This is the story of my role in a novel design proposal to restore a natural watershed, save New York City some money, and empower ordinary people to environmental stewardship.
Entry for a design competition
7 of us in all: architects, landscape architects, a hydrologist, and ecologist
Concept, research, sysnthesis, design, visualization
3 months from concept to proposal
The Gowanus Canal is a century and a half old, toxic waterway in Brooklyn with a chronic pollution problem: Combined Sewer Overflows, also known as CSOs, resulting in untreated sewage from buildings and toxins from street runoff frequently pouring into the canal, creating health hazards, destroying biodiversity, and limiting opportunities for the community.
We set out to eliminate CSOs in a technically effective way that also served as an economic, environmental, social,. and political case study and a model approach for how to sustainably and equitably solve this kind of problem.
We used the sloped geography of the watershed to functionally recreate a version of the natural hydrology that existed in the area some 400 years ago.
By using green infrastructure and distributing it across the entire watershed, we created a solution that was as economically feasible as it was elegant and resilient
Our discovery and design process loosely followed the Double Diamond model (though as an architect I didn't have the language to name the process like that at the time).
In the discovery and define phase we focused on understanding the stakeholders, understanding the problems to be solved as well as the opportunities, and articulating a shared vision for the project that could be clearly communicated to stakeholders.
We started by framing the project in terms of a simple project statement and project goals.
CSOs harm communities and are preventable
Eliminate CSOs in an economically, environmentally, and socially equitable & sustainable way.
RESEARCH & SYNTHESIS
We approached research by simultaneously understanding the extent of the problem and its impact on stakeholders.
We investigated how CSOs happen, in general and across the watershed, as well as their impact on the canal and the community.
CSOs are a problem known to much of the community, if not always by name. Many local advocacy organizations view CSOs as an environmental justice and equity issue.
We were able to directly engage with several groups using a combination of formal and informal meetings, attending neighborhood block parties, and conducting intercept interviews in the neighborhood, as well as relying on data collected by our advocacy partner.
We heard a range of desires and concerns from stakeholders:
Using something like Affinity Mapping, we were able to identify some common themes and insights into stakeholder priorities.
At the same time we looked at current and past efforts to address CSOs, most of which were expensive and disruptive and all of which failed to adequately address the problem.
We identified several broad approaches to potential solutions:
In brainstorming these approaches, we had a pivotal insight: what if we could separate rainwater and stormwater above ground, effectively creating a two-pipe system?
From our research and synthesis we identified the design opportunities.
The primary opportunity was prevention:
"By separating wastewater and rainwater above ground, we can eliminate CSOs"
In addition to the primary goal of eliminating CSOs, we identified several other opportunities for the design to address the economic, environmental, and social needs of the community.
With these opportunities clearly articulated, we developed our proposed design.
Add a Second Pipe on the Street
The old "grey" ways of dealing the CSO problem were expensive and ineffective. We realized we could address the root of the problem by effectively creating a two pipe system above ground using low-impact "green" infrastructure.
Decentralize the System
The Street Creeks are effectively a "pipe" on the street distributed across the entire watershed. By adding a mini water treatment plant on the downslope end of each block , we could decentralize the water treatment system to make it more cost-effective and resilient.
Streets Creeks are distributed across the entire watershed with mini-treatment plants on every block.
Allow Local Ownership
This distributed system also allows local ownership of the system with residents on each block organizing to maintain their rain garden with funding and support from DOT, DEP, and the Parks departnment.
Students from I.S. 259 pose after replanting rain gardens. (Source: ioby)
Restore the Creek
With the CSO problem under control and only clean water making its way to the canal, we could restore the hydrology of the original creek, removing the concrete bulkhead edges of the canal to allow marshland to support the natural ecology.
The original tidal creek in the 1600s where the canal is today
We envisioned a 20 year implementation timeframe, with Street Creeks and rain gardens installed block by block in conjunction with street resurfacing by DOT.
Flow and Clean
Each block in the watershed directs rainwater to rain gardens on each block where the first flush of water is retained and cleaned and the the remaining uncontaminated water is allowed to flow to the canal.
View of Street Creeks rain gardens on a typical block
We designed a case study site to show how future development would be planned around maintaining a healthy creek.
Our project made some waves in the local press raising the profile of the issues.
The project received a grant in 2015 from the Rockefeller Foundation to be used for research and development and proof of concept.
Proof of Concept
Though Street Creeks concept was never fully implemented, we hope that it pushed the conversation forward on the issues facing the Gowanus watershed and the problem of CSOs more broadly.
We're encouraged that rain gardens are now a standard part of the DEP Green Infrastructure toolkit, and we like to think our project played a small but important role it proving the viability of this equitable and sustainable solution.