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
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.