There are many beliefs about how the world came into existence. However, one thing most agree on is that the world has dramatically changed over recorded history.
This change is evident in masterful skyscrapers, mass transit systems, and hiking paths through beautiful landscapes. Negative examples also exist — from oil spills and contaminated rivers to toxic waste from industrial sites.
Most of us view the world as it is. However, we sometimes see glimpses of the world as it must have been at its dawn. We see this in morning dew, a field untouched by footprints, or those near-silent nights where one can hear the softness of snowflakes touching the ground.
Many people lament humans' negative impact on the world and hopelessly throw up their hands in frustration. However, there are a blessed few who strap on capes and seek to reimagine the negative and recreate the natural world.
One such person is landscape architect Julie Bargmann, who has been called a Toxic Avenger. She is called such because of her propensity to breathe new life into shuttered industrial sites and influence the future of design.
Julie Bargmann is the founder and owner of D.I.R.T. (Dump It Right There) studio. D.I.R.T. studio repurposes forgotten spaces like former landfills and decommissioned U.S. naval shipyards into playgrounds and headquarters for companies like Urban Outfitters.
According to the D.I.R.T. studio website, the team is "driven by a love for the landscape, fascination with site histories, concern for marginalized communities, and obsession with urban regeneration." Bargmann hopes this passion will rub off on others.
While Bargmann shies away from the label Toxic Avenger, she does acknowledge that she hopes to engage others "in such a way so that they can be agents of change." How does Bargmann do this? She immerses her clients and the ultimate users of the space deeply in the location’s back-story.
Instead of demonizing people who have worked at industrial sites, she interviews those still alive in an effort to understand. By uncovering how the site once operated, she seeks to honor the people and location itself. From there, original materials from the site that might otherwise end up in a landfill receive a second chance. D.I.R.T. studio calls this process “rebranded demolition debris.”
For example, when Bargmann was designing the headquarters for Urban Outfitters in Philadelphia, she used materials from the original site of the U.S. naval shipyard. According to the Urban Outfitters project profile for the ASLA awards, "Rather than the usual 'hog and haul' of a typical demolition plan, a salvaging strategy was deployed, harvesting what most would consider undesirable detritus. No imported materials were necessary, nor desired."
Bargmann also considers the people who will interact with her designs for decades to come. One way she does this is by creating an action plan." Many landscape architects call this their "master plan." Still, Bargmann prefers the term "action plan" because she feels it is more fluid and allows the project to metaphorize. After all, Bargmann says, "Design is a verb." Bargmann personified this philosophy at the Urban Outfitters headquarters, where she incorporated a beautiful cherry grove. Though not originally part of the U.S. naval shipyard, the cherry trees soften the space and add an enjoyable aesthetic element.
When Bargmann received feedback about the cherry trees, she knew she was successful in reaching people through her design. One person said, "When those cherries are in bloom, I am 25% happier, and then I think about them all year." Another acknowledged how Bargmann enables others to become part of the design's story: "The feeling I get from the place is that it has always been there, and now I am part of its history."
All humans are part of the Earth's story. Each person chooses which type of character to play and whether future generations will describe us as heroes, villains, or passers-by in the planet's story. Most opt for the role of a passer-by. But now and then a hero emerges — a person who impacts the world for the better and enables others to do the same. Julie Bargmann is that person. May her part in this story encourage us all to see how we can write a beautiful chapter for the places we inhabit.