Fluid Topographies

The Infrastructural City: Reading Matthew Coolidge’s Margins in our Midst: Gravel (introduced by mammoth here)

[Gravel barges, from Flickr user mistert2)

Sites of resource extraction and mining are perhaps the best locations to demonstrate the networked ecology of urbanism.  The massive voids and distorted terrains created by the borrowing of material from one landscape for use somewhere else makes the connection physically clear.  Each form of mining (copper, water, timber,  aggregate, etc.) offers a revealing variation of this theme by tracing the materials into urban applications.  As Coolidge’s Margins in our Midst entertainingly describes, aggregate mining has a particular poignancy because the gravel becomes the integral element of most surfaces and structures of the city – an essential element of urban geology.

Early in the chapter Coolidge shares some interesting observations regarding the expansion of the port of  Los Angeles:

“The new terminals at the Port of Los Angeles, piers 300 and 400, are one of the largest land creation projects in American History…and when they were completed the nation was larger by more than a square mile, and extended a bit closer to our largest trading partner, China.”

[partial view of the constructed surfaces of the Port of Los Angeles, via Google earth]

This observation alludes to a broader trend of the expanding rates at which materials are shipped around the globe and the corresponding world-wide expansion of port infrastructure.  Contemporary landscape in its various commodified forms – from raw material to manufactured product –  is moved around in larger quantities than it ever has in history.  Rates of international shipping steady increase at an average of 10%  every year.  This expanding mobility necessitates upgrades to the transportation infrastructures enabling it.   In addition to the expanded real estate of ports, cargo vessels have increased in size, thus necessitating the dredging of shipping channels to accommodate larger container ships.

A mobility feedback loop develops in which increased networked exchanges require ever more commodities (more borrowing and transportation of gravel), which in turn requires the retrofitting of mobility infrastructures (also more gravel), which in turn requires the massive relocation of earthen material.  Like many other ports, the Port of Los Angeles recently had to go through the costly process of dredging its channels, during which it ran out of space to place the dredged material.  The situation reminds us of Coolidge’s axiom related to the conservation of mass: “for every pile there is a pit, for every pit there is a pile.”

[Margin within a margin: the Ross Island Gravel Pit, located in the Willamette River in Portland OR.   Image via Google Earth]

An interesting variation of this feedback relationship can be seen in the re-inhabitating of the Ross Island Sand and Gravel pit.  After 75 years of extracting aggregates, an aquatic, crater-like lagoon approximately 130 acres in area, and up to 125 feet deep has been created.  The gravel mine occupies an interesting location in the topographic seam of  Portland in the center of the Willamette River.  Like the gravel quarries in Los Angeles described by Matthew Coolidge, Ross Island reveals the same emblematic cut and fill relationships with the surrounding city.  The crater is arranged in a side-by-side relationship to the vertical extrusions of urban topography that borrowed from it.

The Ross Island Sand and Gravel Company’s contract with the city expired and it is now required to reclaim the altered collection of islands for wildlife habitat.  According to the Ross Island reclamation plan, it will require approximately 4.5 million cubic yards of fill to create the 150 acres of upland forest, riparian wetlands, and shallow water habitat that is required by the city’s Plan.

[Diagram of the history of gravel mining at Ross Island.  The analysis and graphics (above and below) are a small sampling from Christina Frank’s Master of Landscape Architecture Thesis: “Remanufacturing Ross Island: Transforming a Portland, Oregon Mining Site into a Post-Industrial Ecological Park”, courtesy of the University of Washington, 2005 Her thesis work was integral to the Ross Island Vision Plan]

Its estimated that it will take about 10 years to refill the topographic void of Ross Island.  Interestingly, the imported fill material will be a combination of excess soil from Portland area construction, leftover material from the ‘Big Pipe’ Sewer Project, and dredge material collected from the deepening and maintenance of the Willamette and Columbia river shipping channels.

[diagram of the reformation of Ross Island]

In the Ross Island example, the networked mobility of landscape has come full circle.  Production and waste streams have merged.  Processes of construction excavation, industrial material sourcing, global shipping, dredging, and wildlife habitat formation are bound together in a fortuitous network of mutual dependence; a blended infrastructure of accelerated geology and fluid topography.

[Christina’s diagram of Ross Island’s transformations]


  1. looks like a job for the newts, they’re way cheaper…

  2. I really liked this post, particularly the way you tied together trade and extractive landscapes. It’s fairly clear that offshoring of manufacturing has enabled us to push factories to the margins of our thoughts – interesting how that marginalization is enabled in part by digging and filling at Coolidge’s margins.

  3. Thanks Peter. I think the trade and exchange processes tie in to the points you mentioned for the previous Crude City Chapter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: