Power Plants: Phytoremediation Garden, White Bay Sydney, Australia
Contaminated post-industrial sites proliferate Australia. The former locations of Power Stations, mines and rail corridors – these brownfield sites sit vacant, often still housing the buildings/infrastructure that poisoned the soil in the first place, actively rusting, rotting and leeching yet more toxins into the soil. Traditional methods of remediating toxic sites involve soil scraping and capping. Neither of these techniques lessen the amount of contaminated soil present on the earth, nor do they address long term issues of pollution of natural resources. They offer short-term remedies, merely shifting the responsibility for this soil to future generations. Caps crack, waste disposal centres leech. The cycle continues.
Phytoremdiation is an alternative option that offers a closed loop treatment of the toxins and reintroduces natural systems to extremely unnatural sites. Phytoremediation is also a low cost, plant (vegetative) and solar energy driven, soil remediation technique. Through the establishment of a plant phytoremediation garden/pasture toxins are removed from the contaminated soils, through the selected plants absorbing and metabolising various pollutants into their tissues.
Our recent design research garden ‘Power Plants’ in Sydney, NSW has delivered encouraging results, and offers a glimpse at a future where responsible land management underpins development of all scales.
‘Power Plants’ located at the former White Bay Power Station (WBPS) in Sydney celebrates phytoremediation techniques as productive ecologies, which rejuvenate, degraded land in a beautiful and expressive manner, acting as an intertwined ecological system of repair for a disused and toxic site. The project was also a cross disciplinary collaboration between: University of Newcastle (Landscape Architects), University of Technology, Sydney (Phytoremediation Lab) and University of New South Wales (Artists/ Filmmakers).
WBPS’s previous operation as a coal fired power station generated site contaminants that remain in-situ. This collaborative project utilises phytoremediation techniques for visually expressing rehabilitation as well as providing an environmental education platform. It combines both innovative science with a unique re-activation opportunity for WBPS. The project celebrates cleansing or repairing contaminated lands, and utilising ecological processes in an artful, performative, playful and educative manner. It is the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, included a number of school visits and was the subject of an award winning film which can be viewed here: https://powerplantsphytoremediation.com/performance_nl
The phytoremediation garden is made up of annuals, both native and non-native species that remove toxins from contaminated soils, while the plant materials become a visual litmus. These plants metabolized various pollutants into their tissues over a one year period and each monthly harvest increased our understanding of phytoremediation and its application to post industrial sites. For example Lead was removed in 52mg/kg in brassica juncea L. (Field Mustard). The project is a living laboratory for UTS scientists to test soil, root, leaf and fruit of a wide range of plants, whilst serving the dual purpose of actively removing the toxins present on site, preparing it for future use. Additionally UON and UNSW creative practice researchers explore the re-wilding of post-industrial landscapes in a poetic manner. Power Plant’s entire process is captured on an open source website, so that others can take research further. https://powerplantsphytoremediation.com/
As the initial garden comes to an end of its lifespan, our project shifts its attention 200kms north to the ‘Steel City’, Newcastle NSW. A coal mining city built around a major export port and former location of BHP Steelworks the sites of contamination are widespread and varied in their levels of toxins.
Following on the success of Power plants, the Newy Garden will test Native Australian plants made up of perennial shrubs, sedges, and trees that are placed as a longer term solution to treating a new suite of toxins. Newy garden continues to contribute to the field of phytoremediation research with the view that as Australia moves towards a renewable energy future sites such as WBPS and the former BHP steelworks site will increase in number, and will require urgent and thorough remediation. Importantly, this garden tests a number of native plants species as well as species commonly found in suburbia. This is to test and provide evidence that many areas outside post-industrial sites have various soil pollutants and widespread adoption of phytoremediation is very possible. The Newy Garden will also serve as an onsite nursery for future developments as advanced stock.
The project celebrates phytoremediation techniques as productive ecologies, which rejuvenate, degraded land in a beautiful and expressive manner. While the Power Plants actual physical site is the WBPS in Sydney, much of the project is accessed through the web and films. Quite simply the project is an intertwined ecological system of repair for a disused and toxic site. Reflecting on the work of Thomas Rainer, the project explores planting regimes in a post-industrial landscape “More than half the world’s population now lives in cities. Planting design needs to respond to a range of urban environmental challenges.” Rainer et al advocate for wild plant communities that result in more robust, diverse, and resilient plantings.