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by Colleen Tuite

Late one June afternoon, a motley crew of ecologists, molecular biologists, landscape architects, and a camera crew gathered in a vacant area of South Brooklyn’s salt storage lot. There, we donned Tyvek suits and boots, sorted empty glass jars and plastic hazmat bags, fastened life preservers, and launched canoes into the toxic waters of the Gowanus Canal.

Originally a creek running through a saltwater marshland, industry began along the Gowanus in the mid-1600s, as mills were built there to take advantage of water power. In the 19th century, as industry grew the Gowanus Creek was dredged and the canal system constructed – a 1.8 mile waterway linking factories, warehouses, coal stores, and refineries to the Upper New York Bay. By World War I, the Gowanus was the busiest commercial canal in the country, and South Brooklyn a major for industrial production – and, simultaneously, industrial pollution.

The Canal was designed and constructed to meet a budget – but at the expense of function. With no outflow system, the Canal cannot be flushed out, and over time it’s become a cesspool of industrial contaminants, sewage, and pathogens. By the 1950s industry along the canal began to wane, and the Canal was dredged one last time in 1955. Since then, the Gowanus Canal has essentially become an aquatic toxic time capsule – cement, oil, mercury, lead, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), and coal tar from its industrial past, plus emissions from the overhead Gowanus Expressway and raw sewage from the combined system overflow.

In 2009, the Canal was designated by the EPA as a Superfund site. Preliminary cleanup efforts began in 2013 and the Army Corp of Engineers plans to dredge and cap the canal in 2016. But what can we learn from the existing ecosystem?

Enquête Gowanus is a new initiative to study the Gowanus Canal’s invisible life, led by Ian Quate of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landcape Architects, in partnership with Gowanus Canal Conservancy(GCC), and GenSpacea community biolab based in downtown Brooklyn.

A few weeks after we paddled around the Canal with jars of sludge, Ian and I met up on the Whole Foods rooftop which overlooks our sampling sites, and discussed his project and the future of the Gonwanus Canal.

How did Enquête Gowanus begin?

Ian: Two years ago, I began volunteering with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and I worked with them on a number of landscape projects, mostly delineating storm water and CSO runoff into the Canal. Everyone was excited for the cleanup of the Canal, myself included, but it appeared that no one had actually tested to see what was living in the Canal.

So, I started digging around and asking folks at the multiple organizations involved if the water or sediment had been sampled for biological activity. And indeed, no one had really done any work, especially in the sediment. No one had ever looked at it biologically.

How did you get interested in the microbial habitat of the Canal? Why should we pay attention to bacteria?

Ian: There is no such thing as an environment that is inimical to life. Industrial pollutants, while they are in a refined state, along with everything else that we use, are products from the earth; it’s not as if we are importing stuff from space. And so as long as something is from the earth, there is going to be some little critter that loves eating it – which, in effect, can break harmful chemicals down and remove them from the environment.

Specifically, Enquête Gowanus is about looking at where life would accumulate in the Canal, and to taxonomically catalog and share this information. We identified 15 locations along the Canal – based on depth, light conditions, CSO outflow, and traffic such as dredging – to create a variation in samples. We took samples, and then processed the samples at the lab at GenSpace to extract genetic information from the soil.

What’s happens next?

Ian: All the samples are done and the DNA is preserved in freezers at GenSpace. The next step is to find the funding to have it sequenced. It’s a metagenomic sequencing, so we’re not looking at individual organisms, but rather what organisms exist in the whole ecology. Hopefully it will tell us what’s living in there and what they’re doing. This is the most exciting part of the project, as there is the potential for discovery – it’s an unstudied ecosystem, that’s been relatively stable for the past 50 years, and potentially there are new organisms and cell pathways that could be useful for industrial and hydrocarbon cleanups.

What’s unique about the Gowanus? How can the study and design of the Gowanus Canal become a model for other contaminated sites?

Ian: I’ve heard the neighborhood of Gowanus described as a Rust Belt in the middle of Brooklyn. It’s remained far more industrial than its surroundings because of the contaminated state of the Canal. However, it is a central waterfront property in Brooklyn, and this location makes the land extremely valuable. Once the Canal is cleaned up there is no question that the neighborhood will be rapidly developed.

But from the perspective of ecology, especially urban ecology and natural history, there are definitely some unique organisms living here. I think it’s worth imagining how it could be developed with pockets of these ecosystems left intact, as little organic laboratories within a larger cleanup effort. Fundamentally, it’s not good for people to live near the Canal – you can’t touch this water, you can’t have children around it; and ultimately it’s an unhealthy ecosystem in an urban center, and its needs to be cleaned up. But I think it’s worth entertaining an alternative route. In art conservation, when you restore a painting, you leave a swatch of it, so you can look at the original state, so there a visual comparison. In this case, it may be beneficial if some areas of the Gowanus were preserved, not so much for visual comparison, but for organic comparison.

To this end, at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landcape Architects we’re interested in making some sort of constructed intervention that talks about what’s going on here, especially with the knowledge that in two years the Canal will be dredged and capped, and it will become a different place. Where we are right now [the rooftop bar of Whole Foods, overlooking the canal] is indicative of that direction.

What opportunities have you found for scientists and designers to collaborate?

Ian: Scientists often have a different approach, and their ideas can be surprising for designers. I think it’s a good tradeoff. It’s been my experience, particularly with conservation biologists, is that they want to study biology in its current given state, and catalog that, and that’s it. And so I’ve found that the volition that designers bring to a project, and ask, for example, “Well, what kind of habitat does this ground nesting bird need?” and then we can provide that through designing and altering the environment to create more or less of a certain habitat. Scientists can look at a site, and make recommendations based on what the project goals are, ecologically, and the designer can manipulate the environment to make those habitats possible.

As we ride our bikes over the small bridge and out of Gowanus, it’s clear that the presence of the Canal has carved out a rare place in the city, for residents of all shapes and sizes – right down to single-celled organisms. Let’s hope that in the process of remediation, scientists and designers can work together to preserve and adapt its unique culture and ecology, while making the Gowanus safe once again.