Perform, don’t tell, land use interpretationMay 11, 2009
The Times published a piece by Chris Ruen highlighting the improbable idyll of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk. Designed by George Trakas and administered by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, this site now embraces the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant; the creek, which divides Brooklyn from Queens, is historically notorious for the slow-motion underground oil spill went ignored for decades. The article is an excellent example of bringing land use interpretation into a mainstream context. My Twitteresque attempt at defining it in the past was pretty weak (“Land use interpretation is what we think about what we do with the land”), revealing the inherent difficulty in describing a practice that seems both obvious and esoteric at the same time. I send people to the Center for Land Use Interpretation site for more information, but as with everything CLUI, their up-front definition is slightly cheeky and detached; overall you have to infer what they do from their collective activities.
The Newtown Creek site itself seems to be a prime example of land use interpretation principles in action (I regretfully missed the Trakas-led tour set up by WNYC and Urban Omnibus). As their literature says, “The Nature Walk does not divide the industry and nature between which it is situated, but instead actively integrates this space as a vibrant intersection where multiple histories, cultural identities, and geologic epochs intersect, drawing the visitor into a dynamic narrative of Newtown Creek throughout time.” The diagram on the brochure reads like something Robert Smithson would have proffered if he had been commissioned, replete with such features as “industrial scenes” and “watershed bollard.”
And Ruen’s piece introduces the concepts of land use interpretation without using the phrase, and makes it accessible simply by reporting the walk itself. He sums it up nicely thus: “The nature walk occupies an unsavory wedge of land . . . yet, this contradictory nature walk, with its bleak concrete paths, holds truth for our confounding times.”