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Imagining Art for a Site in Willimantic, CT

I love public art, especially art that is functionally integrated into infrastructure. I believe that public art has the capacity to activate public spaces, generate conversations, and educate the community.

During the past months, I have had the amazing and unique opportunity of using my engineering and urban planning skills and combine them with my love for public art. In December 2017, our team -composed of Höweler+Yoon Architecture, Gray Organschi, PUSH Studio, and Nspiregreen- was selected to be one of the three groups to participate in the final round of the Land Art Generation Initiative (LAGI) Competition. The purpose of this competition is to imagine, create, and develop an art piece for a specific site that captures energy from nature and cleanly converts it into electricity. This artwork should also be constructible, use market-available technologies, and respect the natural ecosystem of the design site.

Our specific challenge was to envision a public art piece for a parcel in Willimantic, Connecticut, located 30 miles southeast from Hartford. Willimantic is commonly known as the Thread City given its history with threading manufacturing in the 19th Century. In fact, the old Smithville Cotton Mill used to be located on the property and used hydropower as its source of energy. Today, Willimantic has a vibrant cultural scene and is home to Eastern Connecticut State University.

The 3.4-acre triangular site is a blank canvas as seen in the following pictures. The parcel is located beside the downtown area, just a few minutes from the town’s commercial area. The site is owned by the Willimantic Whitewater Partnership and was recently remediated for the presence of petroleum hydrocarbons. In addition, the site grading provides beautiful views of City Hall and the rapids of the Willimantic River. The site also includes a stretch of the river, a deteriorated dam (installed when the site used hydropower), and a retaining wall.

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View from south side of the site towards City Hall (left) and view of amphitheater, river, and change in grading (right). (Picture owned by Gray Organschi)

After doing research, visiting the site, having a series of internal discussions, and talking with the community, we developed Eddy Line (an eddy line is the shear plane between two directions of water). As seen in the following pictures, our proposed design is a vertical structure, visible from many areas of town, that captures the water currents seen in the river, as well as the movements of threads in historic textile processes, while harkening back to the smokestacks of old textile factories. On the south side of the structure, a 1,250 square feet array of flexible thin-film solar panels capable of generating 94 MWh of energy annually is being proposed. Some of this energy will be used to power LED panels at the back of the structure which will change in color, allowing the community to know how much power has been generated. In the addition to the public art piece, our team is proposing an overlook and an amphitheater. With this design, we hope to transform this blank space into a place for the community of Willimantic to enjoy, create recreational and economic development opportunities, and trigger conversations around renewable energy, especially solar.

The winner of the competition will be officially announced on April 24 (here is a link to all three proposals). It would be amazing to continue seeing this vision come to reality. Regardless of the results, this has been a unique opportunity personally and professionally. In addition, it makes me happy that towns are embracing public art and their cultural heritage for placemaking, economic development, and building community.

Jimena Larson is an environmental engineer and urban planner from Bogota, Colombia interested in water, infrastructure, and urban design challenges.

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Waste and Race Matter: Current Issues In Environmental Justice

As residents of the wealthiest country on the planet, having clean air, water, access to food and living free of harmful toxins shouldn’t be a privilege, it should be a right. Unfortunately, communities of color continue to bear the burden of environmental racism and neglect. Like our last post on How Transportation Shaped Black Communities, I am listing articles that feature communities suffering at the hands of environmental injustice. While administrations and policies change, it is important to remember that there are humans caught in the cross hairs of politics and willful neglect. It is up to each of us to share their stories, advocate with them, and work to combat environmental racism.

These select articles do not do justice to an issue that pervades marginalized communities; however, they do provide some context to issues that too many communities face.  Unfortunately, race matters when it comes to waste. We must advocate for regulations, more stringent policies, enforcement and cleaner technologies until environmental racism is eradicated.

Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.

 

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Earth Day is Everyday: The Fight for Environmental Justice in Alabama’s Black Belt

Earth Day is celebrated annually to spread awareness of environmental issues and to show support for

Chanceé Lundy of Nspiregreen (right) pictured with Esther Calhoun (center) and Adam Johnson (left) of the Black Belt Citizens for Health and Justice

Chanceé Lundy of Nspiregreen (right) pictured with Esther Calhoun (center) and Adam Johnson (left) of the Black Belt Citizens for Health and Justice

environmental protection. On this Earth day, I want to bring awareness to vulnerable populations who often find themselves battling Goliath to preserve their quality of life. Man made hazards create environmental injustices that impact people who often don’t have the political clout or financial capital to fight back. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to meet Esther Calhoun, who finds herself thrust into battle with little to no financial resources and few supporters. The Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice operates on a budget of $500 a year; yet, they are determined not to give up the fight.

Her voice began to tremble as she told her story but she was determined to let us know about the environmental injustices her community faced. In spite of great opposition, Esther Calhoun, President of the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, continues to lead the fight in what seems like a never ending battle. No, she isn’t from Flint, Michigan, the town that has thrust Environmental Justice into the national spotlight. In fact, her community is far from it. Uniontown, Alabama is a small town in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt (an area known for its rich black topsoil) where nearly 48% of residents live below the poverty level and the population is 88% African American. The town is about a thirty minute drive from my hometown, historic Selma, Alabama on US Highway 80 West. It is also not far from Emelle, Alabama home of the nation’s largest hazardous waste landfill. It’s certainly not a battle that anyone wants but the dumping of coal ash on her community and sewage spray fields that now contaminate a local creek compelled her to act. She describes how the coal ash and smell of sewage are causing health issues in the community and ruining their way of life.

In 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authority had a coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee. The TVA agreed to pay the Alabama Department of Environmental Management $1.00 per ton to send coal ash to Uniontown, Alabama by rail. Coal ash typically contains metals such as mercury, lead, chromium and cadmium; however, the Environmental Protection Agency has not deemed it a hazardous waste. Such a designation which would have not allowed the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown to accept the waste. Residents can see the coal ash from their door steps and Ms. Calhoun passionately talks about what it’s doing to their quality of life. Residents claim that it’s causing paint to peel off of their cars and dare not eat food from gardens that have now been contaminated with coal ash. It’s certainly not what people who live in rural Alabama would or should expect. Ms. Calhoun discussed the neuropathy that she now has and new illnesses such as cancer that are plaguing many residents in Uniontown.

Besides coal ash, sewage spray fields were installed, for $4.8 million, as a way to treat sewage. Residents who know the area well were against the idea and just as they suspected the sewage spray fields are not working. The soil in this part of the state is mostly clay therefore impermeable. This has caused the sewage to not percolate in the ground and instead it has created run off into a local creek with possible contamination of the local water supply. The dust from coal ash and now the smell of sewage permeates the air in Uniontown.

These issues are hard for Ms. Calhoun to discuss but I imagine they are even harder for her and her neighbors to live through. To add insult to injury, the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice are now being sued for $30 Million  by Arrowhead Landfill (the recipient of the coal ash) for libel and slander.

As we’ve witnessed time and time again environmental issues disproportionately impact minority communities. As we commemorate Earth Day, let’s remember to support communities like Uniontown, Alabama, who may not have the political clout or national media attention, but still deserve access to clean air and water. Earth Day is about people who dwell on earth too.

To stay up to date with Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice – join their Facebook page and you can donate via their website.

Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.

 





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