Outside the window of my office, I see a beautiful river called the Jones Falls as it winds through the city of Baltimore to the Chesapeake Bay. Above this river is an elevated expressway, so I also see the fetid runoff that drains from eight lanes of asphalt into the water below. A few blocks from here, several roads have been decimated as construction crews attempt to repair 100-year-old sewer pipes. And this isn’t unique to where I live. Stormwater management and failing infrastructure are national concerns, the latter causing a $3.1 trillion loss in U.S. gross domestic product, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That’s $3,100 per household.
Susannah C. Drake, AIA, principal of Brooklyn, N.Y.–based Dlandstudio, has built her practice around these pressing issues. Take the Gowanus Canal, a 2-mile-long waterway in Brooklyn. The canal was declared an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site several years ago and is considered one of the most polluted waterways in the country. It’s exactly the kind of design challenge that Drake loves to tackle. “A city is an incredibly complex and interesting system, and I like to think holistically about a problem,” she says.
Drake’s unconventional path out of architecture school inspired her to establish this niche. A licensed architect and a licensed landscape architect, she graduated with master’s degrees in both disciplines from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. “When I first got out of Harvard I had three Ivy League degrees and I couldn’t get a job,” Drake says (she attended Dartmouth College as an undergraduate). “People asked me: ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to be an architect or a landscape architect?’ They were forcing me to choose. And I thought, ‘This is wrong!’ ”
In 2005, Drake founded Dlandstudio, which now has eight employees from a mix of backgrounds. (Over the years, she’s employed staff with expertise in the fine arts, astronomy, religion, biology, and graphic design.) “I thought I could figure out a way to work across disciplines and create a design think tank within practice,” she says. “I wanted to make a lot of changes to the standard way of operating within the urban world.”
Consider the firm’s vision for the Gowanus Canal Sponge Park, which provides a system of open space designed to absorb and remediate stormwater. Here, wetlands act like sponges, with plants and engineered soils leaching heavy metals and toxins out of contaminated water. But the plan is more than just environmental. It integrates hydrology, ecology, land use, and cultural preservation. Sponge Park includes community amenities, like a green walking path and the Pilot Street-End Sponge Park that leads to the canal off 2nd Street. The street-end park will create a much-needed public space while using things like bioswales to mitigate polluted runoff.
The complexity of Drake’s multilayered design is matched only by the complexity of the politics underpinning the project. Multiple agencies—federal, regional, and local—maintain ownership of the Gowanus Canal, and Drake has worked for years with all of them on developing this plan. “There are 200 permits that we have to get for any project on the waterfront, and that’s even before you get to construction,” she says.
Indeed, her firm’s work is as much about politics as it is about design research and development. “Designers don’t always operate with the consideration of the way the political system operates, or even the way the electoral system operates,” Drake says. “The political process involves figuring out the agendas of all these agencies and how my project actually helps them. That’s when you can start to get things done.”
This fall, construction will finally begin on Sponge Park. “We’re going to have the first street-end bioswale in New York City,” Drake says. The intention is for this street-end park system to become a prototype that can be used on other streets throughout the city.
Dlandstudio has another prototype project now underway in New York, this one targeting stormwater runoff from raised highways. Called Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) System, this modular prototype has been installed at three sites in Flushing Bay and the Bronx. The ultimate goal, Drake says, is to export the system to other cities. The firm has a patent pending for the HOLD system as well as for Sponge Park, and has trademarked both names as a way of creating a potential revenue stream. “It’s so the pain and suffering that I’ve gone through can have some economic reward,” Drake says.
Dlandstudio has also tackled the issue of rising sea levels, collaborating with New York’s Architecture Research Office (ARO) for the Museum of Modern Art’s “Rising Currents” exhibit in 2010. Their proposal, called “A New Urban Ground,” suggests a way to revamp the hardscape of a city to manage rising coastal waterways. The firms proposed an adaptable system of porous green streets capable of draining precipitation, as well as allowing an influx of water to come in, but then get out, quickly. Fiberoptic cables and other hardware that currently live beneath the streetscape would be moved below sidewalks and placed inside underwater vaults accessible via hatches. “That releases the street to become a permeable open space,” Drake says.
Stephen Cassell, AIA, principal at ARO, reached out to Drake for the exhibit because he had heard about Sponge Park. “Susannah is good at throwing lots of ideas out on the table, some direct evolutions of what you’re working on at the time, others complete right turns. It’s a creative process that allows you to reframe the way you think of things,” Cassell says. “She’s among a vanguard of designers doing lots of fruitful thinking about the complexities of the city. In 10 years, as the results of that thinking trickle down, it’s really going to change the way we perceive and use cities.”
Though our aging infrastructure may seem like an intractable issue, Drake notes that there is already money in the pipeline to repair our roadways, bridges, and sanitation systems. The trick is to leverage those funds by expanding our definition of infrastructure. “Infrastructure today is way beyond thinking about the physical thing. Think instead about the economic value of the real estate,” she says.
By example, she points to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE), which already has some federal funds allocated for its repair. Her project, BQGreen, proposes a way to reknit the communities divided by construction of the BQE by making the highway an ecologically productive spine that supports new recreation spaces as well as infrastructural improvements. The road would become a public amenity for everyone, not just for drivers. “It makes no sense for a transit corridor to be only about transit when it’s running through some of the most expensive real estate in the world,” Drake says. “So don’t just solve one very specific problem. Think holistically.”