Apr 12, 201309:41 AMPoint of View

The METROPOLIS Blog

The Green Team Part 12: Dumpster Diving - Are Container Forests in Our Future?

The Green Team Part 12: Dumpster Diving - Are Container Forests in Our Future?

The typical scene of cranes, fencing, building debris, etc. that is associated with a construction site.

Courtesy Liz Ernst

In our last post, we addressed the challenges of designing around underground utilities. Another challenge faced by property owners and designers is the post-design waiting period—in response to the phasing of projects or due to the unpredictable nature of the construction process.

Design. Wait. Bid. Wait. Build. Wait. It’s no secret that getting a project built is a process. Once a site is in construction, the finished product could take months--even years--to be completed, and the landscape component of a project often occurs near the end of a site’s construction cycle.

These “waiting periods” are part and parcel of the construction world. So, what if the design process took this waiting period into consideration? What if temporary or short-term strategies could be incorporated into a designer’s plans from the outset?

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Rendering from Hudson Square Streetscapes Improvement Plan showing multiple landscape strategies, all of which help form and shape the framework of the final streetscape vision.

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen

This is the approach that the Manhattan neighborhood of Hudson Square has adopted within its Streetscape Improvement Plan. The plan acknowledges that development is a product of circumstance and that a phased implementation of landscape strategies is an integral part of the neighborhood’s growth. Walking through Hudson Square today, you’ll see construction activity on every corner, barricades lining the street, and scaffolding around numerous buildings. As a response to the “waiting period” associated with current construction activity, the plan outlines temporary landscape strategies to enhance—instantly—the overall habitability of the streetscape in the short term.

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An art installation photograph by Vaughn Bell gives new meaning to the term “portable forest.”

Courtesy: Vaughn Bell

One of these strategies is a container forest.

The successful use (and reuse) of shipping containers and dumpsters has been demonstrated in the architectural realm (Dekalb Market in Brooklyn or PROXY in San Francisco). The Hudson Square Streetscape Plan builds on this idea by repurposing 30 CY dumpsters; filling them with soil and then planting them with trees and shrubs to provide an instant landscape alongside construction activity. These dumpsters stand approximately 4 feet in height, so plant material creates a visible, green display near eye level.

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A shipping container that has been repurposed as a kayak storage shed at Hunts Point Landing (Bronx, NY) offers a blank canvas for emerging artists.

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen

Here’s the best part. The containers are portable, can be located and relocated by container carting companies as construction progresses while screening unsightly views and greening streets in transition until the site is ready for permanent planting. Their movable nature allows for the containers to be located at the ends of city blocks as a planted alternative to chain link fences for temporary street closings or events (such as New York’s summer streets program).

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A dumpster that has been repurposed with planting as a part of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Community Benefit District is set in place by a carting company.

Courtesy Inhabitat


Planted space, even temporary, creates a permeable surface for storm water infiltration and collection. An idea generated by the master plan was to retrofit the base of each dumpster, effectively forming a “scoop” to intercept storm water runoff as it flows down the street. Rather than flowing directly into the sewer system, the water would be captured and stored within the dumpster, benefitting the plants.

These portable planters could become permanent applications if placed next to loading docks, along the backs of buildings, or in areas where subsurface improvements are not possible (Fox Square, anyone?).

Keep your eyes peeled for these landscape strategies as you walk through the construction and watch Hudson Square redefine itself.

In our next post, we’ll introduce our newest Green Team member, Johanna Phelps, and her experience with redefining historical landscapes with modern materials.

Lisa DuRussel, RLA, ASLA, LEED AP is a Midwestern transplant, avid coffee drinker, soils enthusiast, and practicing landscape architect in New York City. Since receiving her BS and MLA from the University of Michigan, she has worked on numerous urban revitalization and cultural landscape projects in the New York and Chicago areas, including the Governors Island Park and Public Space project. This is one in a series of Metropolis blogs written by members of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects’ Green Team, which focuses on research as the groundswell of effective landscape design and implementation. Addressing the design challenges the Green Team encounters and how it resolves them, the series will share the team’s research in response to project constraints and questions that emerge, revealing their solutions. Along the way, the team will also share its knowledge about plants, geography, storm water, sustainability, materials, and more.

This is one in a series of Metropolis blogs written by members of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects’ Green Team, which focuses on research as the groundswell of effective landscape design and implementation. Addressing the design challenges the Green Team encounters and how it resolves them, the series shares the team’s research in response to project constraints and questions that emerge, revealing their solutions. Along the way, the team also shares its knowledge about plants, geography, stormwater, sustainability, materials, and more.

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