Floating Landscape May Clean the Toxic Gowanus Canal

The GrowOnUs floating island prototype floating in the Gowanus Canal / Balmori Associates

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York, is one of the most heavily polluted waterways in the United States. The 1.8 mile long, 100-foot wide canal, which is a SuperFund site, has historically been home to many industries that contaminated it with heavy metals, pesticides, and sewage from combined sewer overflows. While efforts are underway to clean up the industrial sites surrounding the canal, a new experimental project, GrowOnUs, by the New York-based landscape and urban design firm, Balmori Associates, uses a floating landscape to decontaminate the canal’s water. It was launched last week behind the Gowanus Whole Foods, adjacent to the Third Street Bridge, and will eventually move to a final location near the 7th Street Basin.

GrowOnUs locations / Bamori Associates

GrowOnUs transforms metal culvert pipes, once used to bring polluted runoff and sewage waste to the canal, into 54 floating “test tube” planters that will clean the water through phytoremediation, a process that features cleansing plants; desalination; and rainwater collection. Each of the planters will be irrigated from one of three different types of water, according to Jessica Roberts, a designer at Balmori Associates. “Some of the planters collect rainwater in reservoirs made from recycled plastic bottles, some use canal water distilled from solar stills that allow condensation to collect,” she said. Buoyant construction material, such as bamboo, coconut fiber, and recycled plastic, allows the planters to float.

Designed by the firm’s experimental branch, BAL/LAB, the prototype draws on a year of experimentation with different plants and water types that not only have the potential to decontaminate the water in the canal, but can also adapt to rising sea levels and storm surge events.

The team will continue to monitor the prototype over the next few years through frequent site visits, according to Noemie LaFaurie-Debany, leader of the Floating Landscape BAL/LAB, and explore its full potential as a productive landscape. “We want to find out if these plants can also be productive as wildlife habitat.”

Some of the floating plants are intended to clean the water, while others are wildlife habitat or could be used to produce dyes / Balmori Associates

Lafaurie-Debany has many hopes for future floating landscapes. “Floating landscapes can do lots of things: They can protect the canal edge against erosion of surge, produce food and be productive, and absorb energy from the wave or the current. What interests us the most — what we really want to be able to do – is create an island that will have public space where people can go to play, to read a book or to use just like a regular green space, but in the canal.”

While the current prototype does not include public space, Roberts noted that people have been able to interact with the floating landscape. At the launch event, “fifth grade students from the Brooklyn New School participated in a series of demonstrations explaining how the island functions. It has also been fun for us to see a few people canoeing and kayaking by it. It could become such an active place,” she said.

Members of the BAL/LAB team installing the floating landscape on a canoe in the Gowanus Canal / Balmori Associates

This is not Balmori Associates’ first experiment with floating landscapes. In 2005, the firm collaborated with the Whitney Museum and the Smithson Estate to build a floating island on a 30 by 90-foot barge that was towed by a tugboat around the island of Manhattan. According to the firm’s website, “the barge was visible to millions of residents, commuters, and visitors along the Hudson and East Rivers.”

Smithson’s Floating Island was pulled by a red tugboat / Balmori Associates

The firm has also been working on a project in Memphis that consists of a series of landscape islands on the Mississippi River. Each of the islands will provide different public attractions, including a “river overlook, a children’s play area, a performance space and wetland gardens.”

After monitoring the success of the current island on the Gowanus Canal, Lafaurie-Debany said the team is interested in finding other locations for creating new floating islands on a larger scale. “An island in the Hudson River could be more productive than one in the Gowanus. We will have to see.”

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