PLAN 72: Article
Redesigning The Earth

Two Massive Land Development Projects

Three professors from SA+P are currently involved in massive land development projects in South Korea and Italy that are virtually unprecedented in their scope and scale.

Architecture professors Alexander D'Hooghe and Nader Tehrani were among the winners last summer of a contest sponsored by the Urban Design Institute of Korea to propose a landfill project on South Korea's western coast that could be eight times bigger than the record-breaking Palm Deira landfill in Dubai.

And Alan Berger, newly-appointed professor of urban design and landscape architecture – and founder of P-REX, the Project for Reclamation Excellence – recently signed an agreement with Italy's Latina Province to design an ecological plan for 500 acres of the most polluted part of the region.

The scale of projects like these, which have lately become more common as booming nations seek to assert their arrival on the world stage and as enormous pollution issues present pressing environmental problems, prompted D'Hooghe to speculate that we may be actually facing the birth of a new sub-discipline – maybe call it territorial design.

D’Hooghe and Tehrani in Korea
Over the next few decades, the Korean government aims to claim 155 square miles of new land from Saemangeum Bay – the largest land-reclamation project in Asia, more than ten times the size of Hong Kong's new airport, Chek Lap Kok – as a way of bringing development to one of the country's poorest provinces.

MIT's proposal for the project calls for the construction of seven islands and peninsulas ranging in size from 4.8 to 36.9 square miles – enough space for half a million people with room to grow for two or three million more – that would house farms, cities and developments ranging from an amusement park to a spaceport. The northern half of the area would be reserved for industrial, scientific and residential purposes; the southern half would be focused on agriculture and tourism, featuring a series of towns on hilltops overlooking surrounding farmland.

The MIT plan was one of three finalists in the design contest, along with plans from Columbia and London Metropolitan University, and many questions remain about the government's intentions; ultimately, it may elect to use any combination of the winning teams' proposals or none at all. But with seventy percent of South Korea too mountainous for building, the pressure for such a project is great, even though as yet it’s unclear how the project would be financed. According to MIT's estimate, costs could easily reach $200B or more.

In addition to the project’s financial and logistical issues, it also faces environmental concerns. A sea wall built around the peninsula has shut down much of the tidal action in the estuary, an 'ecological disaster' that the MIT plan proposes to address by trying to create new wetlands to reverse the ecological damage. It is, D'Hooghe and Tehrani admit, a very long-term project, but judging by Alan Berger’s proposal for work in Latina Province, ultimately doable.

Berger in Italy
The Latina Province does not look like an environmental disaster. Two thousand years of 'water management' have turned the Pontine Marshes into a prosperous, scenic region bordered by mountains to the east and the Mediterranean to the west. But the region's prosperity is built on swampland kept habitable by six enormous pumps put in place by Mussolini in 1934, each day dumping millions of gallons of water into the sea.

During his fellowship at the American Academy in Rome last year, Berger studied the Pontine Marshes and came to realize how damaged the area was. He collected thousands of aerial photos, along with data from water and soil, to document drainage patterns and the flow of water and pollutants, and found that half the water in the system was severely contaminated with phosphorus and nitrogen levels that get worse as the water runs toward the coast. By the time the water reaches the sea at some outlets, it’s become a polluted plume of silt.

A specialist in designing new ecosystems in damaged environments – redirecting water flow, moving hills, building islands and planting new species to absorb pollution – Berger wants the government to buy a tract of nearly 500 acres through which the region’s most polluted waters now pass.

There, by mixing the right kinds of plants, dirt, stones and drainage channels, he intends to create a wetland that would filter the water as it passes through, acting as a natural cleansing station for the entire 980-km2 area before the waters flow on to the sea.

According to the New York Times, the approach is 'vastly different from those normally advocated by environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund or the Nature Conservancy, which generally seek to restore land or preserve it in its natural state, often by closing down or cleaning up nearby polluters. In the Florida Everglades, for example, the state is buying and closing a sugar plant to preserve the environment.'

'But that approach may not work in places that are already severely degraded.' In cases like this, says Berger, the solution has to be as artificial as the place. 'We are trying to invent an ecosystem in the midst of an entirely engineered, polluted landscape.'

To learn more about Berger's work in Italy, and about his similar effort at an abandoned mine in Colorado, visit www.theprex.net or contact him at aberger@mit.edu. For more on D’Hooghe’s and Tehrani’s plan for Korea, contact the principals at adhooghe@mit.edu and ntehrani@mit.edu.

This story is based in part on reports in the New York Times and the Boston Globe.