Julie Bargmann sees beauty in land littered with mine refuse and scarred by acid-laced waters. At an abandoned coal mine in Vitondale, Pa., she is creating what she has dubbed a "regenerative park" to capture the horror and the beauty of its industrial legacy. "New parks aren't all that different from the tradition of [Frederick Law] Olmsted parks," says Bargmann, 42, referring to the architect of New York City's Central Park. "Olmsted was actually constructing places that were part of urban life. Our culture is now one of postindustry. Parks need to express that aspect of our culture."
Growing up in the Garden State, Bargmann developed an affinity for befouled terrain during drives past the industrial dumps in New Jersey's Meadowlands. After studying landscape architecture at Harvard, Bargmann, who lives and teaches in Charlottesville, Va., became one of the rare yet growing number of landscape architects interested in doing more than just covering up abandoned sites by turning them into golf courses. Instead, she combines an archaeologist's reverence for the land's past, an environmentalist's concern for its future and an artist's appreciation of its present to create a new kind of public space.
Bargmann sees her 35-acre Testing the Waters park, which will break ground next month in rural Vitondale, as part nature preserve, part geological washing machine. The first in a series of parks that Bargmann is planning for the restoration of this part of southwest Pennsylvania, it is being paid for by the town along with state and federal agencies and will contain picnicking areas and hiking trails. But its central feature will be a stream of acidic water that will percolate out of the mine and course down a limestone-lined canal into aerating basins and finally to a wetland for a final rinse. Alongside the water's path, Bargmann is planting a "litmus garden"-- rows of cherry trees, blueberry bushes and other plants whose autumnal colors will reflect the water's purifying progress as it cools down from a scalding orange to a soothing blue.
--By Daniel S. Levy