From Landscaping to Infrastructure: The Scope and Agency of Maintenance

Published in Scenario 03: Rethinking Infrastructure
Spring 2013

Landscape maintenance is usually seen as a collection of mechanistic techniques that let us make things the way they should be — a series of a mandatory chores for maintaining order. We are so familiar with its tools and techniques that the continual practice of landscaping is nearly rendered invisible, grabbing our attention only during the irritations of a Saturday morning leaf blowing or lawn mowing. The assumption is that by maintaining the status quo, maintenance is somehow innocuous, but these operations are not neutral and their scale is far greater than the front lawn.

Maintenance operations can be understood as the infrastructural services which ensure that the physical landscape matches our needs and desires. While maintenance is typically understood as the removal of plant matter and refuse, these activities occupy just one pole on a spectrum which ranges from the subtractive to the additive, with many forms of exchange occupying the middle ground. Landscape maintenance includes the snow plowing, channel dredging and street resurfacing to secure transportation of goods, the irrigation, fertilization and mulch which fortifies the soil for production, the “broken window” campaigns and the utility excavations, desire lines and slope bioengineering. These actions range in size from the individual, which aggregates into a vernacular, to the unifying regulation of the political landscape, and are no less fundamental than police, education or healthcare are to societal function. Their vital importance is usually only recognized in absence, when the fabric of our built environment begins to dissolve under the forces of other actors. We may take for granted the lumbering street sweeper, grumble at the rotating parking restrictions that choreograph its movement, but when the accumulation of urban detritus initiates primary succession its value is instantly recognized.  The events that maintain a landscape compose its very being, but become concealed behind the very image that they work to continually project.

The process of landscaping extends to a host of infrastructural services which collectively maintain landscape, with a massive jump in scale occurring at the institutional level.

In attempting to understand the agricultural complex of the Great Plains for example, we should consider the finite aquifers which sustain production and the fresh pavement under our tires, the commodity markets which paint the fields golden and the oil fields abroad [1]. We are usually only reminded of these components when conditions change at a pace greater than our conventional capacities: a national drought, a delayed farm bill, peak oil…. Maintenance is a constant negotiation, a revealing and arresting of landscape process, and the creation of a mediated equilibrium on which we continually rely. This line of inquiry calls into the question the identity and permanence of any landscape condition — the absurdity of treating such a dynamic medium as if it were a mute object — and illuminates the generative capacity of maintenance as a viable design instrument in the ongoing project of constructing landscape.


maintenance as an infrastructural service

By identifying the many factors that maintain a particular landscape condition — that are instrumental to its continued existence — a designer is able to consider new relationships and collaborations that might be engaged as a “maintenance palette.” This palette can be broken down into a hierarchy of geophysical, ecological and technological agents which provide the infrastructural services for the physical landscape.  Many of these agents are difficult to harness — the geophysical for example — yet are undeniable in their importance. The threat of climate change drives home the point that the spatial organization of all landscape is dependent on a specific atmospheric range. Most importantly however, is that this palette implicates a host of non-human actors, living and inanimate, as landscapers, serving to maintain landscape through their collective action.  As environmental economists attempt to bring “ecosystem services” into the market’s calculations, we might consider how expanding the public concept of infrastructure might reveal the value of these maintenance services.

The maintenance hierarchy of mowing positions wind, fire, salt-spray and flooding as the base conditions from which other regimes evolve.

Interpreting landscape through a maintenance hierarchy also allows us to consider the evolution of technology, and the scale and potential of each instrument’s impact on the conceptualization and formation of landscape:

“Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them [2].”

From the domestication of fire to the advent of 2,4-D, the invention of the scythe to the flail mower, the modernization of maintenance technology has progressed in step with all other technological revolutions. While the English landowner once employed scores of peasants to hand cut and roll their landscape garden [3], we now have lawn tractors, Weed-n-Feed, and GMO grass seed.  As the scale of our enterprises have increased, so has the scale of our instruments and their subsequent formal and spatial effects, making the logic of our tools essential to understanding the production of landscape.

Over 30 million acres of the U.S. (1.2% of total land area) are annually mowed by Bush Hog rotary cutters for example, approximately the size of the State of Mississippi [4].  As the standard mowing attachment, Bush Hogs affect a broad range of landscapes from the rough field to the power corridor; their size, turning radius and clearance is the determining factor between marsh, field and forest across the country. Even the seemingly insignificant difference between a 2” or 4” mow height or the diversification of mowing schedule can radically affect population ecology over such a large scale [5,6]. When technology “makes our lives easier” the implication is that we get the same result with less work, but the choice of Norfolk Southern to maintain its rail easement through broadleaf herbicide, mechanical mowing, or herds of goats can yield substantially different outcomes over their 20,000 route miles [7]. By foregrounding these instruments, it becomes clear that they have far more agency than they are given credit for. Landscape appears as a dynamic collage of maintenance regimes without an obvious creation date.

Each of our tools contains a formal logic in its operation which in turn determines landscape morphology [8].

Like all infrastructure, economy of operations is of paramount importance, and thus maintenance practice appropriates the earth as a planetary yard [9]: emphasizing the economy of batch operations over detail, favoring use over idyllic expression, and containing the entropic spaces a garden excludes from its image. But rather than undermining its design potential, the analogy of the yard concretizes maintenance design in the space of everyday life and the functionality of our instruments. The desire line will disappear once it is forgotten; the logging road grow over after the timber has been extracted. Both are formally determined by the vessels they convey and the instruments that maintain them — whether that be the sole of a shoe or a 9-foot rear-mounted blade.

These large-scale maintenance operations are not only responsible for preserving the hard infrastructure which we so depend on, but also in producing infrastructure through their regular execution, such as with the deepwater shipping channel. Just as a newly clipped hedge assumes an alternate form, growth habit and schedule, the dredged shipping channel has replaced its previous bathymetry and now must be scoured regularly to function. We can witness this phenomenon in many forms of infrastructure — the river levee which must be mounded up proportionately to the depth it sinks, the beach nourishment which replenishes and regrades the shoreline to counteract the ongoing migration of sand particles down the coast. Whenever there is the perpetual re-creation of an event or condition, it can be defined as maintenance.


the generative capacity of maintenance

Apart from its importance as an infrastructural service, historically the desire to maintain a specific condition has also served as a powerful generator of new infrastructure. Looking to the massive public works campaigns of the New Deal, we can see the American Landscape remade in the name of conservation [10]. Not only did the explosion of check dams, bulkheads, windbreaks and bank armaments serve to stem the massive erosion of the era [11], they also effectively constructed new hydrologies and geomorphologies through their deployment. Simultaneously, in the quest to maintain timber resources, the U.S. Forest Service constructed an extensive fire lookout system, complete with endless miles of telephone wires, firebreaks, and roads, systematically removing all snags, pest-infested, and open-growth trees [12,13]. The subsequent effects of these actions are well understood: the maintenance of one thing radically altered the whole.

Turning to the Mississippi River, we can admire the Army Corps’ herculean engineering of floodgates and spillways at the Old River Control Complex, regulating river flow into the Atchafalaya and preventing a catastrophic change in river course which would leave New Orleans without a functioning port or fresh drinking water [14]. And while South Louisiana was once created and maintained by an annual flooding regime, we can equally admire the multitude of designers in their attempts to imagine how an equilibrium would ever be reached in such a dynamic landscape. Like a memory as it evolves through each recollection, a survey of these events illustrates the potential for maintenance to produce entirely new landscape typologies in the quest of stabilizing existing conditions.

As we begin to understand the weight of climate change — what it means to lose the very foundation of our landscape — the Sisyphean processes of maintenance may emerge as the most vital of infrastructural services and the most powerful generator of new infrastructure in our attempt to hold the places of the past in hand [15]. This does not bode well, considering the pittance American society feels maintenance deserves in tax dollars, but in effect, with every multi-billion dollar gift of Federal disaster relief, we are pledging to rebuild, to recreate what once was. Perhaps that is the American way, the future of American infrastructure.

On the front lines is the military-recreational complex of Hampton Roads, Virginia, the urban agglomeration that includes Norfolk, Hampton, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach, endearingly known by locals as “Tidewater.” The metropolitan area is regularly cited on “most vulnerable” lists due to a combination of sea-level rise, subsidence and hurricane risks, as well as the value of its numerous military bases and ports [16]. Long accustomed to replenishing its shores in preparation for the tourist season [17], the city of Virginia Beach is now seen as a model by coastal engineers after it invested in an extensive hurricane protection and erosion control system, affectionately dubbed “Operation Big Beach.”

The dredge and nourishment operations of Virginia Beach create a “landscape of maintenance,” which the region increasingly relies on as infrastructure. [18]

Like New Orleans, the city has taken a Dutch turn, bargaining that as this “community for a lifetime” sinks behind its new sea wall, it will remain able to pump all stormwater through 2000 feet of outfall pipes and into the sea. Unique to this armoring strategy, however, is that the system incorporates a healthy 300-foot width of beach to buffer storm surge before it reaches the wall, allowing its overall height to be reduced to boardwalk scale and the city to retain the latter half of its name. As a storm can eat more than 50 feet of beach in a single sitting, this “line in the sand” must now be continually maintained, making the hotel strip of Virginia Beach a major exporter of sand to the region through longshore drift [19,20].

During conventional nourishment, appropriately-sized sand is dredged from a “borrow pit” in the nearby Thimble Shoals shipping channel, making use of rigid-adjustable turtle deflectors to avoid replenishing Virginia Beach with endangered Loggerheads. The dredge is then transported to temporary offshore pump stations and piped as a slurry onto the beach, where it is graded by dozers. The operation seems rather straightforward, yet too steep a grade will trigger riptides and an incorrect grain-size may cause the beach to slip away, annulling its marriage to the base fill. Local coastal engineer Phil Roehrs recalls a particularly “bad batch” one year, which remained a muddy mess for weeks, but also the delight that beach-goers experience while witnessing the spectacular operations [21]. The whole process is not unlike a new layer of backyard mulch, but at a scale which we can only understand as sublime.

And as we reflect on the maintenance sublime, we can admire the Dutch, who have taken mega-nourishment to the next level of operations with the construction of the zandmotor. By unloading 28 million cubic yards of sand all at once [22] (in comparison to Big Beach’s 3-4 million cubic yard biannual replenishment) [23], the zandmotor reaches an economy of scale by building a scaffold of dredge over a kilometer into the sea, allowing hopper dredgers sufficient berth to “rainbow” their slurry directly onto the shore, and thereby reducing the costly grading otherwise required at the end of the pipe [24]. At its core, the zandmotor appears to be a simple calculation: that through the economy of scale, the never-ending demand for sand will be met at less cost — and certainly the method of delivery accomplishes this goal for approximately half of the cost of Big Beach [25] — but central to the strategy of mega-nourishment is the assumption that the sand will eventually be distributed across the entire length of the coastline, graded by force of the ocean.

The scale of experimental infrastructural services such as mega-nourishment can be understood as the maintenance sublime, with the Zandmotor being a particularly striking representation. [26]

This detail is relevant in that it internalizes the infrastructural service of longshore currents as an integral part of maintaining the coastline and as part of a broader trend that attempts to exploit the actions of other non-human actors in landscape maintenance. Other such non-human techniques range from the domestication of soil microorganisms at the Battery Park and Boston Greenway Conservancies [27] to the increasingly common herds of urban goats that now mow our infrastructural easements and vacant lots, from the sewage-treating, storm-buffering swamp restoration in Bayou Bienvenue [28], to avian seed-dispersal on a New Jersey landfill restoration [29]. To maintain is to enable a condition to continue to be, and is therefore as diagnostic as it is evolving. Maintenance is essentially an assertion, a continual curation, an assemblage of alliances in the construction of landscape. It emerges in response to both predicted and unforeseen processes, and has the potential to effect change at a larger scale than is typically available to designers.

“Landscape interventions that get away from massive initial infusions of capital, instead focusing on management and enabling agency among valued actors is one promising way forward for theoretical development and intervention in the landscape” [30].

While landscape architects attempt to reclaim infrastructure design, we might also consider how maintenance may become multi-functional, regenerative, and adaptive, while also being uniquely within our professional realm.


A version of this article has been published in University of Virginia’s design journal Lunch8: Futures for Sites Unknown.

Michael Geffel is a recent MLA graduate of the University of Virginia and maintains LNDSCPR blog which broadcasts design experiments and research on the generative capacity of landscape maintenance. His research is organized around three themes: maintenance as infrastructural service, as design activism, and as novel ecology, with specific interest in how maintenance is situated within the context of urban metabolism, shrinking cities, and the anthropocene. He is currently working with the City of Richmond in developing alternative mowing operations for municipal easements and vacant lots.


[1] Wil S. Hylton, “Broken Heartland: The Looming Collapse of Agriculture in the Great Plains,” Harpers Magazine (July, 2012), 25-35.
[2] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Friedrich Engels (New York: Random House, 1906), 406.
[3] Martin Hoyles, “English Gardens and the Division of Labor,” Cabinet 6 (Spring, 2002), accessed September 27, 2012,
[4] “Bush Hog Rotary Cutters,” Bush Hog, accessed November 11, 2012,  Calculations performed by author.
[5] Jean-Yves Humbert, et al., “Impact of different meadow mowing techniques on field invertebrates,” Journal of Applied Entomology, 134 (2010): 592–599.
[6] Oldrich Cizek et al., “Diversification of mowing regime increases arthropods diversity in species-poor cultural hay meadows,” Journal of Insect Conservation 16, no. 2  (2012): 215-226.
[7] “Norfolk Southern Corporate Profile,” Norfolk Southern Corp., accessed January 12, 2013,
[8] Operable dimensions developed from Lowe’s and other merchant websites.
[9] French landscape architecture seems to be far ahead of Americans in the ability to merge landscape practice with design with many precedents to draw inspiration from (Parc du Sausset, Jardin en Mouvement, Chemetoff’s stakes, Simon’s mowing, etc.), but it isGilles Clément above all who has fused the two into a distinct professional model. Clément’s concept of a planetary garden is certainly an ideal in which many have found hope, but my position is that like the yard, the majority of landscapes are formed and maintained through utility.
[10] To save, preserve, keep in existence, — essentially the same as maintenance.
[11] U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps, Hands to save the soil. Prepared in conjunction with the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1938).
[12] U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps, Forests Protected by the CCC, Prepared by the Forestry Division of the CCC (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1938).
[13] Harry Raymond Kylie, CCC Forestry, (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1937).
[14] U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Geological Investigation of the Atchafalaya Basin and the Problem of Mississippi River Diversion, prepared by Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Mississippi under the general supervision of Harold N. Fisk, Ph. D., Consultant (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1952).
[15] To maintain, from Middle French, is literally to hold in hand.  This etymological root can be read in two ways: as the total control of an object, such as when we hold a coin, or as alliance, such as when we walk with another subject “hand in hand.”  Both interpretations can be read in maintenance practice.  While the former is the typical connotation, I of course prefer the latter.
[16] R. J. Nicholls,  et al. (2008), “Ranking Port Cities with High Exposure and Vulnerability to Climate Extremes: Exposure Estimates”, OECD Environment Working Papers, No. 1, OECD Publishing, accessed January 12, 2013, (2008). While many of these list seem entirely arbitrary, the ongoing risk assessment performed by the OECD is perhaps the most legitimate reflection of vulnerability, placing Virginia Beach 19th in the world (4th in the U.S.) of cities ranked in terms of assets exposed to coastal flooding in the 2070.
[17] David R. Basco and Christopher B. Colburn, “The State of the Region’s Beaches” Old Dominion University, Regional Studies Institute (August, 2006): 6
[18] Image adapted from Army Corps maps and diagrams found in U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Coastal Engineering Studies in Support of Virginia Beach, Virginia, Beach Erosion Control and Hurricane Protection Project, Reports 1-3. Quanties as reported by Basco, “The State of the Region’s Beaches.”
[19] U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Coastal Engineering Studies in Support of Virginia Beach, Virginia, Beach Erosion Control and Hurricane Protection Project, Reports 1-3, By Mark Hansen, Norman Scheffner, Coastal Engineering Research Center (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1990).  Although the design changed from this publication in response to community complaints (namely the height of the proposed sea wall) leading directly to the expansion of beach infrastructure, the system design remains essentially the same.
[20] Phil Roehrs, Inverview by Kristina Hill, Ph.D., Michael Geffel, Nate Burgess, Rachel Stevens, and Aja Bulla-Richards, Virginia Beach Department of Planning & Community Development, April 20, 2012.
[21] Roehrs, Inverview.
[22] “Facts and Figures,” De Zandmotor., accessedApril 16th, 2012 Conversion to yards performed by author.
[23] Basco, 9.
[24] Joop van Houdt, ZANDMOTOR-luchtfoto 11 april, Source: Rijkswaterstaat Zuid-Holland, Rotterdam. Digital Image. Available from: Flickr, (accessed August 10, 2012).  Construction sequence as documented by the Zandmotor Flickr
[25] “Questions and Answers.” De Zandmotor.. Conversion to dollars performed by author.  Comparison of unit cost was calculated by dividing the total cost (including planning and management) by the total quantity of sand.  The Zandmotor cost $3.37/cu yd while average replenishment at Virginia Beach ranges from $5-7/cu yd as also reported in “The State of the Region’s Beaches” by Basco and Colburn
[26] Joop van Houdt,, Zandmotor vlucht-28 29-11-2011, Source: Rijkswaterstaat Zuid-Holland, Rotterdam. Digital Image. Available from: Flickr, (accessed April 10, 2012).
[27] T. Fleisher, telephone interview by Author, August 3, 2011.
[28] Sarah K. Mack, et al., “Wetland Assimilation: Climate Change Adaptation and Restoration in the Mississippi Delta,” (proceedings of the Water Environment Federation, Sustainability 2008), pp. 830-858(29)
[29] George R. Robinson and Steven N. Handel, “Forest restoration on a closed landfill: rapid addition of new species by bird dispersal,” Conservation Biology 7, no. 2 (1993): 271-278.
[30] Brian Davis, “Dog Philosophy and Maintenance Manuals,” Landscape Archipelago (September 10, 2010)