urban growth and decline

I recently had the opportunity to attend two conferences relating to urbanism – within one week, I went from Open/Closed, a conference on vacant land in St. Louis to Turning Urban, a symposium on urban growth.

In the end, both growth and decline present many of the same challenges and opportunities to cities.  Read the rest of my thoughts on the two conferences at NextSTL.com …

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focusing: questions

With my midterm presentation done and five (!) weeks left to develop this project, it’s been helpful to focus in on a few key concepts and questions:

How can our understanding of St. Louis history move beyond the Arch to include other sites and narratives?

How can history be represented in a city radically transformed by processes of urban renewal and vacancy?

How can our understanding of cultural landscapes move beyond a necessity for physical structures or periods of significance?

How can vacancy and urban renewal be understood as landscape processes (not static states)?

How can these processes and alternative narratives be represented through vegetational strategies (spontaneous vegetation and planted form)?

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Mapping Decline / Colin Gordon

Ahead of the Open/Closed Conference starting today, there is a great interview with Colin Gordon, author of Mapping Decline, posted at NextSTL.  Gordon relates the history of urban renewal to the city’s continued decline in population and rising vacancy levels.

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soil testing – N-P-K, pH

Here are the results for the soil testing (to see maps of the testing sites, click here).

These results indicate that neither site’s soils are high in nutrients.  This will allow me to further pare down the plant palette.

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village and common fields

I have devoted a lot of research toward understanding the JNEM and Pruitt-Igoe sites individually – but what is the relationship between them?

"The Common Fields of St Louis and her Neighbors" (source: St Louis as Fortified Town, James B Musick)

In its early history, St. Louis was laid out as a village surrounded by commons and common fields.  The common fields were divided into long plots and farmed by the villagers.  The boundaries of these plots influenced the later placement of roads – so it is possible to approximate the location of JNEM and Pruitt-Igoe, despite the river’s changing course.

JNEM, of course, is located on the site of the former village.  Pruitt-Igoe is located in the former “Prairie of St. Louis Common Field.”  This establishes a historical connection between the two sites, preexisting the development of North St. Louis.

Because the common fields were located where grasslands already existed, and the village was located on a forested limestone bluff, the two sites also represent two different native plant communities, corresponding with different site conditions.  Pruitt-Igoe likely had a deep layer of rich top soil, supporting grass species and making it a prime site for agricultural use..  JNEM likely had a thin layer of rocky top soil over the limestone bluffs.

Of course, human activity changed these sites substantially.  Over the course of the city’s development, the limestone bluffs on which the village was constructed were quarried for building supplies or carted away to improve access to the river.  Later, the construction of JNEM imported vast quantities of fill dirt to the site.  The earthworks might recall the limestone bluffs formally–but functionally the site operates differently, with deep soils that hold moisture, rather than the sharp drainage one would expect on a bluff.

Construction and demolition at Pruitt-Igoe left soils strewn with concrete rubble – debris was left on the ground, and piled into the building foundations.  This might create areas of thin soils and sharp drainage, as opposed to the thick soils that once existed.  Some areas of the site are covered in tall grasses, but other areas are now forested.

How can a plant palette reveal these past plant communities, respond to current conditions, and heighten differences between the two sites — while still establishing a connection?


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soil testing – pH

During my site visits on Sunday, I collected soil samples from the JNEM and Pruitt-Igoe areas.

I am testing all of the samples for pH, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium levels.  (Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, aka N-P-K, are key to plant development.  pH determines the availability of these nutrients to the plant – some plants are adapted to survive on acid soils; others on alkaline soils.  Some plants can tolerate a range of pH.)

As you may be able tell from the photos above, the soils at each site tested as alkaline.  The JNEM #1 sample was less alkaline that the rest – but none of the samples tested as truly neutral, much less acidic.  This suggests that in order to design a low maintenance planting strategy, species that tolerate alkaline soils should be selected.  Interestingly, while some of the plants at JNEM tolerate alkaline soils, many are adapted to grow in acidic or neutral soils and do not seem to have great tolerance of alkalinity.

Based on these results, I can begin to limit the plant palette to species that will thrive on the alkaline soils found at each site without requiring additional soil ammendment.

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riverfront forest / bottomland / missouri and mississippi rivers confluence

The Columbia Bottom Conservation Area is located at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, north of St. Louis.  Once the site of a town known as Columbia, and later St. Vrain, the area was established as a conservation area in 1997.  Ecosystem restoration projects are underway to create bottomland forests, wetlands, prairies and cropland.

How could this mosaic of ecosystems, and their corresponding maintenance regimes, provide an alternative model for the JNEM riverfront site?

Could the concrete-lined ponds at JNEM be reconcieved of as wetlands?  Could the ornamental plantings surrounding the Arch be treated as bottomland forests growing on a natural levee?

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