A team of landscape architects, geneticists, and bioinformaticians are trawling the Gowanus Canal for science
Thinking of a quick dip in the Gowanus? Perhaps not. After 150 years of industrial pollution, combined with sewage overflows and stormwater run-off, the canal is generally seen to be an undesirable place. However, one team comprising of three New York practices—Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, community bio-laboratory GenSpace, and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy—views it in a different light.
Earlier this year, urban design advocacy group Gowanus by Design launched the competition, “Axis Civitas,” which asked participants to map conditions relevant to the Gowanus area and use that as a basis to design a publicly accessible Urban Field Station.
The BK BioReactor—a collaboration including core team members Ellen Jorgensen of GenSpace and Ian Quate of Nelson Byrd Woltz, as well as Dr. Elizabeth Hénaff of Weill Cornell Medical College and Matthew Seibert of Landscape Metrics—claimed first prize. Since then, the team has been getting to work and can be found kayaking along the canal’s surface and even wading through its filth, cataloging and mapping the Gowanus’s microbial communities. An interactive microbiological map has been produced (available online), locating all the different microorganisms; the vast majority of which are bacteria. “Many of the species identified in preliminary samplings are also found in the human gut (a result of raw sewage), while other species reveal influence of the canal’s proximity to the ocean,” the group states on its website.
Executive director of Gowanus by Design David Briggs stressed they had no time to lose. Now designated as a Superfund by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the canal will be dredged and then have its waterways sub-aquatically capped over the course of the next decade. This process will involve isolating the canal’s waste by coating it with a layer of soil or similar substance to prevent further contamination of the canal.
Briggs, an architect himself, spoke of the “dearth of community resources” in the Gowanus neighborhood. “If we could help with that and also work with the EPA, then we would really achieve something,” he said. Such a proposal isn’t out of the question either.
Hénaff spoke highly of the study so far: “There are only positives to conclude,” she said. “Nature does fix itself, despite what we inflict on it, and our job now is to see how we can coax this currently optimal bioremediation solution to perform faster.” She outlined two directions that could be taken: Tweaking the bacteria themselves and accelerating the rate of metabolism or “modifying the built environment through choices in materials and structures to provide an environment with which to select for the bioremediating functions in the extant microbiome.”
Turning up the heat on the microbial melting pot that is the Gowanus is no easy task. As a landscape architect, Seibert believes that through “a data-driven understanding of place (via DNA sequencing of sediment samples and responsive environmental sensor installation), community engagement, and bioreactor cultivation prototyping,” the team can begin to “offer site-specific proposals” for how this could be done.
Seibert explained how this would help traditional landscape architects “design and specify an optimized environment for a preferred planting palette (i.e. soil structure, amendments, irrigation, etc.).” Meanwhile a “microbiologically-leaning landscape architect might do the same for a microbiome privileging the populations of bioremediating microbes.”
“I think the canal is a landscape rich in lessons in how we conceive of landscape, particularly landscape within an urban context,” Seibert continued. “For one, it speaks to the dangers of divorcing the built and natural environments. In fact, I think there is sort of a novel bioethic that emerges from this that can encourage a new kind of stewardship. As toxic and ugly and ultimately embarrassing as the Gowanus Canal is to its community, it also provides this layered landscape to catalyze us into re-conceiving nature and our role intimately within and of it.”