In a previous post, we documented a failed installation on a vacant urban lot. That botched attempt to implant a vegetated shape on the site was useful in revealing many processes occurring there. Such processes are particularly evident in the programmatic vacuum of open or derilect urban lots. During the interim period until these sites are re-purposed, their surfaces absorb, diffuse and reflect the forces emanating from the more regimented and productive spaces surrounding them. As such Vacant lots are never fully vacant; rather the moment they emerge they are appropriated by competitive and cooperative agents that seek to utilize new spaces in the city. These contested terrains provide laboratories in which to directly engage with forces of urban ecology.
Over a year an a half after the site’s buildings were demolished, an open gravel expanse still remains. Learning from past experiences, the site was revisited in an effort to foster new interactions with the processes occurring there; experimenting to develop active relationships with the space rather than dominating or passively documenting.
To record and affect the ecology of the space (human and other) an ephemeral grid made of robust annual rye grass was seeded upon the gravel surface. As surveying and cartographic method, the living grid was grafted onto the site to reveal activity and forces via its presence, its deformations and its erasure. Operating in the inverse of archeological cartography, the 1:1 scaled map records the emerging present and future rather than the past.
From the outset, the seeded grid formed relationships with the site. Through observation it was clear that some of the seed became food for opportunistic pigeons, which were often seen on the lines of the grid rather than the spaces between…the map was affecting what was there and what was being observed.
Heavy rains created additional selection factors, leaving behind standing pools of water in shallow depressions.
The grid reads at the site scale, as well as in close up. Gaps in the grid reveal where it could and could not establish due to a variety of factors, such as predation, trampling by pedestrian and vehicular traffic and a poor compacted growing medium.
Once established, the grid began to further record activities occurring on site through observation of various artifacts left behind (sunglasses, broken bottles, magazines), the spray paint of proposed construction markings, and further grid erasure due to vehicular traffic.
In the short span of time that the grid came into place, a surprising shift occurred. Rather than being limited to unsanctioned activity (including the grid itself), the lot began to host informal, yet owner-permitted uses. Part of Portland’s ever-expanding food cart network, a Taqueria style food cart is now leasing the front corner of the site, bringing with it new infrastructure, activity and occupants. While still indeterminate, the site appears to be moving towards a less terrain vague state, particularly if this cart is successful and others follow. However, it could just as easily relapse.
Like a tattered, heavily used paper map, the grid is wearing away in areas of heavy use. More and more tears are appearing and pieces are breaking off and disappearing altogether. The democratic, distribution of the grid is giving way to a remnant hierarchy based on surface activity.
Because the grid is made of annual, rather than perennial rye grass, it will disappear indefinitely where it doesn’t get the opportunity to reseed itself. Similar to a desire path, where the map has done the most recording of activity is where it will no longer exist. Where the grass persists reveals a concurrent ecology within the space.
This installation operates like a variant on William Whyte’s pioneering work “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”, with its strategic emphasis on physical observation of urban phenomena and an embedded placement in the physicality of the medium. It differs from Whyte’s work in that it emphasizes a marginal or liminal space rather than one particularly designed for public gathering. The work also goes beyond observation to interact with what it tries to map and explores a broader or more inclusive approach to urban ecology. Perhaps it could serve as an addendum to chapter six (“The Undesirables”) of Whyte’s book of the same name.
To be continued.