Introduction: Power

Ever since the industrial revolution, successive energy transitions restructured society and its systems, with new forms of energy enabling spatial and economic arrangements not previously possible or imaginable. First the was a shift from water and muscle power to coal and steam. Then, coal and steam gave way to oil and natural gas.

Today, driven by the climate crisis, the world is in the early stages of a new energy transition — from today’s dominant fossil fuel energy regime toward a renewable (or at least carbon-free) energy system. The form that this path to decarbonization will take is in no way preordained, but will be shaped by fierce battles over technological and political decisions within the energy sector and beyond. Addressing climate change will require a wholesale reimagining of society and economy. It is a design challenge of unparalleled scale and scope, demanding that we rethink how we produce energy, build cities, grow food, manage land, and transform labor. This, of course, is not just a conversation about energy infrastructure or carbon pricing. It is a conversation about the future that involves all of us.

In theory, the idea of an energy transition is fairly straightforward: an older fuel regime gives way to a newer one. In practice, energy transitions are far messier affairs, with multiple fuel regimes existing in parallel, producers and middlemen of competing energy sources battling it out for clients, new energy sources perhaps coming to define a certain energy regime, but older forms of energy rarely going away entirely. In Germany since the 80s, for example, energy policy has been dominated by the “Energiewende” — literally, the “Energy Transition” — which is widely seen around the world as a holistic national project that integrates German climate policy, industrial policy, energy development, and questions of labor. But while the German Energiewende has led to a dramatic expansion of offshore wind in the North Sea, it also kept lignite coal mines in former East Germany operating and Russian gas imports flowing.

The appearance of a newer energy regime doesn’t necessarily mean the disappearance of an older one. Here, oil production chugs along next to a major wind farm near Abeline, Texas. Video by Nicholas Pevzner and Stephanie Carlisle.


If adequately addressing the climate crisis is our goal, then what we’re interested in is not simply any energy transition, but a low-carbon energy transition, and we will need it to proceed more quickly and transform energy systems more radically than we have in any other energy transition in history. We can expect that such a transformation will be fiercely contested, as large established industries do not relinquish control without a fight. As geographers like Gavin Bridge have articulated, “it is, of course, precisely because of this potential to create new geographies of winners and losers that low-carbon transition faces opposition from those with a vested interest in the status quo.”

The emergence of new renewable energy technologies, along with their falling prices and growing power, has put increasing pressure on the incumbent fossil-fueled energy regime. Offshore wind turbines have kept increasing in size and efficiency, with GE’s gargantuan 260-meter tall, 12 megawatt Haliade-X turbines now undergoing testing and entering production. Photovoltaic solar energy with battery storage is about to become cheaper than coal power, or even than natural gas. But economic arguments can be easily undercut through politics and influence, which incumbent utilities and corporations have used in places like Ohio to avoid regulation, and then to subsidize coal-fired energy production that is no longer cost-effective.

What political mechanisms can be leveraged to accelerate the shift towards a low-carbon energy mix? As political scientists Hanna Breetz, Matto Middlenberger, and Leah Stokes have put it, “the politics of energy transitions are not one-dimensional conflicts between economic winners and losers. Instead, different political logics shape clean energy transitions at different stages of the experience curve. These political dynamics generate evolving pressures for policymaking and demand different levels or types of coalition-building among pro-transition groups” [1].  The politics of incumbency are powerful, are specific to the scale and maturity of each technology, and will test the organization and imagination of coalitions that arise to challenge the reigning fossil fuel industries.

The Santa Isabel wind farm near Salinas, Puerto Rico, which did not suffer damage after Hurricane Maria but remained largely curtailed months after the storm. Photo by Nicholas Pevzner.


Big Clean or Energy Democracy?

Infrastructure is always political, and energy transitions have always been contested, pitting established players against upstart technologies and new coalitions. This dynamic is further exacerbated when the question is not one of corporate competition, by a debate between radically different views of ownership, justice, and political power. Even if we see a wholesale switch to renewable energy, who will control this infrastructure and what form will it take?

Will the renewable energy future be a decentralized landscape of small energy cooperatives and individual owners? Or will the future privilege large-scale renewables — massive offshore wind farms, colossal concentrating solar “power towers,” and expansive fields of photovoltaic arrays — achieving decarbonization without fundamentally upending corporate control? Will the renewable energy future continue to be dominated by a greener and more diversified Chevron, ExxonMobil, and BP, the very corporations responsible for the bulk of historic carbon emissions? Will large utilities and energy companies continue to have unquestioned sway, or will they be made to compete on an even playing field with community-owned energy co-ops and nonprofit entities, or even be nationalized or municipalized and brought into public ownership, eliminating their profit motive for good?

These, of course, are questions of power: who has it, who gets to decide who has it, and what they do with it once they have it.

Solar recently installed on rental apartment buildings in Queens, New York City. This system consists of 552 panels across four buildings, saving the building owners about 70% on their energy bills. Photo by Nicholas Pevzner.


The concept of “Energy Democracy,” [2] meanwhile, posits that people and communities have a right to control their energy futures and that transformative and radical change will only happen through a shift from a profit-driven energy industry to democratic control and social ownership of energy resources, infrastructure, and options. As defined by Sean Sweeney, Kylie Benton-Connell, Lara Skinner in a 2015 report of the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy Initiative, “Energy democracy is about workers’ and communities’ ability to decide who owns and operates our energy systems, how energy is produced, and for what purpose” [3]. It stands in sharp contrast to both the business-as-usual case of control of energy systems by for-profit companies and marketized state-owned utilities, as well as a more liberal strategy of renewable energy by any means necessary, common to mainstream environmental groups and government agencies. An example of this approach is the dozen U.S. states that have developed community solar projects, where mid-sized solar generation projects enable community members own or lease shares — letting people profit directly from their renewable energy production and decentralizing decision-making over energy down to the community level.

For some, justice is largely about economics and who seeks to gain from the falling costs of renewable energy infrastructure. As the energy regime begins to shift to non-fossil sources of energy generation, what happens to the idled fossil fuel workers? How can the refashioning of economic systems be used as a tool to bring everyone along into a more equitable future? As an example, Germany has produced a policy designed to help coal miners idled by the eventual phase-out of lignite coal production [4].  In the United States programs to extend opportunities for retraining and tech education have been met with mixed feelings. Advocates of intersectional climate justice, including many arguing for the Green New Deal framework, have embraced the idea of a just transition for fossil fuel workers and other polluting industries, seeking to grow an expanded array of well-paying jobs in the renewable energy sector and across the new low-carbon economy.

The lens of environmental justice can be useful beyond simply considering the economics of profit and wage labor. As Benjamin Sovacool and Michael Dworkin, the authors of the book Global Energy Justice, write, “People are starting to recognize that the world of energy involves fundamental ethical questions” [5] Energy justice, therefore, “calls for a moral examination of energy systems,” [6] rooted in law and in sociology, and in understandings of social justice and social inequality.

Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure should cause us to expand our notion of historic and present-day injustices and the limited set of values by which most infrastructure projects are judged. The recent waves of indigenous-led protests against fossil pipeline infrastructure in North America [7] have highlighted the climate risks, broader ecological harms and neocolonial undertones of these projects and the madness of endless fossil fuel extraction. This opposition has grown into an opposition against all forms of fossil fuel infrastructure and “keep it in the ground” campaigns.

Renewable energy is not exempt from environmental impacts or social inequity. Similar resistance has grown around the world with indigenous communities pointing to the decimation of indigenous fishing grounds by hydroelectric dam construction across Brazil, or the appropriation of groundwater in the Atacama region of Chile by rapidly expanding lithium mines that supply raw materials for lithium-ion batteries. Indigenous communities are organizing to push back “against ‘green extravisim,’ the subordination of human rights and ecosystems to endless extraction in the name of ‘solving’ climate change” [8].  Decolonizing the power sector is critical if social justice is to be a serious part of the renewable energy transition. Several pieces in this issue offer both historical context and tools for decolonizing design practices and energy landscapes.

The concepts of energy democracy and energy justice help us see that energy transitions, are societal transitions, and decisions about energy infrastructure and the design of cities and manufacturing can either reinforce existing power dynamics or challenge them. A radical transformation of energy infrastructure and the economy will create unprecedented opportunities for an inclusive and participatory conversation about climate change and social justice.  It is exactly at such time that we should be asking, “who has the power to talk about infrastructure, and who gets left out?”

The Punta Lima wind farm in Puerto Rico, destroyed by Hurricane Maria.


The Essays

Puerto Rico has emerged as a central battleground in the showdown between the old centralized patterns of energy and emerging models of decentralized and communitarian energy production. During Hurricane Maria these players utterly failed the energy demands of the people, while afterwards redirecting the recovery assistance towards recovering their own political dominance and control. While the struggling and debt-ridden centralized utility pushes a transition to natural gas infrastructure, communities around the island are experimenting with solar-powered energy and cooperative ownership.

Appropriately, this issue dedicates several pieces to the energy situation in Puerto Rico, highlighting a few of the different strategies that communities are pursuing in search of energy democracy and energy justice. José Juan Terrasa-Soler and Daniela Lloveras Marxuach highlight the role of nonprofit Resilient Power Puerto Rico in providing solar energy for communities across the island in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, empowering communities with a combination of hardware and knowledge. Arturo Massol-Deyá describes the work of Casa Pueblo, a nonprofit community environmental center, in provisioning solar energy for critical services within the town of Ajduntas as an explicit rejection of the centralized utility’s energy strategy. Nicholas Pevzner offers examples of speculative landscape architecture design that can support a system of community-run energy production in Puerto Rico that can start to build community resilience and community power.

The oil- and gas-burning Aguirre Power Plant in Salinas, Puerto Rico. Photo by Nicholas Pevzner.


With power infrastructure, we typically picture the physical infrastructures of energy production. While the power plants, dams, turbines and smokestacks are the most visible elements of the power grid, the grid is a much more complicated entity — it has been called “the world’s largest machine and the twentieth century’s greatest engineering achievement” [9]. The energy grid consists of power stations large and small, millions of miles of wire, all connected together and managed in real-time from a handful of control centers, one power surge away from tripping up and going down. Political theorist Jane Bennett has called it “a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire, and wood—to name just some of the actants” [10].

One of the most critical and overlooked element of the grid, in the context of the renewable energy transition, is the system of transmission lines that move the power from the sites of generation to the centers of consumption [11]. In our current moment of climate-induced stress, overhead transmission lines have emerged as a major point of weakness in the grid, as well as a major barrier to scaling up renewable energy. Around the world, new high-voltage transmission lines are seen as necessary to support a build-out of renewable energy. While in the U.S., bold early nation-wide efforts to transform the transmission system have largely ended in failure, as documented in Russel Gold’s recent book SUPERPOWER [12], other countries, such as China, are rapidly modernizing their transmission systems, extending them across vast distances, and, as James Temple describes in his piece, doing so in a way that furthers the Chinese state’s power.

Photo by zorori47


Is big always bad? What is the role of design in this typically technocratic space of engineering and policy? Dutch designers Maartin Hager and Dirk Sijmons present a scaling up of the energy imaginary, expanding the scale and efficacy with which design research typically operates, with their speculative vision for a massive expansion of carbon-free energy production in the North Sea. Mike Smith, meanwhile, takes us to the Arctic, to Alaska and the extraction territory of the oil-rich North Slope and its contested values. What might an alternative vision to endless extraction in the ecologically sensitive landscape be, and how might it be used to reshape the boom-bust nature typical of fossil energy extraction? Victoria Khokhlova visits another part of the Arctic in her speculative design project which imagines the emancipatory potential of renewable energy for remote outposts in the far North.


Not all power infrastructure is physical, or even visible. Power can be territorial, and also immaterial. The construction of territory is an act of power projection, but systems of consumption depend on the soft buying power offered by credit and capital. In this issue, Micah Rutenberg traces the parallel immaterial systems of power that the Tennessee Valley Authority developed alongside its system of dams, both the political power that allowed it to operate across the vast landscape of its seven-state region, and the systems of finance and representation that let it grow a brand-new culture of electricity use. But large dam projects carry some heavy baggage, specifically in their histories of displacing local populations — and in North America the burden of dam construction have fallen especially hard on Native American communities. In our issue, Kees Lokman looks at the oft-ignored colonial legacies of some of these major pieces of physical energy infrastructure, such as those that helped structure the modern American Midwest through extensive networks of dams. And his essay calls attention to the urgent need to foreground the colonial agenda that continues to pervade contemporary energy infrastructure projects—specifically the pipeline projects that cut through indigenous land and perpetuate environmental injustice.

Then there are the pollution legacies of energy production — not just the extraction landscapes but also the byproducts of extraction. Lauren Delbridge highlights the risk that coal ash ponds present, continuing the toxic legacy of coal power, even as we transition away from coal energy.

But sometimes the waste landscapes of one industry can create the most compelling and benign inputs for a whole new infrastructure. Catherine De Almeida rethinks the definition of waste in Iceland, looking at how the waste landscape of geothermal energy were creatively repurposed to build the world-famous Blue Lagoon spa and resort.

Julie Marin, Charlotte Timmers, and Bruno De Meulder rethink another kind of waste, considering biomass energy as part of a closed-loop renewable energy system, expanded to include the public space of the city. Salvador Lindquist and Eric Minton also speculate on a new energy system that utilizes biomass waste, and reimagine the possibilities of transforming the old and abandoned power plants of Detroit into newly vibrant centers of community and sustainable industry.

The design community, of course, has its own issues with power, inclusivity, and equity. Janette Kim uses board games to expose the ways in which power is wielded during participatory public design processes, literally designing the politics of compromise, coalition-building and collaboration. If designers hope to participate in this conversation, we need to actively address our own problematic relationship to power.

In it Together game play at the Higher Ground Leadership Workforce, an after-school program based at the Madison Park Academy Elementary School. Image: Janette Kim/Urban Works Agency.


Energy transitions proceed unevenly across the landscape, radically transforming some places while bypassing others. The effects on communities are similarly uneven: energy development typically exacerbates variation in the degrees of access to economic opportunity, to decision-making, and exposure to environmental harm. New renewable energy technologies could similarly produce unequal effects. How can a radical reimagining of energy infrastructure create opportunities for an inclusive and participatory conversation about climate change and social justice? Who has the power to talk about infrastructure, and who gets left out?

We hope that this issue shines a light on some of these topics in the context of the urgent transformations that must happen across every level and sector of society during this critical, transitional decade.



This issue was made possible in part by the support of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. We would also like to express our heartfelt gratitude to all of the designers, activists and scholars who contributed work to this issue. Thank you to all of our friends and teachers in Puerto Rico who helped us better understand the intertwined topics of energy, power, and democracy on the island.


Nicholas Pevzner is a landscape architect, educator, theorist, and researcher working on the socio-spatial impact of energy infrastructure, including spatial planning for the renewable energy transition. He is a Senior Lecturer in landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and a Faculty Fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at UPenn, with a decade of combined experience of teaching and working in landscape architecture. Nicholas teaches graduate design studios, which have included regional- and territorial-scale landscape design questions focused on landscape infrastructure and energy infrastructure. Most recently, he led a studio investigating the post-disaster response in Puerto Rico, which focused on strategies for advancing recovery in the wake of Hurricane Maria while promoting local community power. Central to this studio was the design and planning of multipurpose community facilities featuring resilient energy generation and critical services. Nicholas is the co-editor of Scenario Journal.


Stephanie Carlisle is a designer and environmental researcher whose work focuses on the relationship between the built and natural environment. She is a Principal at KieranTimberlake Architects. In addition to design practice, she also teaches courses on Urban Ecology, Embodied Carbon and Climate Change at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. She is a co-editor of Scenario Journal.




[1] Hanna Breetz, Matto Mildenberger, and Leah Stokes. “The political logics of clean energy transitions.” Business and Politics 2018; 20(4): 492–522.

[2] Kacper Szulecki. “Conceptualizing energy democracy.” Environmental Politics 27, no. 1 (October 2017),

[3] Sean Sweeney, Kylie Benton-Connell, and Lara Skinner. “Power to the People. Toward democratic control of electricity generation.” Ithaca: The Worker Institute, Cornell University and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, 2015.

[4] Florence Shulz. “What’s in the German coal commission’s final report?” EURACTIV Germany, January 28, 2019.

[5] Benjamin K. Sovacool and Michael H. Dworkin. Global Energy Justice: Problems, Principles, and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

[6] Raya Salter, Carmen G. Gonzalez, and Elizabeth Ann Kronk Warner, eds. Energy Justice: US and International Perspectives. Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018.

[7] Nick Estes. “Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance.” London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2019

[8] Thea Riofrancos. “What Green Costs.” LOGIC Magazine 9, December 7, 2019.

[9] Gretchen Bakke. The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

[10] Jane Bennett. “Vibrant Matter.” Public Culture 17 (3), 2005.

[11] Today, the need for an expanded and modernized transmission system is well-recognized in virtually all well-respected national plans for deep decarbonization (ex: MacDonald, Clack et al., 2016; NERC’s 2019 Long-Term Reliability Assessment). A recent report from WIRES, a non-profit consortium of grid companies, lays out the need very clearly, stating that as more states, companies, and utilities commit to 100% carbon-free portfolios, “it is not possible to meet these goals without intraregional, and in some cases interregional, transmission connecting these resources to load.”

[12] Russel Gold. SUPERPOWER: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.



Nicholas Pevzner and Stephanie Carlisle, “Introduction: Power,” Scenario Journal 07: Power, December 2019.


Community Power As Provocation: Local Control For Resilience And Equity

Along with the incredible suffering brought by Hurricane María to Puerto Rico in September 2017, the catastrophe revealed a quiet reality as brutal as the disaster itself.  Hurricane María precipitated a total collapse of the islands’ energy grid, leaving Puerto Rico without power and an estimated eighty percent of the transmission and distribution lines damaged. Communications systems went silent, gas and water became scarce, agriculture was wiped out, and urban life was made very difficult.  As emergency generators roared in well-to-do neighborhoods, the poor mountainous communities suffered innumerable losses due to the lack of access to refrigerated medicines or dialysis treatments.  Most of the more than 3,000 deaths during the disaster were attributable to the lack of access to energy.

Blue tarps as temporary roofs in the Caño Martin Peña neighborhood 3 weeks after hurricane Maria. Photo by Pablo Marvel


As energy began to be restored, the realities of the power dynamic behind the existing system became exposed.  It took more than four months to restore power to seventy percent of consumers, leaving the last thirty percent — most of whom belong to underserved communities — facing the longest restoration times. Access to energy became the most significant impediment towards a healthy recovery and a sustainable future, and we were inevitably confronted with a very complex question: How can we design a radically new energy landscape that adapts to the existing and future socio-cultural and climatic conditions of our islands?  Addressing this challenge requires designing for a transition.

The unequal and undemocratic access to energy in Puerto Rico has been a long-standing obstacle in the road towards equity and sustainability. Before María, ninety-eight percent of the energy consumed came from oil, the most expensive fossil fuel. The generation of this energy was concentrated in the south of the island, while most of the consumption came from the metropolitan north. Housing infrastructure is sprawled across the island´s landscape, making the traditional distribution of energy unfit for its context. With an abundance of solar and wind energy, how did Puerto Rico end up in this situation? From the very beginning, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was established with one mission: to provide electricity at the least cost possible, implemented through a hierarchical, centralized planning process. While PREPA might have addressed the situation when it was established, the institution has not been able to adapt to changing conditions and demands. The centralized way of running the electrical system was no longer in tune with what local Puerto Rican communities needed and the way the housing infrastructure had developed. Emphasis was never placed on conservation and efficiency, nor did we embrace our most abundant local energy resource, the sun.

Resilient Power Puerto Rico team discussing the energy toolkit. Photo by RPPR


Resilient Power Puerto Rico team discussing various solar prototypes. Photo by Scott Lahan


In response to the collapse of the existing system, Resilient Power Puerto Rico (RPPR) was launched with the immediate goal of bringing power to the most impacted communities. Our goal was to create a de-centralized and participatory energy landscape where underserved communities were placed at the forefront of the recovery effort and where our local resources were the primary asset of our infrastructure investment.

Sunlight is extensively abundant and consistent in Puerto Rico, more than any other renewable source of energy and our mostly flat concrete roofs are underutilized, with an estimate that fifty percent of the roof area is capable of holding one hundred percent of the total island solar energy generation needs. Using these local resources, we began providing technical and financial resources in the form of design services and direct donations, for the installation of photovoltaic systems to community centers across the islands. We targeted common spaces, to create distributed energy generation and storage systems that serve a wide population and can act as recovery hubs in the face of climate disasters. But, bringing new technology to communities is not enough to transform the energy landscape. RPPR also aims to increase the capacity of communities to assess and address their critical needs; increase their access to knowledge, tools, and resources for sustainable and equitable community development; and foster the continuity of critical built and social infrastructure systems.

Solar Installation at El Coqui Solar Community, Salinas. Photo by Scott Lahan


Our first attempt at tackling these challenges was a set of installations in El Caño Martín Peña, an important but historically marginalized conglomeration of eight communities in San Juan. El Caño is one of the densest sectors in the metropolitan area. With a population of over 26,000 people, it is located on historically filled-in wetlands. This area has been informally developed over generations and has been severely underserved by governments. El Caño is affected by recurrent floods and poor infrastructure, among many other urban design and social problems.

RPPR helped install four solar hubs within this urban neighborhood at existing active community centers. Each of the systems installed generates approximately 5 kW of energy, provides around 20 kWhr of energy storage, and costs $25,000. The solar hubs are all within a 10-minute walk of each other, forming a continuous, resilient energy corridor within the community. The energized community centers provide a long list of services to more people in an efficient manner, including illuminated and ventilated spaces where community organizing and recovery took place after the hurricanes. Although electricity is now restored, the solar hubs continue to support resilience and lower the operational costs of these community centers, while giving a sense of local control over energy resources.

Our First Solar Hub in El Caño Martin Peña: Buena Vista Community Center. Photo by Pablo Marvel


Community Members filling out FEMA forms at the Buena Vista Community Center. Photo by RPPR


Afterschool program in the Caño Martin Peña Buena Vista Community Center. Photo by Scott Lahan


Since our first installations in El Caño, we have helped develop over thrity-fivesolar hubs across Puerto Rico. By providing a consistent and reliable source of electricity under all conditions, photovoltaic systems help community centers, service providers in towns, and urban dwellers to have energy even after a climate disaster. A sustainable energy landscape should stem from a shared vision of the future where all institutions and communities alike are not just passive consumers but are actively engaged in a participatory system.

Solar Installation at ATMAR (Centero Educativo Amigos de las Tortugas Marinas, Maunabo). Photo by Scott Lahan


Along with our solar installations, we provided communities and individuals access to information through an open-source toolkit that assesses community vulnerabilities from exposure to risks, sensitivity to natural hazards, and their level of adaptive capacity.

The Puerto Rico Energy Toolkit, an Open Source comprehensive geo-spatial database


Community Toolkit Workshops at the Fideicomiso de Conservación e Historia in Vieques. Photo by Anexis Morales


Profound changes in Puerto Rico’s energy landscape are happening right now, and local communities have never been so aware and active about their energy future. Giving people a role in the creation of new energy systems and sharing a sense of pride in the sustainability and independence of this energy landscape is paramount to a transition to resilience and equity.  Leaving behind a centralized, hierarchical, fossil-fuel-dependent electrical system towards community control of their energy resources is a revolution. By fostering the development of renewable energy infrastructures capable of supporting a community´s energy needs, we increase the local control of energy resources while providing continued access to the energy needed to satisfy critical loads. By designing context-based, locally-controlled energy systems we are creating communities across the islands that can autonomously adapt and thrive despite climatic challenges, helping to build an equitable Puerto Rican society while joining the global movement towards a sustainable world.

Solar Hub at El Coqui Solar Community, Salinas. Photo by Scott Lahan


Solar Barbershop in the town of AdjuntasDonation of Solar equipment to Casa Pueblo. Photo by Monica Felix


Solar Hub at the Fideicomiso de Conservación e Historia in Vieques. Photo by Anexis Morales


José Juan Terrasa-Soler, ASLA, is a registered landscape architect and environmental scientist, with over 20 years of experience in environment, development, planning, and design.  He has held leadership positions in corporate, governmental, and nonprofit organizations, and is currently Director at Marvel Architects, San Juan.  José Juan received advanced degrees in Ecology, Environmental Studies, and Landscape Architecture from Michigan, Yale, and Harvard, respectively.  He is a founding faculty member of the MLA degree program at Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, and Secretary of the Board of Directors of Resilient Power Puerto Rico, a nonprofit dedicated to resilience across Puerto Rico. His professional practice, research, writing, and teaching focus on the intersection of ecology and design, including green infrastructure, landscape resilience, and sustainable urban design.


Daniela Lloveras-Marxuach holds a double bachelor’s in psychology and fine arts from The New School University in NYC and a Masters in Cognitive Science and Language from Universitat de Barcelona. She joined Resilient Power Puerto Rico in 2018 as a designer, managing all visual communication. Her major contribution to RPPR is the PR Energy Toolkit, a tool that helps individuals analyze their communities’ vulnerabilities, connect with other likeminded organizations interested in transitioning to renewable energy, and a directory that provides information of the renewable energy stakeholders across the Caribbean. Committed to sustainability and social causes Daniela has volunteered at various non-profits, such as Para La Naturaleza, a conservation trust, Espacio A, democratic school, Alliance for Agriculture, a farmer’s alliance and El Departamento de la Comida, an agroecological food hub.



José Juan Terrasa-Soler and Daniela Lloveras-Marxuach, “Community Power as Provocation: Local Control for Resilience and Equity,” Scenario Journal 07: Power, December 2019,


Our Energy For Our Country

We live in a Country, Puerto Rico, that for one hundred and twenty years has submitted to the United States’ political, economic, and military power. Now, we face the re-invasion of the island by a new structure of economic control and dominance, that seeks not to support or empower Puerto Ricans, but to dictate how our island is governed. The Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) for Puerto Rico landed on the island under direct orders of the US Congress in 2016, in the same way that US military forces invaded Puerto Rico in 1898, but this time under the pretense of the government-debt crisis. In both instances, we were already a WE, with a common language and unique culture, cognizant of a geographical identity around the motherland—neither Spain nor the US—but rather the Mother Island Puerto Rico.

Evidently, the US Congress has dictatorial power over Puerto Rico, a power that allows it to impose anything from the death penalty to the eradication of the traditional cockfights, however undesirable they might be. These days, its dictatorial power shapes our lives through the FOMB, which has imposed of a series of brutal austerity measures and cuts to public programs. In education alone, hundreds of public schools have been closed in the last 3 years, while the University of Puerto Rico is going through a $389 million budget cut, with tuition costs that have doubled, and which might triple before 2023. In this Island Nation, we live under the illusion of democracy and self-governance, while the FOMB is in charge of determining and certifying the Country’s budget and deciding which of the laws passed by our legislature are valid, effectively imposing its own public policy. This is the colony unmasked. There is indeed a local structure to administer the colony, but the political power does not lie with its people. In continuing to state that we live in a democracy, which we are not, we affirm the problem instead of denouncing it. We have a democratic culture and aspirations, no doubt. We cannot, however, exercise democracy under a colonial political relationship, conducting “clean” elections for representatives who then oversee colonial administrative functions.

Aguirre Power Plant

The old oil-and-gas-fueled Aguirre Power Plant Complex on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, a symbol of the old and fragile centralized energy grid, which failed spectacularly during Hurricane Maria. Photo by Nicholas Pevzner


This is a political system that perpetuates dependency and domination through poverty. This model is maintained through institutional dependency on political parties and politicians who believe they must think and decide on our behalf, a kind of social placebo for inaction. Three visions dominate the conversation regarding the central political problem of governance. Some demand independence, others seek an improved colony, while a third sector has been sold a Boricua statehood, in Spanish and with an autonomous Olympic Committee. We remain stuck on this central matter, making it nearly impossible to find a solution to the colonial conflict tempered to our current crises. Our electoral-political structure has left us with a shallow and corrupt democracy, unable to advance a national vision for fair and sustainable development. At a time like this, it seems that Puerto Rico is crumbling from the inside. In reality, it is being torn down from the outside. What to do? Where to go from here?

With higher temperatures leading to more moisture in storms, flooding in Adjuntas lasted for days after Maria. Photo by Arturo Massol-Deyá


Our recent history proves, with total clarity, that the true power for transformation emanates from the people of Puerto Rico. The response to Hurricane María and the recent people’s uprising of the Summer of 2019, laid bare the contrasts between traditional political power and social power. When the government failed in its response to Hurricane Maria, unable to restore electric power, distribute fuel, water, or any of the most basic social services, turning a natural event into a human disaster, communities stepped in — giving master classes on grassroots response, support, coordination, and allocation of external resources. People came together to open roads, distribute water, food, medication, solar lamps and tarps, and implement a permanent transformation by energizing critical services with solar-powered systems.

One of the hubs for such community-based action has been Casa Pueblo, a community empowerment organization based in Adjuntas that was born out of protests against mining exploitation on the Island’s rural zones. Casa Pueblo is self-financed through volunteer work, support networks, and the profits from processing and distributing Madre Isla Coffee, thus breaking the cycle of economic dependency. Our work is based on mutual respect of ideological differences and inspired by our collective needs.

Casa Pueblo distributed solar lamps in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Photo by Marisol Plard [right]; Sylvia Martínez [left]


Generations of Resistance

When the power system failed after Hurricane Maria, Casa Pueblo’s lights stayed on, thanks to our photovoltaic system. It served as an energy oasis for Adjuntas. But how it ended up there is the result of multiple fights against external extractive threats—against mining, and then against the centralized oil- and gas-powered energy regime.

It took the efforts of several generations to prevent open-pit mining of copper, gold and silver in the mountains around Adjuntas, and later to ensure that these high-value watersheds and ecosystems received protection under a pioneering community-led forest management program, called Bosque del Pueblo, which provided a new model for both the Country and the Caribbean. The shift, from protest to a proposal that assumes responsibilities, placed natural resources in the hands of communities to promote a development model centered on people’s wellbeing, whether they were local residents or those from distant communities who depend on the zone’s ecosystem services.

First distribution of solar lamps in Casa Pueblo. Instead of long lines, people entered the premises to drink coffee, receive a brief explanation of how the lamps operate and their relationship with the sun while they were distributed in an orderly manner respecting the dignity of people in need. Photo by Fernando Samalot


Community management of Bosque del Pueblo led us to realize that an energy model based entirely on oil represented our greatest threat to the conservation of biodiversity. In 1999, three years after assuming these responsibilities, we installed a photovoltaic system in our headquarters, aiming to break our dependence on fossil fuels.  Our conservation standpoint was strengthened through practice by promoting an alternative path to the centralized oil-based energy generation model, which has proven ineffective at equitably serving Puerto Ricans. Over time, natural gas and coal were added to the mix, but the old patterns remain the same, at a high cost for our economy.

Today, the environmental contradictions of this fossil fuel-based system are insurmountable and its vulnerability to natural disasters unquestionable. Its configuration is obsolete and costly, and it represents our primary source of greenhouse gas emissions. For islands in the Caribbean, such as Puerto Rico, the challenges posed by climate change, and the tropical storms, hurricanes, sea level rise, storm surge and altered weather patterns that it causes are greater than in the US. These climate threats are not limited to our distant future, but have materialized with significant impact over 18 consecutive months of drought and potable water rationing (2014-2015), two major hurricanes in 2017 (Irma and Maria), and the Summer of 2019 spent on the threshold of a new severe drought while Hurricane Dorian, gathering strength, passed close by before catastrophically devastating the Bahamas.

Casa Pueblo has operated its headquarters since 1999 with solar energy. There, people were able to recharge their personal equipment, operate respiratory therapy machines and receive support such as solar lamps, health clinics, access to satellite telephony, food, personal hygiene products, water filters, among many others. Photo by José Almodóvar


Local Power

During recovery from hurricanes Irma and Maria, both public and private services collapsed. Following María, it took four months to restore power for 70% of consumers in Puerto Rico. Six more months would pass before energy was restored for the remaining 30%. Among that 30% were the most geographically remote communities, those with the least access to traditional essential service provision. Casa Pueblo’s photovoltaic system, modernized over time to provide 100% of our energy needs, served as an energy oasis for Adjuntas, one of these geographically remote and underserved communities. Our energy independence laid the foundation to coordinate and provide direct and immediate assistance to communities. Moreover, we sought to fully transform the Municipality’s energy landscape through solarization of critical facilities providing food security, health and communication services, among others.

As a result of these efforts, many facilities across Adjuntas now operate with their own locally produced energy, guaranteeing the first line of access to food in small supermarkets and family-owned businesses. In the most remote areas, energy independence has empowered vulnerable residents to ensure continuity of medical treatments with solar-powered refrigerators and photovoltaic systems to run dialysis and respiratory therapy equipment. If we add the financial savings of our independence from the centralized power grid, to the gains from local control of resources and continuity of services, the possibility of reinvestment, growth and autonomous development becomes available to communities. Energy independence has created an opportunity to live better and be better prepared for the challenges of climate change.

Installations made in homes represents now many Casa Pueblo’s thus changing the energy landscape of the municipality. Photo by Julio Rosario


Today, more than ever, it is apparent that we cannot rely on government. Community-led development emerges as an alternative path for change based on direct participation of citizens. Our reality is that we do not have the political or military power to decide for ourselves. Economic power, some. But what we have in abundance is social power. It is through community-led development that we can activate this power to address our needs through a form of self-determination.  We may not be able to self-determine at the geographical scale of the Country, but it is possible at the community scale.

It was these social relationships that filled the vacuum left by a dysfunctional government throughout the post-Maria recovery and reconstruction efforts. It was that same power that self-organized to demand our corrupt ruler’s departure, when after 14 days of intense and creative protests, the uprising of the Summer of 2019, the people dethroned then-governor Ricardo Rosselló. This milestone marks a significant qualitative leap on how the power of people can transform political structures. Perhaps, then, we should start not by thinking about that failed and systemically corrupt political system as the motor for change. Instead, we should seek to strengthen our horizontal ties to survive as a nation and build our own alternative path.

Casa Pueblo’s radio station WOQI 1020 AM was used directly by the community to send messages to their families and to coordinate delivery of aid to isolated areas. Photo by Sylvia Martínez [left]; People formed lines to use Casa Pueblo’s satellite phone in the days after the hurricane. Photo by Fernando Samalot [right]


In practice, from the individual to communities and municipalities, we can drive the Country’s transformation towards self-determination in a critical aspect of our economic development.  The democratization of energy as a social transformation strategy provides a unique opportunity to break the cycle of dependence. Those who have self-appropriated political and economic power in the Country set environmental goals that they have no intention of fulfilling, all with the intention of halting the rapid integration of clean and renewable energy sources. In this way, they are perpetuating the fossil-fueled model. They have adopted a fashionable “green” discourse, but in practice they are mortgaging our future through gasification that is as unnecessary as it is anachronic. It is nothing other than more energetic colonialism.

The acquisition of materials and the installation of solar rooftops was an arduous and complicated task after the storm. Photo by Julio Rosario


Energy Insurrection

The call, then, is for energy insurrection. It has come from Adjuntas, from Toro Negro, Humacao, and other communities throughout the Country in a bottom-up process. In our case, we hope to redefine PREPA, the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority, as our alternate energy source, because our primary source is the sun. We also have wind, water and plenty of biomass available. It is neither about saving nor dooming PREPA. No, they have a fundamental role in our transformation if they choose to step up to the challenge. It is about the Country redefining PREPA, as opposed to it defining us. When instead of merely distributing energy to homes, PREPA focuses on a business and social role as mediator to ensure that everyone, in homes and businesses, farms and factories, can generate their own energy instead of consuming energy generated elsewhere, we will have a power authority with a mandate worthy of taking us forward in the 21st Century. We demand a power authority capable of driving true energetic democracy, so that all of the people and not just a few can benefit from its generation.

Regarding Puerto Rico’s decolonization: why not aim for energy independence? As we rebuild our energy system, let us do so based on a vision of our future. Let us speak and act with clarity, shouting no to a fossil-fuel-based past that we must leave behind. We are in the midst of this battle. Now is the time for us to drive an energy insurrection for a transition to clean and renewable sources.

Decolonization and building spaces for self-determination is an urgent need. We were raised on a political narrative that told us that we were weak because we are small, that we lack the natural resources to fuel a modern economy, that we are incapable of self-determination. Who needs oil, gas, or coal when we can embrace the renewable natural resources of the future? We have within our reach enough sun, wind, and water to power the Island and much more.

Consensus on two new matters has emerged: the need to decolonize Puerto Rico and the need for a self-reliant and democratic energy system. A system in which Puerto Ricans control our energy resources will provide a viable path towards self-decolonization. This transformative step will offer our Country and its people better and greater tools to confront and define the political future we deserve.

Let us not wait to be decolonized—freedoms are built collectively from within.

Barrio Guilarte resident José ‘Pepe’ Borrero standing in front of a solar panel powering energy-efficient refrigerators, which were installed in 54 homes after Maria, located in all neighborhoods of the municipality. In an economy that imports 85% of its food, refrigeration is essential to address the issue of food security. Many prediabetic and prehypertensive people were exposed to junk food for a long time, explaining how renal failures tripled shortly after the storm. With the installation of these solar refrigerators, in addition to energy savings, these families are now better prepared. Photo by Rhett Lee García


Arturo A. Massol-Deyá is from the mountainous area of Puerto Rico in the municipality of Adjuntas where his parents founded the community-based organization Casa Pueblo. Massol-Deyá grew up in this project and chairs its Board of Directors since 2007. A graduate of the public school system (1986) and the University of Puerto Rico (1990), he obtained his doctoral degree from the Center for Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University in 1994. Since then he has been a faculty member at the Department of Biology of the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez Campus where he established the Tropical Microbial Ecology Lab. He has been a mentor to numerous students and a principal investigator of projects on microbial ecology with emphasis on biological processes aimed at restoring contaminated environments. He is a 2019 Roddenberry Fellow.



I gratefully thank Alejandra Castrodad-Rodríguez for her editorial contribution.



Arturo A. Massol-Deyá, “Our Energy for Our Country,” Scenario Journal 07: Power, December 2019,

Speculative Designs For Energy Democracy

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria dealt a devastating blow to Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, landscapes, communities, and economy. The blackout following the hurricane was the longest in U.S. history, and the second-largest blackout in world history [1]. Most of the deaths following Maria were not a direct result of the hurricane’s winds or waves, but of the subsequent loss of power.

The blackout exposed the interconnectedness of critical infrastructures — reminding us that so many of the services that we rely on every day are directly tied to a continuous supply of electricity. Water pumps and filters cannot operate without power; neither can dialysis machines or refrigerators for cooling insulin; ATMs cannot distribute cash, and credit card readers can’t process transactions. Long after the winds died down, the power outage in Puerto Rico led to drinking water shortages, a complete communications breakdown, a housing crisis, a spike in suicides and violent crime, and a public health emergency. Hospitals initially relied on generators, but ran out of diesel to power them, leaving patients without vital life support equipment or light for surgeries. Eventually, we would learn that more than 2,975 people lost their lives.

Hurricane Maria, 19 September 2017. Photo by Antti Lipponen / CC BY


As the government struggled to restore electricity and replace damaged infrastructure, the hurricane also exposed the tight connection between power and politics on the island. The communities most impacted were the most remote, with the highest rates of poverty, and the fewest connections to decision-making. As Puerto Rico’s island-wide utility — the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA — struggled to restore power amid scandal, political intrigue, and mismanagement, it did not prioritize re-connecting hard-to-reach mountain communities and poor informal settlements. Some households remained without power for a full 11 months after the storm. Some communities, such as the towns of San Sabastián and Coamo, got tired of waiting for PREPA and did the electrical work themselves.

On the east side of the island, directly in the path of Hurricane Maria, the fossil-fueled power plants went down, but large-scale wind and solar farms also sustained heavy damage. Only the small hydroelectric Rio Blanco plant stayed on. Image by Sarah Gaines


Hurricane Maria exposed and exacerbated long-standing structural weaknesses — in the economy, governance, and physical energy infrastructure of the island. PREPA’s grid had been designed with large centralized power plants and long-distance transmission lines, transmitting the bulk of electricity over the rugged central mountains —a highly brittle system — and the crucial transmission line rights-of-way were both badly overgrown and long overdue for upgrades. PREPA — nine billion dollars in debt, undergoing bankruptcy, and riddled with corruption — had racked up years of deferred maintenance on critical parts of the energy system, including the transmission grid.

In this way, the breakdown of the power grid began long before the hurricane. Structural dysfunction continued through the recovery effort. Much of the recovery work was shaped by a federal U.S. law known as the Stafford Act that only allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to rebuild a system to the state it was in prior to destruction. While this law originally sought to avoid corruption and misuse of federal funds, it completely undermines any ability to build back smarter or better. During the recovery few of the common-sense improvements to the energy system were even attempted. As PREPA’s CEO admitted one year after the hurricane, after $3.2 billion in repairs, “It’s weaker today than before.”

Utility rights-of-way have long been inadequately maintained [top]. Instead, a proposed upgrading of powerlines reconceptualizes them as a part of a bundled infrastructure corridor, with a resilient evacuation road and tourism trail [bottom]. Image by Sarah Gaines


Decentralized Community Power

In this context a landscape architecture studio, taught by the author at the University of Pennsylvania in Fall 2019, set out to learn from the failures and frustrations on the island, and envision possibilities for improving resilience to future disasters. The studio travelled to Puerto Rico, visited several sites that were especially hard-hit by the blackout, and met with community leaders, who explained their experiences and their ongoing challenges. The studio asked students to imagine what it would mean to rethink long-term recovery based not on the system as it existed before the storm, but on how it might be if it were to be based on ideas of community autonomy and community power.

Students learning from community leaders, first responders, and local architects and resiliency experts during the studio’s visit to Puerto Rico. Photos by Nicholas Pevzner


If the existing energy system is premised on an inherently brittle model, structurally unable to meet the needs of the most vulnerable communities, then one alternative, as Marcel Castro Sitiriche, a professor of electrical engineering from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez has suggested, is “radical power decentralization, starting at the household level.” What would this look like? Can the island afford such radical transformation? His research lays out a tangible proposal. At an estimated cost of $1.4 billion, a small sliver of the $20 billion in recovery money promised to Puerto Rico,  a robust system of 200,000 solar-powered houses backed up with batteries could be built to serve the most vulnerable households on the island— so that, in his words, “if your community spends seven months without power, you don’t have to worry about it, because we [will] at least have something, at least to survive” [2].

Community power is about more than electricity. Urban sociologist Eric Klinenberg, in his autopsy of the 1995 Chicago heat wave, found that communities with stronger social ties had lower mortality and were better able to weather the stresses that tend to kill the most vulnerable [3]. And in his subsequent book Palaces for the People, Klinenberg credits social infrastructure and civic institutions such as libraries and parks with strengthening communities’ social networks and making populations less vulnerable to dangerous external stresses [4].

The studio also drew on the concept of energy democracy — the idea that communities have a right to control their own energy generation and be included in decision-making about their energy. All infrastructure is political, and in Puerto Rico the politics around energy infrastructure cuts straight to the question of who gets to make these decisions. Whereas Puerto Rico’s legislature passed a bill requiring a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) of 100% renewable energy by 2050 (and 40% by 2025), the bankrupt utility PREPA is planning to grow the share of energy generation from natural gas to 35% as part of its bankruptcy transition plan.

Advocates of U.S. fossil fuel exports like U.S. House Natural Resources Committee chairman Rob Bishop has expressed a desire to see Puerto Rico become “the energy hub of the entire Caribbean,” reliant on imported natural gas. Pushing back, Arturo Massol-Deyá, the director of the environmental non-profit Casa Pueblo, has been blunt about the agenda he sees behind such plans: “to perpetuate Puerto Rico’ colonial status quo.” His response? “Generating energy with the sun, water, wind, and biomass through micronetworks, hybrid systems, and other configurations at the point of consumption.” “Energy self-sufficiency,” Massol-Deyá says, “could be our first step toward decolonization” [5]. In the studio, we were interested in systems that are emancipatory and democratic, not those that defend the agenda of profiteering energy companies or politicians that see Puerto Rico as a neo-colonial captive market.

Groups of students testing ideas for resilient urban development and decentralized community power, in a fast-paced design charrette held at Universidad Politecnica de Puerto Rico. Photo by Nicholas Pevzner


New Anchors for Community Resilience

 In the same way that Casa Pueblo’s headquarters served as an energy oasis for the town of Adjuntas during Hurricane Maria, the studio imagined a radically decentralized energy system organized around locally owned and operated community facilities, which we termed “community hubs.” Other Puerto Rican organizations such as Resilient Power Puerto Rico have been setting up similar solar-powered hubs across the island in the aftermath of Maria, and the studio drew inspiration from these successful efforts. We saw such community-based energy hubs as having a radical potential to reframe the spatial distribution of resources, community preparedness, and political control.

The studio pushed back on the idea of a single-function “resilience center,” instead imagining how spaces that bring the community together and strengthen social ties during daily life, could also provide emergency services during disasters. These social spaces were designed to quickly switch modes during extreme events: to act as rallying points for evacuation, for medical services, for critical infrastructural services like potable water, electricity, communication, and emergency cooling — and to be able to host the long recovery process after a disaster, like support with filling out the stacks of paperwork of FEMA forms and insurance claims, which for many people can be a challenge without technical assistance and reliable internet.

In the window of opportunity afforded by post-disaster recovery, and working with local partners who understood the challenges of our communities of concern, the studio looked for adequate sites for these kinds of multi-purpose community hubs, where we could test the principles of community resilience and community power.

Community hubs support communities during both daily life and emergency events: providing a range of services such as local markets, cultural events, gardens, temporary shelter, and emergency services. Image by Zhiyu Wei


While each of the studio’s proposed projects imagined its own unique assemblage of components, fine-tuned to the constraints and demands of its site, all of the network of community hubs as a network of as integrated parts, and as components that add up to build local community self-sufficiency and local community power. Across the studio, when we imagined what strong nodes in the energy network would look like, we concluded that they should be reinforced through public space, housing, higher density, and then of course also have all the emergency response components, and all the critical needs of a reliable water and food supply. They needed to have enough room in the urban fabric to support shelter, staging, and evacuation, but also enough legibility to support community gathering and the basics of collective daily life.




Typically, infrastructure and public spaces are thought of as two separate things, and infrastructure is invisible to most people until it breaks down. Studio projects instead imagined community hubs as facilities that served both infrastructural and public space functions. Image by Zhiyu Wei


Speculative Designs for Community Power

The first project, by Sarah Gaines, is located in the tiny coastal town of Húcares on the east coast of Puerto Rico. The project imagines a multifunctional community hub for both emergency response and community identity. Positioned to take advantage of a vacant parcel in the middle of the town, this project proposes a suite of public facilities, running from a new elevated and reinforced public dock at the water’s edge, up to a public plaza and resilient community hub perched on the high ground, with its own energy production. The community hub features school facilities and a sports hall for daily use, and faces out onto a proposed new plaza, which is a traditional public space typology characteristic of old Spanish cities that Húcares currently does not have. The public plaza connects to a new resilient evacuation road up on the high ground, along with public services such as a proposed new shuttle bus terminal and new market.

The community hub knits together community life, tourism, and critical infrastructure between the road and the water’s edge. Image by Sarah Gaines


A proposed central plaza and community hub for the town of Húcares, featuring a hardened public dock with shops and restaurants, a bus terminal, and community programming. Images by Sarah Gaines


During emergency events, the resilience hub transitions into a communication, energy, and cooling center, while the reinforced public dock can accept emergency supplies by air or water. By placing this flexible staging ground in the heart of town, instead of at the sports stadium on the periphery, this location can become both a central hub for daily life, and an obvious go-to point during emergencies.


The Playita neighborhood in San Juan: an informal self-constructed neighborhood in the heart of the capital city. Photos by Nicholas Pevzner


Energy insecurity and social vulnerability need not be remote to be acute: right in the capital city of San Juan is a desperately poor and vulnerable neighborhood on the San Jose Lagoon called Playita, informally built over multiple generations on ground that used to be marshland, subject to severe flooding even during normal rainstorms. It was hit extremely hard during Hurricane Maria, with flooding of over 4 feet. Located only about a dozen blocks from wealthy oceanfront enclaves like Ocean Park, Playita is underserved on many fronts. Community members do not own the land, and the city does not normally invest in this neighborhood, or even notice it.

Potential sites for community hubs in Playita, based on clusters of vacant parcels on higher ground. Image by Prince Langley


Prince Langley’s proposal for Playita considers how recovery funding might be pooled and redirected to truly secure the housing needs of community members. Focusing the investment on acquiring land in areas of clustered vacancy, and then spending on structural piles and platforms that can host offsite-fabricated housing units, this project speculates on how coastal retreat could actually be implemented.

Poor informal communities such as Playita today don’t own the land their houses are built on, often lack the resources to rebuild after disaster or enter the formal housing market, and lack the ability to access recovery funding such as Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The project operates acupuncturally and opportunistically on vacant parcels and available spaces, avoiding the displacement that accompanies larger, less flexible projects — and potentially growing over time as more parcels become available.


Elevated community clusters provide protection against flooding. Recovery funding can be pooled towards the construction of public platforms elevated on sturdy piles; residential modules and community facilities can then take advantage of the elevated ground plane. Images by Prince Langley


The elevated platforms hark back to a more traditional way of living on marshy ground, such as old wooden buildings in San Juan that were built on stilts. The proposed elevated clusters themselves take on infrastructural functions, becoming both community spaces and infrastructural bases, which can be supplied with provisions by boat or helicopter during an emergency, can generate energy, store water, etc. — while the ground-plane serves as a gathering space that can host community activities during normal, non-emergency times.

The platforms are proposed to be community-owned, taking advantage of CDBG-DR post-disaster HUD funding, while individuals could buy their own modules, delivered pre-assembled, or self-construct their own elevated living quarters on top of the collective platform. The space below, meanwhile, would remain public, both deriving its vitality and supporting the life of the street during calm weather with the community functions located above.

The spaces below the proposed community clusters can host public activities during dry weather, reinforcing the life of the street. Housing and community infrastructure are elevated to withstand flooding risk. Images by Prince Langley


Another project, by Zhiyu Wei, imagined a network of multipurpose infrastructural community facilities that would physically protect the neighborhood against inundation. Here the proposed community center consists of a learning center, gym, and a library next to a central plaza and local market. At the same time, it integrates decentralized infrastructure processes, like local power generation from anaerobic digestion and solar energy, along with water filtration, water storage tanks, ice production and storage, emergency supplies storage, and a cooling center, all visible to the community.

 A proposed multifunctional community hub, with both the infrastructural and the public space functions articulated. Such hubs would serve the social and infrastructural functions of the community’s daily life, but also stand ready to provide emergency functions in case of a grid-wide power outage. Image by Zhiyu Wei


Cooperative Community Power

Finally, the studio waded into ideas of how the idea of community land trusts and cooperatives could be extended to infrastructure. Across San Juan, informal neighborhoods such as Caño Martín Peña have used the political mechanism of community land trusts in order to gain cooperative control for lands to which they have no formal deeds.  This project extends this idea of communal ownership and applies it to infrastructure, and to the funding mechanisms that accompany these critical investments.

Conventionally, infrastructure is paid for by government, but in vulnerable and disempowered communities like Playita, this has predictably resulted in infrastructure that doesn’t get maintained or upgraded. In Zhiyu Wei’s proposal, government funding along with external investment, goes to support community infrastructure cooperatives, which in turn procure the kinds of infrastructure that they will be able to maintain, and which will make the greatest impact in the community. The infrastructure, in turn, supports economic development through tourism and local small businesses, in a space that has a public-facing urban design expression, where locals and tourists can mix freely.

Proposal for a cooperatively-owned community infrastructure framework, showing how Community Infrastructure Cooperatives could be set up along similar lines to the community land trusts that exist in other communities today. Image by Zhiyu Wei


These projects offer a glimpse of what a community-centered approach to resilience looks like. In reality, of course, such projects must be informed by the experiences, needs, expectations, and imaginations of communities across Puerto Rico.  The studio projects seek to open up a space for such a conversation.

Unlike disaster response, which needs to act quickly and solve urgent problems pragmatically, the window of long-term disaster recovery moves more slowly — closer to the admittedly slow speed of design. The promise and potential of design is to re-think established orthodoxies and imagine alternative possibilities that can be elegantly multi-purpose and open to dynamic change. Emergency infrastructure needs to be flexible, multi-functional, participatory and grounded in community needs and identity. The response to the devastation of Hurricane Maria should not be a one-size-fits-all approach that rebuilds the outdated and hyper-centralized energy system.

As Puerto Rican politics continues to be roiled by both the federal United States’ and the Puerto Rican government’s inept and sluggish response to communities’ demands for energy democracy and energy justice, now is the time to rethink the design of recovery plans and make sure that communities are able to build back in a way that preserves and in fact advances community power.



Studio Participants: Shanshan Bai, Sarah Gaines, Prince Langley, Shannon Rafferty, Zhiyu Wei, Wenqian Wen, Mengen Xu, Shuyao Zhang. Initial group research for this studio was done in collaboration and partnership with a concurrent studio in the University of Pennsylvania Department of City and Regional Planning, taught by David Gouverneur and Allison Lassiter. Deep thanks to our local contacts and partners Alejandra Castrodad-Rodríguez, José Juan Terrasa-Soler, Jerry Kirkland, C.P. Smith, José Ríos, Eileen Poueymirou, Edmundo Colón, and Anna Georas. Additional thanks to Fátima Olivieri and Henryk Tomassini for their keen guidance on Puerto Rican history, culture, architecture, and politics throughout the semester.


Nicholas Pevzner is a landscape architect, educator, theorist, and researcher working on the socio-spatial impact of energy infrastructure, including spatial planning for the renewable energy transition. He is a Senior Lecturer in landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and a Faculty Fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at UPenn, with a decade of combined experience of teaching and working in landscape architecture. Nicholas teaches graduate design studios, which have included regional- and territorial-scale landscape design questions focused on landscape infrastructure and energy infrastructure. Most recently, he led a studio investigating the post-disaster response in Puerto Rico, which focused on strategies for advancing recovery in the wake of Hurricane Maria while promoting local community power. Central to this studio was the design and planning of multipurpose community facilities featuring resilient energy generation and critical services. Nicholas is the co-editor of Scenario Journal.



[1] Trevor Houser and Peter Marsters. 2018. “The World’s Second Largest Blackout,” Rhodium Group, Report. April 12, 2018.

[2] Marcel Castro-Sitiriche, “Alternative Energy Disasters as Windows of Opportunity for Alternative Energy Pathways.” (Presentation, RISE 2019 Conference, University of Albany) November 2019.

[3] Eric Klinenberg. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

[4] Eric Klinenberg. Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. New York: Penguin Random House, 2018.

[5] Artuto Massol-Deyá. “The Energy Uprising: A Community-Driven Search for Sustainability and Sovereignty in Puerto Rico.” In Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm, eds. Yarimar Bonilla and Marison LeBrón, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019), 304




Nicholas Pevzner, “Speculative Designs for Energy Democracy,” Scenario Journal 07: Power. December 2019.

The TVA, Fuzzy Spaces Of Power, And Other Purposes

Power is a broadly defined and often elusive term that has definitions within both material and immaterial systems. On the one hand, power can refer to a utility, or force harnessed and translated into work through useful objects. On the other hand, it can mean the capacity to influence, achieved directly through political interaction or indirectly through institutional mechanisms. While there has always been an entanglement between these two definitions of power, western democracies distinguish material and immaterial forms of power by segregating material power (goods and services) in the private domain, and immaterial power (the State and its institutions) in the public domain.

In the United States, the Tennessee Valley Authority presents a unique historical example of a federal agency in which material and immaterial power were inextricably linked to the geospatial transformation of an entire region, offering insight into the complex entanglement of objects, institutions, and geographic space.

The TVA, authorized by the U.S. Congress in 1933 and still in existence today, was responsible for the design, construction, and administration of a vast system of dams along the Tennessee River and its tributaries. Starting in the Appalachian Mountains and ending at the Ohio River in Paducah, Kentucky, the system is comprised of 29 power-generating dams spanning seven states, part of a complex and expansive geographic machine that eventually integrated all aspects of life within a system of power, infrastructure, environment, politics, and economy throughout the Tennessee River watershed. But initially, the role of the TVA was seen as fairly narrow: as stated in the TVA Act, its primary focus was on navigation and flood control for the public good along the Tennessee River.

The text of the TVA Act set out the initial scope and extent of the agency’s reach:

An Act to Improve the Navigability and to Provide for the Flood Control of the Tennessee River; to Provide for Reforestation and the Proper Use of Marginal Lands in the Tennessee Valley; to Provide for the Agricultural and Industrial Development of Said Valley; to Provide for the National Defense by the Creation of a Corporation for the Operation of Government Properties at and near Muscle Shoals in the State of Alabama, and for Other Purposes. [1]


Likely inserted without much consideration, and as perfunctory short-hand for activities that might be involved in the normal course of business, “and for Other Purposes” acquired increasing agency in the early years of the TVA’s development, anticipating the dynamic, expansive power apparatus the TVA that would come to be.

A diagram of the diverse suite of functions and activities that the TVA’s system of dams eventually came to acquire. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information,


Though navigation was foregrounded, surplus electricity was an inescapable byproduct of the dams. With the rural population of the Tennessee Valley lagging behind the rest of the nation economically and technologically, the development of power infrastructure and pursuit of a new economic region based on power became both necessary and inevitable. However, the need for stable electricity demand went along with power generation. For the TVA, this meant electrifying farms and introducing rural households to electrical appliances in order to create a new class of consumer, integrating material and immaterial systems of power. Rather than a narrowly defined administrative body, the TVA eventually became a vastly complex geographic agent that re-shaped both the meaning of power and the practices of everyday life within a new system of objects, landscapes, and institutions.

In order to unpack the complexities between material and immaterial systems of power in relation to geographic space, this essay focuses on two inventions important to the TVA’s electrification agenda: the electrical appliance and power system maps. The discourse on geographic space and infrastructure has traditionally focused on the material conditions of geographic space, but increasingly, the role of immaterial systems such as objects and institutions are being integrated into the contemporary discourse on geographic space and infrastructure. As landscape architectural theorists Jill Desimini and Charles Waldheim note: “the trajectory of representation — of concept and context — has moved from the material and physical description of the ground toward the depiction of unseen and often immaterial fields, forces, and flows. This has resulted in an important critique of geographical determinism within design culture” [2].  Similarly, political theorist Jane Bennett, in her theory of “vital materiality,” considers both the material and immaterial, the human and non-human actors that shape a landscape of objects and their “political ecology” [3].  These two discursive trajectories might offer ways of re-evaluating the history of the TVA in terms of infrastructure and geographic space, while also allowing critical reflection on present and future conditions by which regional and even global infrastructure re-defines territory.

Electric appliances and maps of power grids appear to inhabit very different social and political configurations: appliances foreground the social territory of the home, while maps foreground the political realm of geography. This distinction, however, is quickly destabilized when one examines them not as individual objects with distinct, singular intentions, but as social and political artifacts within a shared system. While seemingly opposite in scale, the appliance and the map both collapsed geographic space, obliterating the scalar distinctions between the TVA and its customers. For the customer, the electric appliance correlated the vast scale of power infrastructure with the notion of utility; for the Authority, the map correlated the notion of utility with the geographic space of power.

The dual meaning of power and the conceptual adjacency that this double-entendre produces underwrite the discussion to follow: in both the electric appliance and the map, power is embodied in the artifact explicitly as electrical energy and as “the capacity to influence behaviors [4],” but also, implicitly, as force, flow, and potential. In this essay, I will foreground and unpack how both artifacts are distinct yet integrated object-systems, which manifest important conceptual adjacencies that re-shaped territory, human subjectivity, and the TVA itself. My examination of these two inventions — the appliance and the map — will include their material vitality as well as the socio-political contours that endow them with the capacity to re-territorialize daily life and the subjectivity of those who lived it.

Norris Dam and powerhouse at night. Photo by Tennesseee Valley Authority (TVA). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information,


In his 1980s essay, “The Grand Job of the Century,” architectural theorist Reyner Banham noted that “the TVA dams employ a vocabulary of design that occupies a unique space between regular International-Style modern . . .  and the emerging Streamline shapes felt proper to the age of electro-domestic appliances” [5].  Banham’s words recall those of world-famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s impressions upon visiting Norris Dam in 1945. Reflecting on his visit, Le Corbusier described the dams as “generators of electrical power and monumental expressions of power” that were “facts and symbols of modern life,” [6] which are conceptualized in terms of a sublime, grand infrastructural narrative embodied in the dams themselves. Banham, on the other hand, recognized that the TVA’s grand narrative of power was distributed equally within the small-scale semantics of the home appliance. In identifying both scales of action, the appliance and the dam become co-extensive objects, operating in a unified semantic territory: the sublime landscape produced by the dams is thus reproduced within a sublime domestic landscape, while the appliance itself is both a dam in miniature and its corollary.

Norris Dam. TVA dams were not merely engineered artifacts; their aesthetic was also symbolic of the nation’s technological progress and modernity [left]. A TVA customer in Knox County. For the TVA, electro-domestics were a means of increasing demand for power and a vehicle for conveying the vocabulary of modern life [right].

Photos by Arthur Rothstein, 1942. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information.


However, the semantic agency of electro-domestics as proxies for the TVA’s vast infrastructural landscape is only a single facet of a vast epistemological network. The viability of the Tennessee Valley as a power region relied on the TVA’s ability to articulate the utility of electricity to a rural public while also presenting it as an idea. As historian Michelle Mock states, it was not just appliances, but the whole of “the electrified, modern American kitchen took shape within a government-managed economic, social, and technological infrastructure, in which not only appliances themselves but also, and more fundamentally, home electrical service first became widely affordable and understood” [emphasis by the author] [7].

To successfully integrate electricity into the everyday lives of the Tennessee Valley’s rural public, the TVA sought to create a power economy. Rather than merely supplying any excess electricity from the dams to private utility companies, the notion of an “economy” necessitated actively expanding existing markets and generating new ones [8]. The directors of the TVA, following Fordist principles of production and consumption, sought to transform Tennessee Valley farmers into mass-consumers of electricity by making electro-domestics accessible, affordable, and pervasive in the rural home [9]. However, electro-domestic appliances that drew the most power (such as refrigerators and electric washing machines) were prohibitively expensive.

In 1926 the least expensive refrigerator manufactured by Frigidaire was priced at $468 while the median family income was just over $2000, and the prices did not drop significantly in the years leading up to the TVA Act [10]. Recognizing the cost of appliances as a major barrier to increased electrical consumption, President Roosevelt created the Electric Home and Farm Authority (EHFA) by executive order six months after the TVA Act. This new authority, which was to be managed by the TVA’s directors, would have “the powers and functions of a mortgage-loan company” [11]. The EHFA effectively acted as a financial arm for the TVA, allow it to manipulate both the supply and consumer side of appliances through the use of credit. On the consumer side, the directors of the TVA offered low-interest loans that increased farmers’ purchasing power and allowed them to buy appliances on credit. Meanwhile, on the supply side, the EHFA negotiated with major electro-domestic manufacturers to offer stripped-down, low-cost EHFA-approved models. The strategy worked remarkably well — by 1934, an approved refrigerator model manufactured by Norge Corporation retailed for $79.95 [12]. Soon after, by 1938, 60 percent of Valley households owned refrigerators (compared to less than 50 percent nationally) and 23 percent owned electric ranges (compared to 9 percent nationally) [13].

Low-interest loans offered by the Electric Home and Farm Authority made large electro-domestics like refrigerators affordable and accessible.  Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1941-1942. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information.


Electric appliances transformed the pace, rituals, and tasks of everyday life in The Valley. But, more insidiously, electro-domestics existed within and were inextricably linked to the creation of a credit region. Everyday life was not only altered by the utility of electricity afforded by electro-domestics, but also by the provisions of ownership and citizenship in relation to credit. In a short time, the farmer was simultaneously transformed from “agrarian” to “consumer” and “debtor” — or what Baudrillard calls the “Consumer-Citizen,” for whom credit exists as a kind of “free gift” from the “world of production” that connects the idea of choice and will, or rights, to specific objects. Once credit is introduced as an economic right, any restriction to this right is “felt to be a retaliatory measure on the part of the State [14].” Thus, credit gains a form of social power comparable to the social power of electricity: credit re-organizes patterns of use between the farmer, the appliance, and electricity. Furthermore, household objects such as appliances become absorbed within a constellation of material and immaterial socio-political actors constantly shaping meaning and identity.

These maps were included in “Electric Power on the Farm,” a promotional publication for the Rural Electrification Administration. They represented a new connection between the geographic space of power, infrastructure, and the home. Image by The Rural Electrification Administration, “Electric Power on the Farm”  (United States, 1936).


The re-territorialization of everyday rural life through credit and the electrification of the home is similarly evident in how geographic space was represented in maps produced and used by the TVA. The 1936 promotional publication Electric Power on the Farm was published in order to tell the “story of electricity, its usefulness on farms, and the movement to electrify rural America” to a broad public [15]. The publication prominently features two juxtaposed maps.  On the left, “What the Countryside Shows” is an axonometric that highlights objects in a landscape, privileging illustrative space and a familiar embodied sense of the countryside. Importantly, it signifies life in a town through iconographic features that show literal connections between the home, the church, the town center, the street, electrical lines, etc., but also the rhetorical connections in the electrical grid as a system of objects that delivers utility to the domestic interior. On the right, “What Your Map Should Show” removes all pictorial figures, transforming them into graphic symbols. Here, not only does the map foreground the cartographic space of the territory it represents, but also signifies life as an abstract infrastructural space of conduits and nodes.

At first it seems odd that the map on the right would be a more desirable image of space for a rural public. Further consideration, however, reveals that by erasing life as made up of icons, the map foregrounds modernity in the form of expansion and progress. The iconographic map on the left is fixed in time and place; in contrast, the map on the right shows a dynamic system in which the possibility of new electrical lines and electrified homes suggest the expansion of the town. If homes are not thought of as objects, but as abstract, notational nodes, they can be added with ease and plugged into the grid, much like an appliance. Additionally, the map on the right, in showing the system rather than the view, is not limited to the visible; the street gives way to the circuitry of the electrical grid as a present and future condition, while the ground becomes merely a referential plane rather than a spatial determinant. By deactivating the z-axis — a primary feature of the axonometric on the left — the specific form of the town is de-emphasized in favor of the virtual space of representation itself and of the system it depicts.

While a rural farmer may not have fully grasped the nuances of this juxtaposition, they would almost certainly have recognized the map on the right as representing modernity and progress. At a subconscious level the abstracted map also de-emphasized personal property and ownership in favor of the collective citizenship of the power economy, reinforcing the notion that electrification delivers progress to everyone, and everyone stands to benefit equally.

The map, together with appliances, represented a new kind of community for the rural farmer: a community based on power infrastructure rather than the architectural space of iconic form. And while the appliance made power tangible as the work of objects, the map instrumentalized power as a form of citizenship within a cartographic space. Taken together, it is possible to describe the condition of territory constituted in the Tennessee Valley as an assemblage that was much more decentralized and irreducible than historians and theorists tend to indicate. This does not mean that the actions and transformations brought about by the TVA were any less all-encompassing. Instead, it means that they were much more convoluted and prone to the internal contradictions of the kind of vast geographic systems in which people, objects, institutions, material and immaterial things are all integrated.

While it is important to continually evaluate the past in context, it is equally important to establish forward-thinking methods of practice that define new ways in which designers and theorists might participate in a discourse on geographic space and infrastructure. As such, I would like to conclude by briefly pointing out two design research practices that deftly instrumentalize design as an analytical tool for critically engaging a public discourse on geographic space and infrastructure.

Map of the Great Lakes Region MediShed. Image courtesy of RVTR. © RVTR.


Patterns of settlement and movement in the Belcher Islands, Qikiqtaaluk Region, territory of Nunavut, Canada between 1957 and 1959. Image courtesy of Lateral Office, Toronto.


Lateral Office and RVTR are two design research collaboratives whose important contributions to discursive design culture, through mapping in particular, wrangle with the political ecology and “Other Purposes” of geographic space and infrastructure. Lateral Office’s Many Norths poignantly synthesizes the past and present of Canada’s internal colonization of The North as both a territory and an idea. Many Norths pressurizes geographic space through the collapse of experimental maps and on-the-ground narratives [16]. RVTR takes a more conceptual, yet no less impactful, approach to explicating the political ecology of territory. Their project for the Great Lakes Megaregion, Infra Eco Logi Urbanism, deploys what they call “agent-based” mapping, which conjures actors within the “Infra-” (infrared, infrasonic, infradian), the “Eco-” (ecology, economy), and the “Logi-” (logics, logistics) to describe territory [17]. Both Lateral Office and RVTR manage to overcome the tendency of geographic space to be seen as static and determinate. They destabilize our conception of geographic space and infrastructure as purely cartographic, instead elucidating territory as an emergent space in which history unfolds.

These practitioners and theorists share a concern for the global state-of-affairs after the 2008 economic crisis which re-structured global power dynamics. Power as influence, as energy, as force, as utility, etc., exists today within an inherently more complex geopolitical context, with increasingly diffuse actors taking part in how geographic space is defined. Following the 2008 crash, nations turned to extra-state mechanisms to provide development funds for infrastructure. For example, China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” has accelerated in recent years, as has the European Union’s involvement in hydroelectric projects in the Balkans. This makes it all the more pressing that design culture position itself within a discourse that situates action across scales and within emergent assemblages of objects, institutions, spaces, and events. We would also do well to pay close attention to those who, whether through academia or practice, seek to explicate the deeper, less explicit interactions that can be learned from the “Other Purposes” of past, present, and future histories in places such as Canada’s North, the Great Lakes Megaregion, and of course, the Tennessee Valley.



Micah Rutenberg is a Lecturer and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is also a former Tennessee Architecture Fellow. Micah’s research examines patterns of settlement that emerge from the dynamics of infrastructure space, capitalism, and material culture. His current project is a thematic atlas mapping the Tennessee Valley Authority’s profound transformation of geographic space in the Tennessee River watershed. Micah has previously taught at Woodbury University and Arizona State University. He holds a Master of Architecture and a Master of Science in Design Research from the University of Michigan.



[1] “An Act to improve the navigability and to provide for the flood control of the Tennessee River; to provide for reforestation and the proper use of marginal lands in the Tennessee Valley; to provide for the agricultural and industrial development of said valley; to provide for the national defense by the creation of a corporation for the operation of Government properties at and near Muscle Shoals in the State of Alabama, and for other purposes,” May 18, 1933; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1996; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11, National Archives.

[2] Jill Desimini, and Charles Waldheim, Cartographic Grounds : Projecting the Landscape Imaginary (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2016); ibid.

[3] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke University Press, 2009).

[4] “Power,”  in Merriam-Webster (

[5] Reyner Banham, “The Grand Job of the Century,” Habitat International 5, no. 5-6 (1980): 595.

[6] Mardges Bacon, “Le Corbusier and Postwar America: The Tva and Béton Brut,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 74, no. 1 (2015): 23.

[7] Michelle Mock, “The Electric Home and Farm Authority, “Model T Appliances,” and the Modernization of the Home Kitchen in the South,” 80 (2014).

[8] The Tennessee Valley Authority, “Annual Report of the Tennessee Valley Authority for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1936,” (Knoxville, Tennessee: The Tennessee Valley Authority, 1936).

[9] Mock,  78-79.

[10] Ibid., 74.

[11] Executive Order No. 6514, (December 19, 1933).

[12] Mock, 81-83.

[13] The Tennessee Valley Authority, “Annual Report of the Tennessee Valley Authority for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1938,” (Knoxville, Tennessee: The Tennessee Valley Authority, 1938).

[14] Baudrillard and Benedict, 156.

[15] United States. Rural Electrification Administration. and David Cushman Coyle, Electric Power on the Farm : The Story of Electricity, Its Usefulness on Farms, and the Movement to Electrify Rural America (Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O., 1936).

[16] Lola Sheppard and Mason White, Many Norths: Spatial Practice in a Polar Territory (Actar Publishers, 2017).

[17] Geoffrey Thün et al., Infra Eco Logi Urbanism : A Project for the Great Lakes Megaregion (2015).­



“An Act to Improve the Navigability and to Provide for the Flood Control of the Tennessee River; to Provide for Reforestation and the Proper Use of Marginal Lands in the Tennessee Valley; to Provide for the Agricultural and Industrial Development of Said Valley; to Provide for the National Defense by the Creation of a Corporation for the Operation of Government Properties at and near Muscle Shoals in the State of Alabama, and for Other Purposes.”. In Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1996, edited by U.S. Congress. National Archives, 1933.

Anderson, Oscar E. Refrigeration in America; a History of a New Technology and Its Impact.  [Princeton]: Published for the University of Cincinnati by Princeton University Press, 1953.

Authority, The Tennessee Valley. “Annual Report of the Tennessee Valley Authority for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1936.” Knoxville, Tennessee: The Tennessee Valley Authority, 1936.

———. “Annual Report of the Tennessee Valley Authority for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1938.” Knoxville, Tennessee: The Tennessee Valley Authority, 1938.

Bacon, Mardges. “Le Corbusier and Postwar America: The Tva and Béton Brut.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 74, no. 1 (March, 2015): 13-40.

Banham, Reyner. “The Grand Job of the Century.” Habitat International 5, no. 5-6 (1981 1980): 593-99.

Baudrillard, J., and J. Benedict. The System of Objects. Verso, 1996.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2009.

Desimini, Jil, and Charles Waldheim. Cartographic Grounds : Projecting the Landscape Imaginary.  New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2016.

Mock, Michelle. “The Electric Home and Farm Authority, “Model T Appliances,” and the Modernization of the Home Kitchen in the South.” 80 (2014): 73-108.

Merriam-Webster., 2019.

Executive Order No. 6514. December 19, 1933.

Sheppard, L., and M. White. Many Norths: Spatial Practice in a Polar Territory. Actar Publishers, 2017.

Thün, Geoffrey, Kathy Velikov, Colin Ripley, and Dan McTavish. Infra Eco Logi Urbanism : A Project for the Great Lakes Megaregion [in English]. 2015.

United States. Rural Electrification Administration., and David Cushman Coyle. Electric Power on the Farm: The Story of Electricity, Its Usefulness on Farms, and the Movement to Electrify Rural America.  Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O., 1936.



Micah Rutenberg, “The TVA, Fuzzy Spaces of Power, and Other Purposes,” Scenario Journal 07: Power, December 2019,


The Missouri River Basin: Water, Power, Decolonization, And Design

Decolonization is a complex and multifaceted process that involves examining and denouncing colonialism; recovering and adopting Indigenous knowledge, language and practices, and; undertaking scholarly projects that address the needs of Indigenous communities [1].  In their essay “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang stress that decolonization should inform radical politics that dismantle colonial relations and settler privileges, as well as involve projects that advance the repatriation of Indigenous life and land [2]. Others, such as Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird, argue that, “first and foremost, decolonization must occur in our own minds” [3].  Research is an important vehicle in this process of developing a new consciousness. In particular, research that foregrounds the systemic and ongoing oppression of Indigenous ways of knowing, as well as scholarly projects that engage in reimagining the world through alternative visions and possibilities [4].  

Exemplified by the rise of the ‘Water is Life’ movement, water has emerged as a key agent and site of contestation in the struggle for decolonization [5].  Zoe Todd, for instance, points out that “Rivers invited colonial movement into Indigenous territories throughout the historical colonial period in North America. And today, rivers also invite resistance to colonialism” [6].  Todd’s work frames the river as a terrain and narrative device that brings colonial and Indigenous ways of being in relation to each other. In this context, the role of infrastructure cannot be separated from the construction and reconfiguration of power dynamics. The history of dam construction, channelization, urban development, and management of rivers are intertwined with violent displacement and erasure of Indigenous knowledge and practices, as well as complex legal frameworks and land rights. As social movements to address the inequities and injustices done to Indigenous communities (and other minorities) intensify, it is critical to confront the legacies of colonial infrastructures and public works that continue to shape contemporary landscapes, ecologies and social relations. “Critically questioning the colonial practices of planning, architecture, and engineering,” according to Pierre Bélanger, “seeks to contribute a basis for undermining the industrial underpinnings and imperialist hegemonies that lie on, above, and below the surface of contemporary settler-state space whose foundations rely and rest on the perpetuation of spatial inequities, environmental injustices, and cultural inhumanities” [7].

These patterns of colonial infrastructure planning are on full display in the Missouri River Basin—a system of engineering works that inundated over 356,000 acres of Indigenous lands,[8] transformed one-third of the Missouri River ecosystem into lake environments, and helped shape the agricultural Midwest that we know today. Despite its many exploitations, the Missouri River continues to flow and permeate spatial relations and legal systems. Whether through periodic floods and droughts, or through contesting developments that threaten its ways of being, the river and its water protectors remind us of the complex web of colonial and decolonial relations shaped by its existence. In this context, this essay focuses both on ways in which designers can begin to grapple with the violence enacted through colonial water infrastructures in the Missouri River, as well as ways to envision alternative futures where water—in its spiritual, material, and legal dimensions—becomes an agent of resistance that can shape new human and more-than-human relationships. In doing so, it provides a small step in developing designerly ways of approaching water as, in the words of Melanie K. Yazzie and Cutcha Risling Baldy (2018), “a relative with whom we engage in social (and political) relations premised on interdependency and respect” [9].


Relationship between the six major dams and reservoirs in the Mainstem of the Missouri River and Native American Reservations in the Missouri River Basin. Image by Kees Lokman.


The Missouri River Basin

Covering over 500,000 square miles and extending across ten U.S. states, two Canadian provinces, and 29 Native American Reservations, the Missouri River Basin holds a wealth of natural resources, provides nearly half of U.S. wheat, a quarter of its corn, and holds a third of its cattle with an annual value of $100 billion. It is one of the most important and contested interior watersheds of North America. Many existing land uses in the basin would not be possible if not for the implementation of the Pick-Sloan Plan, which drastically altered water flows in the basin for the purposes of flood control, water supply, irrigation agriculture, energy developments, navigation, and recreation.

The Pick–Sloan Plan, authorized in 1944, is a forced marriage of separate Missouri River development plans prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Responding to a long history of floods in the basin—most significantly the 1943 Missouri River flood—the plan by the Corps of Engineers, led by Colonel Lewis Pick, prioritized the construction of dams and reservoirs in the mainstem of the Missouri River to provide flood storage and aid navigation in the lower basin. William Glenn Sloan was in charge of preparing the plans for the Bureau of Reclamation, whose primary goals were irrigation development and hydroelectric power generation. The Bureau’s plans included over ninety dams and reservoirs across the basin, along with several hundred irrigation projects, doubling the basin’s irrigated acreage [10].

While the full extents of the Pick-Sloan Plan where never entirely carried out, the basin’s landscape—its hydro-ecological, cultural, and economic processes—have irreversibly changed. In particular, the project continues to have catastrophic effects on to the livelihoods and lands of Indigenous communities. Despite the existence of the U.S Indian Law and the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which protected the rights of tribal nations to their land and water, The Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation seized the land through eminent domain. Subsequent construction of numerous dams and reservoirs in the Missouri River mainstem (including Fort Peck Dam, Garrison Dam, Lake Sakakawea, Oahe Dam, Big Bend Dam, Fort Randall Dam, Gavins Point Dam, and Lewis and Clark Lake) flooded nearly 1.5 million acres. Nearly a quarter of this land belonged to Native Americans groups, including the Arikaras, Chippewas, Mandans, and Hidatas of North Dakota; the Shoshones and Arapahos of Wyoming; and the Crows, Crees, Blackfeet, and Assiniboines of Montana.

Settler privilege and cost savings were the main drivers of site selection and decision-making. As pointed out by Robert Kelley Schneiders, “Engineering considerations were a factor in the site selection and design of Pick-Sloan dams, but political considerations, especially a concern for maintaining the Pick-Sloan compromise and sparing off-reservation urban centers, were the primary reasons the dams and reservoirs were designed to be so high and built at locations so disadvantageous to Indian interests” [11].  While the ecological significance of the floodplains, and its importance for Indigenous ways of life, had been documented as early as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, widespread imagery of dam construction and the harnessing of nature through technology fostered social imaginaries of the technological sublime. In doing so, the presence of Indigenous peoples and other living systems were effectively erased from these lands. As asserted by Jane Griffith: “This form of professional communication reveals how hydroelectric dams are built with more than engineering equipment—their tools also include narratives, language, rhetoric, and image that recast Indigenous waterways for settler audiences” [12].

Indigenous communities, who used the fertile floodplains of the Missouri River and its tributaries as a source of sustenance, a method of transport, and a vital part for ceremonial activities, were forced to relocate to barren upland regions. The devastation caused by this illegal act of displacement continues to impact every aspect of Indigenous ways of life—from food sovereignty, economic development, and education to mental health, kin relations, and intergenerational knowledge sharing. Historian and activist Vine Deloria, Jr., a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, described Pick-Sloan project as “the single most destructive act ever perpetuated on any tribe by the United States” [13].

Over the past decade, a number of key events, including the Missouri River Floods of 2011 and 2019, record droughts in 2012, the Bakken Formation fracking boom, and protests surrounding the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines in 2016, have underlined the need to reconsider relationships among water, infrastructure, Indigenous sovereignty, and the land. The following sections include a discussion of work conducted during a landscape architecture studio, “Fluid Geographies: Liquid Plans for the Missouri River Basin,” taught by the author at the University of British Columbia in Fall 2018. The studio engaged with the themes mentioned above and speculated on alternative water resource management strategies that acknowledge the rich histories and stories tied to the Missouri River Basin while embracing the more-than-human beings that inhabit these lands [14].  The author acknowledges that various Indigenous communities rely on the Missouri River and that each community has their specific histories, technologies, and associations with the river. The studio sought to be mindful of how these different ways of relating to water could be incorporated in the proposals.


Design Approaches

What follows is a discussion of three design projects from this studio. In Actions to Express Claim—Water, Sam McFaul explores potential changes to the legal infrastructure that would enable Native American Reservations to utilize their land by creating a series of on-the-ground actions to legitimize their claim. Sovereign-Pte by Emily Soder-Duncan and Karen Tomkins seeks to promote food sovereignty for the Nakoda and A’aninin on the Fort Belknap Reservation in central Montana by acquiring land for bison reintroduction and prairie restoration. And Unceded by Jasmine Cress, Tory Michak and Tatiana Nozaki, proposes a series of interventions that follow along the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), revealing how its contentious existence has inflicted social and environmental grief.

Timeline of Native American Water Rights in the United States. Image by Sam McFaul.


Actions to Express Claim—Water 

This proposal explores the role and agency of design and representation in relation to ways in which Native American groups can act upon their water rights in the Missouri River Basin. It examines the spatial implications of the histories, and possible alternative futures, of legal rules which govern the allocation of surface waters for consumptive uses along the Missouri River and its tributaries.

In the United States, Indigenous groups, together with the federal and state governments, municipalities, and industries, can assert claims over water. No one entity can establish all of the rules, especially in cases involving interstate, cross-region, and cross-jurisdiction water disputes [15].  Depending on the nature of the conflicts and claims, the Supreme Court of the United States decides on a case-by-case basis over the use of water from an interstate stream. A reasonably good description of the aspects taken into consideration when decisions are made over water claims is provided in Nebraska v. Wyoming (1945):

“Priority of appropriation is the guiding principle. But physical and climatic conditions, the consumptive use of water in the several sections of the river, the character and rate of return flows, the extent of established uses, the availability of storage water, the practical effect of wasteful uses on down-stream areas, the damage to upstream areas as compared to the benefits to downstream areas if a limitation is imposed on the former—these are all relevant factors. They are merely an illustrative, not an exhaustive catalog. They indicate the nature of the problem of apportionment and the delicate adjustment of interests which must be made” [16].

Since Indigenous groups own substantial areas of land directly adjacent to the Missouri River and its principal tributaries, they have legitimate claimants to reserved water tights. Much of these rights have currently not been exercised due to the complex nature of claims over water [17].  This complexity is driven by the fact that existing water rights and law are mostly derived from issues in the Colorado River basin, which are guided by aspects of water scarcity. However, the challenge of the Missouri River basin concerns negotiating between often not having enough water (in the upper basin), and too much water (in the lower basin). In addition to allocating a specified quantity of water for use, which makes sense in areas of water scarcity, there is a case to be made Indigenous groups have the rights to the flow of the river in those areas of relative abundance. Environmental lawyer John Davidson, who has written extensively about water conflicts in the Missouri River basin, suggests: “[Indigenous groups] are compelled to argue that since it is the abundant flow that is generating economic benefits, tribes must, like any other property owner, be allowed to determine how the flow is to be used and directly enjoy the economic benefits created by that use” [18].

Within this context, the proposal Actions to Express Claim—Water, speculates on a set of architectural responses that begin to lay claim on the land and water sources in and adjacent to the Missouri River. These explorations do not inherently suggest specific sites, but rather a set of potential actions and tactics that work both with and against the colonial laws and infrastructures as a means to recover and develop new social-ecological relations with the river. These actions are divided in four broad themes: 1) environment: climate change and ongoing physical changes to the geography as a driver for laying claim; 2) tradition: application of Indigenous practices to lay claim; 3) industry: using the logic of capitalism to lay claim, and; 4) protest: laying claim through activism and dissent. McFaul developed a range of possible actions in each of these categories. I have chosen to highlight one example in within each theme to indicate a range of potential actions.

Retain uses low-tech solutions to create terraces at the edge of the reservoirs for the cultivation of food resources. Drawings by Sam McFaul



With climate change, the projected amount of water in the reservoirs behind the six dams in the Missouri River will drastically change [19].  Retain speculates on potential futures for the area of land that may be exposed in the event of prolonged droughts, and a subsequent drop in water levels of the reservoirs. It asks the question: To whom does this land, water and sediment belong? The action uses a traditional wattle method by which Salix Sitchensis (willow) is woven into a natural retaining wall. With fluctuation of the water levels, these retaining walls can capture and retain sediment. The terraces created by these interventions can be used for the cultivation of a wide range of different food crops and medicinal plants. In doing so, it provides a mechanism for Indigenous communities to lay claim to both the water and the newly created land.

Recognize appropriates colonial irrigation infrastructure to recover and expand Indigenous food cultivation. Drawings by Sam McFaul



Recognition of Indigenous farming practices would mean that, given the appropriative system and the laws outlined in the Winter’s Rights, Indigenous groups can claim rights to the required amount of water to irrigate these lands critical for enabling food sovereignty. This proposed action fuses the traditional practices of Three Sisters, which combine maize (corn), winter squash, climbing beans, and other Sisters, like sunflowers or amaranth, with the contemporary farming practices enabled by pivot irrigation. By hybridizing the traditional and the contemporary, this action seeks to re-acquire water that should have always been supplied to Indigenous groups along the Missouri River.

Float proposes claiming the flow of water as a means to develop aquaculture technologies. Drawings by Sam McFaul




Indigenous groups can also lay claim on the water in the Missouri River if they can demonstrate how its flow is used to generate economic benefits. One potential way of doing this is by exploring the implementation of aquaculture and/or floating farming practices within the reservoirs or river. While these practices may traditionally not have been part of Indigenous ways of life in the region, they can provide an avenue to develop new technologies, expertise, and business opportunities. Lake aquaponics could be implemented relatively cheaply, and beyond producing food and creating jobs, it could become an effective method to remove nutrients from the river.



Low-tech devices and spatial interventions associated with the action: Broadcast. Drawings by Sam McFaul



The last group of actions focuses on protest, which draws from both the success and challenges faced by the Standing Rock protest. One such strategy, involves designing low-tech electronic kits (with drones, blimps, and water monitoring equipment) that protestors can bring along to capture and document the protest, and potential violations against people and the environment. the  is particularly important since many protests concern resource extraction and associated impacts of treaty violations and environmental degradation, which are often located in relatively remote areas out of reach from conventional telecommunication networks. Successful protests can help protect Indigenous sovereignty and stewardship over these waterways.

Taken together, McFaul’s proposed actions combine resistance, Indigenous knowledge, and design to challenge and subvert existing water rights. In doing so, it offers a range of different possibilities for building (new) relationships with the water that flows through the Missouri River and its territories.



Food sovereignty is defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute, and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations” [20].  Food is a central component that weaves together cultural knowledge and traditions with environmental stewardship and ancestral relationships of Indigenous peoples with the land [21].  The ability of an Indigenous community or nation to make decisions about its food system requires that relations with lands, waters, plants and animals be sustained across multiple generations. When landscapes, ecosystems, and language is stripped away, and access to certain plants, animals, and practices are no longer available, a community loses critical components for its self-determination.

In this context, Sovereign-Pte provides strategies that seek to enable food sovereignty for the Nakoda and A’aninin on the Fort Belknap Reservation in central Montana by acquiring land for bison reintroduction as well as prairie restoration. Interventions focus on restoring river dynamics and fluctuations, food cultivation strategies, and Indigenous land management practices [22].

Habitats and associated food resources lost as a result of the construction of dams and reservoirs in the mainstem of the Missouri River, Drawings by Emily Soder-Duncan and Karen Tomkins

Native American-led Food Sovereignty movements across the continental United States. Drawings by Emily Soder-Duncan and Karen Tomkins


In the Missouri River Basin, much of the floodplains, riparian forests, and prairie ecosystems were drastically altered or destroyed as a result of settler colonialism, including the implementation of the Pick-Sloan Plan. This destruction combined with the uprooting and forceful relocation of Indigenous communities into Reservations continues to have major implications on personal wellbeing and cultural identity, including connections to ancestral lands, food sovereignty, and traditional knowledge. Of particular importance to the cultural identity of many of the Plains Indigenous peoples is their connection with the Bison (Pte in Lakota), which provided and cared for the people through food, shelter, clothing, tools, wisdom and more [23].  Bison, a keystone species on the prairie, are “architects of diversity,” and have co-evolved with the prairie over thousands of years [24].  They impact the land through grazing, wallowing, seed dispersal, and nutrient inputs, among others. Each of these activities provides inputs and/or disturbances that are vital for other species. Therefore, strategies aimed at reintroducing the bison are not only essential to recovering the cultural autonomy of Plains Indigenous peoples but also to the health of the prairie ecosystem as a whole [25].

The complex and multilayered relations of bison with human and non-human entities. Drawings by Emily Soder-Duncan and Karen Tomkins

Food sovereignty and its relation to Indigenous knowledge and traditions, seasonal cycles, and land stewardship. Drawings by Emily Soder-Duncan and Karen Tomkins


Sovereign-Pte builds on ongoing efforts to ‘bring back’ bison in and around reservations in the Upper Missouri River Basin. In particular, the proposal seeks to support The American Prairie Reserve, a nonprofit focusing on creating a 3-million acre reserve by stitching together public lands through the purchase of private lands just south of Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana. The effort engages a diverse set of stakeholders, including those in tribal nations, government, conservation, and private landowners invested in realizing this vision of an interconnected habitat for free-roaming bison. Sovereign-Pte provides a range of design approaches and land management strategies to allow for the recovery and reconnection of bison and Indigenous practices.

The proposal specifically focuses on the community of Fort Belknap Agency, located adjacent to both the floodplain of the Milk River and shortgrass prairie. Removal of existing levees enables the dynamic forces of the river to regenerate riparian habitats, which host many plant and animal species vital to both bison and Indigenous communities. Proposed ha-ha walls have a dual function of acting as seasonal flood protection mechanism and a measure to prevent herds of free-roaming bison from entering the community. Stone terraces provide another opportunity for the combination of food production and water management. Fed by dry-swales that collect stormwater runoff as well as seasonal fluctuations of the river, the terraces provide opportunities for more intensely managed food practices.

Moreover, ecosystem restoration and the reintroduction of bison is essential for the recovery of traditional land management practice, including hunting, rotational burning, respectful harvesting, and pruning. Direct and sustained involvement in seeding, tending, and harvesting plants as well as hunting bison repairs and strengthens relations to the land. Borrowing the words of Charlotte Coté, Sovereign-Pte can be understood as a “decolonial praxis” and “restorative framework” that facilitates Indigenous self-determination and food sovereignty [26].

Section drawings showing a range of interventions to enable the recovery and reconnection of bison and Indigenous practices. Drawings by Emily Soder-Duncan and Karen Tomkins

Annotated models illustrating the shifting dynamics of water and the availability of food resources in the floodplain. Drawings by Emily Soder-Duncan and Karen Tomkins



The final project, Unceded, consists of a series of interventions that follow along the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to reveal how its controversial existence has caused social grief and environmental degradation. Taking on an activist role, the interventions foreground the impacts of colonial infrastructure in unsettling tribal sovereignty, human and more-than human relations, and treaty rights. The proposal uses the lens of atonement as a means to confront those that encounter the interventions to question past and ongoing injustices embedded in the pipeline project [27].

Map illustrating the full length of the Dakota Access Pipeline and its relation to Native American Reservations and shale gas formations.  Image by Jasmine Cress, Tory Michak and Tatiana Nozaki

Completed in 2017, the DAPL is a 1,172 mile-long underground pipeline, roughly 30” in diameter, that transports crude oil from the Bakken Shale Oil formation in northwest North Dakota to a refinery in Petoka, southern Illinois. From its inception through its completion, peoples from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, along with thousands of Native American supporters from across North America have fiercely protested against the construction of the pipeline. Fundamentally, the DAPL ignores the 1851 Treaty of Laramie, which remains the supreme law of the land, and determines that no developments can happen within the reservation without the consent of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Moreover, by traversing under Lake Oahe, just north of Standing Rock, the pipeline jeopardizes the primary water source for the reservation, along with Indigenous relationships to the land, water, and each other. Unceded seeks to reveal the social and environmental injustices inherent to the oft-hidden practices of colonial energy developments. The proposed interventions are intended to provoke thoughts, ideas, and actions—not to be misread as actual proposals. I will now briefly discuss three of nine total interventions proposed as part of this project.

Concrete, wax, and birch models of the nine interventions along the DAPL. Image by Jasmine Cress, Tory Michak and Tatiana Nozaki


The Black Snake

The intervention The Black Snake marks the location where the pipeline crosses the unceded Sioux land, north of the Standing Rock Reservation. The notion of the Black Snake comes from the Lakota, who prophesied that “a great and evil black snake would someday descend and reap destruction, rendering their homeland uninhabitable to hunt and fish and their waters unsuitable for religious ceremony” [28].  This prophecy has tragically become a reality in the form of the DAPL. The intervention manifests itself as a curtain, marking the border between ceded and unceded territory. As the Black Snake moves into ceded (treaty-protected) territory, it visibly marks its presence on the land, willfully ignoring Indigenous treaty rights, sovereignty, and relations to the land.

Black Snake, entering the unceded territory of the Sioux Tribe. Image by Jasmine Cress, Tory Michak and Tatiana Nozaki



Wallows commemorates Plains megafauna and the complex living systems and habitats sustained by them. Colonial settlement and the subsequent conversion of prairie grasslands into agriculture, combined with ongoing infrastructure developments (railways, highways, pipelines) have devastated and fragmented bison habitats. This intervention re-creates one of the iconic features of the Plains prairies: the wallows. These topographic depressions in the landscape were formed by thriving herds of bison while drinking, bathing, and rolling in naturally occurring shallow water holes for centuries. In locations marking historic bison migration routes, reflecting pools set in the ground hint at the historic presence of these animals. In addition, the entire pipeline easement is planted with native prairie grasses and flowers. The resulting thin band of prairie at once amplifies the presence of the pipeline while its contrast with adjacent monocultural agricultural crops signifies the cultural, spiritual, and environmental transformation of the Plains.

Wallows, shallow reflecting pools memorialize the enduring physical and spiritual presence of bison on the Plains. Image by Jasmine Cress, Tory Michak and Tatiana Nozaki



A final example is Tunnel, which uncovers the scale of underground fracking infrastructures and operations while creating a momentous embodied experience. The proposed tunnel, which runs parallel to the DAPL, has a length of 1.5 miles—the average depth of a vertical hydraulic fracking well. As visitors descend into the tunnel, they are confronted with the (in)visibility of the DAPL, as well as with the geological layers and timescales that are implied with the violent extraction of shale gas from the earth’s crust. Narrow slots in the ceiling allow for rays of light to penetrate the tunnel, creating a constant rhythm: light, dark, light, dark. The result is a mile-and-a-half-long procession through a space of terrible beauty, asking us to look inward and question our own values, beliefs, and relationship with nature and technology.

Tunnel creates a tension between the scale of underground fracking infrastructure and the embodied experience of terrible beauty. Image by Jasmine Cress, Tory Michak and Tatiana Nozaki


As illustrated by the examples above, the proposed interventions by Michak, Cress, and Nozaki, seek to navigate difficult and uneasy questions of design in the context of colonial energy infrastructure projects. Where contemporary design discourse too often overemphasizes material flows, environmental remediation, and engineered solutions, Unceded purposefully centers the discussion around the injustices to Indigenous peoples and more-than-humans implied by the ongoing devastation of energy developments.


Decolonization and Design

Decolonization demands designers to acknowledge the harm that is inflicted on Indigenous people, and subsequently, to act upon this knowledge. It also demands acknowledging treaty rights and addressing systemic inequalities, as well as critical engagement with Indigenous ways of knowing and making. This starts by examining our own values, and by questioning our relationships with the land, including the tendency of granting human ownership over non-human things and beings.

Instead, Indigenous botanist Robin Kimmerer encourages us to have a different relationship with the land:

“In the indigenous worldview, a healthy landscape is understood to be whole and generous enough to be able to sustain its partners. It engages land not as a machine but as a community of respected non-human persons to whom we humans have a responsibility…reconnecting people and the landscape is as essential as reestablishing proper hydrology or cleaning up contaminants. It is medicine for the earth” [29].

Especially for the discipline of landscape architecture, which fundamentally concerns investigations at the intersection of culture and the environment, discussions surrounding decolonization and alternative models of design and stewardship should be essential. Matthew Kiem suggests: “‘decolonizing design’ is not a ‘new’ or an additional form of design but a political project that takes design as such—including its theorization—as both an object and medium of action” [30].  This requires a critical examination of dominant conceptual frameworks, representational tools, and design strategies fostered within the discipline in order to ensure the landscape architects do not continue to perpetuate colonial practices.

In this context, climate adaptation must become a key vehicle for decolonization [31]. Due to ongoing challenges with respect to education, livelihood, remoteness, health, and reliance on ecosystem services, Indigenous communities and marginalized groups are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change [32]. Indigenous peoples have not been engaged in meaningful consultation, let alone in the co-design of alternative futures for their communities. Developing potential adaptation pathways to the climate crisis must be done in ways that fundamentally address the ongoing devastating consequences of colonization. This begins by respecting The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which in addition to recognizing Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired” [33].

Much can also be learned from Indigenous knowledge and social-ecological practices on the land-water interface. Indigenous knowledge about places, practices, and relations has been passed on through generations, evolved over time, and is based on a deep and nuanced understanding of human-nonhuman relationships. As the climate has always changed, albeit currently at faster rates, Indigenous communities have historically developed nuanced adaptation knowledge and practices. Far from static, these techniques and strategies have been tried and tested over the long-term, infused with continuous experimentation and innovation. As such, they provide important markers for an array of methods related to climate adaptation, including agroforestry, resource utilization, rainwater harvesting, and changing eating habits/diets, to name just a few [34].  Integration of this knowledge, and the worldviews that have produced these nuanced human-nature relationships, will be critical in order to overcome our reliance on hard engineering solutions and technological fixes.

In closing, this essay has aimed to foreground the legacies of colonial infrastructures and their ongoing impacts to the land and those who have shaped and inhabited it since time immemorial. Using the multifaceted lens of decolonization, I have offered some examples to illustrate potential ways designers can respond to these pressing challenges. While the approaches certainly have their shortcomings, most clearly lacking direct and sustained collaboration and interaction with the Indigenous communities implied in the proposals—as a collection, they begin to rethink the role of design in relation to notions of agency, sovereignty, relationality, and spatial justice. Bringing these discussions consistently to our classrooms and clients will help foster much-needed engagement with the histories, actualities, and futures of Indigenous territories. This begins by positioning ourselves, in the words of Zoe Todd: “within a broader and underlying awareness of, and tending to, the insistent and ongoing relationships formed among Indigenous peoples, lands, laws, and those of us who are guests within unceded and unsurrendered territories” [35].



I want to thank the thoughtful comments and feedback by the editors of this issue, which significantly improved the clarity of the essay. Additionally, I would like to thank and acknowledge all studio participants for participating in often difficulty but timely and conversations, as well as producing meaningful work that purposefully engaged design as a political project.

Studio Participants: Shaheed Karim, Lee Patola, Alex Scott, Benham Harper, Karen Tomkins, Sam McFaul. Weirong Li, Emily Soder-Duncan, Calvin Tan, Colin Jones, Tory Michak, Jasmine Cress, and Tatiana Nozaki.

Lastly, this work was produced at the University of British Columbia, which is located on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam) people. The land it is situated on has always been a place of learning for the Musqueam people, who for millennia have passed on their culture, history, and traditions from one generation to the next on this site.


Kees Lokman is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia. His research focuses on design challenges related to sea level rise adaptation, water and food shortages, and the energy transition. Recent and ongoing research has been published in various journals, including the Journal of Landscape ArchitectureLandscape ResearchNew Geographies, and the Journal of Architectural Education. This work has been funded through various agencies and municipalities, including Natural Resources Canada, the Dutch Creative Industries Fund, and the City of Vancouver. Kees is also the founder of Parallax Landscape, a collaborative design platform, which been recognized internationally and with numerous awards and mentions for contributing innovative design proposals.



[1]  Yazzie, K. Melanie and Baldy, Cutcha Risling. 2018. “Introduction: Indigenous peoples and the politics of water.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol 7., No 1, pp. 1-18

[2]  Tuck, E & Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1), 1-40.

[3]  Waziyatawin A.W., & Yellow Bird, M. (Eds.). (2005). For Indigenous eyes only: A decolonization handbook. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

[4]  Yazzie, K. Melanie and Baldy, Cutcha Risling. 2018. “Introduction: Indigenous peoples and the politics of water.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol 7., No 1, pp. 1-18

[5]  Ibid.

[6]  Todd, Zoe. 2016. “From Classroom to River’s Edge: Tending to Reciprocal Duties Beyond the Academy.” Aboriginal Policy Studies 6 (1).

[7]  Bélanger, Pierre. 2018. “The Decolonization of Design.” Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

[8]  Capossela, Peter. 2015. “Impacts of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Pick-Sloan Program on the Indian Tribes of the Missouri River Basin.” Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation 30 (1), pp. 143-218.

[9]  Yazzie, K. Melanie and Baldy, Cutcha Risling. 2018. “Introduction: Indigenous peoples and the politics of water.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol 7., No 1, pp. 1-18

[10]  Committee on Missouri River Ecosystem Science, National Research Council, Division on Earth and Life Studies Staff, Water Science and Technology Board Staff, National Research Council (U.S.). 2002. The Missouri River Ecosystem: Exploring the Prospects for Recovery. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.

[11]  Schneiders, Robert Kelley. 1997. “Flooding the Missouri Valley: The Politics of Dam Site Selection and Design.” Great Plains Quarterly 17 (3/4): 237-249.

[12]  Griffith, Jane. 2018. “Do some work for me: Settler colonialism, professional communication, and representations of Indigenous water,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol 7., No 1, pp.132-157

[13]  Philip P. Frickey, Domesticating Federal Indian Law, 81 MINN. L. REV. 31, 83, n.206 (1996).

[14]  Todd, Zoe. 2016. “From Classroom to River’s Edge: Tending to Reciprocal Duties Beyond the Academy.” Aboriginal Policy Studies 6 (1).

[15] Davidson, John H. 1999. “Indian Water Rights, the Missouri River, and the Administrative Process: What are the Questions?” American Indian Law Review 24 (1): 1-20.

[16]  Nebraska v. Wyoming, 325 U.S. 589 (1945), 618.

[17]  Davidson, John H. 1999. “Indian Water Rights, the Missouri River, and the Administrative Process: What are the Questions?” American Indian Law Review 24 (1): 1-20.

[18]  Davidson, John H. 1999. “Indian Water Rights, the Missouri River, and the Administrative Process: What are the Questions?” American Indian Law Review 24 (1): 1-20.

[19]  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District. Missouri River Recovery Management Plan – Climate Change Assessment (Draft). December 2016.

[20]  Mali Sélingué. “Declaration of Nyéléni.” 27 February 2007. Available online:

[21]  Salmón, Enrique. 2012. Eating the Landscape: American Indian Stories of Food, Identity, and Resilience. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

[22]  Soder-Duncan, Emily, Karen Tomkins. 2019. “Sovereign-Pte” Sitelines, April 2019, pp. 7-8.

[23] ibid.

[24]  ibid.

[25]  Zontek, Ken. 2007. Buffalo Nation: American Indian Efforts to Restore the Bison. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[26]  Coté, Charlotte. 2016. ““Indigenizing” Food Sovereignty. Revitalizing Indigenous Food Practices and Ecological Knowledges in Canada and the United States.” Humanities 5 (3)

[27]  Cress, Jasmine, Tory Michak, and Tatiana Nozaki. 2019. “Unceded” Sitelines, April 2019, pp. 5-6.

[28]  Rome, Andrew. 2018. “Black Snake on the Periphery: The Dakota Access Pipeline and Tribal Jurisdictional Sovereignty.” North Dakota Law Review 93 (1): 57.

[29]  Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. First ed. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions.

[30]  Schultz, Tristan, Danah Abdulla, Ahmed Ansari, Ece Canlı, Mahmoud Keshavarz, Matthew Kiem, Martins, Luiza Prado de O, et al. 2018. “What is at Stake with Decolonizing Design? A Roundtable.” Design and Culture 10 (1): 81-101.

[31]  Howitt, R., Havnen, O. & Veland, S. Natural and unnatural disasters: responding with respect for indigenous rights and knowledges. Geographical Research 50, 47–59 (2012).

[32]  Green, D., Jackson, S. and Morrison, J. (eds), 2009: Risks from Climate Change to Indigenous Communities in the Tropical North of Australia. Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Canberra.

[33]  UN General Assembly. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, resolution / adopted by the General Assembly, 2 October 2007, A/RES/61/295, available at:

[34]  Makondo, Cuthbert Casey and David S. G. Thomas. 2018. “Climate Change Adaptation: Linking Indigenous Knowledge with Western Science for Effective Adaptation.” Environmental Science and Policy 88: 83-91.

[35]  Todd, Zoe. 2016. “From Classroom to River’s Edge: Tending to Reciprocal Duties Beyond the Academy.” Aborigial Policy Studies 6 (1).



Kees Lokman, “The Missouri River Basin:  Water, Power, Decolonization, and Design,” Scenario Journal 07: Power, December 2019,


Power Plant Power

Scattered throughout Detroit are relics of the city’s industrial production, along with the old generators of power for that industry. As Detroit’s population fell, as its energy demand declined, and newer energy technologies supplanted older ones, power generation in the City of Detroit has shifted from the city proper to its hinterlands. Power Plant Power investigates the ascendance of Detroit through the lens of energy production, its subsequent decline, and the potential inflections that could position the city to embrace new futures of alternative modes and dynamics of power.

This proposal does not intend to add a new power plant or create new methods of generating electricity, but rather to consider a paradigm shift in the power structures that control the distribution and consumption of energy within the city [1]. In this instance, power is viewed as a double entendre, where power as electrical generation is considered alongside resultant power dynamics that have impacted the surrounding built environment. In the midst of emerging modes and dynamics of power, how can Detroit reimagine energy production as a decentralized process that leverages the distinct characteristics of the city?

Starting in the 1860s and for the next 40 years, Michigan was synonymous with pine lumbering, a dangerous and lucrative business. Image courtesy of Detroit News Archives.


By reconsidering the role of Michigan’s natural resources in this contemporary moment, this proposal also seeks to create an influx of opportunities in the city. What if energy production facilitated methods of production and creation, where the resulting products could be utilized by resident stewards and surrounding communities? As a way of conceptualizing alternative modes and dynamics of power, this project intends to investigate spaces of electrical generation and power infrastructure that no longer function in their original capacity. Detroit’s decommissioned power plants and their surroundings, located along riverfronts and major transit infrastructure, serve as the spaces of speculation.


Lumber Catalysis

Detroit’s ascendance in the early 20th century was tied to an expansive history of capitalizing on the abundance of its forest ecosystem [2]. Detroit owes its initial wealth in large part to the timber trade, with timber barons overseeing the harvesting of the great Michigan white pine forests [3]. Beginning in the mid-19th century, white pines became the most desired tree species of the Great Lakes states. It was not long until Michigan became the leading producer of lumber in the United States, a title that it held into the early 20th century.

Historic white pine land coverage and raw resource extraction sites.


As the wealth extracted from Michigan’s forests accumulated, these business magnates turned their attention towards the next great export from Michigan — the automotive industry. This shift in capital from forestry to car manufacturing created a need for new methods of power generation, and in 1903 the first power plant began construction: the Delray 1, built by the Detroit Edison Company and projected to supply up to 6,000 kilowatt generating capacity, enough to power all of Detroit for the next twenty years [4].

The sudden influx of electricity facilitated the urbanization and culture of Detroit in a significant way. From towering arc lights to electric streetcars, Detroit established itself as a place of high culture, a civilized city with burgeoning new-age amenities. This was soon followed by rapid urbanization and the sprawling expansion of the city’s infrastructure. Today, the city has significantly reduced the amount of power generation within the city limits, and the low-density, de-urbanized landscape has begun to strain under the maintenance of this vast power grid.

Timeline of Detroit’s industrial growth and energy production.


Energy + Growth

The massive facilities of energy production were situated along major waterways and railways; easy access to raw materials was the determining factor in carving out industrial zones within the city. Urban theory has grappled with the role of such infrastructural conduits on the form and development of the city. Infrastructural urbanism focused on the material expression of “networks,” many of them logistical supply connectors and infrastructural nodes such as ports, airports, and rail yards. Gabriel Dupuy’s essay, “A Revised History of Network Urbanism,” articulates the conceptualization and study of network theory that underlies the physical infrastructural systems that we are all familiar with. His characterization of topological, kinetic, and adaptive, frames the shift from centrality to nodal systematic organization of our cities [5].

Report of the Street Railway Commission and the Rapid Transit Commission to Hon. John C. Lodge, Mayor, and Hon. The Common Council on a rapid transit system for the city of Detroit. Detroit, MI: Street Railway Commission.


The shift towards network urbanism serves to explain the state of our contemporary cities, as does a long-standing set of policies invested in the project of decentralization. At the time, notable figures such as Frank Lloyd Wright imagined a democratizing utopian potential in radical decentralization, best captured in his “Broadacre City” project, and actually perceived the dense metropolis as an antiquated mode of living.  Furthermore, the expansion of industry to cheaper and larger pieces of land created linear cities that expanded the geographic reach of power supply, which focused on swaths of land within a certain proximity of the existing rail lines, which in turn served as connections to other industries and to electricity. These rail lines were the basic determinants of the location of Detroit’s automobile production in 1929 [6].

Nevertheless, electrical production continues to move towards the peripheries of the city. Power plants that used to run primarily on coal have either closed down or converted to cleaner methods of energy generation [7]. This transition is occurring not only in Detroit, but also statewide and even globally. For example, over the last decade, Michigan has more than halved its coal-fired power generation from 66% to 32% and doubled its renewable energy output from 4% to 10% [8, 9].

Population densities and power grid in Detroit.


It should come as no surprise that with more than half of the state’s land area covered by forest, Michigan has abundant woody biomass resources. In 2017, biomass power accounted for 16% of the renewable power generation in the state [10]. While that figure might not seem like a significant quantity with respect to coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy production, it is a vital piece of Michigan’s renewable energy portfolio.

While biomass energy production has been widely classified under the umbrella of “carbon neutral” or “renewable” sources of energy production (in the European Union, for example), not all forms of biomass are created equally. The capitalization of wood waste as an energy source has been discussed as being a more sustainable approach to biomass energy production, as contrasted with the more extractive practices of harvesting entire forests for the sole purpose of incineration. In 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that “carbon neutrality cannot be assumed for all biomass energy a priori [11].” It should be noted that biomass energy producers in Michigan do not harvest trees specifically for energy. According to Michigan’s biomass trade group, biomass fuel is sourced from “wherever clean, sustainable wood waste is generated, forest to factory, cradle to grave. Biomass power generation provides a market for wood and alternative fuels that wouldn’t exist otherwise [12].” Just like forests initially provided the biomass that built Detroit’s initial wealth, sustainably sourced biomass could and should become a much bigger piece of the city’s energy picture.


Industrial Artifact

Perhaps the biggest transformative factor in Detroit in the early 20th century was the brainchild of Henry Ford. The Fordist methods of production afforded a new scale and magnitude to industry, which indelibly left its mark on the urban fabric through the building of magnificent industrial architecture and infrastructure. The infrastructural markers of the city, like that of the Mistersky Power Station, displayed admiration in its architectural details, machinic assemblage, and monumental verticality.

Three of Detroit’s decommissioned power plants that now sit in obsolescence.


Today, the Mistersky Plant, along with several other plants, sits in magnificent obsolescence, unable to contribute to the Detroit power grid. The imagery of these decommissioned stations conveys the “patinated confections” emblematic of ruin porn, while a barbed wire fence encloses the once-productive symbol of burgeoning technological progress [13]. This six-story brick coal-fired power station was originally constructed in 1927, but the high costs of modernization to keep up with market rates for energy production led to its decommissioning in 2010 [14].

The most recent removal of antiquated power production is the closure of the Detroit Incinerator. This “renewable” energy plant was first developed in the 1970s, and for decades has been a central flashpoint of environmental justice protests in the city, becoming both a stink hole and taxpayer sinkhole for the residents of Detroit. According to the Detroit Metro Times, “before the plant was even paid off, the city sold it to a private owner in 1991 for a mere $54 million. Only in 2009, 20 years after the facility opened, did Detroit pay off the tab, which, including interest, amounted to at least $1 billion [15].” This expenditure of Detroit’s tax dollars going toward a polluting nuisance is no longer; the plant officially closed in March of 2019. The site is primed for a transformation from a community plague to a center of community growth and could be reimagined as a hub in the agroforestry and recycling industry, poised to transform the power dynamics in the city of Detroit.

Residents of Detroit Protesting Detroit Incinerator (1986-1990). Image Courtesy of Millard Berry.



The vacancies of the city are ripe for revaluation. By utilizing the existing energy infrastructure components that include railroad lines, major trucking routes, and waterfront access, the Power Plant Power proposal establishes a new system of cultivation that would transform the consumption and production of energy in the city of Detroit. Through a re-utilization of existing infrastructures, agroforestry and alternative productive landscapes could catalyze a new system of alternative energy production. This radical rethinking of production can act as a method of co-generation and creation, where the resulting physical materials could be utilized by resident stewards and surrounding communities.

Map showing Detroit’s major rail lines and highlighting the vacant properties available as potential bio-tracts within 1/2 mile radius of the existing rail line.


Over the last century, Detroit has faced immense population decline, with nearly a third of its 139 square miles becoming vacant [16]. This phenomenon can be seen throughout the residential fabric of the city, with many homes sitting in isolation, surrounded by unkempt lots and emerging woodlands reclaiming the vacant landscapes. These vacant parcels are associated with crime and illegal dumping, putting a strain on the city’s limited police and fire resources [17]. Not only can agroforestry provide a means for stabilizing the economic strain of massive vacancies, but the productive management of the land by resident stewards can provide a means for building capital.

Energy outcomes of agricultural products cultivated from the bio-tracts.


The potential of agricultural products is vast and diverse. In order to speculate on future possibilities, the proposal highlights three potential outcomes: bioproducts and their accompanying bioresearch, engineered timber products for construction, and recreational activities and community facilities.


Plant Power

In this proposal, the decommissioned power plants, now benefit new forms of cultural production. They become spaces for the public, where material production and the resulting communal programs sit on display for appropriation and use by the residents of the city.

Half-mile radius documenting the surrounding context of the decommissioned power plants in Detroit.


Mistersky Station, Conners Creek Station, and the Incinerator have the potential to be reimagined as neighborhood institutions that build local community empowerment through public education programs, employment, and research. Where they once stood as megalithic symbols of industry, they can now serve as beacons for local communities. By leveraging new forms of agro-production, these centers can house concurrent neighborhood development programming to provide residents with the tools necessary to maximize the economic and ecological potential of their sites.

Actor Network map detailing possible outcomes of decommissioned power plants acting as facilitators and generators of new power production.


At the same time that it radically rethinks energy generation in the city of Detroit, this proposal seeks to account for past agricultural traditions and to provide a more holistic approach to the concept of power and production. The systems that are created through this paradigmatic shift strive to disrupt the forces that maintain power in the city of Detroit, re-establishing new networks of power around physical entities that are both renewable and regenerative — pieces of infrastructure that serve not as abstract powerhouses of industrial production, but new nodes of local empowerment.



We would like to acknowledge Associate Professor Geoff Thün and his seminar Scripting Future Urbanisms at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning for providing the framework from which this proposal was conceived. We would also like to acknowledge María Arquero de Alarcón for her guidance in helping to develop this research into Salvador Lindquist’s graduate thesis, Incinerator Incorporated.


Salvador Lindquist is an urban designer and a licensed landscape architect with several years of experience in practice operating on projects at a multitude of scales.  From regional planning to site design, Salvador’s academic and professional career to date interrogates how urban interventions can be better situated within the larger systematic context of our cities and regions. Currently a Master of Urban Design candidate at Taubman College, his research interests explore emerging modes and dynamics of power in the transformation of the urban landscape with a particular focus on post-industrial cities. After graduation, Salvador will be a lecturer in landscape architecture at his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Eric Minton is a designer whose work focuses on finding solutions to complex architectural and planning problems, specifically focusing on how the ideological and aesthetic implications of architectural rehabilitation influence community engagement and development. Eric received his Master of Architecture and Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Eric has also studied at Les Ecoles d’Art Américaines de Fontainebleau where he focused on hand-drawn studies of the renowned Fontainebleau Château and its magnificent formal gardens. He is currently a Project Designer at AOS Architects in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with a focus on historic preservation and the rehabilitation of industrial buildings into new housing stock.



[1] Meadows, Donella. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.”

[2] Schaetzl, Randall. “White Pine Logging: A Background.” Accessed April 17, 2019. Vast tracts of white pine, ideal for the production of construction lumber, are naturally abundant in Michigan.

[3] Schaetzl, Randall. “White Pine Logging: A Background.”

[4] Bragg, Amy Elliott. “How the Rise of Electricity Transformed Urban Life in Detroit.” Model D, July 15, 2014.

[5] Dupuy, G. (2000). A revised history of network urbanism. Network Urbanism, OASE, (53), 3–29. Retrieved from

[6] Fishman, Robert. “Detroit: Linear City.” In Mapping Detroit: Land, Community, and Shaping a City, 77-99. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2015.

[7] Fleming, Leonard N. “DTE Energy Speeds up Closing of Coal-Fired Plants.” Detroit News. The Detroit News, March 29, 2019.

[8] Michigan Energy Overview, Michigan Energy Overview § (2011).

[9] “U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis.” Michigan – State Energy Profile Overview – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), May 16, 2019.

[10] “Michigan Biomass.” Michigan Biomass, February 2019.

[11] Cho, Renee. “Is Biomass Really Renewable?” State of the Planet. Earth Institute Columbia University, October 19, 2016.

[12] “Michigan Biomass.” Michigan Biomass, February 2019.

[13] Clutter, McLain. “Notes on Ruin Porn.” The Avery Review | 18. October 2016.

[14] Bragg, Amy Elliott. “How the Rise of Electricity Transformed Urban Life in Detroit.” Model D. Accessed April 24, 2019.

[15] Jackman, Michael. “Why the Detroit Incinerator Is Costly, Dirty, Smelly, Dangerous – and Unnecessary.” Detroit Metro Times. Detroit Metro Times, August 11, 2019.

[16] Associated Press,”Survey: A Third of All Detroit Lots Are Vacant or Abandoned,” MLive,February 20, 2010,

[17] David Lepeska, “Is Blotting the Best Solution for Shrinking Cities?” CityLab,November 10, 2011,



Salvador Lindquist and Eric Minton, “Power Plant Power,” Scenario Journal 07: Power, December 2019,


Arctic Present: The Case Of Teriberka

The landscape of a country is always a playground for political events. So it is in the case of Russia, where over the past century, across a huge territory, almost all the landscape of the country has undergone significant changes as a consequence of evolving political and strategic interests.


Teriberka on the world map


Though the Northern Territories are defined by extreme conditions, they were articulated as being of extreme importance based on their abundance of resources. At the beginning of the 20th century, they became the sites of heavy industrialization processes, based on the planned economy. In order to rapidly explore and industrialize the land, the whole territory was redefined as a huge machine, which has to work coherently to achieve these goals [1]. The North had to become the main provider for this program. Therefore the Northern pioneer cities were established to maintain the enormous masses of workers, resettled from all over the country.

From a geopolitical perspective, fighting for the North nowadays makes more sense than ever before. Nevertheless, the question of fighting for human presence in the North remains open. Certainly, keeping a constant settlement in the North is unprofitable, demanding lots of resources and energy while constantly facing new problems [2].



The notion of the “border zone” defines the special status of the perimeter lands of the Russian state, with precise restrictions on access and land use [3]. Historically the settlement structure in the border areas was based on economic and cultural exchange with the bordering countries (traditionally this territory was under the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance). The coastline settlements were naturally established during the process of land development from the seaside, and they were sea-oriented in terms of resources and of the means of transportation. In the 20th century, the border zone became a “frozen belt”, which caused the “thinning” of the territories along the borders (with the forced evacuation of residents to other settlements inland) [4] and the placing of new outposts (in fact military bases) along the coastline. Many cities became isolated military-industrial “closed cities,” with access tightly regulated.

With the collapse of the USSR the border regulations were temporarily suspended and the width of the border zones shrank to 15 km. Moreover, their oversight was given to the regional administrations, which resulted in the monopolization of resources (especially where fossil fuels and natural sea resources are concerned).

“New Blue Economy”: Water-based economic relations in Barents Region


Vicinity of Teriberka


Forever Ephemeral

After the end of resource-intensive investment in arctic settlement during the 20th century, the North nowadays is balancing between the thinning epidemic of population loss and the new models of extraction-driven Petropolis utopia. In the contemporary conditions driven by the market economy and the age of advanced technology, the land is rated mainly by its profit value, with no regard for the essence of the local landscape. Present trends illustrate increased human dependence on natural resources and maintenance of the ecological balance, though it has already become an unattainable goal.

The historical nomadic nature of settlement is back, but in a new form, driven by hydrocarbon resources and operated by machines. The tendency of relocations from uninhabitable northern sites runs parallel to official abandonment of the settlements, partially maintaining just a few strategic ones. The consequences of such trends are already visible, but the real effects will present themselves in the nearest future. The new explorations are realized in a nomadic way with constant relocations and temporary structures. This, on the one hand, thins the land and the urban structure, and on the other creates new transformations which lead to the vitally important re-urbanization of the land, gradually erasing the traces of the previous interventions. But whereas the fossil fuel-based nomadic urbanism with its exploitative nature destroys the natural land- and waterscapes, with no possibility for recovery, there are other rational and responsible ways to develop these territories.

Research Camp Teriberka


Impossibility of the North

The small remote fishing village of Teriberka used to be known as one of the rest stops on Pomor [6] trade routes between Norway and Russia from the 16th century. Then it was constantly varying in scale seasonally (from 10 residents in the wintertime to up to 800 visitors).

Teriberka was established as a sea-based settlement, oriented on the use of sea resources and oriented at international trade and connections. Nowadays the settlement has become introverted and shifted its orientation towards the land, deprived of its main defining source — the waterscape. It is remote and lacks basic infrastructure and ground transportation facilities.

Just recently (2009) the “closed city” status — now known in post-USSR modern Russia as a “closed administrative-territorial formation” — was repealed in Teriberka and some other settlements at the Kola Peninsula during the preparations for the new gas-development project at the Stockman field in the Barents Sea [7]. The land which used to be isolated from the public for many years became accessible to everyone, including international tourists. Nevertheless, the area extending from the coastline out to 12 nautical miles offshore remains in the status of the territorial waters (1982, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). This status presupposes the existence of certain special regulations on use. This means, that the coastline location affects the economic, cultural and everyday life of the settlement.


Barents Region Network


Barents Region

Considering territory not as part of a national state but rather as the coexisting place of certain communities, which share common interests and have to deal with similar issues, sparks reconsideration of the notion of national borders and the introduction of borderland regulations. Land with open borders is more likely to be populated by open-minded people. In this project, the Barents region evolves into a self-sustaining territory, founded on special economic regulations.

New Blue Economy shall be established in the network of settlements along the coastline of the Barents Sea and the White Sea. Providing the rural areas of Finnmark and Kola Peninsula with strong water and air connections aims to deal with the remoteness and support the economy, as well as establish new cultural interactions. Amongst other improvements is to make the territory of Teriberka and some other northern cities a visa-free zone as a part of special economic agreements and cooperation. This dispersed but networked structure of compact units promises to become a strong alternative to urban sprawl.

Shrinking settlements are becoming highly unprofitable and hard to maintain in the traditional way, especially the remote ones. When the settlement gets too small, it is in need of re-organization and re-establishing of basic life principles. This project proposes to turn coastal settlements into autonomously functioning units, taking advantage of the weather and natural environment and benefiting from it wherever possible. Sufficiency is the key aspect of the new lifestyle. By providing communities with basic necessities, each settlement finds its own balance of communal and individual demands.

Settlements can be considered as islands, nodes of a decentralized network. Self-sustaining to the maximum extent possible, they strive not only to survive in severe Arctic conditions but also to accumulate the strength of the communities.  In order to keep and develop their links to other settlements inland and internationally, localities (each one acting as an independent member) use such instruments as cultural festivals, sports competitions, discussions, open forums, and celebrations, involving their neighbors from the Region to participate. Teriberka, as part of this network, shall become simultaneously both globally open and site-oriented.

Teriberka: View from above. Para-kites are harvesting wind energy


Research Camp Teriberka

Aiming to meet a healthy balance between the natural environment and the artificial elements as a continuation of the landscape, the area around the settlement turns into a research camp. To be able to act sufficiently and responsively, the specialists would have to diagnose the landscape and the waterscape simultaneously.

The project also involves embedding of new technology, testing it specifically in a northern environment. Companies are welcome to test their pilot projects and to contribute to the stable development of the village. In order to maximally profit from the geographical location and overcome the negative factors of the remoteness, the implied projects are to profit on modifying the basic service facilities into responding efficiently and creatively to the climate, as well as to integration in the public.

Lodeynaya Bay Section: research subjects


Axonometric view of the Teriberka village showing the blockchain energy scheme


There is considerable potential for the Kola Peninsula coast to provide itself autonomously with renewable wind energy [8]. Once deployed, a para-kites system would serve the dynamic and publicly accessible process of harvesting wind energy in the entire Arctic region, and in Teriberka in particular [9]. Unlike contemporary large-scale wind infrastructures, this system would respond to the dynamic character of the tundra landscape – it could become an iconic marker of the dispersed nomadic settlements. Decentralized autonomous networks, based on the blockchain peer-to-peer principle, shall manage the resource consumption in the villages. Thus it shall enable people to explore potential effects of decentralized energy, currency, and governance on their lives while being not anchored to one place.

Interactive and responsive programs shall involve both residents and visitors in order for them to contribute to the research programs of testing the viability of locally produced, renewable wind energy for domestic services (such as electrical, heating, water and sanitation supply systems, transport connections), as well as for sport and leisure activities.  The results of such experiments, as well as the process of testing itself, will be available at the open data centers situated in both Teriberka and Lodeynoe, and will be discussed and negotiated with the locals publicly. Thus the whole process tends to be maximally transparent and will be sure to generate public awareness, discussion, and the efficient communication of Teriberka’s future plans.

Teriberka: forever ephemeral


Nomadic Nature

In the land of eternal light and eternal night, where the oceans control the weather and the natural cycles, provide the food and energy, the lifestyle is totally based on Nature. Its already vibrant character is overlapped with the range of human activities, celebrations, festivals, and other forms of collectivity. Untouched territory here serves as a unique opportunity to rethink human presence in a delicate ecological context, and to benefit from the continuous void.

The physical structures are not of importance for the nomadic camp. Space may be transformed intellectually, programmatically, technically, atmospherically, mythically — the physical is not a constant. Temporal life-supporting structures play the biggest role in such settlements. For Teriberka and Lodeynoye, as for the water-based localities in the remote North, the critical facilities are transportation, energy and heating systems, water and food supply.

Lodeynoye and Teriberka – development plan


Year events calendar – occupation of the space


In the project, space becomes expressed by the routine rituals and traditions — in other words, the necessary domestic everyday activities, which are tied to the lifestyle of the Russian North so inseparably, that they shape the architectural environment. The facilities are intended to fulfill the fisherman’s daily routines, the possibility of weekend escape (dachas). They include a public banya and water culture center (as traditionally there are no baths in most of the houses), private family banyas, farming (with greenhouses to fully benefit from the solar activity in summertime), a tavern (in the Russian tradition one should never drink alone), tea rooms, organized outside places  for communication or contemplation, and a health resort and rehabilitation center on the sandy coast. Apart from these facilities, there shall be some intended to recover the decayed but still desirable community public establishments, as well as those supporting the existing forms of collective life, such as the church parish, school, and kindergarten, house of culture, community club (allowing for all the different activities from the disco and theatre to the weekly sports and round-tables).

All these centers of activities and local life in the villages are aimed at providing the residents and visitors with the clearly traditional and necessary forms of interactions and engagement with the landscape. Even if it does not show demand, even if the populations remain small, Teriberka needs principles and structures capable of varying in scale or being altered whenever needed, both intellectually and physically, in both the landscape imagination and the architectural reality.

Banya in the village


 Viktoria Khokhlova is an architect and urbanist who enjoys working with spaces and future scenarios. She studied in Russia, Lichtenstein and Germany, where she obtained her Master Degree in Architecture (M.A., Dipl.-Ing.) at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). Viktroia has worked alongside international colleagues on projects in Moscow, Tyumen, Eindhoven, and is currently based in Munich.



[1] Koolhaas, Rem. (2018). “Koolhaas on the Countryside.” Arquitectura viva (203), p.12. Originally published in The World in 2018 yearbook of “The Economist” and in “Tiempo.”

[2] Sheppard, Lola and Mason White. (2017). Many Norths: Spatial Practice in a Polar Territory. Actar Publishers.

[3] Official publications of Border Security Zones limits across the subjects of the Russian Federation,

[4] Martin, Terry. (1998). “The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing.” Journal of Modern History 70, no. 4: 813-861.

[5] White, Mason and Lola Sheppard. (2008, August) “Thawing Urbanisms in the Arctic.” MONU, No. 09: Exotic Urbanism.

[6] “Pomors.” Barentsinfo. Retrieved from

[7] Minin, Valery. (2012). “Economical aspects of the small-scale renewable energy development in the remote settlements on the Kola Peninsula.” Murmansk: Bellona Foundation.

[8] On the 26th  of December2020 Shtockman Development AG had announced the liquidation of the company and its branch in Teriberka;

[9] The Kite Power Systems technology has been researched and developed since 2011 by a team of engineers at KPS. “Technology.” KPS, Retrieved from



Viktoria Khokhlova, “Arctic Present: The Case of Teriberka,” Scenario Journal 07: Power, December 2019.


Coal Ash Wastescapes: The Byproduct Of Our Coal-Fired Power Dependency

Coal-fired power stations play a critical role in the production of electricity in the United States. Coal is delivered to the power plant, coal is burned to turn water into steam, turbines spin the generators, and electricity is created. Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story.

Since the dawn of coal-fired power stations, a stream of waste has been continuously growing. As coal is burned to produce electricity, non-combustible byproducts are collected from the stack and boiler, water is added, and the slurry is piped into pits in the landscape. In 2017, over 111 million tons of coal ash were produced in the U.S. [1].

Historically, coal ash has been stored in unlined intrusions in the landscape. Commonly referred to as coal ash ponds, these waste sites are contained by earthen dams. Without a liner, the liquefied coal ash can seep into groundwater. The earthen dams are continuously threatened by storms, flooding, and engineering failure. These ponds are an unstable form of containment.

Chesterfield Power Station and coal ash ponds, Chesterfield, VA. Chesterfield Power Station is the largest fossil-fueled power station in Virginia [2]. Image by Lauren Delbridge


The Hidden Problem

As coal ash is left to rest in ponds, the problem comes from the heavy metals within the ash itself. As coal is burned, trace amounts of arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, and other metals remain in the ash. Coal-fired power plants are generally located along rivers and bodies of water, and so their coal ash ponds pose an even larger threat to water supplies. For decades, these coal ash ponds have gone relatively unnoticed by the public and the media, allowing the waste and dangerous contents to seep and spill into surrounding communities and waterways.

How did we get here?

The placement of these coal-fired power stations is most concerning. These power stations are dependent on two constants: water and space. This leads to an unfortunate pattern of placement on the cheapest land along the water’s edge. In many cases, the communities around these power stations were already at a disadvantage. A 2012 NAACP report revealed that individuals living within three miles of a coal power plant have an average per capita income of $18,400, which was less than the U.S. average of $21,587. In addition, an estimated 39% of these individuals are people of color [8]. Coal ash ponds have only added to the struggles of these vulnerable communities. The heavy metals in coal ash leach into the groundwater that many households rely on for their drinking water wells. The ash can seep into the nearby rivers and lakes used for recreation, and the dams used to contain the ash ponds can fail, resulting in large-scale disasters.


 Flow of materials in coal-fired power stations. Image by Lauren Delbridge


We have, rightly, spent decades focusing on the carbon emissions of coal-fired power stations, but coal ash ponds pose an even more immediate safety threat. In 2008, a dam failure at Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant resulted in over 1 billion gallons of coal ash flooding the Emory River [3]. In 2014, a ruptured pipe at a North Carolina Duke Energy retired power plant sent over 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River [3]. These catastrophic events captured the attention of the EPA and led to long-awaited attempts to regulate coal ash ponds.

In December 2014, the EPA set the first national standards for coal ash disposal. In addition to forcing significant-hazard or high-hazard coal ash ponds into regulatory compliance, the rule also recognized coal ash itself as a “non-hazardous waste” [4]. This classification was meant both to encourage the beneficial reuse of ash, and to hand over control of these ponds to states. The non-hazardous label allows states, and not the EPA, to be the enforcers of coal ash legislation. Ultimately, coal ash ponds are being forced to close across the nation.

Coal ash ponds are at a critical point of flux. Currently there are two widely accepted closure methods for coal ash ponds. The cap-in-place solution dewaters the ash in place, caps the waste with an impermeable geomembrane layer, and leaves the waste sealed in place [5]. The clean closure solution dewaters the ash, excavates the waste, and relocates the material to an engineered landfill [5]. While both solutions are engineered to minimize seepage and spills, they aren’t creating spaces with people in mind. Coal ash ponds have been damaging communities, waterways, and the environment for many years; now is the time to reclaim these wastescapes.

Clean closure engineered solution. Fully lined landfills contain possible contaminants but make no space for people. Image by Lauren Delbridge.


A Nation Covered in Ash

Nearly every state in the U.S. is affected by a coal ash site. In Charlotte, North Carolina, there are three coal-fired power plants with coal ash ponds within 30 miles from my home. Even more troubling is the fact that two of these power plants and their respective ash ponds are on the banks of lakes that supply the city of Charlotte’s drinking water.  Designated by the EPA as high hazard coal ash ponds, these ponds are a threat to the city’s water supply, a story shared by many towns and cities across the nation [6].

Coal ash waste sites in the United States. Image by Lauren Delbridge



How can we transform these wastescapes?

Now is the time to think innovatively about coal ash ponds and the potential future of these sites. As ponds across the US are being forced to close, we should be pushing beyond an engineered solution. There is a growing amount of research surrounding the reuse and recycling of coal ash; however, the majority of coal ash is still disposed of in a coal ash pond or landfill.

Landscape architects should be driving the conversations about what these sites can become. It is imperative to reclaim these damaged lands, and to do so in a way that responds to communities, water systems, and the environment.


Artful Wastescape. Exploration of creative landfill strategies to build an iconic landscape. While landfills will most effectively contain heavy metals, they should be designed for human interaction. Images by Lauren Delbridge



Remediated Ecologies. Exploration of in-situ remediation techniques to recreate habitats for species long forgotten on site. Coal ash contains organic matter suitable for experimental planting. Images by Lauren Delbridge.


Creative Waste Disposal Precedents

Although there are no precedent examples of transformed coal ash pond sites, there are numerous global examples of creative waste disposal strategies. Recent travels to the Ruhr Valley in Germany revealed particularly interesting outlooks on waste and the activation of wastescapes. This industrial region of Germany is celebrating the history of industry — coal in particular — even bringing attention to the byproducts of their industrial successes. It is critical to take cues from how other countries are handling the by-products of their power dependencies.

Beckstraße Tip + Tetraeder, Bottrop. Mining spoil from the adjacent coal mine is left in a mountainous pile. This spoil tip encourages visitors to climb to the summit to experience its iconic “Tetraeder” sculptural landmark. Images by Lauren Delbridge


Zollverein, Essen. Coal mine and coking plant turned UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site digs into the industrial history of the Ruhr region of Germany, and educates the public on the processes that took place within its walls. Images by Lauren Delbridge


Himmelstreppe, Gelsenkirchen. A former colliery site and spoil tip scattered with sculptural remnants of the industrial past. The peak of the spoil tip is apocalyptic; devoid of vegetation and topped by an overwhelming sculpture. Images by Lauren Delbridge


Where are we going? 

“People think coal ash is not going to be a problem because utilities are switching to natural gas and it’s cleaner,” says Avner Vengosh, a geochemist at Duke University who studied the Kingston and Dan River spills. “But the legacy of coal ash production and disposal is going to be with us for ages. These contaminants don’t biodegrade [7].”

We have long overlooked the issue of coal ash ponds and have been unwilling to face the consequences of our coal-fired power dependency. We have spent decades covering up our problem — hiding ash in ponds and basins behind fences and barricades. We have stripped our mountains for coal, burned tons upon tons of coal to generate power, and dumped the waste into vulnerable landscapes and communities. Now is the time to take back the land these power stations have desecrated and transform the waste into landscapes that give back to the environment and their surrounding communities.


Lauren Delbridge received her Bachelors of Landscape Architecture from Virginia Tech, where she was first introduced to the issue of coal ash ponds. Her work with these sites earned her the 2017 Undergraduate National Olmsted Scholar award from the Landscape Architecture Foundation. Lauren has continued to be involved with the Landscape Architecture Foundation, recently completing the 2018-2019 LAF Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership where she continued to investigate the future of coal ash ponds. Lauren currently works as a landscape designer for LandDesign in Charlotte, NC.




[1] 2017 Coal Combustion Product Production & Use Survey Report. PDF. Farmington Hills, MI: American Coal Ash Association. 2018.

[2] “Chesterfield Power Station.” Chesterfield Power Station | Dominion Energy. Accessed October 15, 2018.

[3] “Coal Ash Disasters.” Appalachian Voices. Accessed March 10, 2019.

[4] “Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities.” EPA. March 13, 2019. Accessed April 15, 2019.

[5] Larson, Aaron. “Coal Combustion Residuals Rule Compliance Strategies.” POWER Magazine. 31 May 2016. Accessed 15 September, 2016.

[6] Coal Combustion Residuals Impoundment Assessment Reports. PDF. EPA, June 24, 2016.

[7] “Coal’s other dark side: Toxic ash that can poison water and people.” National Geographic. February 19, 2019. Accessed August 2, 2019.

[8] Coal Blooded. Putting Profits Before




Lauren Delbridge, “Coal Ash Wastescapes: The Byproduct of Our Coal-Fired Power Dependency,” Scenario Journal 07: Power, December 2019,



Infrastructure is always political, and energy transitions have always been contested, pitting established players against upstart technologies and new coalitions. How can a radical reimagining of energy infrastructure create opportunities for an inclusive and participatory conversation about climate change and social justice? Who has the power to talk about infrastructure, and who gets left out?