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From toxic avenger to Rome scholar

Cal Poly’s Joe Ragsdale, landscape architect, wins the Rome Prize


It’s hardly a place for the niceties of landscaping: a defunct creosote wood treatment plant on Bainbridge Island near Seattle–a site with the notoriety of being one of America’s Most Polluted. A Superfund site.

But then, Cal Poly lecturer Joe Ragsdale, who is consulting with the Environmental Protection Agency on reclaiming the site, isn’t a landscaper.

Landscape architect, thank you. The discipline embraces elements of engineering, design, ecology, botany, history, anthropology, and law–among a host of other fields.

Ragsdale likes to say it’s a career with many paths. In his case, the path has cut through some pretty exotic terrain: from the Getty Museum to a PCP-laced stretch of the Shenandoah, from contaminated mines in Montana to–this fall–that sanctuary of the fine arts: The American Academy in Rome.

Ragsdale recently won the 2003-2004 Rome Prize, an award bestowed on the nation’s most gifted artists and scholars by the 110-year-old American Academy in Rome. Ragsdale is one of only three landscape architects in the country to receive the Rome Prize this year. He is Cal Poly’s only current faculty member to have garnered the prize (see sidebar).

"The idea is to have a person who is developing into an important artist or scholar be given the chance to go to Rome," says Academy President Adele Chatfield-Taylor. "The city is so loaded with art and architecture and archeology and all kinds of history."

It’s a good thing the academy recognizes landscape architecture as a significant field in the fine arts. The general public doesn’t seem to.

"People think we ‘shrub up’ houses," Ragsdale sighs, interviewed at his Cal Poly office. "They’ll say, ‘Oh, my son is in that business–he mows lawns.’ There’s a perception that we’re one of those -ing words, like ‘frosting.’ Landscaping. Like we’re not about the cake but about the frosting."

Ragsdale is definitely about the cake. (Hey, it’s his metaphor.) At 34, the softspoken Davis, Calif., native has already compiled an impressive list of professional credits. After taking his undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley, Ragsdale was hired by a Los Angeles firm designing the Getty Museum. Later, he worked for three years in San Francisco at a second firm designing the waterfront and the city’s Pac Bell Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.

But it’s the other side of urban development that interests Ragsdale. Not the Gettys, not the waterfronts, not the glittery places that attract the eye.

The shunned sites have occupied Ragsdale most recently. The places gutted or stripped or poisoned or trashed in order to make the glittery places rise. Chemical plants, textile mills, landfills, mines.

"In any urban site you’ve really got two diverse landscapes," Ragsdale says. "Building a city is an additive process. You have to subtract to do it. You’ve got to extract timber, water, minerals. So you end up with what I call the negative landscape along with the positive one."

Defunct industrial sites offer rich potential for a designer, says Julie Bargmann, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, where Ragsdale took his graduate degree. Bargmann is also a mentor and coworker of Ragsdale’s.

"These sites inspire awe; they’re borderline scary," Bargmann says. "There’s a terrible beauty to them–an association with human will, with labor. They’re our contemporary definition of the sublime."

It is Ragsdale’s fascination with these sites that has propelled him toward Rome. What better place than the Eternal City to study sites that create a city?

Negative Rome

Each year, the Rome Prize goes to 30 U.S. scholars and artists in disciplines ranging from medieval studies to literature and music. The American Academy in Rome provides the lucky 30 with an apartment, a studio, and meals at the academy; winners’ families are also provided housing. In addition, prizewinners receive a stipend to pursue a six-month to two-year research project.

Not surprisingly, competition for the prize is stiff. Academy jurors award the prize based on an applicant’s past work and the proposed research project in Rome. The official title of Ragsdale’s proposed year-long project is "Source + Surface: Intersections in Geology, Extraction and Tectonics."

Translation: He wants to go look at quarries around Rome.

Roman quarries are probably the ultimate negative landscape, because a whole lot of gouging has gone on over the millennia in order to build Rome. "The city has Carrara marble from the north," Ragsdale says. "Porphyry from the north. Travertine from the east. Mud from the riverbanks to make brick."

Ragsdale also wants to study communities near the quarries.

"I want to see how communities have grown up around the sites over the centuries, to see how they adapt and reuse the sites," he says. "It will be a valuable lesson to me in my own work."

The United States has a tendency to make its industrial sites disappear, Ragsdale says. "We cover them up or pick them up and move them to a landfill. Or we haul them even farther, to a ‘safe’ landscape, usually in a state we do not like. Back East it’s Ohio. Out here it’s Nevada. I think there are better models for that for dealing with these sites."

Dump It Right There

Ragsdale needs all the good models he can find for reclaiming industrial sites. His recent consulting work has brought him up against the worst of the worst: Superfund sites.

Superfund has been around since 1980, when Congress enacted it into law. Initially, the idea was to allow the government the authority and the funds to deal with large-scale, especially dangerous contaminated sites. The fund itself was largely financed by a tax on chemical and petroleum companies; it also received money through court-awarded damages from parties responsible for the contamination. In its first five years, Superfund collected $1.6 billion for environmental cleanup.

Today, some 45,000 sites later, the fund is all but bankrupt–thanks to the 1995 Republican-controlled Congress (and the acquiescence of the Clinton administration), which opted not to renew the tax on petroleum and chemical companies. Certain Superfund cleanups are still ongoing, because responsible parties have been found and forced to bankroll the cleanup. But the number of site cleanups has dropped dramatically (see "Not so Super").

Ragsdale consults with two of the ongoing cleanups. His connection to Superfund is through a 1999 Redevelopment Initiative program that helps communities decide how to deal with a local Superfund site.

The program allows the community to hire a team of experts such as architects, urban planners, and economists to advise the community about ways to put the contaminated site into use again.

Under the program, the EPA handles the cleanup and the consultants help the community decide what it wants to do with the space. Mall or museum? Office buildings? A park? Apartments? All of the above?

"Our job is to help them envision everything they want to happen with the site," Ragsdale says.

"The Superfund program does this incredible service for the community," he adds. "People who live there aren’t just waiting to see what developers propose; they help design the changes themselves. People are getting educated about the community, the landscape. It’s how I got into teaching."

In his Superfund projects, Ragsdale is one of a broad team of experts. He appears courtesy of the Virginia-based design studio founded by Bargmann in 1992 and called, appropriately enough, DIRT (Dump It Right There). Ragsdale joined in 1998 and became the studio’s second principal in 2000. Bargmann calls them "Toxic Avengers" in their design work on industrial sites.

"You’re a Toxic Avenger in two ways," she says. "First, you’re dealing with industrial sites from the past, when the industrial standards used to be ‘dump it out back.’ We got bit in the butt with those practices. So now our work as designers is, ‘how do we regenerate these sites?’

"And secondly, how do you project these ideas forward to future and present industry? How do you detoxify industry? Because it’s completely possible."

Bargmann has the professional credentials to give this claim weight. A Rome Prize winner herself, as well as recipient of awards including the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award, Bargmann has worked for the past 10 years on industrial site design. Her projects span from mines and automobile factories to railroad yards and even wineries.

When she calls Ragsdale the "secret weapon of DIRT," she’s alluding to his mild-mannered ways.

"He’s the silent missile and I’m the "Spud" missile. I’m from New Jersey. I get in people’s faces. Then Joe’ll say, ‘What Julie really means is … ’," says Bargmann. "You have to be extremely devoted to do this work–we work our tails off for hardly any money. Joe has poured an enormous amount of energy into these projects."

From creosote to clam roast

When Ragsdale left for Cal Poly in 2002, DIRT came too: Ragsdale became a one-man satellite studio, DIRT West. In addition to teaching a full load at Poly, work that requires anywhere from 40-60 hours a week, Ragsdale also handles the studio’s consulting projects west of the Mississippi.

Right now there are two projects, both Superfund sites. One is a 50-square-mile watershed in Montana, which supplies most of the drinking water to Helena. The area is pockmarked with abandoned mines–silver, zinc, lead–which have fittingly contaminated the watershed. The second project is the creosote plant on Bainbridge Island.

Bainbridge Island had other industries, but the creosote plant was one of its most prominent facilities, sited at the island’s main harbor. Logs shipped to the island would be soaked in creosote, pressure treated, and then dried on a sand spit.

It was a busy factory. During its eight decades of operation, the factory sent treated wood to the Panama Canal, the Mare Island Naval Yard, to U.S. military installations in Vietnam. The factory also dripped 1 million gallons of creosote, a byproduct of coal, into the sand. ("Imagine a football field 2.5 feet deep," Ragsdale says. "That’s 1 million gallons.") The result: severe contamination in the Puget Sound and, in 1987, a Superfund site on Bainbridge Island, home to some 21,000 people.

In this case, the EPA handled the cleanup by methods including injecting steam into the dirt. The consultant team, with Ragsdale as a member, is under an umbrella organization called E2 (for "Ecology and Economics"). E2 works with a task force from the community to decide the best uses for the site.

It’s a more complex process than deciding "where do we put the park?" The community and consultants want the new design to take into account the history and cultural heritage of the site. Bainbridge Island has other baggage besides Superfund-level contamination. During World War II, Japanese-Americans were marched from one of the island’s piers onto boats and taken to internment camps.

In addition to preserving that cultural heritage, there’s industrial history to be preserved, too, Ragsdale points out. "Part of the design goal is to make visible the lessons of what we did here and what we needed to do to fix it."

Based on community input, E2 has drawn up site plans that include a memorial and garden dedicated to the Japanese-Americans deported during World War II, a Douglas fir forest with public trails, and development of the former creosote plant site into, among other things, an arboretum and ecology study center.

Oh, and the plans also call for a clambake.

"Because of the contamination, you could not eat any of the clams from the island," Ragsdale says. "One of the members from the community task force has been promising, ‘We are going to have a big clam roast when this is done.’ I guess that’ll be the true test of whether the cleanup worked."


Rewarding as he has found the Superfund work, Ragsdale is also looking forward to his stay at the academy in Rome, where he can do a little more "Design with a big ‘D’," as he puts it. (Draw more, attend community meetings less.) "I’m the consummate student. The academy is going to be a terrific community to contribute to and learn from."

Okay, he’s also a little intimidated at the prospect of attending the academy.

"I know of the other two landscape architects who won this year. They are very well known, established folks," Ragsdale says. "I’ve been a significant player on a variety of well-known projects, but the projects haven’t been under my own name. These guys own their own firms."

But then, Ragsdale can be maddeningly modest. He’ll get over his academy anxiety. Just like he got over the interview for this story ("Does this have to be a front-page story? How about a little story on the inside?" he kept suggesting during the interview).

And after Rome? Ragsdale plans to return to San Luis Obispo, to his two passions in landscape architecture: teaching and industrial site work.

When he talks about industrial sites, you hear the passionate teacher and designer in Ragsdale kick in. Like Bargmann, he finds the sites compelling for their beauty.

"They’re landscapes that don’t exist in our safe, suburbaned, clipped-and-dipped landscape," Ragsdale says. "They’re an incredibly textured use of materials, of forms–of scales outside the human body. It’s a designer’s dream." Æ

Lisa Coffman is a freelance writer who works from her home in Atascadero.

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