded and directed research agendas as part of their program.  A more difficult challenge concerns how to achieve and sustain a deliberate and reflective design practice through other or additional means.  There are some models out there but the design field is wide open for innovation in this aspect.

What could we have added to the Palomar pipeline and other infrastructures like it?    Maybe nothing.  Perhaps a few good views.  But we likely could have demonstrated myriad other forms of infrastructure and local energy reliance that might have steered support away form it and towards something far better.

LNG Network maps courtesy of U.S. energy Information Administration.  Top photo sourced from here. Interior of pipe from here

Visual Resource
Management Analysis

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