Silt Sand Slurry
Dredging, Sediment, and the Worlds We Are Making
AUTHORS: ROB HOLMES, BRETT MILLIGAN, AND GENA WIRTH
Despite the urgency of the issues and the centrality of sediment to coastal landscapes, there is no existing work that is directly comparable across topic, format, and content.
Over the last 6,000 years, the quantity of earth moved by human actions has grown continuously. For most of that time, earthmoving was a side effect of activities like plowing fields and clearing forests, which accelerated erosion. Technologies changed slowly, and human influence over sediment expanded in a more or less linear fashion, driven primarily by population growth, which was itself relatively slow. In the past two hundred years, though, the world population grew exponentially, technologies advanced with unprecedented speed, and the rate of earthmoving correspondingly exploded. Picture a “hockey stick” graph— horizontal through most of human history, now rising vertically toward some unknown and novel future.
People today intervene in hydrogeological processes at every scale, accelerating and decelerating flows of sediment, both above and below the waterline, while altering their physical and chemical composition. As sediment moves around on the inclined surfaces of the planet, above and below the waterline, humans play roles both grand (networks of river dams trap enough sediment to produce seismic events) and humble (ubiquitous orange silt fences prevent loose dirt from escaping construction sites). In the United States, an estimated 30 tons of earth is moved annually for every person. This is the highest per capita volume in the world, although only a fraction of the 120 billion tons moved globally.
Humans are already redesigning the planet, both deliberately and inadvertently. In this sense, we have no choice but to design. Altered sediment systems are just one piece of a larger process, which Jedediah Purdy has called “a kind of collective landscape architecture” that enrolls all humanity as we “shape the world by living.” Our designs make many worlds on the surface of the Earth. Agency in how these worlds are shaped is neither equally nor equitably distributed, but we all must live within them, and so we all have a stake in how they are being made. Thus, sediment design should not belong exclusively to professionals. The challenges we face in designing better sediment systems, from learning to design infrastructures that foster dynamic, healthy landscapes to democratizing this work, are challenges that reverberate through many dimensions and instances of our collective world-shaping. When we look closely at sediments—observing why they move, where they deposit, and how they relate to all that they touch—we see many worlds more clearly.
It’s time to get muddy.
“The topic and our approach to it is timely. Climate change, environmental transformation, and the design of equitable, effective responses are pressing concerns for coastal regions throughout the United States and globally.”
“By creating an innovative spectrum of multiple realities, the book define the tools for architecture working in the 21st century.”
“Humans move tremendous amounts of soil and rock.By some measures, the amount of earth that we move exceeds that of any other geomorphic agent.”—Roger LeBaron Hooke, ‘On the History of Humans as Geomorphic Agents’
“We will either have justice, sustainability, and peace together or we will descend into ecological catastrophe, social chaos, and conflict. Soil, not oil, offers a framework for converting the ecological catastrophe and human brutalization we face into an opportunity to reclaim our humanity and our future.”—Vandana Shiva, ‘Soil, Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis’
The mud should be dredged out. This maintenance operation could be treated in terms of art, as a “mud extraction sculpture”... The mud could be deposited on a site in the city that needs “fill.” The transportation of mud would be followed from point of extraction to point of deposition. A consciousness of mud and the realms of sedimentation is necessary in order to understand the landscape as it exists.—Robert Smithson, ‘Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape’
To imagine other forms of human existence is exactly the challenge that is posed by the climate crisis: for if there is one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear it is that to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide. We need, rather, to envision what it might be.—Amitav Ghosh, ‘The Great Derangement’
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