The Gowanus Canal is full of 150 years worth of coal tar, heavy metals, toxic chemicals, and contaminated sewage overflows that fester in the waterway. Now after years of squabbling, something is going to be done about it cleaning it up.
On March 2, 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially announced that the Gowanus Canal as a “Superfund” designation, ushering in at least 10 years — but most likely several more — of toxic clean-up that will remove the sludge. Scientists are now studying ways to address how they will start the project.
But a time delay isn’t stopping a group of landscape architects and urban designers from hatching a plan of their own to clean the canal. They want to use a simple tool: oysters.
Whether or not — and when — the idea would be viable is still a question. Still, Kate Orff has a plan with the bivalves that once filled about 25 percent of the city’s harbor. Each one can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day.
Timelapse video of oysters filtering water, courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Orff, a landscape architect, was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art to lead a team in developing ideas to clean up and improve the water and area around the canal. Her designs are part of MoMA’s “Rising Currents” exhibit that studies storm surge and climate change in New York. The exhibit will be on display at the museum starting March 24.
As a part of its research, Orff and her team took a boat trip along the canal with a team of divers who grow oysters in the Gowanus. Ever since, Orff said, she has been “obsessed with oysters.”
“The core idea of our project is to harness the biological power of the organisms that live in the harbor already — or at least used to live in the harbor — as a way of triggering change,” she said.
Such an idea has not been feasible for at least 50 years, said Katie Mosher-Smith, the oyster restoration program manager for the New York-New Jersey Baykeeper organization and a consultant on Orff’s project. Mosher-Smith conducted several recent studies of oysters in the Gowanus to minimal success.
“It’s really not viable at this point — oysters as remediation for really comprised water are not an option,” she said. “It’s just not at that point yet.”
Oysters in a future Gowanus Canal isn’t impossible, though. Susannah Drake, principal of the Brooklyn Heights-based dlandstudio, has proposed a Sponge Park — an idea she has trademarked — that would construct planters and remediation basins alongside the canal — underneath pedestrian esplanades — at certain points to catch storm water runoff and filter out pollutants naturally through the plants’ roots and dirt before it flows into the canal. With good surroundings and less sewage, oysters would do well, said Mosher-Smith, adding that before that can happen the canal’s muddy, heavily-polluted bottom sludge must be dredged because oysters prefer rocky, sandy bottoms.
No doubt, the next years will a variety of ideas about repurposing the canal’s shores for recreation and development. The city’s Department of City Planning is watching as the MoMA exhibit unfolds and has said it will consider Orff’s designs.
Ten years may seem like forever, but as one longtime resident put it, “we’ve been living with this canal for years — it’s time to clean it up.”