Life After Collapse
There are thousands of abandoned coal mines across the Midwest, many of which go unnoticed below urban areas, what risks could occur and what future developments could be envisioned?

Since the 1950’s, rapid urban sprawl has diffused from city centers and spread towards rural towns, building atop coal mines which have been abandoned and oftentimes forgotten. While these mines remain inactive, they still pose a hidden risk for mine collapse, resulting in subsidence of the land and catastrophic damage on the surface. Without a clear indication of when and where these pits will emerge, previously coal dominant cities need to urgently reconsider their developmental strategies before it is no longer occupiable.
Rather than displacing existing populations to indispensable surrounding agricultural land, we propose a new typology which lifts existing communities before they become ruins. In addition, these cities can return to an energy dominant economy through the introduction of a new energy infrastructure which localizes energy generation, capitalizes on agricultural waste, and counteracts the anthropogenic effects of coal mining.

The surrounding agricultural land produces a large amount of waste and excess product from field crops and livestock, and while there are technologies to convert this waste into energy, many small farms cannot afford renewable technologies. To aid neighboring small farms in efficient resource use, the ex-mining cities become energy centers which collect agricultural waste, manure, and waste water to produce electricity through anaerobic digestion and cogeneration. This creates a circular energy economy which efficiently deals with waste and provides clean energy for the cities and their surrounding rural areas.

"Life after collapse" received the honorable mention for the PREVENT Award in Arch Out Loud's 2021 WARMING Competition. The project was developed at the Iowa State University.

KOOZ What prompted the project?

BF, JK, RL The project arose from our urban studio in the Department of Architecture at Iowa State University co-taught by Kimberly Zarecor and Andrew Gleeson which prompted us to consider life in and around the city of Des Moines, Iowa 100 years into the future. With coastal flooding destroying major cities, the predicted influx of climate refugees to the Midwest comes with rapidly changing rural, urban, and suburban landscapes. The studio utilized repeatable ward units inspired by the colonial-era city of Savannah, Georgia to address future population demands as an alternative to master planning. A ward, which is a self-contained repeatable urban unit that has the necessary services for people in the immediate area, allows the city to expand and shrink without the typical negatives associated with urban sprawl.

As a team, we focused our research for this brief on the rapidly growing suburb of Waukee, Iowa, and discovered the town’s coal mining roots which prompted us to look at how ex-mining towns might change over time due to the threat of subsidence (ground movement from the collapsing of mines).

KOOZ What questions does the project raise and which does it address?

BF, JK, RL Before designing refuge for coastal climate migrants, we had to ask ourselves if the Midwest is prepared for an influx of migrants, and if our own landscapes as they currently exist can even withstand this movement. Increased flooding, droughts, fertile soil loss, and temperature related crop loss are some of the effects already visible in the midwestern landscape due to the climate crisis. However, we found interest in the invisible threat of subsidence in towns disconnected from their mining roots.

As mine structures deteriorate over time, these towns will continue to see more damage on the surface, and its unpredictability is jarring. Most residents are unaware of the abandoned mines underneath them. We wanted to address this by finding a way for ex-mining towns to recognize their anthropogenic past by visualizing one of these towns 100 years into the future. Based on our research in Waukee, this meant elevating portions of the city which are at risk and reconnecting the city to an energy economy by localizing clean energy generation.

KOOZ How did you approach the research of the topic? What tools did you use?

BF, JK, RL While there are no active coal mines in Iowa, we found the extent of abandoned underground coal mines using compiled geological surveys and commerce maps that helped us to understand the distribution of coal. Comparing vulnerable mine locations with population maps and future development plans, we were able to visualize the extent to which Des Moines and the surrounding areas of central Iowa could be affected by subsidence in the near future.

To research alternative organization methods for population growth we analyzed repeatable ward strategies seen in Savannah, Georgia, and utilized the text Urban Grids (Busquets, Kelle, and Yang) as a reference for urban typologies based on grids. Additionally, innovative research concerning waste-to-energy methods, especially in the context of agriculture, is conducted at Iowa State University, so we were fortunate to have institutional resources and faculty who could tell us about future applications of anaerobic digestion that could be used in our project.


KOOZ What were the most interesting findings? How did these translate into your proposal?

BF, JK, RL Using old newspaper clippings and photographic archives, we found that Waukee’s Shuler mine employed over 500 workers,the majority of whom were immigrants from Italy, Sweden, and Croatia, and the mine even produced coal for Iowa State University. When coal demand was low during parts of the year, miners would often work for local farmers to support their families. Many of the miners’ spouses worked at local restaurants to supplement their families’ income, and created a tight-knit community in Waukee. Today, only 9% of Waukee’s population has ancestry back to the coal miners. A small coal museum at the local library is all that remains.

The strength of the community created during Waukee’s historic energy economy was important for us to address in our proposal, and inspired the integration of surrounding small family farms into the circular energy economy as well as an energy center to provide jobs for the growing population. We researched various ways to connect these communities together and found that generating energy from the excess waste of field crops and livestock could benefit both the town and surrounding rural communities while efficiently dealing with waste.

KOOZ How do you envision the project developing on the long term? What do you see as the greatest benefits to the community and our landscape?

BF, JK, RL Mining-related subsidence is already affecting populations at an urban scale. The town of Kiruna, Sweden, has dug so many tunnels for their iron ore deposits that the town is physically sinking and they are in the process of relocating buildings to nearby land. This process takes years and the reason for moving is to continue to extract from the land.

Waukee (like many other cities) stopped mining years ago but has plans to introduce new districts which sit above the existing mines. There are no ways to “prevent” subsidence, as its movements are unpredictable, but our project allowed us the space to make these topics known to a wider audience by sharing resources and imagery that sparks discourse about the long term effects of mining. As a team, much of our research was new information for us and we became more aware of just how few people knew Des Moines was sitting above hundreds of mines as we talked to more people. It seemed the only people who had knowledge of subsidence were those who have heard personally about sinkholes appearing randomly or those who found cracks in their foundation and followed up by researching the cause.

Our hope is that this project, along with more research, will provide residents access to information and resources concerning the locations of these mines as well as helping the community to rethink development plans which are proposed for land vulnerable to subsidence.

Our hope is that this project [...] will provide residents access to information and resources concerning the locations of these mines as well as helping the community to rethink development plans.

KOOZ What is for you the power of the architectural imaginary?

BF, JK, RL There is a lot of architecture that simply cannot or should not be built. The “imaginary” world of architecture provides us an opportunity to curate research and evoke discourses surrounding interdisciplinary topics using images and the power of narrative, while at the same time respecting the uncertainty of the future.


Brenna Fransen, Jihoon Kim, and Run-Qian Lin are currently in their last semester of the Bachelor of Architecture program at Iowa State University. Brenna Fransen from Iowa, USA, is currently pursuing a secondary major of Environmental Studies in addition to Architecture and often finds the intersection of the two studies in her work. Her interests include research, writing and publications as well as the impact of built and unbuilt landscapes on human and non human relationships.Jihoon Kim born and raised in Daejeon, South Korea, is planning on pursuing a Master in Architecture II after graduating this May. During his studies, Jihoon worked at Folio Architects based in Seoul, Korea, as a project designer. Jihoon’s work is dedicated to exploring the role of embedded technology in the built environment and its relationship to the human experience.Born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan, Run-Qian Lin came to the US at the age of 16. Throughout the time in the US, Run grew his interest in art, film, architecture, culinary art, fashion, and other design fields. Run’s work is dedicated in interdisciplinary design and how each subject comes together and complements each other.

11 Feb 2022
Reading time
8 minutes
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