Diana Balmori launches a vegetated island floating along Brooklyn’s toxic Gowanus Canal

City Terrain East Landscape Architecture On View
(Branden Klayko / AN)

(Branden Klayko / AN)

Landscape architect Diana Balmori has been planting floating gardens and launching them into the middle of Brooklyn‘s Gowanus Canal only to have the plant life killed off by the Superfund site‘s toxic waters. “We’ve been working on this a year,” she told AN today along the canal’s edge looking at GrowOnUs, her latest floating landscape. “We did three test plantings, but they all died in the canal.”

(Branden Klayko / AN)

Diana Balmori stands in front of the GrowOnUs floating island. (Branden Klayko / AN)

The collection of tubes strung together around a pontoon-like structure of 55-gallon plastic drums and hundreds of recycled plastic bottles is an experiment to test the feasibility of growing plants—and eventually food—on larger synthetic islands to help provide local provisions for city dwellers. “Eventually, we would like to create a productive island to grow food and herbs and fruits for city residents,” Balmori said. Her team will also monitor the site for its applicability in protecting shorelines, creating natural habitat and biodiversity, generating energy, and providing public space.

Balmori, head of Balmori Associates, worked with Riverkeepers to pick hardier plants that could withstand the Gowanus’ murky waters. “We used their research to choose plants that could take the pollution,” Balmori said. The nonprofit group monitors what pollutants and chemicals are in the canal’s waters and advocates for its cleanup.

(Branden Klayko / AN)

(Branden Klayko / AN)

Balmori also looked to plants naturally lining the canal’s banks for the island’s plant life. “You can see Sumac there and there,” Balmori said, pointing to patches of green. “Sumac can take quite a lot.” Other plant life on the GrowOnUs island was chosen for its industrial use dying cloth. Balmori said this is a nod to the local industry in the Gowanus neighborhood. Plants on the island include Fringed Sedge, Seaside Goldenrod, and Smooth Cordgrass—selected for their water-cleansing properties—and Black-Eyed Susan, Wild Indigo, and Smooth Sumac—chosen for their production qualities.

The plants interact with the canal in a variety of ways. Some of the hardier plants draw their water directly from the waterway, with roots growing down through a structure of mesh and plastic bottles. Other plants use collected rainwater and some use water distilled with solar-powered equipment housed beneath small plastic domes within the island. At night, lights beneath colored filters will glow softly, announcing its presence on the canal. Several birdhouses have also been included—the island is also meant to create habitat for birds and insects.

GrowOnUs was unveiled today along a promenade by the greenhouse-topped Gowanus Whole Foods, but will move to its final location this evening at the Seventh Street Basin of the canal.

Related Stories