Interview with Julie Bargmann, Brownfields Diva

I had the good fortune to interview Julie Bargmann a couple of months back. I spoke with her about the leadership challenges she faces in brownfield reclamation projects. Bargmann is a landscape architect extraordinaire and nationally known brownfield reclamation expert. Brownfields are “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” In other words, those previously developed plots loaded with lots of nasty stuff like old industrial sites.

Bargmann is an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture where her research through Project D.I.R.T., Design Investigations Reclaiming Terrain, aims to “excavate the creative potential of degraded landscapes.” She is also a principal at D.I.R.T. (Dump it Right Here) Studio in New York. In both of these pursuits, Bargmann’s work is interdisciplinary and driven by an “obsession with urban regeneration”.

Bargmann has worked on such high profile projects as the green roof on the Ford River Rouge plant, working with William McDonough & Associates among others, and New York’s High Line Park, working with Michael VanValkenberg & Associates among others.

Her hero is Robert Smithson, the American artist who is one of the founders of the earthworks or land art movement. She described him as thinking with “a greater clock” – having deeper and more expansive concepts of time that were revealed through his sculpture. His art and essays have inspired her to think differently about land and landscapes. She said that she finds beauty in industrial landscapes and sees industrial uses of land simply as one point on a continuum of usage that stretch through time. “It’s not as if we are taking a landscape from what it is back to what it once was; I want to help the landscape become what it is meant to be next.”

Bargmann described the challenges of her work as beginning with the general lack of familiarity with brownfields issues. “You have to understand the minds you are dealing with,” she said. “My job is not to make the issues less complex, but to make the outcomes seem more attainable.” Bargmann said that this is her greatest leadership challenge. She has to be facile with economic as well as design issues.

On the Rouge River project, Ford executives were initially not interested in a green roof. However she and the team were able to convince the head of Ford’s environment group of the value of the project. He, in turn, became a champion who swayed the balance of the Ford executives.

“Every designer needs a champion on the client side,” she said. “You have to plant the seed, be catalytic, and get them thinking beyond business as usual. It means being both pragmatic and poetic.”

She worked on the Vintondale Reclamation Park project in Pennsylvania. In this case, a historian was the champion for the project: he had the vision that the site of a former coal mine could be reclaimed as park land. The historian saw the park, which would also include art installations, as continuation of the work of the land. “He saw this as the next logical step for the land,” she said. Bargmann worked as part of pro-bono team for five years and describes this as a “seminal project” as it brought severely damaged land back as a productive, vital landscape. It was awarded the Phoenix Award, “the brownfields equivalent of Hollywood’s Oscars.”

Bargmann described the Vintondale project as a typical example of leading from the bottom up. This is where she often sees projects taking shape and so now concentrates her work on pilot and demonstration projects. She noted that major projects are difficult to find given the current economic climate. She has purposefully kept her firm small so that she can pick-and-choose those projects that are most interesting.

Not every project comes to fruition. The architect on a large project for a university that was expanding into a brownfield site brought Bargmann onto the project team. The original plan called for excavating tons of potentially contaminated soil and trucking it across several states for disposal. Bargmann and her team developed a plan for a “soil farm” process through which the “dirty” soil could have been reclaimed on site. “It made an enormous amount of sense but the team from the university just couldn’t get their arms around the idea,” she said.

Another leadership challenge for Bargmann is navigating the political aspects of a project. She noted that major projects typically involve a “dysfunctional network” of agencies, developers, designers, and other players. She said that she often had to play “match maker” between agencies that don’t often speak with each other, yet that must come together for a successful brownfield redevelopment. She counseled that knowing the players and their interests. Then you can “make room for the landscape’s best interests,” she said.

Bargmann said that it is important to “level the ground” and find a common desired outcome. She works to do this by focusing on what is “best for the landscape.” This gets the discussion out of the functional silos and up to a more strategic level. “I try to be the voice of the landscape,” she said.

No matter how skillful one is, however, permitting is still an enormous logistical challenge, she said. “No matter how many agencies give you the green light, there is always one more out there that can stop you in your tracks,” she said. To mitigate this she tries to work with architects (who are usually the design lead on a project) who are politically astute and who know how to navigate in the city where the project is situated. “Someone on the team has to know the bureaucracy,” she said.

Looking to the future Bargmann said that she is intrigued by smaller industrial cities such as Trenton and Baltimore where the challenges are great but resources scarce. She is particularly energized about the possibilities in Detroit, a city that is trying to “shrink in a purposeful way.” She sees the potential to create “an urban wilderness” out of abandoned industrial and commercial sites, a prospect she sees as an enormous, exciting challenge.

Bargmann’s work is instructive and an inspiration to see the discards of our past in a new light.

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