April 26, 2013
Cities around the world are covered in spray-painted hieroglyphics and cryptic designations scrawled on public surfaces; unintelligible tags and arcane signs intended to communicate messages to a specialized audience with a trained eye. Such markings are so prevalent that they just blend into the urban patina of dirt and disrepair and go largely unnoticed. I’m not talking about illegal graffiti. Rather, the officially sanctioned infrastructural “tagging” employed by public works departments around the country.
You’ve probably seen these markings on streets and sidewalks. Multi-colored lines, arrows and diamonds denoting the presence of some subterranean infrastructure or encode instruction for construction or maintenance workers. A secret language that temporarily manifests the invisible systems that power our world. Recently, Columbia’s Studio-X blog shared the decoder ring that unlocks these secret messages:
A version of the above code was first implemented in California after construction workers accidentally cut through a petroleum pipeline in 1976, resulting in a fatal explosion that destroyed half a city block. To prevent future incidents, a system of notation known as DigAlert was developed to communicate vital information to anyone who might be doing construction work or excavations in areas near underground cables or pipelines. Since then, the American Public Works Association established a standard color code to identify subterranean infrastructure in American cities. This standard is a recommended by most national agencies, but, like the “fire diamond,” it is not a mandate intended to supersede any local regulations.
These “safety colors” –expanded to include red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, grey, white, and black– have been formalized by the American Standards Institute (ANSI) as Safety Color Code Z535, which provides Munsell notation and Pantone color-matching information to help ensure consistency across mediums.
While the color system warns workers about certain types of hazard, there is a complementary language used to approximately mark the underground location of a conduit, cable, or pipe. According to the Guidelines for Operator Facility Field Delineation established by the Common Ground Alliance, spray-painted lines (in the appropriate color, of course) space between four-feet and fifty-feet apart should be used to mark the center of a single facility or, if multiple conduits are running in a single trench, over their outside edges with arrows pointing in the the direction the services are running with a perpendicular line connecting the edge marks to form an H (as seen in the photo at the top of this post). A diamond is used instead of the perpendicular line to indicate a duct system.
While just as esoteric (though not as artistic) as illegal graffiti, these regulated utility markings encode a different type of turf. And knowing that Krylon code can save lives. Such urban annotation reveals the danger and complexity of American cities and is just one more example of the standardized, secret signs that surround us.
Previously: Decoding the City: The Fire Diamond
April 10, 2013
Cities are full of signs. Signs telling us where to go and how to get there; signs suggesting things to buy and signs keeping us from where we shouldn’t be. Every sign is a code of sorts, a graphic system linked to something else – an idea, an instruction, a building. Typically, these codes are carefully designed to be decipherable by as many people as possible – everyone, ideally. They reduce meaning to its most essential components: RED=STOP. But occasionally in cities, there are signs that aren’t intended to be read by everyone, coded messages for specific agencies or civil service employees. These signs are ubiquitous but largely indecipherable and mostly go unnoticed. One such sign is NFPA 704 – perhaps better known as the “fire diamond.”
NFPA 704 is the American system for identifying hazardous materials created by the National Fire Protection Association. It was first developed in 1957 by the NFPA’s Sectional Committee on Classification, Labeling, and Properties of Flammable Liquids “to safeguard the lives of those individuals who may be concerned with fires occurring in an industrial plant or storage location where the fire hazards of materials may not be readily apparent.” In 1961, the NFPA formally adopted the primary-colored diamond design as a National standard, providing emergency workers with a simple, readily recognized and decipherable system of signage describing general hazards to help workers in planning a safe and effective response.
These signs are found on chemical tanks, warehouse doors, and loading docks all over the country – any industrial, commercial, or institutional building that manufactures, processes, uses, or stores hazardous materials that “would cause, or significantly contribute to an increased risk of serious injury, incapacitating illness or increased risk of death.” They are exclusively used on structures or containers; signage for vehicles carrying hazardous materials is regulated by the Department of Transportation. Although the National Fire Protection Agency standard describes the relative sizes of the diamonds and the numbers, including the suggestion that diamonds used on building exteriors measure no less than 15 inches by 15 inches, local authorities have final jurisdiction over how the signs are implemented, including their location and size.
The basic form is familiar to anyone who’s every had some sidewalk chalk and a ball. A diamond divided into four smaller diamonds, each given a color code and number to signify a specific hazard: the blue diamond is the health signal, ranked according to the level of toxicity and effects of exposure to response personnel; the red signifies the level of flammability, and the yellow indicates reactivity. The white diamond is reserved for any other necessary information, such as water reactivity, radioactivity, the need for protective equipment, or specialized extinguishing agents. The number within each diamonds indicates the severity of the threat, ranging from 0, indicating no hazard or unstable materials, to 4, which indicates highly combustible, toxic, or reactive materials that could cause death or major injury.
With the exception of the poison and radiation symbols, NFPA 704 is almost completely opaque to the average person and just fades into the background of visual white noise produced by the modern American built environment. But to those for whom they’re intended, the signs provide invaluable, and potentially life-saving information. Other countries have their own unique standards, such as the orange hazard symbols required on all European vehicles carrying dangerous materials. Have you observed similar signs oversees? Are you curious about other signs and symbols? Let us know in the comments!
March 15, 2013
Every year on March 17, monuments around the world go green for 24 hours to celebrate St. Patrick’s day. The most famous of these temporary interventions is the dyeing of the Chicago River.
The tradition started in 1961 when water pollution controls were first enforced in the Windy City and a Chicago plumber was trying to locate a pipe that was dumping waste into the Chicago River. In order to find the waste line in question, a green dye was dumped into several waste systems to determine which one was dumping into the city’s eponymous river. It’s a simple enough idea. But at the end of the day when the plumber reported to Stephen Bailey, business manager of the Plumber’s Union, chairman of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and consummate showman, Bailey saw the plumber’s dye-soaked jumpsuit and had an epiphany that would forever change the face of Chicago — at least for one day a year. A few phone calls later, during which he surely had to convince politicians and engineers that he was, in fact, not joking, plans were in place to dye the river green on St. Patrick’s Day using the same chemical compound that coated the plumber’s coveralls.
Although Bailey intended that the river remain green for only a single day, the process was something of an experiment and when it was first attempted in 1962, Bailey mixed 100 pounds of dye into the river with speedboats, which turned out to be a little too much and the holiday spirit was accidentally extended for an entire week. In following years, the recipe was refined and eventually perfected. Today, about 40 pounds of the dye is used.
That original dye actually has a pretty fascinating history of its own. It’s called fluorescein and was first synthesized in 1871 by Nobel Prize winning chemist Adolf von Baeyer, who also created synthetic indigo, so thank him for those sweet jeans you’re wearing.
Fluorescein is a synthetic compound that turns from an orange or red to green when mixed into water and excited by sunlight. It was commonly used to trace water flows, check for leaks, and study pollution or drainage. Outside of plumbing –way outside of plumbing– fluorescein has also played an important role in the air and space industry. Not only has it been used by militaries around the world to help locate parachutists who have landed in water, but it was also famously used to help locate the Gemini IV, the first NASA mission to be supported from Mission Control in Houston, after its landing capsule crashed into the ocean more than 40 nautical miles of course due to the failure of its guidance control systems.
Although it was deemed to be safe for the river, concerned environmentalists in Chicago petitioned the local government to find a more natural replacement for the fluorescein in 1966 and as a result, a “thoroughly tested,” top-secret, vegetable-based dye is now used. When asked about the safety of the current mystery dye in 2005, Laurene von Klan, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, told the Chicago Tribune that “It’s not the worst thing that happens to the river. When you look closely at the problem, it’s not something that needs to be our priority right now. In fact, when that becomes our most important issue, we’ll all have to celebrate because it will mean the river has improved so much. . . . Studies show [that] for creatures who live in the river now, [the dye] is probably not harmful.”
But dyeing the river was only one of Bailey’s holiday urban design schemes. He also proposed using green flood lights to dye the Wrigley Building green, but ultimately had his idea rejected. Bailey was ahead of time, a holiday visionary. In the years since his first grand infrastructural intervention, cities around the world have started transforming their buildings buildings and even entire landscapes with go green on St. Patrick’s Day: The Empire State Building, The Sydney Opera House, the London Eye, Tornoto’s CN Tower, Table Mountain in Cape Town, the Prince’s Palace in Monaco, and the list goes on.
Today, going “green” has taken on a different meaning. Thanks to an increasing interest in climate change and sustainability, the color now carries political, economic, and urban connotations. It seems fitting then that the literal “greening” of the world cities on St. Patrick’s Day began with a law designed to control and reduce pollution.
October 15, 2012
It’s like an old saying goes: One man’s trash is another man’s 2,200 acre park.
In 2001, Freshkills was the biggest dump in the world. Hundreds of seagulls circled the detritus of 8 million lives. Slowly decomposing piles of garbage were pushed around by slow-moving bulldozers to make room for more of the same. Larger than Central Park, the Staten Island landfill was established in 1948 by Robert Moses, the self-proclaimed “master builder” of New York City, responsible for much of the city’s controversial infrastructure and urban development policies during the mid-20th century. The landfill, which was only one in a series of New York landfills opened by Moses, was intended to be a temporary solution to New York’s growing need for waste disposal. The dumping would also serve the secondary purpose of preparing the soft marshland for construction – Moses envisioned a massive residential development on the site. That didn’t happen. Instead, Freshkills became the city’s only landfill and, at it’s peak in 1986, the once fertile landscape was receiving more than 29,000 tons of trash per day.
Fast forward to 2012. Freshkills is the biggest park in New York City. Dozens of birds circle the waving grasses, spreading seeds across the hillside. Slowly drifting kites hang in the air above mothers pushing strollers along dirt paths and kayakers paddling through blue waters. It is an amazing synthesis of natural and engineered beauty. During my recent tour of the former landfill it was impossible to imagine that I was walking over 150 million tons of solid waste.
The nearly miraculous transformation is due largely to the efforts of New York City Department of Sanitation and the Department of Parks and Recreation, as well as many other individuals and organizations. It is an absolutely massive feat of design and engineering that is still 30 years from completion. To guide this development, the DPR have a master plan from a multidisciplinary team of experts led by landscape architect James Corner of Field Operations, who was selected to take on the development during an international design competition organized by the City of New York in 2001.
Corner, perhaps best known for his work on the Manhattan High Line, is also responsible for Phase One of Freshkills’s development, which focuses on making the park accessible to the public and installing smaller community parks for the neighborhoods adjacent to Freshkills. Schmul Park, a playground that will serve as a gateway to the North Park, recently celebrated its ribbon cutting, and new sports fields should be opened before the end of the year.
Corner’s plan identifies five main areas in Freshkills, each with distinct offerings, designed and programmed to maximize specific site opportunities and constraints. Planned features include nature preserves, animal habitats, a seed plot, walking and bike paths, picnic areas, comfort stations, event staging areas, and every other amenity you could possibly ask for in a public park. While James Corner may have planned the park, the landscape itself is being “designed” by the birds, squirrels, bees, trees, and breezes that have returned to populate the new landscape since 2001. These volunteers, including 84 species of birds, are helping to hasten the restoration of the wetlands landscape by dropping and planting seeds, pollinating flowers, and just generally doing what comes naturally. A 2007 survey also identified muskrats, rabbits, cats, mice, raccoons and even white-tailed deer, which are believed to have migrated from New Jersey.
But how did the Freshkills landfill become Freshkills landscape? How do you safely cover a garbage dump? My first thought was that they would just pore concrete over the entire thing and call it day. I apparently know nothing about landfills. And probably not that much about concrete. The reality is a lot more complex. An elaborate and somewhat experimental six-layer capping system covers the entire landfill. But if you’re like me –and again, I know nothing about landfills– you may be wondering if the mounds of trash will shrink as they decompose until the entire hillside becomes a grassy plain (or, as I speculated, subterranean concrete caverns).
The answer is no. In fact, the garbage has already compressed as much as it ever will and any future change will be nominal. But to ensure this stability, before the capping was done, the trash heaps were covered with compressed soil and graded into the terraced hills seen today. While the resulting beautiful rolling hills offer incredible views all the way to Manhattan, it’s also kind of disgusting to think 29,000 tons of garbage that will just be there forever. Good job humans. But I digress. The complex multi-phase capping process is perhaps best described with a simple image.
You may be wondering about the plumbing in the above image. The landfill may be stabilized, but it still produces two primary byproducts: methane gas and leachate, a fetid tea brewed by rainwater and garbage. During the renewal of Freshkills, the excess of methane gas has been put to good use by the Department of Sanitation, who harvest the gas from the site to sell to National Grid energy company, earning the city $12 million in annual revenue. The only sign that this site was a former landfill are the methane pumps that periodically emerge from the surface of the ground like some mysterious technological folly. The leachate, however, is more of a problem. Although Moses did have the foresight to locate the landfill in an area with a clay soil that largely prevents any seepage into nearby bodies of water, there is always the risk that some leachate will escape. The new park addresses this risk with the landfill caps, which greatly reduces the amount of leachate produced, but also with pipes and water treatments facilities installed to purify any runoff until it is cleaner than the nearby Arthur Kill. To ensure their system works, 238 groundwater monitoring wells were installed to track water quality.
As the DPR continues the development of Freshkills, they’re dedicated to using state-of-the-art land reclamation techniques, safety monitoring equipment, and alternative energy resources to ensure that the new landscape is safe and sustainable.
Today, Freshkills may look like a wild grassland, but not all the piles of garbage are capped yet, although its almost impossible to tell. Take, for instance, the green hill at the center of the following photograph:
You’re looking at what remains of the rubble transported off Manhattan in the wake of 9/11. Freshkills was reopened after the attacks to help expedite the cleanup and recovery. Today, the rubble just looks like part of the park. The only step that has been taken is to cover the area with clean soil. All the grasses and bushes are natural. It’s amazing and a little unsettlling. When you see the site in person, and you know what you’re looking at, it’s still hard to comprehend what you’re seeing. It’s a strange and visceral experience to see this green hill and then to turn your head and see the Manhattan skyline and the glint of the clearly visible One World Trade Center. It’s hard to reconcile the feelings that so such beauty can come from so much destruction. Currently, there are plans for an earthwork memorial to be installed on the site.
In 2042, Freshkills will be the most expansive park in New York. A symbol of renewal for the entire city. Slowly rotating wind turbines and photovoltaic panels will power the park’s comprehensive network of amenities. The biome, baseball fields, and bike paths concealing the refuse of another generation. A symbol of wasteful excess will have become a symbol of renewal.
If you’re interested in visiting Freshkills, the next public tour takes place on November 3.
September 12, 2012
IKEA has long been the go-to retailer for budget-savvy designers and design-savvy budgeters. I just moved to New York and the post-graduate school savings account hasn’t left me with many options when it comes to furnishing my new place. With the notable exceptions of a rustic brick fireplace and a couple of chairs salvaged from an architect’s office, my Brooklyn apartment looks like it was transplanted lock, stock, and Vittsjö from an IKEA showroom.
Does it look nice? Sure. But there’s something cold about it. Still, it’s hard to resist the ease, affordability, and contemporary design offered by the Swedish furniture giant. But can those qualities, which have made IKEA ubiquitous in apartments around the world, translate to a larger scale? What would a Malm building look like? Or a Billy-burg (not to be confused with Williamsburg, of course)? Would an IKEA metröpolis stay true to the tenets of the brand? Inter IKEA Systems, the complex corporate möthership that owns the IKEA “concept”, intends to answer just that question with two new developments in London and Hamburg.
Inter IKEA took their first tentative steps into the work of urban design in 2009 when they purchased 11 hectares (about 27 acres) of land south Olympic Park with the intent to develop the area into a new neighborhood, which will be known as Strand East. Presumably, the project is a part of the much touted Olympic Park regeneration plan – or, at the very least, an attempt to capitalize on the promised redevelopment. The 1,200 home project will be developed by LandProp Services, the real estate branch of Inter IKEA. The community will exclusively consist of rental units, which will all be owned –though not furnished!– by IKEA. It will also include more than 500,000 sq ft of commercial space and a hotel. More interesting is what it will not include: an IKEA store. The company is trying to keep this new project separate from its more familiar ventures. Though it will abide by some of the tenets of IKEA furnishings, it will not be a fully branded town.
Just last month, IKEA announced their plan to develop a similar five-acre project in Hamburg. The hallmarks of both developments will be sustainability, walkability, and, of course, affordability. “We are in keeping with the IKEA philosophy,” says Harald Müller of Landprop. “We don’t want to produce for the rich or the super-rich; we want to produce for the families, for the people.” So while the towns won’t share the IKEA brand, they will be targeted to a similar market. Obviously, building a neighborhood is a lot different than building a warehouse showroom, but working at a scale larger than a coffee table isn’t an entirely new idea for IKEA, who have also recently invested a billion euros into the construction a chain of 100 affordable, modern, boutique hotels to be built across Europe. Again, nothing is branded with the IKEA name, even though they may follow similar aesthetic and cultural guidelines, and the hotels will be operated by an independent management company.
The focus on architecture and urban design is part of a new long-term investment plan for Inter IKEA. But even if the first hotels and Strand East are a success, will IKEA be able to repeat that success? Will they be able to franchise a city? What would that even mean? Let’s entertain a little speculation and presume that Inter IKEA approaches franchise urbanism according to the same policies used to franchise stores. From their corporate website:
When selecting franchisees, Inter IKEA Systems B.V., among other things, evaluates the following:
- thorough retail experience
- extensive local market knowledge and presence
- corporate culture and values
- financial strength and ability to carry through the investment penetrating a country in full and in a large-scale retail environment format
Following those guidelines, an IKEAville franchisee would be responsible for any and every IKEA-run town/city/neighborhood in any given country. They would determine where and how each city is built. Extrapolating a bit, IKEA franchisees would ideally have extensive development experience and a knowledge of local buildings and cities. They’d also have to demonstrate the capability to plan contextual developments that are sustainable, walkable, and affordable. Each IKEA neighborhood would be an idealized microcosm of a city’s fabric.The picturesque street layout and planned townhouses of Strand East, for example, will resemble a historic London neighborhood more than a modern Scandinavian affordable housing development.
In America, this would likely follow the model of New Urbanism, the urban design theory espousing dense, walkable towns – most famously represented by Seaside, Florida and Celebration, the charming but hyper-regulated Florida town founded by the Walt Disney Company and planned by Robert A.M. Stern Architects to look like the prototypical American small town that probably only ever existed in movies. Like Celebration, whose residents must famously maintain their homes according to aesthetic regulations, Strand East will also be closely controlled by its parent company, not only because the community is all rentals –implying that residents aren’t likely to make any drastic changes to their property– but also to ensure that the neighborhood stays as lively and well-trafficked as an IKEA showroom.
To realize this goal, IKEA will manage regular events like farmers markets and run picturesque amenities like flower stalls and coffee carts. Disney never attempted to replicate Celebration, but IKEA is already planning a second neighborhood before the first is even out of the box, as it were. Can IKEA franchise a city? With the right operator, and close adherence to their existing standards and regulations, it seems like they might be able to. But will it feel like city? Or will it have the cold, sterile feeling of my showroom apartment? We’ll have to wait until 2018, when Strand East is scheduled to be finished, to find out. Perhaps by then, I’ll be furnishing my IKEA apartment with Brooklyn furniture.