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How can public landscapes and infrastructures be redesigned to better grapple with environmental woes?
Beatrice Jin
Beatrice Jin

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Brian Davis began studying polluted urban rivers in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “You can see the whole environmental, economic, cultural, and labor history . . . in this one landscape,” he says.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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As a landscape architect, Davis works at the intersection of three themes of urban rivers: flood control, water quality, and public space.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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Davis sees a parallel in rivers of Buenos Aires and New York City and an opportunity to “help get people to value these landscapes again.”
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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Davis and his team: in Troy, New York, they are documenting, analyzing, and mapping out urban morphology—the network of spaces and objects that shape a city—across the various locales.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

Public Landscapes and the Environment

by Alexandra Chang

Brian R. Davis, Landscape Architecture, researches the causes and effects of fecal coliform and industrial contaminants in urban rivers. “Basically sewer overflows due to storms. Rivers with lots of poop in them,” he says. “I spend a lot of time around those.”

Davis is interested in how public landscapes and infrastructures could be redesigned to better grapple with environmental problems. He was first drawn to studying polluted urban rivers while living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and seeing the city’s Riachuelo River.

“It is historically great. You can see the whole environmental, economic, cultural, and labor history of Buenos Aires right in this one landscape,” says Davis. “It’s amazing, but it’s also disgusting.” The river is grossly contaminated with industrial and agricultural waste. The Blacksmith Institute (an international not-for-profit dedicated to solving life-threatening pollution) has listed the Riachuelo as one of the top 10 environmentally toxic places in the world.

Rivers, from Buenos Aires to New York City

When Davis left Buenos Aires for New York City, he saw a parallel in both places’ rivers. While volunteering with the Gowanas Canal Conservancy, he began to realize that New York City’s waterways faced many of the same pollution issues as those in Buenos Aires. Davis was working as a landscape architect at the time and saw an opportunity for people like himself to “help get people to value these landscapes again.”

“It’s not downtown Troy that’s causing the water quality problem in downtown Troy,” says Davis. “We’re starting to see that it’s the periphery.”

As a landscape architect—a title Davis says is somewhat fraught in its tie to architecture (he has proposed landscape scientist in a recent publication)—Davis works at the intersection of three themes of urban rivers—flood control, water quality, and public space. These themes tie together a range of contemporary issues including environmental protection and restoration, infrastructure and climate change adaptation, and social equity and environmental justice.

Davis’ geographic focus is New York State and Latin America, more specifically: Troy, New York; Buenos Aires and Mendoza, Argentina; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. He is interested in studying Latin America not only because of his lived experience but also because Latin America is understudied in his field, and he believes a lot can be learned from the area.

“Latin America could be really instructive for us, because while there are a lot of similarities between the Americas, oftentimes conditions are a bit more extreme in Latin America,” says Davis. “We can learn by examining what’s going on in these situations and apply it to our own conditions.”

Mapping and Analyzing Urban Morphology

Davis is currently in the assessment phase of his research, analyzing and mapping out urban morphology—the network of spaces and objects that shape a city—across the various locales. The researchers are trying to develop techniques and conceptual frameworks that work for addressing the three-pronged project. “Other people have figured out how to approach one problem, but we are trying to develop a synthetic and integrated approach to deal with all three, with a focus on big cities in the Americas,” says Davis.

In Troy, New York, Davis and his team have created maps by pulling together historical aerial photographs. The goal is to document and analyze the changes in the land and water and to define urban forests specifically with regard to their performance related to storm-water retention and infiltration. They are studying the urban forest in a systematic way that understands the urban forest not only as canopy cover but also as root systems and soils.

For example, street trees are often considered part of the urban forest cover, but Davis says that for the purposes of storm-water reduction, street trees aren’t very useful. The street trees have little role in storm-water infiltration because they are often planted up on a curb, so while the canopy offers some water retention, there is almost no infiltration.

Davis and his team are also out taking aerial photography of their own. Although scientists have documented sewer overflows, the data usually come back as abstract numbers. It’s useful to research, but not for engaging the public. “It’s [sewer overflow] not located in spaces relative to where people live,” says Davis. His team is taking aerial photos by sewer outfalls to capture what it looks like during dry conditions and then what it looks like in stormy, overflow conditions. In one aerial map, Davis points out sewage overflow in the water, right next to a boat dock where people go fishing and boating.

“We’re trying to make visceral and visual this abstract environmental data,” Davis says. This part of the work addresses the cultural aspect of fecal coliform. “We’ll use the material for our own design and speculation but also to present to the community to see if it matters to them.”

Davis and his team aren’t quite “there” yet, but the next steps are to come up with recommendations. It’s a tricky task because there are a number of options. In Troy alone, the city could build a bigger treatment plan to deal with more storm-water overflow, and more quickly. Another option is to look at how suburban development has affected erosion and runoff. It might be possible to redesign aspects of these developments to trap storm water. “It’s not downtown Troy that’s causing the water quality problem in downtown Troy,” says Davis. “We’re starting to see that it’s the periphery.”

In Latin America, Davis is a bit more removed because of physical distance. He has published a booklet titled CityRiver, which provides urban morphology maps of Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires as well as an overview of the various issues and themes at hand: economic, environmental, and social.

Both projects were helped with funding from Cornell: the Troy work through the New York State Water Resources Institute, and the Latin America work through the Einaudi Center for International Studies. “Cornell does a great job to support people like me, who have a more synthetic approach but whose research doesn’t fall neatly into conventional, narrowly defined categories,” says Davis, who arrived at Cornell in 2013. “There are means to incubate and start a project, which I really appreciate.”