The Nine Mile Run Greenway Project (NMR) was developed within the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry (SFCI), Carnegie Mellon University, USA. Nine Mile Run is a place named by its proximity to a stream or run (with the same name) in the former steel-industry city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The stream drains five municipalities. It is lost in storm drains in the upper watershed, then opens to the air again flowing through the wooded Frick Park picking up water from various relatively clean streams and then into the urban brownfield that dominates the bottom of the watershed. Nine Mile Run drains into the Monongahela River.
The place known as Nine Mile Run is a mountain of steel mill slag, as much as 20 stories high. This slag-dump completely overshadows the creek as it drains into the Monongahela. Originally it was 240 acres of wetland and floodplain, identified in 1910 by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. as a site with “ample opportunity for a new city park” that was to serve the working class populations of the East End of Pittsburgh. Olmsted wrote a plan that initiated a process of re-zoning to create a new city park. In the interim, parcels were purchased and used by the steel industry for a dump to establish a land-use precedent; just prior to the acceptance of the zoning change. The flood plain and fields that Olmsted referred to were then incrementally increased (additional parcels purchased) and slowly covered by steel mill slag over a fifty-year period. Dumping ended in the 1970s.
The project addressed the perception and value of the Nine Mile Run brownfield property, which was owned by the City of Pittsburgh. The project goals were stated:
- Create opportunity for experience.
- Expand the intellectual content and the discourse about public space.
- Enable alternative dialogues providing access and a context to speak.
– Develop best possible consensus—a concept design that was a result of dialogue.
- Infuse the results of the design with the power to move forward into the future.
The project developed in three steps that reflected the process and year-to-year activities. It began with the idea of ‘Ample Opportunity: A Community Dialogue’, a metaphor for the potential for ecological restoration and public space development of a post-industrial landscape and attendant stream with water quality and water quantity problems. Interdisciplinary expert/citizen research followed with attention to ‘strategic knowledge and experience’ that might re-calibrate perception, understanding and values. Then a series of design options were developed from the research and a final dialogue was planned about the ethical and aesthetic goals for the future, the final step would result in a ‘community-concept’ public space development plan.
Nine Mile Run was, and is, a recovering post-industrial landscape abandoned in the 1970s by the slag disposal industry. The experience of any dump is not an intimate one for the vast majority of the public. It is knowledge by proxy, a concept understood at a distance—in this case the first thing one saw from a highway, before entering a tunnel into Pittsburgh proper, was the 20-story slag-dump; it is a concept that maintains distance. From the highway, it was impossible to see the opportunity of the remnant stream channel or the diversity of plants, which were starting to emerge from the slag. The process of restoration began with a series of ‘river dialogue’ walk and talks organized and led by the artists with invited guests (local experts from the community or nearby universities) exploring specific aspects of the post-industrial landscape (plants, trees, soils, biodiversity) and urban stream conditions including attendant wetlands, water chemistry, fish and macro invertebrate bio indicators). Collins has argued that this is about concept-informed intimate sensual experience, that seeing the site with another discipline opens the body and mind to new ways of seeing and thinking. Embedded in this ‘river dialogue’ was an opportunity for the communities of interest to find common ground outside their own agenda, and there-in lies the cultural process of restoration at a landscape scale. Restoration does not occur in any landscape without attention, and attention leads to care.
The Nine Mile Run project team was able to create change by instigating and supporting creative agency. It did this by developing a community plan for ecological recovery of public space and by initiating the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association. The team was not able to either shape or set policy (at the federal, state or local level) although alternatives were opened up within the existing regulatory structure of both the city and the state (through an innovative Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Rivers Conservation Plan and by expanding a development discourse beyond the scope of the built environment.). It is also clear that the team worked to an expanded ideal of creative authorship, although that intention was clearly delineated from the outset and maintained across the three years of project/research development. The USD6 million restoration project (2004–06) can be visually and conceptually linked to our original interdisciplinary research (the form of the stream restoration follows concepts developed with Dr Peggy Johnson) and consensus plans. This makes it clear that artists can initiate change. To sustain interest in a restoration ecology approach, the artists sought expert guidance, and developed a business plan with initial funding, the team would oversee the development of the board and the first acting director of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association (NMRWA). Here it is clear that artists can also think about sustaining change.
The final link from Frick Park to the Monongahela with interpretive ‘art as interface’ was not completed during the stream restoration phase; the City of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (PPC) would not approve the final link from Frick Park to the Monongahela River until 2013.
Aesthetic/Visual and Innovation/Risk (Conceptual): The artist/research team sought to create opportunity for experience and expand the intellectual content and the discourse about public space. They planned to intervene in the form and function of post-industrial public space. The overarching idea behind this work was that ideas and experience shape aesthetic perception and values. To really see Nine Mile Run, the artists had to find the time to think with it, rather than about it. They also realized that the stream and its valley was largely understood as a ‘problem’ to be solved or resolved by human intervention and development; alternatively the artists pursued it as an opportunity to be realized, counting on the regenerative power of nature to help reshape the aesthetic conditions of that place.
Social Activation/Debate, Community Development and Skills Acquisition: The artist/research team sought to: enable alternative dialogues providing access and a context to speak; develop best possible consensus—a concept design that was a result of dialogue; infuse the results of the design with the power to move forward into the future; and develop expertise in the public interest that could stand up to expertise marshaled in the interest of private developers.
Habitat Provision and Restoration: The artist/research team sought to establish a model of restoration ecology, that is meaningful on the ground, and to establish a model that works with nature, rather than against nature. Along with the post-industrial landscape, Pittsburgh was organized around ideas and practices of industrial society. Nature was a resource to be extracted, engineering and science enabled extraction and the production of value. The universities reflected the engineering culture, as did the city and its emergent culture of redevelopment. At the same time, the regional environmental activists were primarily focused on remnant ecosystems in Northern Pennsylvania and significant areas of Appalachian Mesophytic forest in West Virginia. We worked to develop a programme that integrated ideas of restoration ecology into an aesthetic and cultural discourse about parks and open space; particularly in relationship to the dozens of riverside steel mills that were lying vacant and rusting.
Regeneration: The artist/research team sought to bring academic expertise and research to bear on questions of the aesthetic form and function of the public realm. They further sought to model an academic/community/cultural partnership that focuses on the non-profit sector and its resources as a means of enabling experimental public-realm futures that re-integrate nature and culture.
outcomes & impacts
The project took a unique qualitative-quantitative approach to questions of post-industrial form and function. Water quality studies were done (physical chemistry, pathogens and bio-indicators) Land and biodiversity studies were done (tree cover transects through the valley and extensive studies of flora and fauna in remnant wetlands. Also an integrated analysis of the fluvial geomorphology was conducted including transects and an experimental flow monitoring system devised by the artists using wetland piezometers mounted on the banks. A rigorous stormwater management model was developed with Rocky Mountain Institute and distributed internationally. All of this data would inform the decision to restore and provide a baseline for restoration and post restoration monitoring by the NMR Watershed Association.
The project tested its efficacy in the first year of work, with the publication Ample Opportunity: A Community Dialogue, which featured an innovative graphic/mapped analysis of discourse relationships between the project team, city planning and citizens. The team came up with a method to track citizen voice over time in terms of number of words in our transcripts, against the word count of team members and city planners. As the ‘community dialogue’ moved forward, citizen voice became both more dominant and more proactive. This process and practice informed work on the Nine Mile Run Stormwater charrette as well as final work on the design options and collective decision-making during the Final Dialogue exhibition at Wood Street Galleries. Talking to the local community and area teachers, Reiko Goto worked with the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum to develop an innovative urban watershed curriculum and reference book for teachers. Throughout the project additional bids were written clarifying and expanding the scope of work. At the end of the year reports would be due on impact and outcomes. Some funders required final publication. (See http://nmr.collinsandgoto.com/ the website for downloadable reports and publications.) Meetings were often recorded sometimes transcripts were produced; decisions and recommendations were always recorded. The final proposal was ratified by all present except the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy; the University of Pittsburgh holds all records and notebooks from the project.
After the fact, the project’s perceived artistic and creative impact is complicated by follow-on interviews and publications by sustaining interests such as the City of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the US Army Corps of Engineers and The Heinz Endowments; in these texts the artist’s role from 1997–2000 is often lost. Various interest groups and activists retain an interest in shaping the history and narrative including the restoration project designers BioHabitats Inc., and Andropogon Associates (Principal Colin Franklin continues to argue for the viability of his original 1996 design, claiming the stream is compromised and it should have been buried) and advocacy groups (including the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association). Most of these interviews and publications use photography, images and metaphors developed from the work done by the project team in the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry.
The project occurred in the right place at the right time. With an amazing mix of people involved, the project has helped to establish a culture that sees the natural environment as an essential part of public life in Pittsburgh; and restoration ecology a method and process that creates essential inter-relationships.
Visual and Aesthetic: The aesthetic challenge wasn’t art in a stream corridor it was stream corridor as art—in this case a highly compromised stream that was more than half infrastructure yet retained some key ecological opportunities. The aesthetic in this case is rooted in the philosophy of environmental aesthetics and the push and pull between Allen Carlson’s ideas of a science-informed aesthetic and Arnold Berleant’s position for an evolution of subjectivity that integrates body, mind and environment. The project team embraced the subjectivity argument but also recognized that Carlson’s model of scientific ideas informing perception could result in opportunity to experience things anew and to reconsider normative values.
The artists (spending a great deal of time on-site) began to see the emergent aesthetic opportunity, however they had to work with scientists to validate it and community groups to authorize it. As the project gained clarity and a future aesthetic began to take shape, various regulators at the State Department of Conservation and National Resources took notice and the interdisciplinary research done through the STUDIO to establish the quantitative elements of a changing environmental aesthetic were subsequently ratified by ‘viability studies’ done by the US Army Corp of Engineers who were considering the option of a stream restoration. The stream was restored; the planting and trail work was carried out to a high standard as outlined in the community concept plan, and as detailed by the US Army Corps of Engineers’ final design and engineering specifications. The stream was radically reconfigured to improve water quality and flow characteristics with the intention of creative viable habitat for a warm water fishery (which would benefit from the recovery of fish stocks on the Monongahela River). Efforts on the trails along the lower third of the project where artwork would have provided orientation, interpretation and interface with the complex history and the socio-ecological and physiological issues on the site were not completed. A well-designed bridge was built over the stream as recommended although without artistic input. The final link from Frick Park to the Monongahela Rivers was not formally agreed until 2013.
Innovation/Risk (Conceptual and Technical): This regional project was the first to turn the tide of engineering streams and the piping of stormwater into sewers and (as described earlier) resulted in the largest urban stream ecological restoration in the history of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The artists/researchers directing the project worked from ideas in discourse theory and evolving ideas about socio-ecological practice. Amongst members of the team there was a constant tension about expressing ourselves on-site and making our mark on the project, versus the project becoming its own art mark.
Audience Engagement: Community dialogues were a fundamental facet of the project’s aim, method and process. Collins has characterized the work as a ‘deep dialogue’ with specific communities, engaging opportunity and constraint over years. Efforts on ‘engagement’ were realized through regularly programming meetings on-site and off and information/experience and decision point sessions. Bob Bingham arranged for a trailer on-site for the duration of the project as a classroom and community resource centre for work in in-situ during the week and most weekends. The Nine Mile Run Watershed Association was established with a business plan, initial funding, and the appointment of a board and the hiring of the first director in 2001–02.
Reflecting on the actual restoration, the team felt that models of ‘community engaged’ restoration used in Chicago and elsewhere as described by Andrew Light, and the performative approaches explored by William Jordan III, were a preferable approach. This is based on the hypothesis that inter-relationship and iterative experience over time creates a sense of community, purpose and responsibility. The restoration project was run as a construction project clearing the site and excluding the public until complete.
Artistic Merit: This depends on how you look at it. Others have gone to the site looking for artwork as an indication of our role and impact and found themselves disappointed. Collins has argued that the work was about moving beyond the traditional understanding of art as an object/outcome; towards art as a process and means. The focus is then on the social, the interaction and inter-relationship, the potential to leverage insight, co-production of imagination or a sustained cultural response to constraint or opportunity. Collins has also argued that anyone seeking to develop a critical understanding of the ‘merit’ of this kind of artwork needs to spend time with the available record, visit the site and conduct follow-on interviews. For critics primarily focused on the material record, this work presents a challenge.
A significant stream restoration between 2004 and 2006, which was overseen and continues to be attended to by.
As an academic research project with external funding, all work was done in the public interest at no cost to the local, state, professional bodies or community interests engaged in the project. Public funds were brought to bear on the most challenging issues.
The project began with a decision to respond to the City of Pittsburgh’s request for proposals for a development team. Working within the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, a group of artists, architects, engineers and historians from Carnegie Mellon University assembled and agreed to participate in an conceptual exercise. During the ensuing discussion everyone involved agreed to propose to act as a ‘development team’ for the post-industrial public realm of Nine Mile Run, leaving the housing development to anyone else. This proposal resulted in some feedback from the city and genuine interest in some circles; an invitation was received to attend a meeting at the Heinz Endowments and to present a case for a ‘public art research’ project to the arts and environmental programme officers. At the end of the day the arts programme was cautious and reticent (with a smaller budget) while the environmental programme was willing to consider a small grant proposal. (This position would eventually soften, although the environmental programme would continue as the primary funder for ten years.) From the beginning, the artist co-directors set the agenda, the scope of work and the (Heinz) environmental programme supported artists hiring scientists and engineers to work from a position of aesthetics and in the interest of the public space. The project was closely aligned with Pittsburgh City Planners (Joan Blaustein and John Rahaim) although the artist/researchers were careful to retain a respectful but critical distance from the housing development programme. The academic/artists were considered to be an autonomous third party by most of the community and gained credibility with them by bringing in nationally recognized stream restoration experts, soil scientists and policy experts familiar with the challenges of ecological restoration.
The team facilitated significant academic studies of water quality, flow characteristics, wetland studies and soil remediation experiments. Rocky Mountain Institute was commissioned to work with the team on land use, ownership and hydrological flow characteristics in the upper watershed. A design charrette with artists, designers, landscape architects, engineers, activist and academic attorneys and state officials were all gathered to establish a ‘Nine Mile Run’ approach to stormwater design and management. All of the research would eventually inform the development of three plans for five sites along the stream. One that used traditional stream management techniques and a formal approach to park design; another that was based in the restoration of the ecology of the stream/valley corridor attending to water and land as living systems and the third which focused on a balance of the two. These variations were discussed in depth during the ‘final dialogue’ exhibition at Wood Street Gallery, Pittsburgh, with Pittsburgh City Planning co-hosting a final discussion and community decision point with us.
The lessons learned can be summarised as follows. First, the goals of consensual discourse and critical evolution of ideas about a restoration ecology approach were challenging but ultimately well worth pursuing. Secondly, the open space was constantly ‘at risk’ from development interests requiring a level of attention that would result in the decision to seek funding to establish the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association as a long-term advocacy group run by the community interests we hadbeen working with. Thirdly, the artists/researcher and their assistants all gained clarity about the role of art and its relationship to quantitative science when working on knowledge, experience and the values that drive decision-making; in short aesthetic empiricism.
Impacts of artwork production
As discussed above, a fair amount of time was spent considering expression and what it means to make art with a stream corridor/post-industrial landscape rather than to make art in a stream corridor/post-industrial landscape. Questions of energy, travel and lifecycle are interesting but here fairly irrelevant.
Bingham, Bob, Tim Collins, Reiko Goto and John Stephen. Ample Opportunity: A Community Dialogue. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: STUDIO for Creative Inquiry and Carnegie Mellon University, 1998.
Collins, Tim. “The Rust–Belt Dialogues: An Artists Concept Model for Public Dialogue about Urban Stream Restoration.” Ecological Restoration Vol. 19, no. 3 (2001).
Collins, Tim. “3 Rivers – 2nd Nature the River Dialogues.” In Localities and Regeneration and Diverse(c)ities, edited by Sarah Bennett and John Butler. Exeter and Bristol: University of Plymouth and Intellect Publishing, 2001.
Collins, Tim, David Dzombak, John Rawlins, Ken Tamminga, Sue Thompson. Nine Mile Run Watershed, Rivers Conservation Plan. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: PA Dept of Conservation and Natural Resources, 1999.
Collins, Tim and Kirk Savage. “Learning to See Assets as Well as Liabilities, Opportunities as Well as Constraints.” Public Work, Management and Policy Vol. 2, no. 3 (1998): 210-219.
Collins, Tim and Reiko Goto. “Urban Reclamation.” Leonardo Vol. 30, no. 3 (1997).
Ferguson, Bruce, Richard Pinkham and Tim Collins. Re-Evaluating Stormwater, The Nine Mile Run Model for Restorative Development. Snowmass Colorado: Rocky Mountain Institute, 1999.
Goto, Reiko and Tim Collins. Education Modules and Reference Materials for Teachers: Urban Watersheds. STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, Carnegie Mellon University, 1999. http://nmr.collinsandgoto.com/education/modules/aaas.html
Pinkham, Richard and Tim Collins.“Post-Industrial Watersheds: Retrofits and Restorative Redevelopment (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania).” In The Handbook of Water Sensitive Planning and Design, edited by Robert L. France, 67-97. London, New York, and Washington D.C.: Lewis Publishers, 2002.
Critical Response to Nine Mile Run:
Carney, Lora Senechal. “Ecology and the Ethics and Aesthetics of Collaboration: The Case of Nine Mile Run.” In “Landscape, Cultural Spaces, Ecology.” Special issue, RACAR, Revue d’art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review Vol. 35, no. 1 (2010).
David, Vera, Herman Prigann and Heike Strelow. Ecological Aesthetics: Theoretical Practice of Artistic Environmental Design. Berlin: Birkhäuser Verlag, 2003.
Gablik, Suzi. Has Modernism Changed? Revised edition. New York and UK: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
Lowry, Patricia. “Group Produces Nine Mile Run Greenway Proposals.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 9, 1999.
Miles, Malcolm. “Reclamation: Nine Mile Run Greenway.” In The Uses of Decoration, Essays in the Architectural Everyday, 129-153. UK: John Wiley and Sons, LTD.
Miles, Malcolm. Urban Avant-Gardes: Art Architecture and Change. London: Routledge, 2004.
Miles, Malcolm. “Vistas of the Post-Industrial City.” In Advances in Art and Urban Futures, Locality, Regeneration and Divers[c]ities, edited by Sarah Bennett and John Butler. Bristol: Intellect Books, 2000.
Shearing, Graham. “Art in the Environment, The Nine Mile Run Project Considers a Plan first Outlined in 1911.” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 15, 1999.
Thomas, Mary. “Artists Work to Preserve Nature of Nine Mile Run Greenway Project.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 12, 1999.
Thomas, Mary. “CMU Miller Gallery debuts with a trio of Provocative Exhibits.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 26, 2000.
Thompson, Ian. “Nine Mile Run.” Landscape Design Magazine Vol. 305, 2001, 37-8
Collins, Tim. “Nine Mile Run Model – An Artists Led Land Reclamation Project.” Paper presented at Grantmakers in the Arts: Creative Connections, Grantmakers in the Arts, North Carolina, October 28-30, 2002.
Collins, Tim and Reiko Goto. (2013) “Art and Environment in a Post Industrial Context: Pittsburgh Pennsylvania 1996-2006.” Paper presented at Activating the Gap Between Knowledge and Imagination, Middle Sex University and University for the Arts, London, June 24-26, 2013.
Collins, Tim. “3 Rivers 2nd Nature.” Paper presented at Art to Start: Interdisciplinary and International Approaches to Urban Regeneration, Van Alen Institute, New York, October 22, 2002.
Collins, Tim and Richard Pinkham. “Post-Industrial Watersheds, Retrofitting Pittsburgh Water.” Paper presented at Sensitive Ecological Planning and Design, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, February 25-26, 2000.
Collins, Tim and Reiko Goto. “Nine Mile Run Greenway Project, Art and Post-Industrial Restoration.” Presentation at The College Art Association Conference–Panel Topic: Art and Ecology, The College Art Association, Los Angeles, April 9-11, 1999.
Collins, Tim. “Nine Mile Run: A Community Dialogue.” Paper presented at The 5th Annual Industrial Site Recycling Conference, Panel Topic: A Colorful Approach to Planning: Brownfields, Greenspace and Blueprints, 5th Annual Industrial Site, Pittsburgh, August 30, 1999.
Collins, Tim. “Interventions in the Rust Belt: The Art and Ecology of Post-Industrial Public Space.” Paper presented at The 9th International Congress of the German Society for Semiotics: Machines and History, the Semiotics of Post-Industrial Lands, Dresden, October 2-6, 1999.
Collins, Tim. “Urban Riparian Brownfields: Restoration Strategies in the Rust Belt.” Paper presented at The Society for Ecological Restoration Conference: Artists and Restoration, Society for Ecological Restoration, San Francisco, May 9-12, 1999.
Collins, Tim. “Redeveloping Brownfields – Nine Mile Run Case Study.” Paper presented at The Pennsylvania Planning Association Annual Conference: Tools to Build the 21st Century, Pennsylvania Planning Association, Pittsburgh, November 1999.