Lo-fi landscapes

On the infamous Cuyahoga River there is a weird little landscape growing in the stagnant waters of the shipping channel running through Cleveland. Like most rivers that empty into the great lakes in metro areas, the Cuyahoga is deepened, channeled, and lined with steel pilings and concrete bulkheads. And like most rivers it is part of the migration and spawning patterns of the species that make up the local fishery.

 The adult fish leave Lake Eerie and head upstream to spawn. However, when the new young fish come back downstream they often do not make it through the shipping channel. Because there is no current to aid them and there are not plants for food due to the channelized banks and depth of the river they cannot get enough calories to swim the 6 miles through the stagnant water. They need food.

[CHUB at steel piling bulkhead, courtesy of ohio.com]

The Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization (CRCPO) has developed a system to provide the steelhead trout and smallmouth bass a boost to get to the lake; they hang a series of specially designed bags from chains attached to the bulkhead pilings which contain growing medium and specific plants that can both tolerate the harsh conditions and provide food and habitat to the migrating fish. I love this intervention- it is a cheap, dispersed, and didactic constructed microecology that creates opportunity from the conflicts inherent to a contested urban site. It is a simple intelligible intervention that yearns to inform the community about its function and beckons involvement.

 The little pods, called CHUBS (Cuyahoga Habitat Underwater Baskets) are utterly utilitarian and subtle; you may not ever notice them. In some ways they look pathetic hanging there against that hulking steel piling, a metaphorical David being valiantly facing Goliath. However, the genius of this intervention is that it is not a counter proposal to bulkheads and industrial work but rather takes advantage of the structure and protection offered by them to diversify and enrich the uses of the shipping channel, a stance with positive ramifications for the regional ecosystem and fishery. In this sense, it is a landscape infrastructure writ small.

These pods remind me of a little study put out by Janette Kim of the Urban Landscape Lab at Columbia University titled Beyond Recreation. It is an adorable little idea that examines a number of themes we are interested in here at FASLANYC including the demystification of the professions, crowdsourcing, community involvement, and dispersed strategies. One can imagine community volunteer days being organized around the planting, distribution, and eventual gathering of these CHUBs according to spawning seasons.

In addition to garnering praise, this project serves to stimulate other ideas. It doesn’t take much imagination to see variations of these pods set afloat on certain days like so many Japanese lanterns celebrating the industrial-ecologic economy of Lake Eerie. Perhaps they can be distributed in conjunction with data sensors to give a sense of the health of local fish populations, lighting up when fish pass within one meter, creating a system of sentient tributaries on the shores of Lake Eerie. Maybe they will serve as foot soldiers marking territory and establishing migratory patterns for the future establishment of a new generation of mexican-style chinampas. Their versatility and dispersed nature begs for integration into other systems.

In that vein the CRCPO has identified 5 separate sites along the shipping channel as areas of study for new initiatives. In their words, “efforts to keep the channel working for maritime commerce can go hand in hand with restoration of fish habitat and, in most cases bring both nature and humans back to the last five miles of the Cuyahoga.” These new initiatives- more in keeping with standard and admirable landscape practice- include the restoration of riparian wildlife habitat, the excavation of toxic sediments, reconstruction of steel bulkheads, and the creation of park areas. These types of highly technical, costly reconstructions may be combined with intelligible, lo-fi stabilization wedges like the CHUBs to encourage community involvement in the entire initiative, creating a landscape that is a symbiosis of hi-tech professional constructions and community labor and leisure which harnesses and serves ecological and industrial processes.

[floating lanterns in Hiroshima, Japan, courtesy of arch-hiroshima.net]

It is this combination of low-tech, inexpensive, short-term tactics with overarching long-term strategies that we admire here at FASLANYC. The initiatives that work on both temporal and spatial scales of all sizes is often the best approach to intervening in the landscape. Too often we focus on the massive, capital-intensive reconstruction when what is most appropriate is a good CHUB.

[thanks to Ohio native Erik M for the tip about the CHUBs project]

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