Urban Reclamation:

Place, value, use. 

or, What does art have to do with it?


by Tim Collins with Reiko Goto 10-96

A collaborative project: Tim Collins, Reiko Goto, Bob Bingham, David Lewis, Joel Tarr, John Stephen, numerous consultants, graduate and undergraduate assistants and the interested citizens of the City of Pittsburgh. 

Nine Mile Run is a historic stream valley identified by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. for its beauty and waste water problems in 1910. By 1928, it had been alternately identified by influential Pittsburghers for a city park and then bought by a steel industry slag disposal firm. At different points in its history, the site has been a hunting club, a ball field and finally the depository of millions of yards of industrial waste. The stream is still complicated by municipal waste.

The Nine Mile Run Project in the STUDIO 1 for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University is being co-administered with the Pennsylvania Resources Council. The intent of the Nine Mile Run project is to use the relatively small scale of the Nine-Mile Run watershed, its planned re-development areas 2 , and extensive public space component 3 as an opportunity to identify , experiment and model the application of sustainable alternative approaches to urban open space and it's attendant cultural and aesthetic components. The project will also explore and model methods of communicating seemingly complex environmental problems using the latest methods and technologies. The focus of the project is best defined within the history of reclamation-art.

Reclamation-art has been defined as an opportunity to beautify a devastated landscape, and as an opportunity to commemorate (through formal intervention) the aesthetic components of post-industrial landscapes. At the same time Reclamation-art has been plagued by two controversial arguments:

 (a) By working to reclaim post-industrial sites artists provide solutions which make further devastation plausible. 

(b) Reclamation art, is indeed not art at all.

 Over the last thirty years we have seen 3 successive "waves" of reclamation based artist practice. It began with formalists that have moved out of the galleries and (sometimes) into devastated landscapes. Artists like Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, and Robert Morris have tackled the problems and issues of post-industrial sites by creating images and symbols in response to the experience of environmental degradation. The next wave includes people like Joseph Beuys, the Harrisons, Buster Simpson and Mierle Laderman Ukeles; artists that think and research in a "systemic" way at the same time their final product returns to symbology and formal solution. The third wave of reclamation-art includes artists like Agnes Denes, Viet Ngo, and Mel Chin. They have pioneered practices that follow the systemic path to its own aesthetic ends. Product in the case of these artists; include tools and applied process. The work and the inquiry is as informed by practices outside the art as from within. The intention is to mitigate the effected environment, and the values that radiate outward from the experience of post-industrial place. It is in the act of reclamation that the aesthetic experience is created. 

In the act of reclamation.....the creation of aesthetic experience. Post-Industrial environments are by nature complex systems. Reclamation projects involve inquiry and action that can occupy a roomful of disciplines. At the same time the specificity of inquiry that is illustrated by the "roomful" of individuals prohibits individual understanding. It is our belief that the existing academic disciplines are too narrowly defined in terms of interest, knowledge and expertise, creating boundaries that do not reflect the complexity or realities of natural processes. It is only through collective interdisciplinary inquiry and discourse that complex systems can be perceived. If we accept Kosuths comments on quality; "quality is to be found in the artists thinking" 4 then reclamation-art by its nature must free itself from the constraints of individualist practice. The "art" becomes the work and process of the entire interdisciplinary team, the experience of the work is the experience of place or topophilia 5

The Nine Mile Run project site in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania is a complex system of land, water and historic socio-political inequities. It is the intention of the team to fully participate in all elements of site reclamation: Reclamation of land and water, Reclamation of indigenous (contemporary) place based values, Reclamation of long lost access rights and use patterns. As practitioners of the arts and humanities we view value shifts as the primary focus of modernist and post modernist creative practice. The intent of our expanded collective creative practice is to define and value a new category of urban environment, a new kind of urban aesthetic experience.

 The inclusive team of interdisciplinary researchers will be: collectively reclaiming land and habitat from slag; reclaiming water from sewerage; reclaiming notions of public space from private excess; Reclaiming notions of public use. The 230 acre Nine Mile Run site is plagued by two complex physical realities: multi-million cubic yards of slag, a by-product of the steel industry; and a stream that has been impacted by multi-municipal waste water impacts since the turn of the century.

 The Nine Mile Run team in the Carnegie Mellon STUDIO for Creative Inquiry initially assembled as a group of arts and humanities 6 based practitioners with a common civic interest. We recognized the challenge and the opportunity presented by post-industrial sites and promoted the project amongst our science and engineering colleagues with the intent to develop interdisciplinary models which have the potential to delineate the complexity of opportunity that these sites embody. The existing market based design paradigm is not equipped to economically sustain the interdisciplinary discourse that is neccessary to produce the best solutions for these complicated problems. The STUDIO project will expore and model alternative approaches to funding the public space development.

 Coalescing over the last six months the Nine Mile Run Team is just finishing the initial site assessment. We are preparing to begin research in a number of areas, specifically history/context, water and land/slag/habitat remediation. We are interested in experimentation and research to develop new options, tools and discourse that will promote the re-evaluation of urban wasteland and it's contiguous environment. 

Over the last 6 years or so Tim Collins and Reiko Goto have taken an active interest in old industrial sites. This began in earnest in 1988 when Tim was asked to develop a waterfront art plan 7 . Since 1988 Tim has sustained a place based research into public aesthetics, water issues and urban waterfront infrastructure. Projects have occurred in San Francisco 8 , Oahu 9 and New York 10 most often the works have been created collaboratively with Reiko. At the same time Reiko has sustained research into urban-natural interface opportunities. She is involved in an extensive inquiry to identify creatures and their relationship to habitat. This inquiry has it's best realization to date in the work Cho-en 11 built at Moscone Center in San Francisco. Reiko has also recently finished the first step of an interdisciplinary Nine Mile Run based inquiry presented in August of this year; "Equation" 12.

 Coming to Pittsburgh, Tim and Reiko were lucky to meet fellow faculty Bob Bingham who was installing a work called "The Urban Semi-Wilderness area 13 " the week they arrived in Pittsburgh. Bob's research has involved the "event" of moving through natural enviroment with an emphasis on boundary, traffic paths and invented natural elements that unfold with time. Bob has been involved in projects in California, New York, Pennsylvania and Rome, He will be traveling to Nagoya Japan for an exhibition this fall. Bob suggested that Friends of the Riverfront director John Stephen 14 visit with Tim and Reiko. John is involved in greenway activism and a variety of sustainable city initiatives. Through a campus planning committee; Bob, Reiko and Tim got to meet David Lewis 15 who had an active interest in Nine Mile Run and it's relationship to Homestead across the Monongahela river. A campus search of ongoing research initiatives introduced the team to the work of Joel Tarr 16 who has been invaluable providing context and contacts for every step of the project. Other primary team members include: John Buck soils engineer with a specialty in reclamation and re-vegetation. Dave Dzomback Civil and Environmental Engineer with a specialty in post industrial water issues........ the other team consultants and current project work as well as the ongoing assessment and Community Dialogues 17 initiatives can be found by accessing the rest of the Nine Mile Run web site.

The Nine Mile Run Greenway Artist Co-Directors

Bob Bingham

Tim Collins

Reiko Goto


  1. The STUDIO for Creative Inquiry was founded in 1990 as an interdepartmental unit of the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University. Its mission is to support cross-disciplinary and experimental work in the arts. (back to reference)
  2. Slag dumping ended in the late 70's. The early 80 saw development proposals using the valley for a freeway and then a shopping mall. Recent proposals include housing development and extensive open space. (back to reference)
  3. One third of the total development acreage is slated for open space. The urban stream drains from 30% green space and will be surrounded by public space from the point that it emerges to the mouth at the Monongahela.(back to reference)
  4. Kosuth, Joseph; "A Short Note: Art, Education and Linquistic Change" initially published in &127;"The Utterer" a Journal of the School of Visual Arts, New York. It can also be found in; "Art after Philosophy and After, Collected Writings 1966-90" Published; 1990 MIT Press. The full quote: "We do now realize that anything can be art. that is, any material or element in any sense can be made to function within an art context. And that in our time quality is associated with the artists thinking, not as a ghost within the object". (back to reference)
  5. Topophilia: the effective bond between people and place or setting, a diffuse concept, vivid and concrete in personal experience. A word coined by Yi-Fu Tuan in his book of the same name. (back to reference)
  6. The arts and humanities provide a "meta-market" model for the team project. Creative Inquiry driven by individual curiousity and public expression provide the conceptual guidelines for the project.(back to reference)
  7. Working with Laura Farabough, Michael Oppenheimer and Peter Richards; they were hired by the State Arts Commission to develop an art plan for the San Francisco Waterfront. (back to reference)
  8. Aqua Pura; an interactive project and freely distributable book for SF Water dept. (back to reference)
  9. A Unified Analysis of Liquid Phenomenon or Kanawai, for the Honolulu Academy of Art. (back to reference)
  10. A Liquid Evaluation of the the Waterfront of Brooklyn, for Creative Time NY NY. (back to reference)
  11. Cho-en is a butterfly garden created in a collaboration with entymologists and a botanist. It was funded by the Urban Redevelopment Agency of the City of Pittsburgh. The work includes plants and a rigorous maintanance document that elevates the "gardeners" to the role of public stewards in the garden.(back to reference)
  12. Equation: a three site installation. Empty gallery, on-campus greenhouse, a trail at Nine Mile Run with all plant material catalogued and identified.(back to reference)
  13. A temporary public project with permanent roots, for Mellon Park in Pittsburgh. A manicured garden has an hourglass shape delineated with planted paper birch then left to "wild". It was slated for a temporary 3 month exhibition and three years later is getting "wilder" by the day despite the outrage of the local garden club set.(back to reference)
  14. John is an environmental attorney, the person who introduced Nine Mile Run to the rest of the team. He has interests in the environment with its related policy and economic issues.(back to reference)
  15. Founder of UDA Architects, Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning at CMU, Internationally respected planner.(back to reference)
  16. Richard S. Caliguiri Professor of Urban and Environmental History and Policy. Profesor Tarr has done extensive historic research into the policy and impact of technology and industry on the environment.(back to reference)
  17. Funded by the Heinz Endowments.(back to reference)