In a small reading group I participated in with some other geographers at Temple, we took some time to read the first couple chapters of William Cronon’s “Nature’s Metropolis”, a book about the development of Chicago and westward expansion in the United States. More generally, though, Cronon uses Chicago to make a point on the co-production of the urban and natural. Far from a frontier, the natural landscape is, in part, actively produced by its urban counterpart. He explores these mutually productive moments by tracing the relation though various objects (corn, trees, wool, gold, railroads, meat, etc.) that sit at the intersection between city and nature.
I’m mostly concerned with building urban spaces and particularly how we build common urban spaces, with all the attendant organizational variation in what is “the common”. But our urban selves, as Cronon suggests, are always making landscapes outside of the hazy boundaries of the city. Goods flow in and out of international maritime ports just as people regularly transport themselves within, outside of, and among cities through vast interconnected networks of rail lines, highways and air traffic routes. The sheer size of our transportation infrastructures reminds me of both the amount of materials required to enable transport and the seemingly endless, though certainly finite, amount of matter we uproot and constantly move from place to place. I can’t help but think of Edward Burtynsky’s manufactured landscapes every time I begrudgingly find myself on an interstate.
We move ourselves and other things for myriad reasons: to make money, to see family, to see trees, to learn languages, to visit old friends, to feel less alone, or just for the sake of movement—that dynamism that seems inherent in being enveloped by new environments. Reinventions, a corps perdu. The east coast in the U.S., or at least the small stretch of New Jersey and Delaware Philadelphians travel to and from with ease, is certainly a tourist space. The light, calming, yet unabashedly ersatz architecture of the coast signifies a space of relaxation, a space to remove yourself from the dirty confines of the city and its suburban rings, to show your neighbors that you, too, have made it to the middle class. Though, reading the landscape in this way reinforces the artificial unity of what is certainly a layering of invisible social landscapes of the Delaware shore. But the image of shorefront relaxation and tourism continues to capture the seasonal migration of urban pleasure-seekers, a movement that certainly defines its geologic landscape.
Mammoth, quiet babylon and F.A.D. have put out a few thoughts on the dredge cycle, recently pulling together a conversation on dredge at Studio-x NYC. While I am somewhat detached from landscape architecture, its resonances with geography leave little travel needed to find myself at home. The architectural home seems a place for taking note of the new architectural lines, or infrastructural vernacular, of the landscapes of dredge. Engineers and geologists have coveted this space, keeping the dredge as a closed infrastructure that reworks the shorefront landscape at the behest of the technologically savvy crew of mechanical experts. To reproduce the “natural” beach, the dredge draws sharp yet ephemeral infrastructural lines through the calm spaces of beach-front relaxation.
This means displacing those thousands of cubic yards of sand from the ocean floor and using massive compressing stations to pump tiny rocks through miles of hulking metal tubes. The process comes at the possible cost of disrupting the sea-floor ecosystems living in a tenuous partnership with their fellow human beach-dwellers. While any shorefront or riverfront landscaping operation is required to adhere to the restrictions of environmental impact assessments and watershed protection regulations, they are nearly always a contested process. The possible permanence of ecological and geologic transformation stands in stark contrast to the seemingly minute and fleeting impact the dredge infrastructure itself has on the oceanfront landscape. The miles of pressurized metal tubing will certainly be removed before the summer’s vacationers have a chance to take them in. Pumping and compressing stations are only small hiccups in the gaping expanse of the ocean horizon, often unnoticed by winter ocean-goers.
The dredge infrastructure’s impermanence in the oceanfront landscape is central to its work of producing the “natural” beach, an object of consumption for the seasonal tourism within the region. This particular operation, according to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s (DNREC) newsletter, is repairing the beach damage incurred from a 2008 Mother’s Day storm that pockmarked the beach with massive craters and distorted the function and image of the beach as a tourist destination. The storm, a geographic and meteorological event that, in part, could be due to anthropogenic changes in global weather patterns, damaged the beach to the point of putting nearby housing in jeopardy of being engulfed by the high tide. In response, the dredging operation is rebuilding the beach as a protective boundary to the adjacent tourist housing.
The daily fluctuations of the tide are, of course, a result of the gravitational pull we experience from outside the surface of the earth. The force of lunar gravitational pull varies on about a 12 hour basis as the moon itself is pulled in orbit by the earth’s own geologic mass. Twice a month, at the point of a full moon or a new moon, the earth, moon, and sun arrange in a straight line allowing both solar and lunar gravity to simultaneously reshape our planetary landscapes. As water is significantly more malleable than solid land, the oceans tend to reshape themselves more readily, allowing these lunar, stellar and planetary arrangements to sculpt the tourist landscape of the beach. Much of the dredge’s work is to protect beachfront property from the dangers of the high tide.
The 2.25 million dollars put forward by DNREC and the Army Corps of Engineers to widen miles of beach to 150 feet, repairing holes, and canting the slope of the beach is a human effort to protect the nearby housing and the “natural” beauty of the beachfront landscape. The project is producing a “natural” quasi-common for the region’s beach-going tourists, safely guarding a terrain meant for human enjoyment and, in a place next to so many major North American cities, preserve our escapes from the urban. The dredge is an ongoing contestation with the weather and gravitational patterns making their own claims on the beachfront landscape. It is a fugitive attempt to re-assert a safe tourist geography.
In this massive assemblage of global weather patterns, regional tourism, lunar gravitational forces, transportation infrastructures, urban escapism, geologic displacement, and ocean-floor ecosystems, the dredge becomes only a single point, a transient infrastructure of human desire. The dredge happens at a massive geologic scale but takes place in the context of an expansive network of relations that defies any attempt to place it within such a specific scalar boundary. The miles of pressurized metal tubing temporarily fixed in the beach landscape are a not-so-quiet reminder that “nature” is not the pristine condition of the pre-anthropocene. Instead, we tolerate the dredge’s ephemeral infrastructural interruptions for the sake of remaking a relaxing space outside the city. We are always working against other non-human forces to, in a sense, preserve the “natural” common for human consumption. The dredge reminds us that the “natural” never stands alone.