Remineralization Slam Dunk: NYC Dirtball Court Scores One for the Earth

Would you like to combine pickup basketball with offsetting carbon emissions? On Governors Island in New York City, you can! In June 2021, residents of the area gathered on the island for the grand opening of New York City’s first Dirtball court. 

Walker Tufts

Dirtball is an interactive environmental art exhibit a basketball court incorporating remineralizing concrete, a garden, and a birdhousedesigned and executed by Kosmologym, an art and game design collective with the goal of challenging players to build relationships to ecological systems. 

“There’s all these layers of trying to get those playing Dirtball to recognize the different natural processes that allow the world to function, of which we are quite often completely unaware,” said project organizer and environmental artist Walker Tufts.

The Governors’ Island Dirtball court is not the first of its kind. In 2019, Kosmologym built the first installment in Shafer, Minn. at Franconia Sculpture Park. The original plan for Governors Island’s exhibit was scheduled for 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it back by one year. 

“[The grand opening] was quite the day,” said Tufts, “We had a big group that kept playing in the rain. That was really fun.”

Governors Island

“Governors Island is such an interesting place to think about soil and a project like Dirtball,” he adds. “A good percentage of the island is anthropogenic – it’s the result of fill material that was dug up during the construction of the city’s first subway system. It’s basically manmade, so it’s interesting to think about soil health and how we relate to that.”

From a distance, the game may appear as regular basketball to spectators. But on a microscopic level, the athletes were remineralizing Earth by releasing soil micronutrients in the concrete through dribbling. 

Remineralization is an important tool for climate resiliency. Centuries of agricultural activity on a massive scale paired with industrialization has taken a toll on Earth’s soil; it is not made to be continuously used — it’s crucial to give soil time to rejuvenate. Remineralizing the Earth also leads to healthier food and sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. 

For Tufts, there is something exciting about the interactive, hands-on nature of Dirtball. 

The Dirtball court on Governors Island

“For me, inspiration comes from just trying to make the work exciting, interesting and challenging,” he said, “It’s inspiring seeing work that really approaches things from a whole set of different levels. Not starting with a question and then stopping with the first answer.”

The concept of remineralization is not new. It has been used for generations as a tool for maintaining healthy soil for fruitful farming. In the fight against climate change, priority is often given to new, cutting edge science. But Tufts thinks sticking to what science already knows might be more beneficial in the long run. 

“There’s a tendency to prioritize or valorize scientific projects that involve some kind of new thing and dismiss what we already know, and some of that is involved in prejudice against indigenous practices and some of that is obviously about the glamour of progress,” he explains, “but I do think that we already have so many incredible practices that have been tested across thousands of years for how we can do things that have mostly positive impacts.”

Tufts doesn’t plan on slowing down the installment of Dirtball anytime soon. And he hopes one day Dirtball can be a household name. 

“The full fantasy vision would be to build enough dirtball courts so when people see a basketball hoop they think about dirt,” Tufts said, “My dream is to do a dirtball court every year, and have them grow and change.” 

Accomplishing bringing humans and nature together is no small task. As these art exhibits continue it inevitably comes down to humans to participate and facilitate that change. 

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Natalie DiDomenico is Assistant Account Executive at Inkhouse in Boston, Massachusetts. She received a B.S. in Microbiology and B.A. in Journalism from University of Massachusetts in 2020. She is passionate about bridging the information gap between science and non science communities.

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