May 28, 2012

Community Formation and Design on the Gowanus

A few weeks ago, Hans Hesselein of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy organized a community design charrette for a green corridor on Degraw Street that would hold stormwater and nourish plantings between the Douglass/ Green Park and the Gowanus Canal. Karine Duteil and Nadej Hocini of KaN Landscape Designs led the process as part of DesigNYC’s 2012 Recharging Communities program.

Part of a larger 2009 conceptual master plan by Dland Studio for a Sponge Park waterfront esplanade that would absorb stormwater runoff from streets within the watershed area and prevent it from carrying pollutants into the Gowanus Canal, the Degraw Street Green Corridor has received funding from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

“The Sponge Park was really the open-space vision for the Gowanus Canal and the spaces that could be incorporated around it,” Hesselein says. “It’s not a construction document—it’s all about concept and ideas. That has really been a powerful force in helping the community to see a feasible future for the canal, and it’s generated a lot of support, a lot of ideas, and a lot of initiative towards re-envisioning and rebuilding edges along the canal.”

The meeting, held at the Proteus Gowanus gallery space tucked in an alleyway next to Cabinet magazine, was attended by members of Friends of Douglass/ Green Park, several landscape architects and planners living in the area, members of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, and many young residents. It adopted the form of a charrette, a method of gathering ideas for public projects focused on getting users to openly share local knowledge, express desires for places, think about possibilities, and sketch out ideas. After initial presentations, the attendees are organized into small groups at tables where they can all contribute to the discussion, then brought back together to report to the larger group.

The small groups presented ideas for cobblestones, public art installations, pedestrianizing the street,  and benches facing the canal. They proposed flower beds, green walls on industrial buildings, tree pits, infiltration planting, a boathouse for canoes, signage about plantings. They imagined murals, art exhibitions, games painted on the street, a block party, undulating wall planters. They suggested recycling materials from industries in the neighborhood, vine trellises, a chalkboard, a dog water fountain. There were ideas for compost collection, aromatic plants, coal water filtering beds, crushed car cubes, ramped corners for skateboarders. One participant wanted to get work donated by area artisans such as a metalworking shop, a ceramics studio, and textile manufacturers.

Like the Newtown Creek, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently declared the Gowanus Canal a Federal Superfund site, a severely contaminated area eligible for billions of dollars in cleanup funds. The canal is polluted with coal tar, also known as “black mayonnaise,” a byproduct of coal gas manufacturing. Almost anytime it rains, wastewater is released into it from the combined storm and sewer system.

Clustered around the canal are warehouses and manufacturing buildings that once served gas manufacturing and industrial production, and many light-manufacturers remain in the area. Eastern Effects, a film and television equipment company, is converting a warehouse across the street into a production studio, and is expected to be a major user of the space, along with residents of adjacent blocks.

The neighborhood surrounding Gowanus has been undergoing substantial demographic change for several decades as a result of migration of postsuburban college-educated professionals and younger residents into the area. These residents are reappropriating the landscape and imagining a cleaner future for the district. Once this cleanup occurs, it is expected that the process of capital investment will ramp up along the canal, with large new residential buildings and waterside promenades overtaking these short-term solutions.

“The reality is this neighborhood is repopulated big time,” says Eymund Diegel, an environmental and regional planner, and community leader. “There’s some backlash to that, but on the other hand, a lot of the other old-timers, you’ll get a longshoreman, they bought their old house for $150,000, the kids now are coming in and willing to pay $2,500 for the hot top floor. One of the key divisions is whether you’re an owner or a renter. If you’re an owner, you’re a blue collar worker, you can buy yourself a condo in Florida and ‘F’ off for half the year.”

In this sense, meetings like these represent nascent communities in the process of formation, with the temporary designs and sketches of possibilities serving as models for reimagined communities that may determine the canal’s use for the next century. The attendees—stakeholders in bureaucratic planning jargon—become the leaders of this transformation, feeding information and ideas to the architects, who draw from them and their toolkit of design solutions to picture this future. In the coming weeks, this preliminary design will be presented to the group for comments, disseminated in newspapers and online, and soon afterwards carved into the landscape.

A clear shortcoming of this model is that the in-kind work of architecture and design here is producing a new condition that others are inevitably capitalizing on. But why is the creative work of design professionals not getting equally supported as an integral part of the process? There are also legitimate questions about the character of this community, as college-educated middle-class residents begin to reoccupy vacant industrial spaces and reshape them according to their interests. - STEPHEN ZACKS