Could Freight Hubs Become Eco-Villages?

A landscape architect proposes exurban shipping districts you’d actually want to visit (or live in).

Image Courtesy of Hinterlands Urbanism and Landscape, LLC
O'Shea stacks a research center, a warehouse, and residential space over farmland, a freight zone, and bison prairie. (Courtesy of Hinterlands Urbanism and Landscape, LLC)

Environmentalists have been chiding us for decades: You can’t throw something “away.” Whether they’re just out of our sight or hundreds of miles distant, the things we consume and discard have an environmental impact.

Landscape architect and Illinois Institute of Technology professor Conor O’Shea sees a similar misconception in urbanism. There’s no such thing as “outside the city,” he believes. From the titan skyscrapers of the Loop in O’Shea’s native Chicago, to the city’s bungalow belt, cul-de-sac suburbia, and warehouse exurbs bleeding into oceans of cropland, it’s all one urban ecosystem. Even if designers tend to tune out as soon as they’ve driven past their farthest-flung project.

”Most Chicago designers are just redesigning the central business district over and over and over again, then referencing [Daniel] Burnham, which is ironic because he understood the economics and infrastructural realities of his time,” he says. O’Shea has set his sights further afield, to the collar of exurban counties surrounding Chicago, the “front line of urbanization” where “America’s heartland meets low-density residential growth.”

“I don’t think of the suburbs as ‘other,’” O’Shea says.

These rail-freight and agriculture corridors, ubiquitous but overlooked, tell the hidden story of the central cities they support, and the globalized economy required to make it all happen. (An early indication for O’Shea that he was onto something with this research: The port of New York, in New Jersey, is the same size as Manhattan.)

In Chicago, these logistical areas contain the nation’s third-largest shipping-container port; U.S. container freight is forecasted to more than double by 2030. The inland shipping district abuts both nutrient-depleted farmland and booming suburbs in places like DeKalb and Kankakee counties.

O’Shea’s “Logistical Ecologies” (featured at the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial) examines these critical, omnipresent and totally ignored landscapes, and integrates seemingly opposed front-stage/back-stage areas into a network of mixed-use communities that meld restored native landscapes with hybrid shipping infrastructure. It is a long-term land-use plan looking 85 years into the future, by one of the biennial’s brightest phenoms (O’Shea is only 30 years old).

“Logistical Ecologies” has three phases. First, O’Shea and his firm Hinterlands focus on the biodiversity, hydrology, and soil quality of the exurban counties. Prairies and river basins are burned and reseeded with milkweed, depleted cropland is allowed to grow wild, and (most importantly) bison are reintroduced. Their grazing (and subsequent  100-percent organic fertilizer) returns nutrients to the ground, replenishing soil that’s been punished by decades of intensive farming.

(Courtesy of Hinterlands Urbanism and Landscape, LLC)
(Courtesy of Hinterlands Urbanism and Landscape, LLC)
The concept calls for a phased process of both ecological restoration and urbanization around freight hubs, creating stacked, linear nodes. (Courtesy of Hinterlands Urbanism and Landscape, LLC)

Next, the site is developed, weaving grain elevators, shipping warehouses, and rail lines with typical residential, commercial, and institutional buildings. For the biennial, O’Shea and his team depicted the buildings as layers of austere, cantilevered rectangles—probably meant for architectural audiences rather than suburban residents. But beyond the aesthetics (which could change), the communities knit together atomized functions often segregated by suburban living: home, work, recreation, and nature.

Finally, bison prairie is alternated with cropland at a 1:1 ratio.

If O’Shea can get all these pieces working together, the resulting development will bring people closer to the food cycle they’ve been shielded from by, ironically, the global logistics infrastructure that will also be proudly on display.

The model could be a radical change from the assumed cul-de-sac and strip mall lifestyle—something like an eco-friendly cross between a truck-stop and a suburban town center, with less familiar aesthetics. But the basic building blocks are nothing unusual. “’Logistical Ecologies’ identified a lot of things that are happening already: the bison, the prairie, the milkweed,” O’Shea says. “These aren’t things I’m inventing. I’m just saying they could be put back together differently.”

“Logistical Ecologies” is speculative architecture, but it is pragmatic about the global economic forces that make such a landscape possible. It largely accepts the prevalence of the automobile, and the inequities of the global economy that make it cheaper to manufacture jeans in Indonesia and ship them 10,000 miles to Chicago rather than to do it down the block.

Likewise, O’Shea isn’t particularly nostalgic about creating a self-contained series of walkable cities, per the New Urbanist (or old European) model. What’s more important to him is building a network of places across northeast Illinois that combine the region’s industry and ecology.

The most enticing feature of O’Shea’s proposal is what he calls “celebrity mega-fauna”: namely, the bison. He envisions sharp swaths of native prairie slicing through residential developments, where buffalo graze just beyond your patio. “The rents here are higher because you can see the bison,” he says. “It’s a landscape event that can drive real estate.” The animals’ presence could drive cultural programming, too (an annual bison-jerky festival, maybe?).

Broken down into its component parts, “Logistical Ecologies” actually follows a narrative that’s becoming well-worn. Landscape-driven industrial infrastructure remediation projects like Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, the High Line, and Chicago’s 606 are already familiar, if decidedly urban, icons. O’Shea’s project just transports this method of uniting green landscapes with gray infrastructure into a new, suburban context, at a new scale.

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