Flower Power

U.S. cities are contending with the legacy of industrialization in the form of vacant lots too polluted for development. To deal with this problem in the former textile hub of New Bedford, Massachusetts, planners sought help from the landscape-architecture studio StoSS. “Essentially the city came to us and said, ‘We have all these brownfield sites—what do we do with them?’” founding principal Chris Reed recalls. The firm’s plan, “Phyto-Harvesting: The New Civic Garden,” proposes that a series of vacant lots be transformed into public gardens until they can be safely developed.

“There are any number of plants that are good at taking up one kind of contaminant or another. You would simply program in a sequence of these to attack the different contaminants that you might find in the ground,” Reed says of a process known as phytoremediation. For example, sorrel, cattail, and clover planted successively would cleanse the soil of the industrial by-products petroleum, zinc, and lead. Some species would also serve in a sort of public-relations capacity. “Sunflowers and mustard are actually stunning plants—people notice them,” Reed says. “You get people’s attention, and it gives them a sense for what’s going on here.”

Once funding is secured, the plan’s execution will rely on community participation to keep costs to a minimum and allow for a flexible timeline. With the EPA’S approval residents and environmental groups would help cultivate brownfields, and schools could use the lots as agricultural classrooms. A mildly contaminated site could be turned over for development within a couple of years; but with neighborhood interest, it might also become a semipermanent garden. In its final phase a lot might be used to grow trees that would ultimately be transplanted to the surrounding streets.

“Brownfields are becoming more and more available,” Reed says. “This is something that could be applied in many cities across the country.”

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