Let’s pretend that it’s 2014, and the Keystone XL Pipeline has just been approved, despite protests from millions of Americans. According to a group of landscape architects at SWA Group, the time to start planning for that day is now. “The environment it will create isn’t beautiful, useful, or necessarily safe. If we’re not thinking about how to make it better for people, that’s a problem,” says SWA principal Kinder Baumgardner. “It’s time to set a precedent for imagining infrastructure that folds into the reality of our everyday lives.”
SWA Group’s work has been described by one critic as “transforming blight into destination.” In Houston, where Baumgardner and his team are based, the firm recently rehabbed an abandoned patch of marshy land under the highway into the city’s most successful public park. The Keystone XL Pipeline, should it come to pass, will present a similar problem–on a monumental scale. So as part of an internal exercise, the SWA Group is imagining how public amenities could be woven into the 5,000-mile stretch of crude oil pipeline.
They call their plan the KXL Pipeline Trail: a cross-country bike path that would run along the same route as the pipeline. They imagine families taking summer trips along the path, stopping at oft-overlooked cultural and natural heritage sites and spending much-needed tourist dollars along the way. As a design element, it’d be fairly inexpensive to build. The real point, explains Baumgardner, is to generate development by increasing local tourism. “There are hundreds of small towns that won’t benefit from the Oil Sands once the Pipeline is built,” he says. “What we’re talking about is an opportunity to make it into an amenity managed at a local scale.”
On the surface, SWA’s proposal is incredibly cynical. A bike path next to an oil pipeline is the environmental equivalent of a bandaid on a mortal wound. As such, their plan stands to suffer from public criticism, mostly because emotions are running high about the as-of-yet unapproved pipeline. But Baumgardner is quick to point out that their idea is applicable across a whole cadre of similar (if less high profile) pipeline infrastructure projects in the U.S. right now. “We call it mixed-use infrastructure,” he adds. “It’s not a black and white issue. Like infrastructure, it’s a little bit grey.”
In an era of sequestration, there’s definitely no money to build and maintain a massive public bike path. Theoretically, such a project could be funded and kept by the private companies financing the pipeline, as a kind of trade-off for administration approval. For now, it’s just a think piece–and an appeal for increased discussion about what should happen if Keystone XL actually comes to pass.