John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Rubbish-bin gardens for the concrete jungle that is New York.
Most folks would not be happy if they walked outside one morning and found a dumpster full of dirt and vegetal matter in front of their home. But then again, most folks don't live in the concrete desert of New York, where any spot of green is a welcome sight.
Michael Bernstein's been pushing for New Yorkers to adopt these rubbish-bin gardens for more than a decade, after having exhibited a prototype in 2001 at Long Island City's Sculpture Center. He developed the idea while living in Dumbo, where he operated a rooftop garden and a sidewalk vegetable stand amid a colorless thicket of buildings and overpasses.
"I was struck by how there are no trees down there," Bernstein says. "I liked the idea that this could be a portable green space that's transported place to place. If you live in an urban place with no trees, you can get one of these delivered to your house. It's like a portable forest."
The designer named his invention the Ten Yards project in reference to the payload capacity of the dumpsters. He isn't sure who exactly would be responsible for hauling them from neighborhood to neighborhood – probably not the Parks and Recreation Department, though. "I do not think the city is interested in having these green spaces shipped around," he says. "It's more of an allegorical thing, a comment on lack of green space."
What about people who decry having a monumental trash container plopped on their block? Is it really beauty, or blight?
Bernstein initially struggled with that question, wondering whether to "pretty up" the dumpsters with fetching color schemes. But he settled on not doing anything at all. "I want to keep it as raw as possible. Its function is the thing I'm after."
In the Dumbo of today, these movable gardens would be superfluous. Verdant meadowland, a marsh and even a tidal pool grace in the redone Brooklyn Bridge Park. And as for street amenities fashioned from trash bins, New Yorkers have been there and done that. Anybody still scratching their impetigo over the infamous Gowanus Dumpster Pool?
"I don't want to say I was ahead of the curve, but I was working with these ideas years ago," Bernstein says. "Now it's chic all of a sudden."
Here are alternate designs for the Ten Yards containers, one being a koi pond and the other a Japanese-style rock garden:
Images courtesy of Michael Bernstein.