When doing nothing is doing something: Sean Burkholder, assistant professor of landscape and urban design

UB Landscape designer Sean Burkholder leaves room for a new 'urban ecology' along the edge of te Great Lakes Basin

Sean Burkholder, assistant professor of Landscape and Urban Design, says resisting the urge to 'do something' with emerging landscapes along the Great Lakes' edge allows for the formation of a new urban ecology as well as novel forms of public waterfront access.

By Rachel Teaman

From Buffalo to Duluth, the Great Lakes Basin is flush with emergent urban landscapes. A receding lake level is slowly creating new coastline. Massive post-industrial brownfields sit lake- edge. And dredged lake-bottom soils have accumulated into 3,000 acres of waterfront property. Inland are thousands of vacant lots, a shared phenomenon among many of the basin’s cities.

The popular and political response to such an inheritance has been a sense of urgency to ‘do something’ — take economic advantage of waterfront locales, address
urban blight or erase any indication of neglect. But Sean Burkholder, UB assistant professor of landscape and urban design, argues you can achieve that and more by doing very little, even nothing, with the land.

Consider that many of the dredge management sites — including Buffalo’s Times Beach — have naturally evolved into wildlife sanctuaries and cherished public assets. Open waterfront and naturalized industrial sites are stopovers for migrating birds or even spaces for cultural events. And in-city vacant lots are providing unintended environmental services — stormwater management and incubation for ecological diversity. 

Naturalized industrial sites on the lake edge, such as the spot on Buffalo's Lake Erie shore, have emerged as stopovers for migrating birds and clusters of ecological diversity.

Burkholder rejects the idea of vacancy or abandonment and instead describes these places as transitional urban landscapes. The combined effect of the shrinking post- industrial city and an ever-changing Great Lakes coastline,  they are also laboratories for an urban ecology that could only exist along the highly urbanized edge of one of the most diverse and important freshwater resources in the world. “These landscapes are places of unprecedented potential in urban sustainability and planning,” he says. 

The opportunity is also a vanishing one. In addition to the ephemeral nature of coastal landscapes is the prospect

of population migrations related to climate change and increased demand for Great Lakes freshwater, all of which could leave undeveloped land in the basin scarce. “Once vague landscapes such as these become defined and scripted places, they are lost, or — perhaps more accurately — found forever,” Burkholder says.

Referring to his proposition as ‘considered neglect,’ he asks, ‘‘What if we can make the most impact from doing the absolute least, by simply reading the landscape and leaving room for unknowns?”

Burkholder says small-scale landscape intervantions--such as the boardwalks and bird blinds in Buffalo's Times Beach, a former Lake Erie dredge site--create 'wedges' for public access and help foster debate about the future of waterfront sites.

Burkholder himself is doing a lot. The activist-architect has spent the better part of the past decade building community coalitions, conducting field research, and deploying design solutions that at once protect and activate these landscapes in service to this complex city-lake ecosystem.

Fundamental to Burkholder’s work is the issue of public access and social equity. Currently 83 percent of the Great Lakes’ 10,500-mile coastline sits in private hands, disconnecting the public from both the water and an appreciation of its role as steward of the lakes. 

One pathway to the water is through the dozens of dredge storage sites across the basin. These “confined disposal facilities” annually absorb 1.1 million cubic meters of lake sediment dredged from ship navigation channels. While commonly perceived as contaminated, the sites, with nutrient-rich soil and coastal positioning, are actually ideal wetland habitats in locations of significant interest to the public. Basin-wide, new coastal landscapes emerged when water levels reached an historic low due to normal hydrologic cycles likely exacerbated by climate change.

As these sediment-scapes become available, Burkholder is proposing minimally invasive landscape features — what he calls “wedges” — that let the public in but give agency to ecological forces by largely leaving the land alone.

As examples, Burkholder points to the boardwalks and bird blinds in Buffalo’s Times Beach, a Lake Erie dredge site designated as a nature preserve in 2006. In Cleveland, Burkholder helped shape the 88-acre Lakefront Nature Preserve, which features trails and lake overlooks. Both sites have been recognized by the Audubon Society as critical habitats for hundreds of species of migratory birds. 

“These landscapes are becoming some of the most dramatic and biologically diverse locations within their respective cities," says Burkholder. "The wedge proposal acknowledges that the most productive purpose for [these landscapes] may not be clear at the moment of their availability."

Burkholder and his students are collecting data on the city's more than 5,000 vacant lots, a collaborative effort with the Buffalo Sewer Authority to assess how the sites perform as a green storm water management system.

"It buys us time," he continues. "Development pressures are at least balanced by having time to see what the site does on its own, and how people access, use and enjoy it. It generates public interest stewardship and therefore shapes the political discussion regarding the future of the land."

Burkholder is nationally active on the issue of sediment management for coastal regions.

In 2015, he joined the Dredge Research Collaborative, a network of landscape architects and designers that studies the wide-ranging implications of sediment management. Among its activities is a series of DredgeFests that engage local stakeholders on each of the nation’s four coasts — the Atlantic, Pacific, Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico — in sediment management visioning related to climate change, ecological restoration and sociocultural issues.

His “Designing with Dredge” competition invited designers from around the world to reconsider a dense collection of lake soil sites in Toledo, Ohio, where the shallow western edge of Lake Erie requires constant dredging. 

Burkholder’s design activism extends to waterfront brownfields le by industry as sites
of public engagement and ecological agency. Buffalo’s Outer Harbor contains several such parcels with controversial, developer-driven proposals. In 2014, Burkholder contributed to the public conversation with a set of student proposals for a public park that would connect the harbor to the Times Beach preserve. The work involved close collaboration with a network of citizen advocates and regional leaders on issues of water quality, habitat provision and access.

His students also developed speculative proposals for the Huntley Coal Plant along the Niagara River in Tonawanda, which was in financial turmoil at the time and has since closed. In partnership with the Clean Air Coalition, the studio yielded concepts as diverse as a scuba diving training center and launch site, and a green energy-powered data center surrounded by a public park that are now informing reuse plans for the site.

Across the border, as a recent visiting faculty member with the University of Toronto, Burkholder and his students reconsidered public access along Canada’s Georgian Bay, where private cottages line the shore and environmental changes demand regionally-scaled reconsideration of the land/water relationship.

Within the city — in this case Buffalo — Burkholder is surveying 5,500 vacant lots as a green storm water filtration system. Partnering with the Buffalo Sewer Authority, Burkholder and a team of students visit each site to assess soil permeability, vegetative cover and related site conditions, such as the presence of open gutters, paved surfaces or dumping. The data will inform the city’s federally mandated mitigation plan for ‘combined sewer overflow’ events, which result from heavy rains and dump thousands of tons of raw sewage into the Lake Erie watershed every year. As vacant lots are developed, builders would be required to maintain these performance levels in accordance with the plan.

Burkholder says the data — the first-ever collected at this scale — can document other ecological services provided by vacant land, such as heat management and carbon sequestration. “Just sitting there they hold value,” he explains. 

“If studied and managed accordingly, transitional landscapes and their high levels of transformation could facilitate novel ecosystems of potentially high levels of biodiversity and ecological servicing with very little input," he says.

Burkholder acknowledges the vulnerability of these ideas to labels such as ‘impractical’ or even ‘anti-progress.’ But he says that same nearsighted frame of reference got us here in the first place. “Human decision making is seldom based on ideas of long-term efficiency or ecological vision. Instead they tend to rely heavily on political agendas, myopic systems of valuation or simply fear of change.” Just by stepping outside that comfort zone, Burkholder says we create a “lag” of both time and space in which to engage, understand and ultimately sustain a highly dynamic and fragile system. 

“The Great Lakes are anything but permanent and predictable," he says, pointing to the forces of climate change, invasive species, worldwide water scarcity and population change. "We have a small window of opportunity to design for change--to generate speculative futures in which the living system that is the Great Lakes Basin not only survives but flourishes."