A while ago, I was in New York at the start of the NYC design week and came across an advertisement for a walk of the Brooklyn Waterfront, conducted by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance (MWA). The walk was to be about a set of guidelines that the MWA had published called the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG), to see how these can be applied in the process of transformation of the Brooklyn waterfront to make it a more livable and sustainable area. The WEDG is a very interesting document for those seeking design inputs on making lively, functional and resilient waterfront developments. The guidelines add a lot of value to the development process, with their clear principles that act almost like a toolkit for resilient and sustainable design. The WEDG is also a best-practices and certification system that is intended for all stakeholders involved in the waterfront development process including planners, designers and property owners. It is a voluntary system that can be adopted by property owners at the waterfront and the MWA have been actively tying up with partner organizations to promote the adoption of these guidelines.
The walk itself was to take us to two spots on the waterfront – the Sunset Park and the Sims Material Recovery (recycling) facility also located on the ‘working waterfront’. Large parts of the Brooklyn waterfront are still industrial in character, with industrial buildings working out of many of the existing piers. The Sims recycling facility is one of them. The Sunset park and Sims facility were both selected as part of the walking route because they are both projects on the waterfront that have been WEDG-certified. Personally, I signed up for the walk looking forward to finding out more about the WEDG works, the stakeholder involvement programs and the master planning process for the Brooklyn Riverfront but the walk ended up focusing mostly on the Sims recycling center. This was our first stop on the route and the group were so interested in the place that we decided to see it in more detail and go to sunset park later if time permitted (that didn’t happen).
The Sims recycling center is quite impressive, to say the least. The facility processes 700 tons of recyclable waste from New York City every day and ships them out on barges to be upcycled. Sims is set in an industrial brownfield site on the Brooklyn waterfront. The entire site is designed with resilience in mind, to withstand storm surge and sea-level rise which are all good things to think about when your property is on the Hudson bay (these get credits on the WEDG system). The facility is powered (mostly) by clean energy from a commercially sized wind turbine that produces 15,000 kWh per month. The site incorporates large bioswales to retain and treat all the stormwater runoff (again, WEDG credits). It is accessible to the public through tours of the factory. Upon walking through, you get a sense of how much waste we are producing collectively as a species and it might make you think about changing some habits to maybe stop making so much waste. The place does not smell bad at all. It is not a particularly striking building, visually, but the spaces inside are well laid out. The building design takes advantage of the dramatic views of the bay and skyline that the site has to offer, and there are spots from outside as well as inside the building where one gets to appreciate the view. It is a well-designed structure, with a clean, industrial language, and it is nice to walk through. As a facility it is doing a lot for the city. Today there is still a lot of open flat concrete parking lots on the site (it only opened at the end of 2013) but someday, the area around the factory could well become a garden or a park. The project is designed by Selldorf Architects, New York.
The Sims recycling center also has a well-designed exhibit for visiting public to explain the scale and detail of the recycling process. Often, school children are brought here on tours to demonstrate and explain the process of waste management and what they can do to help. It was a good learning experience for the group of us who visited the facility on the walk, to see how such a place operates and what goes into cleaning up an entire city’s recyclable waste.
Incidentally, the walk turned out to be very exciting for me personally, for an additional and serendipitous reason; the Sims facility is a real-life version of a design thesis I had submitted years ago for my undergraduate degree, and I had never had the opportunity, until I visited Sims, to see a designed building for recycling and how such a place worked!
Back in my undergraduate program in architecture, we had to prepare an individual design thesis project. We came into the final semester thesis after having just completed a dissertation and mine had been about what I termed to be the green-building fad, where I argued for a more holistic approach to being sustainable in architecture. So I took it upon myself to draft an ambitious design thesis proposal which intended to do just about everything – clean up the city, regenerate a brownfield site, make a new language for architectural design, help the marginalized sections of society, educate people and, well, just be awesome. The problem was, the core of my project had to be a building because after all, this was an architectural thesis project, and in the scheme of things, the architectural component was a recycling facility. This kind of thing wasn’t heard of in Chennai, where I did my undergraduate program, back in 2009. Accepted choices for design projects tended to be cultural, civic, institutional, housing or retail/commercial building typologies. Here, I was proposing an industrial building. This by itself would have still been okay – except that the factory was also a garbage factory, literally. What does one do with that? And how was I to convince a group of thesis committee members that this was something designers should be working on? While I could find examples for industrial design projects in past theses from the school, there wasn’t a single reference in the library to address design for waste management.
My project proposal was also about trying to revitalize a wetland that had been turned into a landfill and integrate an informal and marginalized economy of scavengers into the mainstream economy. While everyone on my thesis committee agreed that all these were good intentions to have, we kept coming back to the question – Is it even required for an architect to think of such things? Is there enough of a building to design?
It took some effort to put together a convincing argument for why this is an important design problem, to think about waste management and integrate it into the mainstream or accepted fabric of the city. Typically, one would justify such intentions with case studies and examples of successful projects elsewhere in the country or the world. There wasn’t much to go on in the way of Indian examples at that time (though the Manav Sadhna Community Center is an interesting parallel) and so I turned to the internet for help. Google it today and you would find hundreds of search results related to architecture + recycling. There are so many inspired projects, operating at various scales in various cities and countries. It is truly wonderful. But back in 2009, finding a handful of useful, built examples with enough information to extract for a study was a trying experience. It took many hours of trawling the internet but I did manage to find a few examples of projects that were similar to what I was proposing such as this and this. From the limited images and information that was available then, I figured my thesis would not be a glamorous architectural project. But it was possible to put together a program, provide a representation of what such a place might look like and design it with just this much information, which I did.
The thesis was eventually well received by some of the members of the jury. However, I always had a nagging sense of doubt whether there really was a legitimate design proposal in the work I had submitted or if I had just talked my way through it, without any real substance. In conversation with classmates and colleagues, if the topic ever came around to thesis projects, I would mumble my way out of it, to avoid having to explain or rant. As I mentioned earlier, I had never seen such a building or project, and what little I read on the internet was not enough to inspire a great vision.
Some of those doubts were allayed over time, when I engaged in urban design studios and found ways frame these problems regarding sustainability again and address them through design. However, the most satisfying experience regarding this whole issue was the visit to the Sims recycling center in New York City in 2015, six years after I submitted my final thesis. From conception to design and execution, the Sims facility was everything that I had imagined my thesis project to be, and it was inspiring.
Many of the same features as in Sims were a part of my design and vision for the city of Chennai, back in 2009 when I put my thesis proposal out. Since then, I’ve come to believe that a city-scaled waste management operation is probably not the best way to go for a city like Chennai for various reasons. But this model works well in the context of New York and the Sims facility is a great example of a design project that is tackling the sustainability issue head-on. For me, personally, it is very heartening to see that design has come a long way from just packaging products and spaces to sell to people. While some of this is my personal sense of elation on having been validated in my choice of thesis project, I also feel genuinely happy about the positive change and the way communities are moving forward.
The design of cities is not just about shopping malls and office buildings and museums (though those are all important places to have). If you live near a recycling facility or ever find yourself in the vicinity of one, please go and visit. Find out what they do and how it works. The more we acknowledge this as a legitimate part of our cities, the more impact it will have in making cities more innovative, livable and sustainable.
Shruti Shankar is an Urban Designer and architect with professional experience working in India. She enjoys writing and drawing about the making of cities and is always up for a cup of chai and conversations about travel, city-living, music and food, among other things. Catch some of her personal rants on all things urban at Urbanism, something Or Why Cities Matter