Green Infrastructure:

as it was used in the original proposal was defined by using the following quote from the former governor of the State of Maryland:

"Just as we must carefully plan for and invest in our capital infrastructure – our roads, our bridges and water lines, we must also invest in our environment, our green infrastructure – our forests our wetlands, our stream and our rivers." (Glendenning, 1999).

Places to Intervene
in a System

Our favourite text on systems intervention is a very short article in Whole Earth magazine by Donella Meadows. She was a former student of Dr. Jay Meadow of MIT, one of the first to apply systems theory to urban issues and settings, applying it to social and economic behaviour.

You can find the article -- Meadows, Donella, H., (1997) Places to Intervene in a System’ originally published in, ‚Whole Earth’ Magazine, Winter 1997 as a pdf at the bottom of the


At Nine Mile Run we conducted a deep dialogue over three years with an onsite trailer open every weekend and outreach to community groups, schools and others. We ran frequent community dialogue events both onsite and in community centres around the area.

With 3 Rivers 2nd Nature, we knew we had to develop an alternative approach. We focused on two events a year, always in a different community to keep pace with the science team moving through the region. Our goal was to initiate a dialogue with colleagues from non-profit organizations who had the potential and the interest to act over the long term in these areas.

Home> Artists & Rivers> Background

Art, Environment and Policy

Following work on Nine Mile Run, a Heinz Endowments Environmental Program Associate asked the team what they might do next. We described a plan to take our art-based approach to strategic knowledge and advocacy for public space developed at Nine Mile Run to another scale. We sought to address regional waterfront development and its public resource commons, building upon our previously tested working methods. The surprise reaction to this proposal wasn't the offer of five-years of funding, but rather the request to take up a primary relationship with the newly founded Three Rivers Wet Weather Demonstration Program Inc. The Three Rivers Wet Weather Demonstration Program was developed with federal funding as part of the response to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 1997 legal action against 50 communities in Allegheny County. The issue was the presumption of water pollution due to aging and inadequate infrastructure resulting in sewage overflows during wet weather events. The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (Alcosan) and the Allegheny County Health Department joined forces to create the Three Rivers Wet Weather Demonstration program; a federally funded non-profit intended to help municipalities address the sewage overflow into the rivers and streams of the region. John Schombert, formerly Chief of Water at Allegheny County Health Department and a key ally on the Nine Mile Run Project, directed that organization. While this arranged partnership provided new and potentially interesting strategic relationships, it also challenged fundamental principles of of our previous work; the need to retain autonomy from parties with an economic or political interest in the outcome. In the end the work on terrestrial issues was quite successful, the work on aquatic systems while robust had much less effect than expected, the impact upon new forms of art practice continues to unfold.


The plan of 3 Rivers 2nd Nature was to focus upon the idea of green infrastructure as a subject of integrated interdisciplinary analysis and public discourse. We have argued repeatedly on the Nine Mile Run Project, and in various publications and in reports that attend this project, that restoration ecology, land preservation and species conservation are important tools for rust-belt cities like Pittsburgh that struggle to recover social, political and economic vitality. Nature was subsumed and ignored during the height of the industrial economy; part of the challenge to recovery involves a restoration of the visible aesthetic vitality, the quality and relationship between people, post-industrial urban lands and the natural environment.

From the Original Proposal

The goal of the project is to conduct an analysis of the green infrastructure which provides social, aesthetic, ecological and economic benefit to the Three Rivers Region. The program will complement the 3 Rivers Wet Weather Demonstration Project’s efforts to implement innovative technical and institutional solutions to ‘grey’ infrastructure problems (storm water and sewer systems) and the wet weather discharges which soil our rivers. Combined, these grey and green programs will reawaken the public interest in the natural benefits which sustain, define and complement life in the cities of the Three Rivers region. (3R2N, Heinz Proposal, 2000)


For twenty years or more, artists and critical theorists have been challenging the idea of public art as a relatively passive component of urban redevelopment. The term "public art" is both clear and problematic; it seems open-ended denoting work that occurs in the public realm, yet its connotative reference describes increasingly institutionalized and standardized municipal public art initiatives. We were interested in testing theory and expanding the role that an artist can play in the dynamic relationship defined by contemporary social and environmental change. The art of 3R2N lies in its creative interdisciplinary process, as well as the sum of its products.

Other terms to specify include:

  • ecology: the science of the environment that is focused upon the inter-relationships between living organisms and the conditions that support life.
  • planning: the problem of how to make knowledge accessible and effective for citizens and/or experts interested in social change.


We chose aesthetics as our focal point of engagement because it demands discourse (rather than scientific truth alone) as the means of establishing value. We worked from the premise that human value is the sum of experience in relationship to perception and conceptualization. Our primary approach to experience was through our outreach and River Dialogue programme.

We took people out on the river in large boats that accommodated 30-50 people. The boats are comfortable glass lined catamarans used throughout the region as water taxi’s for events and public programs. We hired two to three boats for every event. Events typically ran twice a year.

We addressed conceptualization through our expert scientific field reports and innovative maps. The goal was to provide people with ‘on the water’ experiences which they may not have had before. Our hypothesis was that river activities had the potential to reconfigure the aesthetic perception of the rivers.

The Public Realm

We developed an understanding of regulation and oversight of infrastructure and land use in this initiative. We developed familiarity with the individuals that had invested interest in that regulation. Through the work with the scientists, the project team gained a collective understanding of the failure of that infrastructure and its effect upon the river ecosystems. We were interested in the regulatory interests, the definition of the problem and the range of solutions. Two things were clear: there was little data available to inform decision making, and the advocacy and support for clean water and recovering ecosystems in the region was relatively non-existent. Land use regulation was not taking into account the recovering landscape and its long-term environmental and aesthetic potential. These were the fundamental points of public realm engagement for the project.

Strategic Knowledge

The 3 Rivers 2nd Nature Project (following the Nine Mile Run model) addressed environmental questions through strategic knowledge and platforms for discourse. Strategic knowledge is information that was previously missing from public discussions, in this case it is knowledge about land use, water quality, and environmental protection. Carefully chosen strategic knowledge can transform the operative value systems that inform decision-making. When publicly distributed, it has the potential to reinforce democratic process. The framework for this idea is based upon systems theory.

We continued an interest in the culture, perception and understanding of public space, as well as its relationship to nature and rivers in a post-industrial urban setting. The focus of this new work was the systems and resources that occupy a hydrological or ecological relationship to Allegheny County’s rivers and streams. The project laboured to understand and establish a quantitative scientific baseline for such systems for three reasons:

  1. Baseline knowledge of environmental conditions provides us with a yardstick for measuring improvement;
  2. In the act of establishing a baseline you can discover data that reveals opportunities and constraints that were previously invisible;
  3. The recovery of nature is an aesthetic goal based upon complex systems perception processed within a framework of ideas that is often informed by science.

Our goal was to privilege natural (green) infrastructure and remnant ecological systems that can be found in all cities.

Platforms for Discourse

Our goal in this work was transformation through discourse. There are two ways to discuss this, first in terms of the team’s method of social engagement and process of speaking, listening and responding. The second point of discussion involves the social political responsibility for these dialogues and the strategy of plans, reports and publications that the team developed to strengthen the advocacy for nature in the region.

By comparison, our work on the Nine Mile Run watershed was intimate and ‘placed’. Its relative scale allowed us to work as artists in residence. We were able to focus on the project-in-place and develop a deep dialogue with nearby residents for three years. In contrast, 3 Rivers 2nd Nature was geographically expansive, forcing us into a transitory approach. As a result, the planned program of River Dialogues were initially outlined as a migratory series of shallow dialogues that achieved efficacy through the project team’s attentiveness to citizen interests and the expert/decision maker focus of our partners at Three Rivers Wet Weather. We were excited to experiment with this new relationship and the expertise that Three Rivers Wet Weather brought to the public realm questions that face water and waterfront lands.

The work on 3 Rivers 2nd Nature involved the co-development of platforms for discourse, in this case ‘River Dialogues’, with partners. We planned and organized four to six hour days, where citizens and decision makers assembled to hear an expert seminar about the rivers, then to experience and discuss the rivers on a boat. Upon return to the dock we would all eat together and then assemble around working tables for protracted, recorded and illustrated conversations about a particular stretch of riverfront. Each table had a facilitator, a planner, a note taker and one or more drawers (that encouraged everyone to pick up pencils, pens and markers) to unpack the days experience and record the opportunities and constraints connected to post-industrial use of our regional waterways and waterfront. The record from those sessions appeared in our yearly reports. They became the basis for the river trail plan.

The River Dialogues

Our interest in this work (and our potential contribution) was always to invest in an aesthetic discourse that had potential to move from divergent and inchoate forms towards a sense of clarity and focal intent about human relationships to these rivers. This is tied to a sense of instrumental responsibility, which is both a strength and a point of critical weakness in this work when it is examined through the framework of traditional art-centric aesthetics. In more current work we are working with colleagues in various disciplines to understand why traditional aesthetics are ill equipped to deal with the ethical-aesthetic issues; and how we might apply new ideas in the within the philosophy of environmental aesthetics. A recent series of publications offers an alternative to (art-centred) aesthetics (Berleant 1995, 2002, 2005, 2007; Brady 2003; Budd 2003, 2008; Carlson 2000, 2002, 2008; Eaton 2001 and Saito 2007.)

Our River Dialogues were planned to help us clarify and better understand the meaning, form and intent of transformative art practices. We were seeking to engage our regional colleagues: artists, environmentalists and those that seek change in a dialogue about creative agency and transformation. We also wanted to serve our area of transformative art practice. Following our responsible dialogic model, we wanted to arrange opportunities for discourse, carefully record that discourse, then provide public feedback in the form of Internet or text based publications.