Mapping Methane: Unearthing Gas Infrastructure's Socio-Ecological Impacts

This project is the result of a 2017 Maeder-York Landscape Fellowship at the Gardner Museum in Boston. It entailed learning from researchers in the gas leak monitoring space, and a crash course in the history of Boston's gas infrastructure.

 The project focused on bringing together data collection and visualization of underground gas leaks along iconic Boston streetscapes, with interpretation of the gas leaks’ effects on the urban tree canopy, on climate change, and on public health. The local impacts and causes of climate change are hard to visualize and hard to talk about. This project explored the pressing and thorny issue of natural gas infrastructure and methane leaks and its multi-scalar impacts on landscape health, human well-being and global warming. The project also provided an opportunity to build partnerships with researchers in climate science and public health researchers around a tangible, though invisible infrastural system and design problem. 

Mapping hidden territories of gas infrastructure, necessitated learning how to read utility street markings and other clues in the asphalt. With this semiotics of the street in hand, I set about creating a primer of street markouts, to organize and communicate the vocabulary of marks and their meaning.

The project also engaged archival photographic research, locating and documenting the locations of some of the first gas distribution pipes laid in Boston, in the 1870s-1890s, and the same locations today.

The major part of the project was a series of design proposals for places in the city where persistent continuing methane leaks are threatening iconic street trees, or threatening to undermine long-term afforestation efforts. The goal of the cutaway street visualizations is twofold: to communicate the relative severity of methane leakage at these iconic urban locations based on firsthand observation and measurement; and to communicate the various socio-ecological impacts of leaking methane on trees, people, and climate. 

Finally, the project envisioned a transformed public realm for a future time when the gas leaks are permanently eliminated, proposing an aggressive afforestation strategy to relay the climate-safe status of these leak-proof streets. The lushly planted climate-safe streets stand in sharp visual contrast to the leak-prone streets in the rest of the city, on which vegetation is continually being killed and sickened by leaking methane gas.

I would like to thank Bob Ackley and Nathan Phillips, the crusading lead researchers of the Boston gas leaks issue, as well as the members of Mothers Out Front and Gas Leaks Allies, who supported this research with contacts, logistics, and the lay of the land.


About me:

Nicholas Pevzner is a senior lecturer in Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and for the last 5 years has been teaching landscape studios on the role of energy systems in landscape design, as well as courses in urban design and urban ecology. He is co-editor of Scenario Journal, an interdisciplinary digital publication that strives to bridge the con­versations in design, planning, engineering, and ecology. Hi has degrees in architecture and landscape architecture. Prior to teaching at Penn, he worked as a landscape designer at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, a landscape architecture practice in New York City.