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The [Known] Waste Landscapes of America: Over 31,000 identified sites by the EPA in 2017.

Sharing Waste: From Undesirable Conditions to Collective Opportunities

Waste is a socially collective, undesirably perceived condition. It simultaneously belongs to everyone and no one. The multi-scalar generation and management of waste are shared conditions across the planet, from individual households to regional landfills to the byproducts of space exploration encircling the earth. Seen as matter or space out of place, [1] the perception of waste is driven by a culturally conditioned aesthetic response of “disgust”.[2] It disparately affects individuals and their surrounding environments, from consumers who immediately and unconsciously discard unwanted materials, to the towns and cities that become final destinations for those forgotten materials—a shared fate paralleled across the world. Waste creation is a private matter that becomes a public responsibility immediately upon disposal.[3] However, as a society, we have delegated that duty to private companies, resulting in commodified wastelands. Are we missing an opportunity to participate in and reclaim our shared responsibility of effectively managing our waste to create meaningful waste places?[4]

In response to the mismanagement of waste materials, emerging waste management systems are recasting waste as a 21st century resource. [5] Concepts of industrial ecology, urban metabolism, cradle-to-cradle, and lifecycle assessment have arisen as material-waste recovery strategies, promoting the reallocation of material byproducts—a sharing economy built on collective opportunities. Nonetheless, these models are narrowly focused on specific topics and contexts, and are commonly applied in the analysis of existing systems. They reframe waste materials as assets, but leave out the spatial commodities and landscape fragments that sustain such systems. With their abstract approaches and systems-based focus, they lack an exploration of the spatial, experiential, and aesthetic considerations of waste reuse, and their environmental and social potentials. What are the emergent collective spatial opportunities that can result from both shared waste materials and spaces? What would constitute a more extensive approach that accommodates and confronts all forms of waste, material and spatial, and engages with a broader array of users, both human and non-human?

In the context of a culturally shared distain for waste and its associations, this article explores the nuances of the shared perception, production, and management of waste. In doing so, it argues that these shared cultural [mis]perceptions of waste have become embedded in certain design approaches, driving unconscious aesthetic decisions to fix and hide waste rather than engage with it. This is particularly apparent in adaptive reuse (architecture) and brownfield reclamation (landscape architecture) projects. Designers have the opportunity to create places that allow people to engage with the shared responsibility of waste. The proposed framework, landscape lifecycles, advocates for transforming waste spaces by reactivating waste materials. Landscape lifecycles is a holistic method for integrating multiple diverse programs rooted in economic, environmental, and social performance to form hybrid assemblages in the transformation of perceived physical and spatial wastes. It recognizes that technological and environmental systems are multi-scalar, boundless, and fluid, and promotes deliberate sharing between public waste spaces and materials, bringing waste to the forefront rather than concealing it.


Article Outline

I.                     Introduction

II.                   The Shared, Undesirable Conditions of Waste

                      a.       Shared Perception of Waste

                      b.       Shared Creation of Waste Materials and Spaces

                      c.        Shared Management and Reclamation of Waste Materials and Spaces

III.                  The Emergence of Waste as a Collective Opportunity in the 21st Century

                      a.       Sharing Materials—Emerging Waste Recovery Systems

                      b.       Towards Sharing Space—Critiques on Waste Recovery Systems

IV.                 Extending the Collective Opportunities of Material Recovery to Spatial Transformation

                      a.       Landscape Lifecycles—A Design Framework for Waste Transformation

                      b.       Productive Opportunities for Sharing Waste Places

V.                   Concluding Provisional Propositions for the Future of Sharing Waste in Design



[1] Kevin Lynch, Wasting Away (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1990): 13.

[2] Vittoria Di Palma, “In the Mood for Landscape,” in Thinking the Contemporary Landscape eds. Christophe Girot and Dora Imhof (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2017): 15-29. Di Palma explores the role of “disgust” as an aesthetic term in the way in which we perceive waste landscape in this critical essay. Di Palma states, “Disgust is an emotion that operates powerfully in the formulation of a culture's ordering systems: it establishes and maintains hierarchies: it is fundamental to the construction of a moral code. Disgust can therefore help to shed light on the systems through which different kinds of landscapes are valued, and the reasons why ethical or moral arguments so often appear in the context of discussions regarding derelict or polluted sites” (18).

[3] Mira Engler, Designing America’s Waste Landscapes (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2004):14.

[4] Engler, 16. Engler describes the challenges related to mismanaging our waste and its potential opportunities when she states, “Failure to notice waste, misconceptions about waste, and repulsion toward waste prevent us from deciding how to manage it well. They hinder our ability to make waste a meaningful part of our lives and to shape culturally significant waste places.”

[5] Pierre Belanger, “Landscapes of Disassembly: Waste Economies and Emerging Industrial Ecologies”, Topos, (2007) 60: 83–91, 91.



Gas Works Park in Seattle, WA: A reclaimed formerly industrial site disengaged with its history, users, and current state of waste.


Brickworks in Toronto, Canada: A project that activates community interactions, provides flexibility, and stimulates ecological functionality within the remnants of a former brick manufacturing facility.

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