In Italy, a Redesign of Nature to Clean It
Elisabeth Rosenthal, NY Times, September 21, 2008
In many parts of the affluent coastal region southeast of Rome and northwest of Naples, canals dumping effluent into the Mediterranean from farms and factories coexist with fishermen and beachgoers. There is little doubt that this area would need considerable work to return to a more pristine state. For places as far gone as this one, however, a new breed of landscape architect is recommending a radical solution: not so much to restore the environment as to redesign it.
“It is so ecologically out of balance that if it goes on this way, it will kill itself,” said Alan Berger, a landscape architecture professor at M.I.T. who was excitedly poking around the smelly canals on a recent day. Instead of simply recommending that polluting farms and factories be shut, Professor Berger specializes in creating new ecosystems in severely damaged environments: redirecting water flow, moving hills, building islands and planting new species to absorb pollution, to create natural, though “artificial,” landscapes that can ultimately sustain themselves.
Two thousand years of “water management” have turned the once-malaria-infested Pontine Marshes into a region, Latina Province, that is among Italy’s most prosperous. It is home to industrial parks, resorts filled with weekend homes, and farms. Professor Berger, who is the founder of P-Rex, for Project for Reclamation Excellence, at M.I.T., recently signed an agreement with Latina Province to design a master ecological plan for the most polluting part of this region.
He wants the government to buy a tract of nearly 500 acres through which the most seriously polluted waters now pass. There, he intends to create a wetland that would serve as a natural cleansing station before the waters flowed on to the sea and residential areas. Better regulation is also needed, to curb the dumping of pollutants into the canal, but a careful mix of the right kinds of plants, dirt, stones and drainage channels would filter the water as it slowly passed through, he said.
Professor Berger was quick to acknowledge that the approach was vastly different from the kind normally advocated by established environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund or the Nature Conservancy, which generally seek to restore land or preserve it in its natural state, often by closing down or cleaning up nearby polluters.
Read the complete story here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/22/world/europe/22marsh.html