The American Dream Denied

Kate Orff

Kate Orff is the founder and principal of SCAPE, a landscape architecture and urban design studio in New York and New Orleans. Her work is focusing on retooling the practice of landscape architecture relative to the uncertainty of climate change. She is known for leading complex, creative, and collaborative work processes that advance broad environmental and social prerogatives. Kate received the 2017 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, the first given in the field of Landscape Architecture, and in 2019 she received the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. She graduated with a bachelors degree in Political and Social Thought from the University of Virginia and earned a Master in Landscape Architecture from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. Kate is also the Director of Columbia University GSAPPs Urban Design Program and the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes.

America’s consumption patterns can be traced to the landscape of Cancer Alley. Over one hundred oil refineries and chemical manufacturing facilities are intermixed with sugar refineries, metal processors, and coffee production facilities, revealing the demands of the nation’s past and present. Pure engineering alchemy is on display. The building blocks derived from oil, coal and natural gas shown in the diagram above become an array of chemicals and end-products like medical equipment, cars, computers, bombs, cosmetics, building materials, inks and cleaning agents. For instance, propylene is used to make acetone, which is transformed through several steps into polymethylmethacrylate, known by the brand name Plexiglas. It is also turned into isopropyl alcohol, used in antifreeze and as a home remedy for swimmer’s ear. Meanwhile polypropylene is common as stackable furniture and long underwear. While America’s addiction to oil has been widely recognized, the effects of fossil fuel extraction and processing on our homeland, and on public health, are often hidden and localized. American consumers benefit from the myriad of products made possible by petrochemistry, while pollution and waste often affect only the poorest communities.
-  Richard Misrach and Kate Orff, Petrochemical America; New York: Aperture, 2012, p 128-129.

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