shitscape – mammoth // building nothing out of something


To wrap up this week of fecal matters, I want to talk briefly about Bret Betnar’s “Shitscape: Mumbai’s Landscape In-Between”, a brilliant project done while Betnar was at the University of Pennsylvania.

1 If you haven’t already read it, be sure to check out Peter Nunns’ post from Tuesday on “fecal politics”, which deals with exactly these issues of poverty, fecal matter, infrastructure, and agency in India.

“Shitscape” describes “the making of an entirely functioning landscape built from human excreta”. It proposes to accomplish this by recovering “the ‘soil’ from the settlements while extracting the beneficial flora from the forest and, in turn, utilize both as a generator for a new and evolving landscape”. The project aims to give “those living in peri-urban” Mumbai the capacity to relieve their own “conditions of poverty” by providing a structure within which “they participate in the creation, processing and profits of this landscape”1.

Analysis of the existing site; areas currently used for toileting are shown as gray fields. (All the images in this post can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

The site for the project is the Appapada Quarry, which sits between “the northern Mumbai suburb of Malad East” and “a hillside of informal settlements”. “In the middle of the quarry is the large Appapada Maidan, used by kids and adults from varying parts of northern Mumbai. Several areas in and around the quarry environs are used for toileting by the local populace”.

Section of composting toilet unit above quarry wall.

Section above quarry wall with water catchment and filtration system.

Betnar’s methodology for doing this is both infrastructural and generative:

“‘Shitscape’ proposes three major introductory insertions: constructed trench-like composting toilets, a stone pathway traversing quarry wall and stone ‘tanks’ for the retention of water. Other minor insertions should include a slow-sand filter for availability of potable water, a grove of both coconuts and bananas to help begin the functioning of the landscape and pit toilets for use during the monsoon season.”

By infrastructural, I mean that it seeks to construct a framework which can be inserted into the landscape and used to trigger generative effects within that landscape; by generative, I refer to the tendency of landscape to multiply, transform, and alter the inputs it receives.  The construction of toilets, a pathway, a filter, and retention tanks does not directly produce a new fertile terrain. (One way, for instance, that a new fertile terrain could be directly produced would be by importing a carefully specified topsoil, as in the average landscape capital project. This is exactly what Betnar does not propose.) Rather, those infrastructures transform an input — feces — into a substance — compost — that can be applied to the landscape over time, introducing a new process to the set of processes already operating on that landscape, and creating what Betnar calls the shitscape.

Stone swales, sluices, concrete channels, contour swales, and fencing — the infrastructural vernacular of Shitscape.

The planting scheme focuses on creating an economically productive landscape, bearing fruits, timber, and Ayurvedic medicines.

Laudably, a significant portion of the Betnar’s study is devoted to considering both the potential progression of the landscape through time and its capacity to serve as a prototype for similar future landscapes:

“With water, improved soil, food supplies and the resiliency of the local population, this landscape can evolve throughout time to accommodate more varieties of produce and the potentially profitable growing of timber and Ayurvedic plant material. Additions to the water and toilet systems can be made as required by the local community. If this landscape is to be a success, it will need not only the inputs from the community, but their ingenuity in adapting the plan to their own uses. As such, it is hoped that this landscape could be maintained through multi-family networks, much like a village system. This project is designed as a prototype scenario which, if successful, could be repeated elsewhere along the western edge of the park.”

This describes one of the significant advantages of working infrastructurally and utilizing the generative capacity of landscape: because those methodologies offer opportunities to transform seemingly useless inputs into valuable material outputs, they are particularly valuable to people who lack the capacity to take advantage of more capital-intensive modes of landscape transformation.

Graphs representing “a temporal evolution of the site”, including the toileting and composting process, “development of the site’s water and pedestrian infrastructure”, and plant cultivations.  Enlarge the image to read the diagrams; note that the two diagrams — columns one and three are one continuous diagram of “Settlement: Soil”, read top to bottom through column one and then top to bottom in column three; columns two and four (“Forest: Monsoon”) have the same relationship — are keyed to the plan diagram below.

Top, diagram of site evolution, that serves as key for the diagram above; bottom, combined diagram of site circulation and water flow in the proposed condition.

Detail diagram of the composting process.

You can read more about Betnar’s project, and see a few additional images, at the site for the 2010 ASLA Student Awards.

2 Responses to “shitscape”

  1. […] shitscape"“Shitscape” describes “the making of an entirely functioning landscape built from human excreta”. It proposes to accomplish this by recovering “the ‘soil’ from the settlements while extracting the beneficial flora from the forest and, in turn, utilize both as a generator for a new and evolving landscape”."(tags:eco cities ) […]

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