A Floating Garden Blooms On NYC’s Most Toxic Waterway

A new design project on the Gowanus Canal promises to clean water and pave the way for NYC’s floating future.

The Gowanus Canal is one of the country’s most infamous superfund sites, a label designated to hazardous areas requiring long-term and extensive clean-up. Balmori Associates, an NYC-based design firm, is one of the precious few to see potential in the notoriously polluted waterway. Recently they designed, fabricated and launched a floating landscape called GrowOnUs, meant to produce food and filter pollution.

GrowOnUs, according its creators, is an experiment “to clean water through phytoremediation, desalination and rainwater collection” and to irrigate productive floating gardens. The floating garden is just one in a larger series the team has developed to produce sponge-like filters that clean water and provide wildlife habitats throughout city. Balmori hopes that these floating infrastructures will someday help city-dwellers better adapt to and address rising sea levels, a hot-button issue after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Diana Balmori (Director of Balmori Associates), has experimented with similar projects for some time. With GrowOnUs she feels they are about to make a radical new leap: “We have pioneered floating landscapes, we now want to learn what can make these floating structures financially sustainable,” she says. “Dr Michael Balick at the New York Botanical Garden suggested we grow herbs, low maintenance crops that can give a financial return given their price per volume. In a few years NYC restaurants may be serving meals and drinks infused with herbs grown on one of these islands.”

GrowOnUs works by transforming recycled metal culvert pipes (like the ones seen above) into planters, pairing them with buoyant construction materials like coconut fibers, bamboo, mycelium (mushrooms), and recycled plastic. The team is also working on a range of experiments on plants and various watering conditions, and is hoping to clean the canal’s toxic sludge through a process of phytoremediation and desalination via rainwater collection.

Floating at night

The project is currently funded through a $20,000 grant through the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and the Cornelia & Michael Bessie Foundation


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