Through an interdisciplinary framework that lends research and practice, we explore the potential for landscape design to better produce, manage, operate, and cultivate rivermouth landscapes over time.   Design research is the approach that helps us bridge divides between disciplines, values, and operative scales, and describe or show what is possible within a set of constraints. This text showcases a design research approach in collaboration with scientists,port operators, and the US Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps, USACE) to engage a series of Great Lakes rivermouths through design as a process of inquiry.


One of the most important territories in the Great Lakes Basin are the outlets of the vast network of tributaries draining into the lakes. Ports and their attendant processes of dredging, dumping, and filling are typically located at these rivermouths, where critical wetlands, shoals, deltas, and underwater habitat were historically found and where hydrologic, geologic, and anthropologic systems create a unique ‘mixing zone.’[i] This confluence of factors situates ports as critical points of ecosystem, economic, and public health within the Great Lakes region, offering a strategic opportunity to rethink environmental change in the context of community values and landscape processes. The potential recovery of these muddy landscapes is one of the great possibilities in the restoration of the long-term ecosystem health of the Great Lakes in the face of accelerating climatic change and economic volatility; and at the fundamental core of these concerns, is the cross-disciplinary management of sediment. 

Port Futures positions landscape design as a means to make critical breakthroughs related to sediment management to improve human and ecosystem function. At every stage we push to bring design research to bear on navigational infrastructure and rivermouth ecosystems through a focus on sediment and its associated cultural, hydro-geological, and technological processes and effects. Through an interdisciplinary framework that blends research and practice we explore the potential for landscape design to better produce, manage, operate, and cultivate rivermouth landscapes over time


  1. Focus on time-based work with natural materials, assemblages, and systems.

This principle undergirds a landscape approach, which not only works with natural objects and their relations, but understands that they take time. This stands in contrast to a conventional project approach, drawn from the fields of architecture and civil engineering, which relies on capital-intensive construction processes that begin to lose effectiveness from day one.

2. Human benefits and ecosystem health are coupled and are not adversarial.

For practical purposes human and natural ecosystems are often considered separately. But they are not separate, and there is a body of good theory (e.g. Rod Barnett’s concept of natureculture[i]) and practice, ranging from the Back Bay Fens to the work of Kongjian Yuthat demonstrate how landscape architecture provides the concepts and techniques to understand this coupling and frame projects so that these things can be understood as outcomes, together.

3. Sediment itself crosses sectors and jurisdictions and forms its own constituency.

In a fluvial-lacustrine system (or lacustuary,to use the little-known neologism) sediment is an agent that binds together commercial, social, and environmental interests at multiple temporal, spatial,and organizational scales. Rather than having fish and beach regulators (often state-level Departments of Natural Resources) treat sediment as a benefit,infrastructure managers treat it as a problem, and boaters treat it as a nuisance. Sedimentary projects need methods for more comprehensive work that crosses disciplines, sectors, and administrative boundaries.

Working Concept: Passive Sediment Management

The problem of sediment in port cities has typically been approached using the blunt instrument of maintenance dredging—the underwater uplift, transport, and placement of sediments.   Instead of this traditional approach, passive sediment management involves working with natural processes, forms or systems in at least one of the three stages of sediment management—uplift, transport, and placement.  In this way, passive sediment management converts sediment management from a maintenance act producing a waste product to a productive process contributing to revenue streams, land creation, risk reduction, and habitat improvement.  In many cases, because it keeps sediment in fluvial and littoral systems, albeit in more desirable places than the navigation channel, it would reduce some of the need for permitting and conventional dredging over time. Put more simply,sediment moved to a desirable location by river or littoral currents requires much less human input, be it physical, monetary, or regulatory. It does require more experimental design, with natural systems that are extremely complex and not completely predictable, creating a gap between intent and reality that is difficult to resolve.

[i] James H. Larson, Anett S. Trebitz, Alan D. Steinman, Michael J. Wiley, Martha Carlson Mazur, Vistoria Peebles, Heather A. Braun, Paul W. Seelbach. “Great Lakes rivermouth ecosystems: Scientific synthesis and management implications.” Journal of Great Lakes Research, 39, no. 3 (2013): 513-524.