Making Up Ground

Roman Mars: On May 3rd 1978, construction workers in San Francisco were digging a foundation for a new building on Sansom Street right next to the tallest skyscraper in the city, the Transamerica Pyramid, in the heart of the financial district. There were about 20 feet below street level when their shovels hit something totally unexpected.

Emmett Fitzgerald: It was the hull of an old ship. That’s reporter Emmett Fitzgerald. Archaeologists immediately came in and started scraping away all the dirt and mud. And, after a few days, they’d uncovered the full skeleton of a 120 foot Gold Rush era vessel called Niantic preserved perfectly in the earth beneath the streets of San Francisco.

Roman Mars: As the archaeologists did their work hundreds of people gathered to watch the bizarre scene – a massive, massive ship being pulled out from beneath the pavement.

James Delgado: As the construction hoarding was put up people were carving holes in it to look in and see Niantic emerge from the mud.

Emmett Fitzgerald: That’s James Delgado.

James Delgado: I’m an archaeologist and a historian and I’m the author of Gold Rush Port: The Maritime Archaeology of San Francisco.

Roman Mars: Delgado was 20 years old then, and an archaeologist in training, and he was part of the excavation that day.

Emmett Fitzgerald: Inside the ship, he found all kinds of artifacts from the gold rush that had been preserved underground – bricks, nails, tin plates for sheathing, boots, jackets, saddles, shovels, a lot of booze. 49ers like to drink. Delgado even popped the cork on a bottle of 150 year old champagne.

James Delgado: Tasted awful.

Roman Mars: But the excavation of the Niantic launched his career in marine archaeology and inspired him to study the ships beneath San Francisco because the Niantic isn’t the only one down there.

James Delgado: I’d say that there probably is as many as 70 ships that were buried that in some way shape or form remain even if it’s fragments.

Emmett Fitzgerald: In 1994, city workers were digging a tunnel for the Muni train when they hit the side of another gold rush ship, the Rome.

James Delgado: The decision was made to drill through it.

Roman Mars: They tunneled right through the hull. And today thousands of San Franciscans travel through the ship every morning as they ride the train between Folsom Street and the Embarcadero.

James Delgado: It’s not really marked in the tunnel. But for those of us who know when you take that turn, you’re passing through the Gold Rush ship, Rome.

Emmett Fitzgerald: To understand how all of these ships ended up buried underground beneath the city, we need to go back to the eighteen thirties. When San Francisco was just a tiny little port called Yerba Buena.

James Delgado: It was an outpost of a few buildings with the tiny town square. That’s it.

Roman Mars: By 1847 the population had grown to a few hundred. They renamed the Port San Francisco but it was still just a small town.

James Delgado: But in 1848 all of that changed with the discovery of gold in January.

Emmett Fitzgerald: The Gold Rush brought a tidal wave of prospectors to California.

James Delgado: And by the end of 1850, the San Francisco waterfront was clogged with more than a thousand ships and the town had grown into a city of thousands. So you’re looking at a city that within a decade has gone from being a village to being the 12th largest city in North America.

Emmett Fitzgerald: But the land around San Francisco was mostly sandy hills and not well suited to this scale of development.

Roman Mars: So to meet the surging demand for real estate the city sold off plots of water in the shallow tidal zone.

Emmett Fitzgerald: A person could buy a piece of water but it was their job to turn it into usable ground. Some people dumped sand or garbage into their plots to try and make land. Others drove stakes into the mud and built platforms on top of the water.

Roman Mars: And a lot of people repurpose the ships that had brought them to California.

James Delgado: The ships helped because as they came many of them were sitting idle. The crews have gone off to the diggings or had run away. So the owners rented them out or sold them outright to become floating houses, warehouses, the town jail, offices, you name it. Over 200 of them became floating buildings.

Emmett Fitzgerald: Ships were the centers of commercial life in San Francisco.

James Delgado: Well you had the Apollo Saloon which was basically a restaurant. They sold a donut and a cup of coffee for two bits, they said. You had the Euphemia which was turned into the town jail and later became an insane asylum. You also had ships that served as water cisterns. You had other ships that worked as government offices and another ship, the good ship Panama, was used as a seaman’s church.

Emmett Fitzgerald: The city looked like a forest of masts and planks connected the ships creating a grid of boardwalks perched above the water.

James Delgado: One visitor said that San Francisco was a Venice built of pine.

Roman Mars: But there were obvious downsides to a floating city and, little by little, people began to fill in areas between the ships using whatever they could get their hands on.

James Delgado: From garbage to unwanted cargo to dead bodies, you name it, everything was thrown into that and with this, gradually began the process of filling in the mudflats.

Roman Mars: In this way, the shoreline itself began to advance. At this point the harbor was a patchwork of freshly filled lots, ships and buildings on stilts. But then, in May of 1851 a massive fire broke out in downtown San Francisco.

James Delgado: The wind fanned the flames and by the time the next day had dawned, more than 2000 buildings were gone. The flames were so high that they could see the glow in Monterrey 100 miles south.

Emmett Fitzgerald: Some of the ships caught fire and sank leaving their half charred holes in the muddy water. By the time they managed to put the fire out, the waterfront was just a mushy mess of smoldering timber.

Roman Mars: And that mushy mess was too unstable to rebuild on. So they use some of the world’s first steam powered excavators to scrape sand off of nearby hills and dunes and dump it on top.

James Delgado: By September of 1851, the old waterfront had been completely buried.

Emmett Fitzgerald: And with it the Niantic, the Rome and all of the other gold rush ships, entombed in this manufactured ground.

Roman Mars: After the fire San Francisco continued to expand, filling in more and more of the title zone in deeper and deeper water.

Emmett Fitzgerald: And eventually the state stepped in. They built a seawall to cap the production of new land.

James Delgado: They drew a line and said San Francisco you can go no further. And today we know that line. It’s the Embarcadero.

Roman Mars: The walkway along the eastern edge of the San Francisco wharf.

Emmett Fitzgerald: But by that time a city had built up on top of all this sand and dirt and garbage. And over the years, San Francisco continued to develop. And today, what had been the title zone is the heart of the city’s financial district.

Emmett Fitzgerald: Throughout history the absence of ground has proven to be a surprisingly small obstacle for people who want to build stuff.

Roman Mars: San Francisco isn’t the only city that has built its own land. Large portions of Boston, Seattle, Hong Kong and Marseilles were built on top of fill.

James Delgado: It’s not uncommon to see it in other cities. New York, Manhattan built out and filled, The area the World Trade Center sits on was landfill. They actually found a ship when they were building the original World Trade Center towers.

Roman Mars: What is now Mumbai India used to be a seven island archipelago before the British colonial government turned it all into one contiguous strip of land.

Emmett Fitzgerald: Tokyo has built 60,000 acres of new land over the last several centuries.

Roman Mars: The process of building new land along the waterfront is often referred to as land reclamation.

Emmett Fitzgerald: Which is kind of ridiculous.

James Delgado: Land reclamation is another one of those words that’s made up and it masquerades what’s really happening. You’re creating land where it didn’t exist before.

Roman Mars: Or even created a whole country, like the Netherlands.

Stephen Graham: There’s a very extraordinary history. Basically the Dutch making their own country.

Emmett Fitzgerald: That’s Stephen Graham, Professor of Cities and Society at Newcastle University and author of the book Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers.

Stephen Graham: Most of Holland, most at the Netherlands, as it’s currently constructed is an engineering construction. It’s a huge project of land reclamation and land manufacture.

Emmett Fitzgerald: The Dutch developed incredible techniques to build land in places that were actually below sea level.

Stephen Graham: And this has been going on since medieval times by large dykes were constructed, large pumping systems were constructed to create a dry country underneath the sea.

Emmett Fitzgerald: And the Dutch are proud of this history. There’s a popular saying there – “God created the world but the Dutch created the Netherlands”.

Roman Mars: Humans have been making their own ground for a long time but the process has reached new heights in recent years.

Stephen Graham: The historic scale of land reclamation and land manufacture and the building up of land beneath cities is absolutely minuscule compared to the scale of which is going on today.

Roman Mars: More and more cities are building waterfront property for airports, skyscrapers and housing.

Stephen Graham: It’s sheer urban economics. As you create new supply in an area where there’s amazing levels of demand and therefore it’s very profitable.

Emmett Fitzgerald: And new dredging technologies have enabled developers to build land faster and on a grander scale often at the expense of the environment.

Stephen Graham: I mean, they huge ships, for example, which have what they call rainbow dredging systems.

Roman Mars: These ships suck up massive amounts of sand and gravel from the seafloor and shoot it through the air in a giant arching rainbow of muck onto the area where they’re trying to build new land. This technology has been particularly useful for creating artificial islands.

Emmett Fitzgerald: China is using these rainbow dredging ships to turn uninhabited coral atolls in the middle of the South China Sea into larger islands that could support human settlement.

Roman Mars: They’re actually manufacturing land in the hopes of staking territorial claim to highly contested waters.

Emmett Fitzgerald: And then there’s Dubai.

Stephen Graham: Dubai is a poster child for this process really.

Emmett Fitzgerald: The wealthy desert Emirate has built a series of artificial islands for wealthy elites. Three of the new landforms are shaped like massive palm fronds. Another project called The World is a cluster of islands designed to look like a map of the world from above.

Roman Mars: But Dubai’s reclamation project has stirred up so much sediment that they’ve buried coral reefs, oyster beds and seagrass fields in the Persian Gulf. In some of their islands that make up The World are already starting to erode back into the sea.

Emmett Fitzgerald: Dubai is also running out of sand. At least the kind of sand you need to build things. Desert sand is too fine for construction. And Dubai has used up so much of the sand around its coast that they now have to import it from Australia.

Roman Mars: Globally, humans use over 40 billion tons of sand a year. The two largest uses of that sand are a concrete production and land manufacturing projects.

Emmett Fitzgerald: And it’s created a global sand shortage that is forcing countries to go to extreme lengths in their efforts to build new ground.

Stephen Graham: The most famous example here is Singapore.

Emmett Fitzgerald: The wealthy island nation is one of the densest countries in the world and it’s constantly looking to expand its territory.

Stephen Graham: Those plans to make Singapore 20 or 30 percent big over the next 40 50 years through manufacturing new land.

Emmett Fitzgerald: Without enough sand of its own Singapore has had to look elsewhere.

Stephen Graham: There’s been a lot of evidence that this extended land manufacturing around Singapore, the basis for its growth as a tiny island city, is based on basically stealing sandy islands from the poorer countries like Cambodia and Indonesia and Burma and then moving the material physically.

Emmett Fitzgerald: Land itself is flowing from poorer countries to wealthier ones.

Stephen Graham: Those countries have made some exports illegal because of this sense that they are losing their own territory.

Roman Mars: Land manufacturing isn’t just expanding territory outward. In some cases it’s expanding upward.

Emmett Fitzgerald: On the coast of Nigeria, developers are building a new luxury city called Eko Atlantic on top of manufactured ground.

Stephen Graham: And the startling thing about Eko Atlantic is that it’s about three or four meters higher than the rest of Lagos and it’s being designed to be more resilient to expected sea level rises than the rest of the city.

Roman Mars: Lagos is a very poor, low lying city that’s extremely vulnerable to sea level rise.

Stephen Graham: So there’s a very disturbing, sort of almost apartheid, geography emerging here where elites are able to build their own escape routes from increasingly perilous conditions through going higher into manufactured land.

Emmett Fitzgerald: In theory, building new land could be a part of the solution to sea level rise. But Stephen Graham says these new land projects are often built exclusively for the rich.

Stephen Graham: They are being built as private projects for those who can get in and can afford it. They’re not being billed as public projects very often to protect cities as a whole.

Emmett Fitzgerald: Massive reclamation projects like Eko Atlantic are the most obvious examples of manufactured land. But even if you live far away from the coast, the ground beneath your feet may have been partially created by humans.

Roman Mars: People are continuously impacting the surface of the earth. We dig up rock from one place, grind it into cement and build a sidewalk somewhere else. We blow up skyscrapers, dump the rubble somewhere and build a hospital on top of it.

Emmett Fitzgerald: And all of this human activity has actually created a new layer on the surface of the Earth’s crust. It’s made up of old bricks ground up cement and rusting metal. Archaeologists and geologists have started calling this layer the archaeosphere.

Roman Mars: The archaeosphere isn’t totally unnatural. It’s filled with soil, roots and earthworms. Sometimes grass grows on top of it and that makes it hard for us to notice.

Stephen Graham: Stephen Graham says that this idea that human activity has actually created a geologic layer on the surface of the earth is bringing archaeologists and geologists together.

Roman Mars: Traditionally archaeologists study human artifacts within the ground while geologists study the ground itself. But what if the ground itself was made by humans.

Stephen Graham: Archaeologists are increasingly working with geologists and they see the ground as a gradual accumulation of the leftover starfishes, it’s rubbish, it’s the bodies of the dead, it’s the leftover materials and it is increasingly part of the build. I think that’s really important.

Emmett Fitzgerald: Important for one, because we need to understand what the ground is made of if we want to build safely on top of it. Manufactured ground can be unstable and more susceptible to earthquakes and landslides.

Stephen Graham: For example, in China in Shenzen when the construction material was heaped up on a hillside as part of the great expansion of that city, basically slumped down as a great big slide and I think there’s about 80 people killed in that as well. So we need to become much more aware that in creating our own geology we’re also creating our own hazards.

Emmett Fitzgerald: But the archaeosphere is also a resource to be explored.

Stephen Graham: There’s been estimates that there is as much copper in that artificial ground as there is in all of the copper mines in the world. So in Scandinavia they’re actually starting to mine the disused industrial ground of their own industrial cities.

Emmett Fitzgerald: When you walk through a city coated in pavement and covered in buildings, it’s easy to assume that the ground beneath you is ancient and natural.

Stephen Graham: There’s a tendency always just to say the ground is something that’s always been there and always will be there. But there’s a huge amount of evidence that cities build their own ground, cities are agents for making their own geology.

Emmett Fitzgerald: If you look at a brand new land reclamation project like Eko Atlantic, it’s obvious the ground is manufactured. Right now it looks like a giant sandy construction site but if all goes according to plan pretty soon there will be parking lots and skyscrapers and apartment buildings.

Roman Mars: And right now it’s hard to imagine that such a blatant example of artificial ground will one day become seen as just an ordinary part of the Nigerian landscape. But you probably could have said the same thing about San Francisco in 1850.

Comments (6)

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  1. dil

    fantastic episode! best one in a long time (and that’s saying something). more urban history episodes please!

    1. William Schineider Rabelo

      You are right, one of the best from recently episodes. More episodes like this would be awesome!

  2. Victor Hernandez

    Spellbinding.
    “This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars” captivated me from the first time I heard Nikko on a 1,500 mile road trip. Excellent episode. Thank you.

  3. Patrick

    Fantastic episode, BUT! You missed a golden opportunity to mention ancient cultures that did this sort of thing, like the earthen mounds of the American southeast or the Tels of the Middle East and the Levant. What’s old is new again, right? :-)

  4. Perry F. Bruns

    I loved this episode, not least because I live in Tampa, where we also built an island out of sediment. It was previously called Seddon Island after E.L. Seddon, who actually created it by dredging a channel to make port access easier and dumping the remaining dirt on and around what was originally “Grassy Island”, but renamed Harbour Island in the early 1985 when a group of developers tried to duplicate the success of Baltimore’s Harborplace, which had opened in 1980, and still remains vibrant today.

    I have relatives in Baltimore, though, and as such have visited both in their respective heydays. Harbour Island never took off the way Harborplace did.

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