Library of Creative Sustainability

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SLOW Clean-UP civic experiments

SLOW Clean-UP civic experiments tackles abandoned petrol stations through phytoremediation and community involvement.

Offering an alternative to the ‘dig and dump’, SLOW Clean-UP has identified 12 new native petroleum remediators, revitalised sites whilst “simultaneously adding value at every stage of development by creating educational opportunities along with habitat, reduced heat islanding, and carbon sequestration.”

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Project Description

SLOW Clean-Up civic experiments is an ongoing project providing an alternative to the ‘dig and dump’ approach to brownfield or derelict land remediation. SLOW Clean-Up is designed to restore sites previously occupied by petrol stations, a widespread feature of the urban environment.

This project is taking place in Chicago and is led by the artist Frances Whitehead working in collaboration with scientists and communities. Whitehead employed her training and skills as an artist to explore cultural and environmental concerns using an alternative, creative perspective.

Slow Clean-Up Map of Abandoned Service Stations in Chicago, 2009

Slow Clean-Up Map of Abandoned Service Stations in Chicago, 2009

In particular she used the idea of slow processes being a good thing, derived from the principles of the Slow Food Movement, to tackle polluted sites. The site, now named The Cottage Grove Heights Laboratory Garden or sometimes The Lab Garden, is a collaboration between nature and culture, science, engineering and the arts.

SLOW Clean-UP uses phyto-remediation, the process of living plants enhancing soil cleanup. Working with Dr. A.P. Schwab, Professor of Soil Science at Texas A&M University, Whitehead investigated which native ornamental plants had the capacity to remediate petroleum pollution. They assessed the feasibility of approximately 100 new, untested petroleum remediators and identified twelve new plants that are effective. Remarkably, very few plants had been tested previously.

The project also resulted in another innovation: Whitehead re-purposed a road building tool as a giant rototiller. This helped turn a heavy gravel layer into the existing site soils, combining with large amounts of compost, and thus keeping all contaminated soils out of landfill and available for on site cleanup.

This new method came about through Whitehead’s creative, in-process problem solving which enabled the assessing of alternative options which may not have been previously considered.

The project created a number of additional benefits including:

  • educational opportunities for students and the community
  • new habitat and greater biodiversity
  • reduced heat islanding
  • carbon sequestration

SLOW Clean-Up values time to create significant change. Whitehead refers to her training as a sculptor which enables her to think differently about time as a ‘material’ to manipulate. The concept is based on the Slow Food Movement, encouraging growing and cooking local produce as an alternative to the fast food (cheap and easy) approach.

It is estimated that the process of permanent, sustainable remediation can take between 3-5 years. However, Whitehead describes alternative plans that would allow for quicker development of sites, which would disperse the toxins but likely be less permanent and require reseeding.

This pilot programme is an example for the potential remediation of over 400 similar sites across the City of Chicago. The project employs Jon Hawke’s four pillar model for sustainability addressing the environmental, economic, social and cultural sectors. Students studying a variety of subjects including art, soil science, horticulture and engineering have participated in the project, reflecting these pillars.

Whitehead and Schwab have plans to conduct further research into plant petroleum remediation and to publish their outcomes. In addition, other locations will be considered for a comparable study using woody and fruiting species. An exact account of the scientific processes and the total net cost for hypothetical sites can be found in the Project Brochure for the Embedded Artist and SLOW-Clean-UP.

Partners & Stakeholders

Slow Clean-UP civic experiments is an ongoing collaboration between:

  • Frances Whitehead, founder of ARTetal Studio (an organisation focussed on collaboration, speculative design, and embedding artists within municipalities)
  • The City of Chicago Department of Environment
  • Chicago State University Biology and Geography Departments
  • Purdue University Soil Science researchers
  • School of the Art Institute of Chicago

It has resulted in the Laboratory Garden in Cottage Grove Heights, Chicago.

Other organisations involved include:

  • Cottage Grove Heights Community Coalition
  • Greencorp Chicago
  • Prairie Moon Nursery, Minnesota
  • Possibility Place Nursery, Illinois

Sustainability Issues

SLOW Clean-UP civic experiments created multiple environmental, economic, social and cultural benefits.

  • Remediation using plants means less material going to landfill.
  • Creating the Lab Garden increases biodiversity and provides habitat for animals.
  • It reduces heat islanding and delivers carbon sequestration.
  • The Lab Garden creates civic research opportunities.
  • The garden can be interpreted and understood by the public, raising environmental awareness and creating educational opportunities for communities and students from a range of fields.
  • The garden is both functional and visually appealing. As the appearance and environmental wellbeing of each site improves, the value of the land increases.

My question is, how do you change the culture, and what do artists know that can contribute to this.

Frances Whitehead

Lessons, Tips & Advice

Whitehead stresses through her project that meaningful and positive transformation, whether environmental, economic, social or cultural, requires significant time.

There are detailed lessons learned and recommendations in the project publication. Highlights include:

  • Build firm partnerships and stewardship plans capable of surviving changes of personnel in key organisations;
  • Landscape design for phyto-remediation has different requirements (eg density of planting);
  • Connect the phyto-remediation site to other greenspaces and wildlife corridors;
  • Site design needs to engage local neighbours;
  • Use Integrative and participatory assessment models and evaluation methods;
  • Use voluntary labour and engagement from a range of interested groups (eg students).


SLOW Clean-UP civic engagement evolved from from the Embedded Artist project and there was a sequence of funding starting with grants for innovation and leading to national award for remediation

  • From 2008-2010, the project was funded by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) where Frances is a Professor of Sculpture and Architecture
  • From 2010-2012 the project was funded by the Chicago Department of Environment ComEd Grant Fund ‘City Modelling Grant’

Related Projects


By mapping out a knowledge claim for artists, Whitehead is re-framing long-held assumptions about what it means to be an artist while asking us to reconsider the notion that artistic practice is an inherently individualistic enterprise. Claudine Isé
Art21 Magazine
Self-described as a “civic practice artist,” she [Frances Whitehead] began working professionally in the 1980s, calling attention to scientific, political and ethical challenges in rural and urban areas. Northern Illinois University Today

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