Courtesy of the North Coast Design Contest.

Sean Burkholder has pondered the industrial landscapes of the Great Lakes for more than 10 years. He is currently assistant professor for landscaping and urban planning at SUNY / University of Buffalo. His teaching and research activities cover topics of concern to the region, including reuse of urban infrastructure, urban vacancies and the management of dredging material. Next month, Burkholder is launching the North Coast Design Competition with project locations along the riverbank in Toledo, Ohio. We spoke to Burkholder about the special character of the region, how the competition can use local know-how and why Toledo needs a location for dredging research.

Tell us about the industrial landscape of the Great Lakes. What distinguishes it from other working ports and how does that influence the program of the competition?
The interesting thing about the Great Lakes is that it is an enormous source of fresh water. It’s 200,000 square miles of a drainage basin, and while that’s not large compared to the Mississippi Basin, 30 million people still live directly on freshwater. With this access to freshwater comes freshwater ecology and the habitat that goes with it, so it’s a completely different system than on the coasts.

The Great Lakes were the industrial core of the country. Material made it to the Great Lakes and was then shipped through the canals or the Saint Lawrence Seaway. With population changes, migration, suburbanization and deurbanization, the region suffered in the post-industrial era. So it is a region that is trying to reinvent itself in many ways. I have worked in many cities in the Great Lakes region and that work has mainly focused on vacancies and post-industrial urban locations.

The competition is designed to cover topics that are in some ways endemic to the entire basin. The idea is to look at the problems on a manageable scale, so that a designer can work on a problem with special contextual conditions in a certain place, but also allows wide application.

You have placed the use of dredged spoil and dredging research sites at the center of the competition program. Why?
In particular, dredging is taking place throughout the basin, and this is increasing due to the drop in water levels in the lakes. Shipping is the cheapest mode of transport in the region and remains the better option for transporting bulk cargo. Shipping is going nowhere, so dredging is going nowhere. It is an inevitable condition that needs to be addressed.

Toledo is located in the flattest part of the Great Lakes. Because of this, the shipping canal in Toledo is over 20 miles long, so just imagine what an incredible amount of material that is. The only way to get ships into port is by continuous dredging. As the epicenter of dredging in the region, Toledo is the place with the most material. There is currently no dredge research facility. To be useful, the material needs to be tested and evaluated, and we need to experiment to see what we can actually do with it. There is so much of it in Toledo that it makes sense to experiment there.

It seems like a really progressive gesture for a city to face this type of competition for something as visible and publicly accessible as its riverside. What result do you hope for?
The city has started developing other parks along the water, so there is an interest in turning back to the river. There are a number of bank areas that are being rehabilitated for new storm sewer infrastructure and a number of public spaces that are incredibly underutilized along the waterfront; These are some of the websites that the competition is researching.

The Toledo Parks Department and Port of Toledo are very supportive – Dennis Garvin of Parks, Recreation and Forestry is on the competition jury, as is Joe Cappel, Director of Cargo Development for the Toledo Port Authority. The idea with the jury is that everyone should come out of the pool. Some of the most famous designers and some incredibly well-trained professionals are all here.

The pool has everything we need.

We’re trying to generate ideas rather than a professional commission, but there should be a fair amount of press for those who do well. In the following year we should publish a publication on this topic and place it in the Dredge Material Management series in the Great Lakes Region and use the competition projects. The following year we’ll have another competition in a different location, and at some point we’ll have a catalog of terms and ideas on how to deal with it.

One of your former students, Matt Moffitt, won the 2013 ASLA Student Award of Excellence in General Design with his dredge project. What is your student interest in such landscaping?
I think such projects are interesting for landscape architecture students because they have a number of properties. There are materials that you should understand, like soil, but they are also heavily integrated into urban systems. We understand systems better than ever, so our ability to design for them is better. And they are completely new. The idea of ​​creating a dredged landscape in contrast to a community garden that may already be known is exciting. These landscapes are also very big and very close to the city centers and nobody knows they are there. They are great heaps of earth that no one has ever thought of. The opportunity to rethink them is really exciting and something you don’t do often.

The design competition on the north coast opens February 1, 2014. Details can be found at

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