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 Phillip Rollfing  

Innovation, new designs needed

Gulf Coast needs an extreme makeover, says disaster recovery expert


According to a Texas A&M University researcher who specializes in disaster recovery and sustainable development, it's not enough to think about merely rebuilding New Orleans: America's Gulf Coast needs an extreme makeover to deal constructively with the millions of tons of waste materials that flow down the Mississippi River each day.

"What is needed is not just a clean-up," says Pliny Fisk, an architecture professor at Texas A&M. "We need to establish a new economic model for prosperity. Experts from such diverse fields as architecture, industrial ecology, biochemistry, microbiology and biomimicry are needed to address the metabolic flows of wastes into the environment and derive ways of recovering and innovatively reusing them or of finding benign replacements. We need both major planning and economic initiatives that support nature's ability to act and function efficiently. This approach often is referred to as capitalizing on nature's economy."

Fisk's concern with new designs for the Gulf Coast began in the 1960s when he was a student of renowned landscape architect Ian McHarg at the University of Pennsylvania. McHarg made him coordinator of a project to design a floating "new town" which McHarg subsequently named New Orleans East.

"My charge was to help design a new type of floating town, one that would be responsive to hurricane conditions, that would protect human life and contribute to conservation of the wetlands on which the city depends," says Fisk. "Our intent was to focus on a new kind of business development, with some businesses mimicking nature, thus putting such things as waste to good use. Other businesses would protect nature instead of fostering continued mining of heavy metals.

"One of our chief concerns was to manage the amounts and types of waste flowing into these wetlands, while maintaining the connections there between marine life and the food chain, connections which form an essential basis for our food system."

Solutions developed by Fisk's team called for the development of a series of local industries that would clean toxic wastes produced in the area and produce such things as oil from waste organics like the garbage sent down the river by the barge-full. Technologies such as pyrolysis could be used to turn waste materials into useful products ranging from energy to building components. They foresaw that such a plan could benefit Gulf Coast industries, homeowners, consumers and job seekers. They called their creation of an ecological new town "Ponchatrain East."

"A number of benefits could accrue to the nation from this industrial metabolism approach, such as reestablishing the second most productive fishing grounds (next to Alaska) in the U.S. or proving that the capacity of marsh plants to accumulate bio-hazardous waste in the delta might be as important as their protective effects during flood surges," says Fisk. "The possibility also exists to mine heavy metals from a carefully managed series of wetlands."

"We need to develop industrial-ecosystem models paralleled by good economic input-output models," he continues. "We need to understand that the one ingredient missing in U.S. planning procedures is inclusion of byproducts and toxins, especially those coming down the Mississippi River every day - this is data waiting to be put to good use and that will define our ecological and economic futures."

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Pliny Fisk