City Ground

The making of geological strata — the very ground beneath our feet — is an essential component of the mass shift of humankind to urban living.

NSA Station, Teufelsberg, Berlin
NSA Station, Teufelsberg, Berlin. [via Dronestagram]

The talent the geological sciences have for placing humans on unfathomable time lines — in which human history appears as little more than a gracious footnote to forces too powerful to measure and too slow to watch — seems to be exercised less and less as images of melting glaciers and exponential curves produce a very different kind of feeling. … The image of the city, in particular, as a thing that is made of geology or on geology, increasingly has to contend with the idea of the city as a thing that makes geology.

— Seth Denizen, “Three Holes: In the Geological Present”

The Ground Beneath Our Feet

From the wooded summit in the Grunewald, a large expanse of the flat East European plain stretches out to a hazy horizon. The glitzy new landmarks of post-Cold War Berlin stud the distant panorama; the needle-like TV tower of Alexanderplatz is slightly farther away. Teufelsberg, at a height of 400 feet, is comfortably the highest spot in Berlin. An expansive and verdant peak, it might easily be mistaken for a geological feature with a history stretching back millions of years, or, perhaps, as the remnant of moraine shunted here by some primeval ice sheet.

Beneath Teufelsberg — the ‘devil’s mountain’ — lie the dark ruins of verticalized total war.

Yet Teufelsberg is barely half a century old. Beneath its soils lie not a complex geological stratigraphy but rather the dark ruins of verticalized total war. Between the summit and the earlier surface of the land lies one-seventh of all the rubble removed from the bombed-out cities of Germany in the arduous postwar clearing and reconstruction that went on between 1945 and 1972. As the late W. G. Sebald recorded, in “The Natural History of Destruction,” by the end of World War II, “there were 31.1 cubic meters of rubble for every inhabitant of Cologne and 42.8 cubic meters for every inhabitant of Dresden.” 1

Teufelsberg — literally, the “devil’s mountain,” in German — was formed from the remains of a large part of pre-war Berlin, from the 50,000 burnt and bombed-out buildings that were reduced to 75 million tons of rubble. Beneath the deceptively pastoral peak, where contemporary Berliners picnic in summer and sled in winter, there rests a dead city: the grim result of the techno-industrial processes of aerial annihilation and modern warfare. It is of course perversely fitting that the dominating new peak would become, in the early 1960s, the site of one of the largest listening posts of the U.S. National Security Agency; today the tattered structures of the abandoned Field Station Berlin are a tourist attraction.

Mining, construction, agriculture, waste: The deliberate shift of material by humans now amounts to 59 billion tons a year.

Teufelsberg serves as a powerful reminder of the capacity of humans to forge the very ground beneath our feet — to manufacture our own geological history. This is a capacity we often overlook. Modern humans tend to naturalize the ground; to construe the earth — terra firma — as the immutable and natural product of geological processes working over eons. This understandable tendency leads also to a predominant sense of ground as inherently horizontal — the surface of the earth stretching to and beyond the horizon. Yet this perspective underplays the importance of the vertical composition of ground. For the terrestrial material of our rapidly urbanizing species is increasingly anything but “natural”: it is the vertical accumulation of manufactured ground. The making of geological strata is an essential but often neglected component of the mass shift of humankind to urban living; it is also a crucial by-product of the industrialized technologies of construction, agriculture, mining, and warfare.

Geologists now estimate that the deliberate shift of material by humans due to construction, agriculture, and mining, as well as the generation and movement of waste, now amounts to around 59 billion tons a year. 2 Rising levels of global urban development mean this figure is growing fast. 3 Little wonder that geologists are on the verge of formally declaring that we have moved from the post-glacial Holocene to the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene: the age in which human agency shapes land and soil, the very geology of the earth, as well as the atmosphere, biosphere, and oceans, more powerfully than any other force.

Broken amphora at Monte Testaccio, Rome.
Broken amphora at Monte Testaccio, the ancient Roman landfill. [Steve Browne]

Geologists describe human-generated geological features like Teufelsberg as “artificial” or “manufactured” ground. Not surprisingly, such ground is densest and most complex in ancient cities that have been inhabited — rebuilt again and again — over millennia. It is particularly thick beneath old industrial cities which have experienced many cycles of construction and destruction: cycles as old as urbanization, though the scales of which have multiplied massively in the last two centuries. Fire, earthquake, war, decay, obsolescence, redevelopment, the desire for improvement — all can result in the destruction or demolition of buildings and infrastructures, or sometime in their absorption into a higher level of ground, aided by gravity.

Cities arise upon ground of their own making. Century upon century, they construct their own geological strata.

As geographer Seth Denizen writes, new urban soils are gradually created from “trash, construction debris, coal ash, dredged sediments, petrochemical contamination, green lawns, decomposing bodies, and rock ballast.” 4 Thus do large cities arise upon ground of their own making. Century upon century, they construct their own geological strata beyond any that might be created by “natural” processes, and eventually each once new level will sink under the accumulated weight of more recently manufactured ground; all of which gives new resonance to the metaphor of “the city on the hill.”

Consider, for instance, that fully one-fifth of Manchester is classified as “artificial ground,” and that this ground now descends to depths of more than 30 feet. The ancient city of York is built upon 25 feet of human-made strata. The surface of contemporary Rome, which rests upon many ancient worlds, has been built up by about 50 feet since the founding of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago. And since in most cultures the dead are interred below ground, these deep urban geologies contain the remains of incalculable numbers of previous urban populations. (It is estimated that six million dead are housed within the 200-mile network of tunnels, caves, and quarries that form the catacombs of Paris.) Inevitably these remains are rediscovered whenever the ground of ancient cities is disturbed though invasive construction.

The surface of Rome, which rests upon many ancient worlds, has been built up by about 50 feet in the past two thousand years.

In artificial ground, as in most other geological formations, depth down is usually equated with temporal distance back into history. More recently, though, the aggressive processes of modern urban redevelopment — based on deep excavation, the driving of piles into rock, the construction of extensive subterranean infrastructures — have been producing highly intricate and complicated artificial ground. “Successive phases of development,” as the geologist Simon Price and his colleagues stress, “have added to, or in some cases re-used and recycled, this artificial ground, leaving a complex ‘stratigraphy’ of deposits, including drains, middens, pits, cellars, foundations and trenches among other features.” 5 Urban archaeologists have done much to explain this complex patterning of human-made ground, especially in European cities occupied more or less continuously since Roman times. 6 While occasionally entire street surfaces or discrete historic ground levels are revealed during archaeological or construction projects, it is rare for artificial ground to consist simply of the vertical accretion of historic layers, piled one upon another in situ.

Urban history is replete with examples of the extraordinary engineering that has been necessary to create the human-made geologies of major cities. Modern Mexico City was built on the ruins of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán; the conquering Spanish drained the vast lake that had surrounded the island capital and built their city upon its spongy bed. (The megalopolis of 20 million has been sinking alarmingly for many years, partly as a result of its manufactured origins.) Downtown Chicago is the product of a series of mid 19th-century engineering projects that elevated the city’s central districts above the level of the swampy shoreline of Lake Michigan. The creation of the famous gridscape of Manhattan required immense earth-moving projects that erased the island’s hilly landscape — the early Lenni Lenape inhabitants called it “Manahatta,” meaning “island of many hills” — by gnawing away the uplands and using the material to fill in the lowlands. Like much else in this apogee of modernity, Manhattan’s flatness was manufactured through wild cycles of speculation and creative destruction. 7

Snow dump in Portland, Maine
The “terminal moraine” of a snow dump in Portland, Maine. [Christian Neal MilNeil]

Like all major world cities, New York is a crucial node in the historical and contemporary human manufacture of geology. A few years ago the art and media collective Smudge Studio published a couple of informed and accessible volumes that sought to broaden cultural awareness of the city’s “geological pulse.” In Geologic City: A Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York, Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse, the duo who make up Smudge Studio, trace the distant origins of vital resources ranging from food, energy, and water to gold, steel, and concrete, and they map the geologies and landscapes created by the ceaseless cycles of construction, demolition, and waste.

A later anthology, Making the Geologic Now, contains an especially remarkable analysis of how cities have adapted to cold winters by creating their own “terminal moraines” — the landscapes that result from the debris of glaciers — by bulldozing millions of tons of dirty snow — filled with road salt, tire dust, worn brake linings, exhaust pipe chips and other detritus — into huge glacier-like mounds. These then melt in the warmer months, dumping their “moraines” and building up new layers of manufactured ground. 8 Throughout these volumes Smudge Studio provides valuable insights into the ways in which cities work to metabolize nature:

Humans channel and reshuffle earth materials on a scale and with consequences that rival major geologic events. Like an island-building volcano or a river-diverting fault shift, the City instantly transforms materials that took slow and powerful earth forces vast spans of time to create. In the process, the City unleashes utterly new geo-dynamics that will play out for thousands — and in some cases millions — of years to come.” 9

Scandinavians are exploring ways to extract valuable metals from obsolete or forgotten infrastructures like old tram lines and gasworks.

One increasingly critical urban “geo-dynamic” is the transformation of precious metals and minerals — extracted from mines and pits, processed in mills and refineries around the globe — into the vast networks of subterranean pipes, wires, and conduits that power the modern metropolis. Here we confront a new and stark irony. World urbanization is now producing spikes in commodity prices even as the frenzied expansion of mining (largely in the global south) is failing to meet the rising demand; which means as metals become scarce, the manufactured ground beneath cities is being recognized as a potential and lucrative resource.

Some Scandinavian cities are already exploring techniques that will allow them to extract the valuable metals within obsolete or forgotten infrastructures — old tram lines, disused district heating pipes, abandoned power and telephone wires, 19th-century gasworks — as resources to sustain contemporary economic development. In the Swedish industrial city of Norrköping, for instance, technology scholar Björn Wallsten estimates there are 5,000 tons of iron, copper, and aluminum available to be extracted; Wallsten further argues there is as much copper embedded in the wires of Swedish telecom and electric grids as there is left in the Aitik mine in northern Sweden — one of Europe’s largest open pit copper mines. 10

Gasworks at Hjorthagen, Sweden
Gasworks at Hjorthagen, Sweden. [Arvid Rudling]

The Archaeosphere

Geology is the study of the stratigraphic accumulation of rocks and materials through “natural” processes. Archaeology is the study of the evolution of human societies through their preserved material legacies. Which raises a pertinent question: Is manufactured ground the purview of the geologist or the archaeologist?

Well, both; the proliferation of artificial ground is drawing the two disciplines into dynamic and unprecedented collaboration. Leicester University archaeologist Matt Edgeworth has suggested that the artificial ground created by humans should be considered a hybrid domain, formed through a complex mix of natural and cultural forces; Edgeworth calls this the “archaeosphere.” 11 Historic streets, tunnels, ports, industrial sites, foundations, and religious and commercial buildings — the stuff of urban archaeology — are all understood as layered within and through the complex strata in which is contained waste, human remains, rubble, ballast, soil. As Edgworth writes:

The archaeosphere can be conceptualized as a kind of giant carpet covering large areas, on which the furniture of the human world (its buildings, bridges, monuments, pylons, oil-rigs, telegraph poles, roads, railway viaducts, cities, shanty towns, parks, airports) stands and is supported, and into which it will eventually crumble. Deep-layered in places, threadbare and patchy in others, this carpet of near-global extent provides the surface on which people carry out their lives. Like a carpet, it is so well-used it is taken almost totally for granted. 12

Booms, bubbles, slumps, depressions, demolitions, wars — all intensify the processes of erasure and ground-making.

The extreme cycles of creation, destruction, and uneven development that mark capitalist urbanism mean that rates of ruination are very high. Contemporary cities are indeed radically provisional. Booms, bubbles, slumps, depressions, demolitions, violent ideological shifts, outright wars — all intensify the processes of erasure and ground-making. 13 Today whole swathes of the urban-industrial core of Europe and North America are experiencing partial ruination and depopulation. Central Detroit, once a powerhouse of industrial modernity, the “arsenal of democracy,” has in the past generation become a powerful demonstration of these processes in reverse. Forty percent of central Detroit has been abandoned, its urban structures gradually collapsing due to arson, demolition, and decay. Vegetational succession is turning parts of the city into green open space, culminating sometimes in groves of silver birch trees — much as the land was once reclaimed after being denuded by the retreat of the ice sheets some 12,000 years ago. 14

Land reclamation in Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong. [Wikimedia Commons]

Revelations of the content of manufactured ground can offer unexpected moments of urban time travel. In New York and San Francisco, complete shorelines were created to add developable land during the urban booms of the 18th and 19th centuries. In land reclamation processes now being undertaken at much greater scales in Dubai, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands, the gaps between the old harbor piers were simply filled in with whatever landfill was at hand until new ground extended to new wharves beyond. Most extraordinarily, fleets of derelict ships were often used to help fill the spaces between the old wharves.

Hundreds of abandoned ships form part of the landfill upon which downtown San Francisco is built.

In 1982, at an excavation site at 175 Water Street in New York, archaeologists discovered what they thought was just another in a long series of old wooden wharves. But its curved shape and pitch coating, along with the tropical shipworms encrusted in the wood, revealed the structure to be an 18th-century British merchant ship called the Ronson. The ship had spent many years transporting food from New York to the slave plantations in the Caribbean, returning with sugar, fruit, and molasses. 15 Additional 18th-century ships have been unearthed under the collapsed Twin Towers during the construction of the new One World Trade Center.

Likewise, hundreds of abandoned 19th-century ships were used to form part of the landfill upon which the downtown of modern San Francisco is built. Rotting and obsolescent, these ships never returned to their original ports and were instead absorbed into the city’s sub-nature. In the 1920s, Amelia Ransome Neville, an elderly San Franciscan, recalled her amazement, as a child in the 1850s, at seeing the ships being interred. “We went, one day, down to Long Wharf,” she said, “now part of the filled-in land that extended the city’s waterfront … It was strange to see old ships built into the city streets; derelicts that had been left where they lay in the mud flats when the land was filled in, waves and lapping water forever lost to them.” 16

18th century ship discovered at a World Trade Center site
Archaeologists examine an 18th-century ship discovered at the World Trade Center construction site. [AP/Mark Lennihan]


The old adage, “Buy land — they’re not making it any more” is no longer true.
— René Kolman, “New Land in the Water”

Artificial ground — and its attendant archaeospheres — does not just accumulate over time; increasingly it is manufactured, and at immense scales, in processes that are as crucial to the coastal extension of megacities as is their more celebrated vertical extension through skyscraper construction. 17 The port of Rotterdam, for instance, has long been a key laboratory of mass land reclamation. Starting in the 1970s, the manufacture of new geology around the mouth of the Rhine allowed the development of Europort, still one of the largest container ports in the world. Here as elsewhere the practice has been so vital to urban growth that advocates argue that “‘buying’ new land by ‘making’ it through reclamation is turning out to be less expensive than developing old land.” 18

In Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands, new dredging technologies enable ever more grandiose land construction projects.

New dredging technologies — which allow sand and sediment to be sucked from seas, estuaries, and oceans from depths of several hundred feet — are enabling ever more grandiose land construction projects to be planned, funded, and engineered. Much of the Netherlands is the product of several centuries of such activity, and today new islands, like IJburg, northeast of Amsterdam, exemplify the state of the art in the engineering of new ground. In Hong Kong, six percent of the territory’s land had been reclaimed as of 2011, and controversial plans are in place to reclaim another 1,500 hectares (or almost six square miles) by 2039; increasingly the city’s celebrated skyscrapers are sited on manufactured ground. Across the border, in Guangdong Province in the People’s Republic of China, the massive infrastructural and urban growth of the past four decades has involved one of the greatest manufactures of new land in history.

In Singapore, radical territorial extension through the importing of sands and aggregate (not to mention foreign labor) has been critical to fulfilling the country’s ambitious program of high-rise construction as well as to keeping pace with population growth (from 1.6 million in 1960 to 4.8 million in 2010). 19 Between 2004 and 2014, 120 square kilometers (or 46 square miles) were added to the small city-state — 20 percent of its size at independence in 1965. A further 100 square kilometers is planned by 2030. 20 To facilitate these plans, huge stockpiles of imported sand are being held — and guarded — in the city’s Seletar and Tampines districts. The volumes are indeed enormous: one square kilometer of new ground requires 37.5 million cubic meters of sand — the capacity of nearly 1.5 million dump trucks. 21

Singapore’s expansionist ambitions are provoking regional tensions. The nearby nations of Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, noticing that entire beaches and sandy islands were disappearing as traders and smugglers sought to cash in on Singapore’s sand-import drive, have now banned the export of sand. As territory itself becomes a tradable and transportable commodity, diplomats negotiate to prevent “sand wars”; environmentalists battle the devastation of coastal and aquatic ecosystems; local communities struggle to sustain fishing and tourism industries; and politicians fear that sovereign land is being literally stolen. 22

Construction on Sentosa Island, Singapore
Construction on Sentosa Island, Singapore. [Chris Hoare]

Waste Ground

It is in the prosaic sphere of urban waste production that the manufacture of artificial ground reaches its greatest scale. The growing amount of new ground made from old stuff is the inevitable result of a global economy where, as historian Susan Strasser has written, “The growth of markets for new products came to depend in part on the continuous disposal of old things.” 23 Many of our disposed old things will make their way to landfills which, like the cities they serve, are growing rapidly. In 2002 there were about three billion urban residents on the planet, each of whom discarded, on average, 1.3 pounds of municipal waste per year, which collectively added up to 700 million tons per year. A decade later, landfill volume had almost doubled: the world’s 3.7 billion city dwellers were creating 1.3 billion tons of garbage per year. 24 In the most wasteful societies, per-capita waste generation is reaching new extremes: each urban American is estimated to produce 2,500 pounds of solid waste annually, more than half of which will be piled high into landfills, some of which are rising to skyscraper heights. 25

Each urban American produces 2,500 pounds of solid waste annually. The largest landfills are trash mountains reaching incredible heights.

Urban landfills are not only vast concentrations of the effluvia of consumerism and capitalism; they are also a new and highly toxic geology, massive emitters of greenhouse gas emissions (though in more advanced sites these are captured for use as fuel). Not surprisingly, these modern archaeospheres of artificial ground constitute prime sites for the burgeoning field of contemporary archaeology. Little wonder cultural historian Cinzia Scarpino has described landfills as “the true archaeological sites of late modernity.” 26

The largest landfills have become trash mountains, reaching heights of almost one thousand feet, with as much waste above ground as below. In the largely horizontal landscape of western Los Angeles, the landfill at Puente Hills, now almost 500 feet, is one of the city’s largest and tallest anthropogenic features. “This used to be a dairy farm; a valley filled with cows producing milk,” journalist Edward Humes, author of Garbology Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, said of Puente Hills, in 2012. “And now it’s a geological feature made out of trash.” 27

Puente Hills Landfill, Los Angeles
Puente Hills Landfill, Los Angeles. [Sanitation District of Los Angeles County]

In the megacities of the global south, landfills take on more troubling significance: many are sites of inhabitation and labor. India is now home to an estimated 1.7 million “rag pickers,” workers from the country’s impoverished lower castes who eke out a perilous existence by sifting through the trash produced by the middle and upper classes, scavenging for materials that can be recycled and resold. In a nation with few official waste recycling programs, the rag pickers are acknowledged to be filling a gap, and in some cities they have organized to form workers’ cooperatives and trade unions. But such bright spots are rare. Rising at dawn, the rag pickers — many are women and children — often travel miles to and from the dumps, carrying heavy loads back and forth, making only about $2 per day. Rag pickers are susceptible to disease, injury, and death from handling toxic materials and from collisions with waste machinery. They are also vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse from predators in the slums that cluster around the landfills in most cities. 28

In the global south, landfills are vulnerable to catastrophic slides. The rubbish of the rich buries the urban poor in densely settled slums below.

As urbanization and consumerism intensify, especially in the global south, the vertical growth of landfills is bringing a further peril: gravity itself. Poorly supported, inadequately engineered, often located on sloping and badly drained sites, landfill mountains are vulnerable to catastrophic slides and collapses caused by storms and earthquakes, or even lightning strikes. The ironies are awful: in a landfill slide, it is the piled-up rubbish of the rich that buries and often kills the urban poor in the densely settled slums below. Yet lethal waste-slides are going largely unreported and unrecorded. A few years ago the geographer Dave Petley, an authority on landslides, searched the research databases and found that “not a single paper exists on garbage landslides.” 29

Slips of artificial ground caused by massive new construction or by mining are also fast-growing risks. In November 2015, in Hpakant, Myanmar, at least 200 itinerant miners were killed as they slept when a pile of waste soil from a nearby jade mine fell upon them in the pre-dawn hours. A month later, in the Chinese megacity of Shenzhen, an estimated 74 people were killed when construction waste that had been accumulating over years on a hillside collapsed in heavy rains and buried 33 buildings — one of the very first such disasters. Officials responsible for the waste pile were quickly arrested.

Fresh Kills and New York City skyline
Fresh Kills, New York City. [Flickr/Commons]


The relationship between skyscraper and pit has taken on new implications.
— Lucy Lippard, Undermining

Landfill slides may remain relatively unreported; in contrast, some movements of waste and rubble have been the focus of sustained media saturation. In recent years the removal of the enormous volume of material created by the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, has provoked particularly intense debate. To a large degree the scrutiny has centered on the grim fact that the remains of 2,753 men and women were interred at the scene. Then and now the huge project of clearing some 1.6 millions tons of smoking debris from the 16-acre site in Lower Manhattan has raised important and difficult questions about the relationship between vertical architecture and the waste ground created when the architecture is demolished or destroyed.

Painstakingly excavated and transported across New York Harbor to Fresh Kills, the largest landfill in the metropolitan region, the waste from Ground Zero has been charged with a complex politics. First there is the history of the World Trade Center site, created over centuries from waterlogged landfill. Cultural theorist Jani Scandura offers this analysis of the “double-edged” meaning of the Twin Towers:

They were built, remember, on landfill, thus suggesting both the spectacular heights to which garbage may be raised and the less popular vision of Capital built upon the foundations of its own refuse. 30

There is also the fact that the removal process was complicated and sensitive, and the recovery operations strongly imbued with national calls and personal entreaties for sanctity and care in handling the victims’ remains and resting places. So strong was this pressure that every piece of material was raked through by hand on a series of plastic-walled “disassembly” lines. The barges that carried the rubble from Lower Manhattan to Fresh Kills, on Staten Island, were filled with crushed and broken concrete, asphalt millings and pulverized and broken steel. But they contained personal belongings and even body parts as well. As Scandura writes, the “107,000 truckloads carrying 1.62 million tons of rubble” contained:

4,100 body parts, 1,350 crushed vehicles, clumps of human hair, the engine from one of the hijacked planes, dozens of Gap bags and Fossil wristwatches, chicken bones from restaurants, silver police shields, Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance cards, leather shoes, firefighters’ boots, diamond engagement rings, American Express cards, corporate IDs, sets of keys, fragments of keyboards, broken photographs, charred photo slides, baseball memorabilia, stuffed animals, and a few battered but intact Rodin sculptures. 31

Fresh Kills thus bears the painful weight of the memory of devastating destruction. Journalist William Langewiesche observed the barges carrying the debris from the Towers gliding across the harbor, and reflected on the strangeness of the landfill that was their destination.

The hilltop was a wild-looking place, with American flags whipping in cold winds, like the outpost of a government expedition to a toxic planet. It was scattered about with heavy equipment, truck trailers, and prefabricated structures of various kinds, and roamed by hundreds of workers (typically police officers or FBI agents) who were garbed in white protective suits, respirators, gloves, and high rubber boots. … All around stood huge piles of Trade Center debris — much of it now sorted, inspected, and awaiting burial — that elicited unexpected feelings of familiarity and later even of fondness, like old acquaintances encountered in a foreign land. The hilltop was of course a part of America, and by geographic measures it was not far removed from the city: on a clear day from there you could even count the monuments of the Manhattan skyline, minus two. But it was isolated and exotic nonetheless. 32

Exotic indeed. Fresh Kills had long been the principal landfill of New York, a 2,200-acre proxy for the extraordinary volume of waste generated by postwar American consumerism. Opened in 1947, it was for years the world’s largest landfill — and one of the largest manmade structures of any kind — growing eventually to almost 250 feet tall. Closed in March 2001, it was temporarily reopened to receive the remains from the Ground Zero. Since then it has been resealed and is the focus of an ambitious landscape rehabilitation project. Master planned by the landscape architecture firm James Corner/Field Operations, “Lifescape” is a large public park constructed atop half a century of New York City’s garbage — an ecological restoration so complex that it won’t be finished until 2036.

Field Operations has integrated into the park a 9/11 memorial: a pair of horizontal earthworks that echo the Twin Towers and memorialize their violent end. Scholar Christoph Lindner describes the monument as “inclining landforms that mirror the exact width and height of each tower laid on its side.” In a further commemorative gesture, the monument will be oriented on axis with the skyline where the Towers originally stood. 33 From the horizontal expanse of the earthwork, visitors will be able to look across the harbor to the famously vertical Manhattan skyline while standing upon the remains of the destroyed towers that once dominated the view. The monument will encourage the experience of a distant absence, a once iconic panorama that has been forever altered. Thus do the absent towers, interred in what Lindner calls their “afterlife” in the rehabilitated landfill, emerge as perhaps the ultimate symbol of the ways in which the vertical structures erected against the force of gravity will eventually be remade into manufactured ground.

Editors' Note

This essay is adapted from Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers, published this month by Verso. It appears here with the permission of the publisher and author.

  1. W. G. Sebald, “A Natural History of Destruction,” The New Yorker, November 4, 2002.
  2. Pascal Peduzzi, “Sand, Rarer Than One Thinks,” Environmental Development 11, 2014, 208, Startlingly, this figure now exceeds the transport of material by the world’s rivers and oceans (22 billion tons) by almost 300 per cent. See Simon J. Price, Jonathan R. Ford, Anthony H. Cooper and Catherine Neal, “Humans as major geological and geomorphological agents in the Anthropocene: the significance of artificial ground in Great Britain,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369:1938, 2011, 1056–84,
  3. Scientists estimated that by the year 2000 around 21 tons of rock and soil were moved for every one of the planet’s then 6.5 billion humans through agriculture and construction. It was also estimated that mining and human-caused soil erosion moved ten times as much material globally as glaciers (around 42 billion tons of rock and soil per year). See Roger LeB. Hooke, “On the history of humans as geomorphic agents,” Geology 28:9, 2000, 843–6; and Gavin Bridge, “Material Worlds: Natural Resources, Resource Geography and the Material Economy,” Geography Compass 3:3, 2009, 1217–44,
  4. Seth Denizen, “Three Holes: In the Geological Present,” in Etienne Turpin, ed., Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy (New York: Anexact, 2013), 40.
  5. Simon J. Price, Jonathan R. Ford, Anthony H. Cooper, and Catherine Neal, “Humans as major geological and geomorphological agents in the Anthropocene.”
  6. See Matt Edgeworth, “The relationship between archaeological stratigraphy and artificial ground and its significance in the Anthropocene,” Geological Society, London, Special Publications 395:1, 2014, 91–108.
  7. See Eric Sanderson, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City (New York: Abrams, 2013).
  8. Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth, Geologic City: A Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York, New York (Smudge Studio, 2011). See also Chris Neal MilNeil, “Inner-City Glaciers,” in Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse, eds., Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life (New York: Punctum Books, 2013) 79–81.
  9. Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth, Geologic City: A Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York.
  10. See Björn Wallsten, The Urk World: Hibernating Infrastructures and the Quest for Urban Mining, Linköping Studies in Science and Technology, Dissertations, No. 1720, Linköping University, 2015; and Björn Wallsten, “Urks and the Urban Subsurface as Geosocial Formation,” in Science, Technology and Human Values, Sage Publications, 2016. Wallsten argues that the abandonment of metals in the artificial ground beneath cities is so great in scale that humans are currently using only 50 percent of all the metals ever extracted from the earth, and the metals embodied in human infrastructures are starting to outweigh those left in the ground.
  11. Edgeworth, “The relationship between archaeological stratigraphy and artificial ground and its significance in the Anthropocene.”
  12. Ibid.
  13. See Max Page, The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900–1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
  14. Peter Del Tredici, “The Flora of the Future,” Places Journal, April 2014,
  15. Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana diZerega Wall, Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 234.
  16. Quoted in Alex Marshall, Beneath the Metropolis: The Secret Lives of Cities (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006), 56.
  17. See Brian J. Hudson, Cities on the Shore: The Urban Littoral Frontier (London: Pinter, 1996).
  18. René Kolman, “New Land in the Water: Economically and Socially, Land Reclamation Pays,” Terra et Aqua 128, September 2012.
  19. Pascal Peduzzi, “Sand, Rarer Than One Thinks.”
  20. Maria Franke, “When one country’s land gain is another country’s land loss,” Working Paper No. 36, Institute for International Political Economy, Berlin, 2014.
  21. Joshua Comaroff, “Built on Sand: Singapore and the New State of Risk,” Harvard Design Magazine, No. 39. See also Chris Milton, “The Sand Smugglers,” Foreign Policy, August 4, 2010.
  22. See Denis Delestrac, Sand Wars, 2013. See Fazlin Abdullah and Goh Ann Tat, “The Dirty Business of Sand: Sand Dredging in Cambodia,” Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, 2012.
  23. Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Macmillan, 1999), 15.
  24. The World Bank has estimated that by 2025 the globe’s likely population of 4.3 billion urban residents will generate about three pounds of municipal solid waste per person per day, amounting to over 2.2 billion tons of landfill per year. See Daniel Hoornweg and Perinaz Bhada-Tata, “What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management,” Urban Development Series: Knowledge Papers, (Washington: World Bank, March 2012).
  25. Thelma Gutierrez and George Webster, “Trash City: Inside America’s largest landfill site,” CNN, 2012.
  26. Cinzia Scarpino, “Ground Zero/Fresh Kills: Cataloguing Ruins, Garbage, and Memory,” Altre Modernità, 2011, 237–53. See Rodney Harrison and John Schofield, After Modernity: Archaeological Approaches to the Contemporary Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  27. Quoted in Thelma Gutierrez and George Webster, ‘Trash City: Inside America’s largest landfill site.”
  28. See “Street Children, India,” 2006. For a discussion of workers’ collective and trade unions, see Daniel Brook, “Can Waste-Picking Be a Good Career?,” Next City, July 14, 2014.
  29. Dave Petley, “Garbage Dump Landslides,” American Geophysical Union Blog, 22 June 2008. Some of the larger events are now being documented. A waste-slide in Guatemala City in June 2008, for example, which killed at least 50 shanty dwellers, prompted Petley to explore records from similar disasters in the first international survey of its kind, covering 2,620 fatal waste-slides between 2004 and 2010. These, he found, buried alive and killed 32,322 people: an average of 4,617 people a year. See Karl Mathiesen, “Is the Shenzhen landslide the first of many more?,” The Guardian, December 23, 2015.
  30. Jani Scandura, Down in the Dumps: Place, Modernity, American Depression (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 3. See also Phillip Lopate, Waterfront: A Journey around Manhattan (New York: Crown, 2004).
  31. Scandura, Down in the Dumps, 2.
  32. William Langewiesche, American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (New York: North Point Press, 2002), 195.
  33. Christoph Lindner, “New York Undead: Globalization, Landscape Urbanism, and the Afterlife of the Twin Towers,” Journal of American Culture 31.3 (2008), 302-314.
Stephen Graham, “City Ground,” Places Journal, November 2016. Accessed 27 May 2022.

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