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    Alan Berger - Systemic Design (c) Can Change the World

    Kurt Neiswender
    Nov 22, '11 4:25 PM EST

    Book Jacket for Systemic Design ©

    Systemic Design© Can Change the World - Alan Berger
    SUN Publishers, 2009



    About the Author

    Alan Berger is a Tenured Associate Professor in Urban Design and Landscape Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also is the Director of P-REX (Project for Reclamation Excellence). P-REX, founded in 2002, is a multi-disciplinary research component of MIT that focuses on reuse design for waste landscapes around the globe. P-REX is run on grant funding that has come from a variety of sources (US EPA, Tiffany and Co., Toyota and other non-governmental organizations). Under Berger’s direction P-REX develops and implements designs for restoration of previously developed landscapes that have been destroyed by the impacts of modern development.


    Alan Berger – Systemic Design Can Change the World.

    The introduction to this book – which was also a concept for a lecture of the same name- begins with a challenge. The challenge is put to the design schools that are training future leaders of the industry. This challenge describes the current curriculum is in a dead end trajectory. According to Berger, the status quo is perpetually recycled teaching styles and pedagogy, with the instructor’s prime motive for teaching is to hand pick the top design talent, and not to raise the awareness for higher levels of design.
    This blunt assessment states a need for a reset to the academic top-down model that cannot keep up with modern society’s fast paced, tech-savvy (i.e. think, Twitter, Facebook, Google) generation Y.However, inevitably the arcane pedagogy will soon cease to provide students with the information they are seeking, that is what Berger is implying with his introduction.

    The Historical Landscape Content and Contemporary Environment Trends

    Berger next assesses the efficacy of the current trends in landscape architecture in the professional realm. Today’s rapidly globalizing economies, tech industries and just about every function of human’s daily lives, there is no time to stop and endlessly reevaluate the precedents, or as Berger puts them, ‘heritage studies’.

    In brief, Berger cites a few examples of the hot button topic of global climate change that those educated under current standards will be ill-equipped to handle. Many of these climate issues describe a critical point where consumption grossly outweighs the resources available.

    Urban Waste

    The primary focus of Alan Berger’s work with P-REX is to analyze wasted landscapes, which are defined as those that are “overlooked and undervalued” (Berger, 12), especially after man’s hand has scoured the landscape for its raw materials, leaving behind vast wastelands of pollution and destroyed habitat. Berger claims to be unique in his field as there was no one exploring these under-performing spaces prior to the great recession of 2008. Berger points out that wasted land is now an unavoidable commodity of the urban realm.

    Systemic Design and Research

    His practice of Systemic Design© was initiated to rethink these underutilized urban regions, but integrates systemic thinking with his pedagogical goal of reformatting the ‘Design world’, in other words the academic curriculum that has been previously mentioned to be obsolete and ineffective.

    Berger cites Ian McHarg, Buckminster Fuller, and Field Operations respectively in the fields of planning, architecture and landscape architecture, as  predecessors of Systemic Design © . Going back as far as the 1970’s, Systems Theory has been adapted into the lexicon of the design schools and practitioners. Berger states though, that for the small handful of pioneers of Systemic thinking, there are many out there, talking the talk, and not walking the walk. A common example of this that may be familiar is the term “Green Washing”, which is taking advantage of the new popularity of sustainable design. Berger’s goal is to interact economic, environmental and programmatic needs as they place their demands on the regional study area. Berger further explains that this style of research needs to broaden its toolkit and take advantage of more innovative visualization and mapping techniques.

    Do you understand the concept of Systemic Design © ? How does it differ to what you are familiar with?

    P-REX: The Project for Reclamation Excellence

    Alan Berger founded P-REX at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2002 ( This incubator for Systemic Design © is the place where Berger puts to practice the theories about research in landscape architecture and urban studies. Using a multi-faceted approach of software (GIS, internet, etc.) and physical field observations, P-REX explores the concept of “large scale logic in smaller scale proposals”.

    Systemic Design begins with broad and tangential information gathering in order to examine the vast array of issues surrounding any given site. As the exploration develops related information begins to cluster into what Berger terms “Systemic Bundles”. These bundles (Figure 1) connect a regional framework that is unrelated to site, with the local site driven framework. The connections built in between represent Systemic Bundles. These clusters are site specific issues that are imperative to to be examined.

    Figure 1, Visual diagram describing the concept of ‘Systemic Bundling © ’

    P-REX’s research has collected a large amount of data in the fields of environmental reclamation, post-industrial waste and resource depletion, to name a few. With this research P-REX’s approach is to create aggressive proactive solutions, rather than delicate reactionary ones.

    Research to Practice

    Since the inception of P-REX, Berger has progressively pursued taking the research from practice to research. As Berger mentions it took five years to collect the research for his first book, Reclaiming the American West, and as of the release of Systemic Design © in 2010, the designs are just beginning to become actual projects. As Berger has developed the research around “Integrative Reclamation, the tangible projects are showing promise that this concept has merit.

    Figure 2, Toxic nutrient bloom dumping into Tyrrhenian Sea, Terrachina, Italy

    Selected Projects

    French Gulch Concept Plan and Systemic Reclamation©
    The first project that P-REX was formally commissioned to participate is the French Gulch Concept Plan (Figure 2), requested by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. This pioneering project is the first of its kind for the United States, demonstrating how decommissioned mines can be reclaimed and integrated into suburban redevelopment, on otherwise abandoned land , left for waste. P-REX was asked to devise a solution for the retired mine near Breckenridge, Colorado that has flooded due to neglect gradually over the past 80 years and is contaminated with extremely high levels of sulfuric acid.

    What Berger’s team innovated with this project was not only a viable option to reclaim the wasted landscape, but a new approach to the redevelopment of such sites. Where the USEPA approached this process from the top down (traditional models), P-REX began their process from, literally, the ground up. They started with asking the immediate community what they needed and desired for the site. This systemic approach could not have been farther apart from the EPA’s method, but it was this, bottom-up, thinking that let the project evolve without rigid, predetermined designing.

    The French Gulch Concept Plan’s vision is based on three concepts of Systemic Reclamation:

    • Correcting the environmental problems associated with abandoned mining.
    • providing affordable housing and open space planning.
    • Making it a demonstration project for the thousands of similar mine sites around the United States.

    FIgure 3, Dry seed catcher system for French Gulch Project

    Drosscape and Systemic Urbanism ©
    Alan Berger’s next topic is  his previous book Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America. The research for this text focused on ten urbanized regions in the United States that epitomize the problematic issue of “horizontal urbanization” (Berger, 2010). Berger uses horizontal urbanization, where many others use the term, “urban sprawl”; why do you think this is?

    Berger cites the cycle of boom times, followed by abandonment as a potential cause for widespread sprawl. He further notes the latest factor to include the current global recession that has amplified the situation. What do you think could have caused this development patterns?

    The Drosscape  text describes potential solutions for the transformation of these previously under-utilized landscapes. Do you think this could take-off? Any other possible solutions?

    Sarkozy’s Grand Paris and Toyota’s Micropolis: Systemic Intelligence ©
    Two other projects that P-REX was commissioned to explore, were Sarkozy’s Grand Paris Competition and ongoing work solicited by Toyota, the automobile manufacturer, where they are exploring the patterns of the United States ‘decentralized cities’ that have population density of less than 50,000 people per square mile. Sarkozy’s competition was an international invited competition to rethink Paris’ metropolitan region, with regard to a more sustainable future.

    Berger reinforces that both of these projects were developed within the principals of Systemic Design © .

    How does this make itself apparent?

    The Pontine Marshes
    Berger next delves into P-REX’s project on Italy with greater detail than other projects. This could be because it is most recent, and why else? Who does he mention as being responsible for the construct of his teams research on this project?

    The Pontine Marshes are a series of channelized canals designed to quickly drain water from the lowlands to reduce the rampant malaria epidemic, while creating a by-product of excellent agricultural landscape.

    Mussolini commissioned planners from 1928-1934 to masterplan the region which resulted in new cities in conjunction with this man made marsh development. This arable landscape has become Rome’s major food production region (Berger, 2010), with a robust agricultural economy.

    This specific site has a history dating back some 2,500 years to the Etruscans. The Pontine Marshes are an important geographic region in central Italy.
    The population of Latina Province, where the Pontine Marshes are located,the population is approximately 450,000.
    However, across the 980 square km area, only eleven percent is considered urban (Berger, 2010).
    Additionally there are over 2600 km of canals, with the majority of them being man made.
    One surprising fact of this agricultural zone is that with a global market share of 35%, Italy is the largest kiwi growing and exporting region in the world (Berger, 2010)

    What city(ies) in the United States have similar man made waterways? Are they considered sucessful?

    Berger’s design strategy for the Pontine Marshes was catalyzed by the need to clean the water that flows through the marshes from the mountains to the Mediterranean Sea. because of so many years of intense pesticide use in attempts to eradicate malaria in the wetlands, and the canals being too efficient conveyances of water has led to potentially life threatening levels of pollution in the potable water supply. Another factor of the latent inefficiency is the extremely high expense the city spends on non-stop use of pumping stations. If the pumping stations were shut down there would be severe flooding within 24 hours (Berger, 2010). All of these factors combined reveal the flawed solutions of the past that P-REX is charged with reinventing using Systemic Design ©.
    Figure 5, Concept Plan for Wetland Machine

    P-REX’s proposed solution begins with two parts, the first deemed, the ‘Wetland Machine’ (Figure 4), and the second the ‘Dune Machine’. The Wetland Machine uses natural bio filtration through wetland water management. By diverting all of the water from the canals through a 2.3 square km (relatively small) wetland area landscaped with specifically selected plant materials, the wetland machine can dramatically reduce the pollution levels to well below critical levels.  Additionally this natural solution will be be used as an educational tool to explain sustainability. It will also reintroduce native habitat that was damaged by the channels and canals.

    The ‘Dune Machine’ will reclaim and expand existing dune land that exists along the coast of Latina. By tracking data of a 12 month period, P-REX determined that this would become and alternative tourist zone. Additionally, this can be enhanced if the roadway along the coast was decommissioned, thus allowing the dune land to grow naturally. (Figure 5)

    Figure 6, Southern dune area developed with roads and housing.

    Through the reintroduction of naturally occurring ecosystems P-REX has systemically brought the region back from the brink of eminent collapse. Berger postulates that this could be within the next decade (Berger, 2010). With Systemic Design © methods situations like these can be solved and simultaneously develop new landscapes that lead to “more sustainable futures”.

    Coda and Conclusion

    To conclude the book, Berger brings the discussion back to the concepts he laid out in the introduction, using large scale logic on small scale solutions. Systemic Design © exemplifies the definition of “sustainability (able to love without infinite and expensive inputs)”. He also reiterates the importance of designers to take advantage of available tools of our time to create workable solutions.

    Response by Dirk Sijmons - Utopias Practical Cousin

    Dirk Sijmons response after Alan Berger presents his book applies what Berger and P-REX are doing to the general needs of humanity. Sijmons emphasizes that what System Design © has initiated is a hybrid solution that can be termed Landscape Urbanism. There is no longer a distinct division between the design of each component. Landscape and the urban fabric that has expanded across the landscape are now one in the same. This new realm is delicate and integral, one which demands responsive and responsible design solutions for the future of sustainability.

    Sijmons cites that the growing trend of humans living in urban areas is increasing, thus creating a intense need for designers to think critically about how our cities are to develop over the next 50 years (pg. 96).

    Online Sources

    The Project for Reclamation Excellence
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

    Literature Citation

    Berger, Alan. Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America The Princeton Architectural Press, 2006.

    Key Definitions and Principles


    1.capable of being supported or upheld, as by having itsweight borne from below.
    2.pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability byusing techniques that allow for continual reuse: sustainableagriculture. Aquaculture is a sustainable alternative tooverfishing. to be maintained or kept going, as an action or process:a sustainable negotiation between the two countries. to be confirmed or upheld: a sustainable decision. to be supported as with the basic necessities orsufficient funds: a sustainable life.


    1.the way of life of people who live in a large city.
    2.urbanization. planning.


    1.having, showing, or involving a system,  method, or plan: asystematic course of reading; systematic efforts.
    2.given to or using a system  or method; methodical: asystematic person.
    3.arranged in or comprising an ordered system: systematictheology.
    4.concerned with classification: systematic botany.
    5.pertaining to, based on, or in accordance with a system  ofclassification: the systematic names of plants.


    1.of or pertaining to a system.
    2.Physiology, Pathology .
    a.pertaining to or affecting the body as a whole.
    b.pertaining to or affecting a particular body system.
    3.(of a pesticide) absorbed and circulated by a plant or otherorganism so as to be lethal to pests that feed on it.


    1.the basic, underlying framework or features of a system ororganization.
    2.the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country,city, or area, as transportation and communication systems,power plants, and schools.
    3.the military installations of a country.


       [freym-wurk] Show IPA
    1.a skeletal structure designed to support or enclosesomething.
    2.a frame  or structure composed of parts fitted and joinedtogether.
    3.the construction or sale of frames.  done in, on, or with a frame.


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