Bringing out the Best

Mouth of the Gowanus Canal (Source:

The Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States. Located in Brooklyn, NYC, this mile and a half long Canal was used as a commercial and industrial waterway for the numerous industries and businesses in the surrounding area. Large ships carrying coal, cement, machines and tanks of natural gas and oil sailed through every day. During the industrial revolution, environmental regulations were near non-existent, and many industries simply deposited their waste into the waterway, polluting the water with heavy metals, pesticides and organics. Additionally, many of New York City’s combined sewers flowed into the Gowanus Canal, meaning that during periods of heavy rain, when the city’s wastewater treatment plants could not handle the combined flows of sewer water and stormwater, the sewers directed flows into the Gowanus – untreated. As the lowest point in the immediate area, any water that landed in the surrounding six square miles flowed into the Canal, picking up all sorts of pollutants on the way.

Currently, the Gowanus is undergoing a $506 million clean-up, which should be complete by 2022. With Downtown Brooklyn less than half a mile away, relators and other investors are beginning to realize the potential in the Gowanus neighborhood.  Gowanus by Design, a community-based urban design advocacy group, hosted its third annual Axis Civitas international design competition to invite design firms to envision a possible future for the Gowanus Canal, based on its rich and complex history. Entries had to have two components: 1) Conduct research on the current economic, environmental, or social conditions of the area and 2) use this research to provide a new community “Urban Field Station” to enable sustainable development and growth.

While there were many entries of note, I chose to focus on two that caught my attention.

Developed by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects in collaboration with the Weill Cornell Medical College, the BK BioReactor focuses on the water chemistry and biology of the Gowanus Canal. Strategically specifying 14 location along the Canal, a multi-disciplinary group of scientists, architects and designers used DIY tools to sample the water for analysis in a lab. The group identified the water chemistry (temperature, pH, salinity and dissolved oxygen) and the microbial communities of the water at each of the locations to form a map of the biological life and conditions of the Canal. The group identified a variety of communities that degraded pollutants such as sulfate, arsenic, Toluene (a byproduct of coal and gasoline production) and herbicides. Such research could shed light on what kind of environmental conditions are necessary to facilitate accelerated degradation of pollutants by naturally occurring microorganisms. The BK Bioreactor itself is a watercraft that travels along the river, conducting both professional and citizen science. Research is projected at the 14 sites for public viewing.

BK Bioreactor (

The BK Bioreactor team envisions the Canal as an area full of biological diversity. Combined, the microorganisms act as a natural wastewater treatment system by slowly degrading pollutants. This system-level view can provide insight into the control of microbial communities to provide accelerated and targeted benefits to society. The proposal encourages direct interaction between the society and the environment, showing how the environment is constantly adapting to our changes. It highlights the interconnectedness between what we consider the “natural world” and the “human world.”

OP-Architecture Landscape provides a different take on the remediation of the area. While the BK Reactor strives to characterize current processes and to improve upon them, the team of OP-AL embraces the artificiality of the straightened concrete waterway that is the Canal. Dubbed the Field Station of the Industrial Sublime, this honorable mention proposes to drain the entire canal, using the area to construct a wastewater treatment plant. New York City is home to 14 water treatment plants. During times of heavy rain, there is roughly twice as much water than all 14 plants can handle at one time, with ten of these plants diverting the excess wastewater directly into the Gawanus Canal. The City is in dire need of an additional treatment plant (if not several), and locating one by the Gawanus Canal seems like a sensible idea. The once extinct streams that flowed into the Gawanus would be restored, serving as wetlands to naturally filter off stormwater before reaching the treatment plant. Area would be devoted for community engagement – featuring pedestrian walkways, class rooms and auditoriums for education. The proposal even includes a large crane to lift incoming ships from one side of the Canal to the other (not sure how feasible this is).

Field Station of the Industrial Sublime (Source:

While seemingly much more extreme that the BK Bioreactor, OP-AL’s suggestion provides a glimpse of the opportunities of community-focused and engaged infrastructure. This is infrastructure that fosters community investment with the area and natural environment. This infrastructure not only provides health and economic benefits, but also cultural benefits. The Field Station doesn’t try to hide its purpose, it embraces its purpose, shows it off and celebrates and acknowledges the deep history that brought it into existence.

While such design competitions such as this one are meant more as thought exercises, the ideas they represent are powerful if implemented. The opportunities to turn degrading infrastructure and environments into centerpieces of societal innovation are numerous. Axis Civitas’ entry requirements can be used as a framework for infrastructure design. First, examine the area in question, study it, understand the underlying processes that govern it and the history embedded within it. Once you have characterized the area, brainstorm ways to utilize the existing processes to your advantage. In this way we can generate solutions that require limited additional resources and modifications. In a way, we bring out the system’s inherent ability to protect itself and benefit our society. The amplification of naturally occurring characteristics should not overwhelm the design however, as a good solution is one that addresses multiple concerns, multiple stakeholders.

The understanding that infrastructure is not just a single-purpose engineered system but a piece woven into a complex and dynamic urban framework can generate additional cultural and economic benefits. When we put infrastructure at the forefront, we appreciate this urban framework and invite appreciation and much-needed criticism of our current society.


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