Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal — the most odious waterway in the five boroughs and home to what’s probably the only Whole Foods outpost located within an active Superfund site — will soon be the site of one of New York City’s most innovative new park projects, a park that functions as both public green space and a massive Brawny paper towel that prevents pollutants from further contaminating the already foul canal where the toxic sediment can be as high as 20 feet.
Aptly called Sponge Park, the idea to erect a park on the banks of the Gowanus that functions as just that — a sponge — has been kicking around for years now, long before the huge residential developments, dead dolphins, drysuit-clad activist-swimmers and floating art installations. First introduced back in 2008 by the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, the runoff-absorbing park concept even predates the 1.8-mile canal’s official Superfund status. And it most certainly predates the point when Brooklyn residents began to embrace the Gowanus — “Brooklyn’s coolest Superfund site” the New York Times breathlessly declared in a 2014 real estate trend piece — in all of garbage-filled, grease-slicked glory.
Just think of the Gowanus Canal as Brooklyn’s very own Seine … but with more three-eyed fish and poop.
Once surrounded on all sides by industry, nowadays the Gowanus Canal is mostly murky and dead ... a foul fixture in an increasingly trendy — and built-up — Brooklyn neighborhood. (Photo: Mark Hogan/flickr)
As reported by the Times, the 2,100-square-foot park with a $1.5 price tag is now, following an extensive grassroots funding effort, is finally starting to take shape at the foot of Second Street, directly aside the canal. Work on the park is expected to wrap up this spring.
Established as a likely-to-be-replicated pilot park by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, Sponge Park — a named trademarked by landscape architect Susannah Drake of DLANDstsudio — will use soil, sand and a variety of plantings to earn it its title as New York City’s most hardworking public green space.
And while Sponge Park’s lush, pollutant-remediating landscape may not effectively erase the environmental degradation brought on my decades of canal-side industrial activity (that’s what the Environmental Protection Agency’s $500 million dredging/cleanup is for), it will help prevent things from getting worse.
“I didn’t want to go into a community and tell them that I’m putting a wetland in their backyard,” says Drake. “That wouldn’t fly. But everyone understands what a sponge does, even if they don’t understand green infrastructure or phytoremediation.”
Acting as sort a sort of buffer zone between the street and the canal itself, the park, composed largely of modular planter beds, retains and filters urban runoff normally swept into the waterway during heavy rainstorms. As noted by the Times, said runoff it often filled with “litter, bird droppings, dog waste and contaminants produced by cars such as antifreeze, cadmium, oil and zinc.”
There’s also the issue of sewage — the hundreds of millions gallons of raw sewage that drains straight into the canal several dozen times a year during combined sewage overflow events. Also known as CSOs, these events occur during not-necessarily-all-that extreme weather events that cause New York City’s antiquated sewage infrastructure to become overwhelmed with wastewater. With nowhere to go but out, sewage bypasses treatment facilities and is expelled, along with storm runoff, into various city waterways including the putrid pathogen playground otherwise known as the Gowanus.
Many activists and area residents worry that further residential development around the canal will lead to even more localized flooding and even more overburdened sewer systems.
In addition to helping lessen the severity of flooding around the canal, the super-absorbent Sponge Park will ideally bring additional recreational activities to the banks of the Gowanus. It’s not the first place that most Brooklynites think of when they think "leisurely stroll" or "picnic" but the Gowanus, referred to by old-timers as "Lavender Lake" due to its disconcerting color, is not without a certain charm.
“Sponge Park will provide a space where people can see green infrastructure in action,” Andrea Parker, executive director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, tells the Times.
In addition to people, there's hope that the park will further promotes the return of the canal's natural ecology. In recent years, wildlife such as egrets, herons and blue crabs have a small but significant return to the area, which, prior to the 19th century, was lush marshland.
If Sponge Park’s pollution-absorbing capabilities prove effective, similar parks could be built across the city, joining a growing network of runoff-capturing curbside bioswales — trench-like rain gardens, basically — and other elements erected as part of the city’s stormwater management-minded Green Infrastructure program. What’s more, the Trust for Public Land has smartly renovated playgrounds across the city specifically to retain and filter contaminated stormwater.
Goodbye asphalt, hello green infrastructure …