Activate a Network of People and Public Space

With a forthcoming environmental cleanup and neighborhood rezoning, Gowanus is changing.
By Andrea Parker

Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood was once a literal lowland—a productive tidal inlet with a deep floodplain, salt marsh meadows, and oysters the size of dinner plates. Over the past decade Gowanus Canal Conservancy has worked to restore the canal by empowering a network of volunteers, students, neighbors, and partner organizations to become stewards of the watershed.

We are at a critical moment in the evolution of Gowanus. The confluence of a massive cleanup of historic industrial contamination under the EPA-administered Superfund program, efforts to reduce ongoing combined sewage overflow (CSO) into the canal, probable rezoning, and climate change will all result in significant changes. New development will yield public access along the waterfront, CSO mitigation will result in green streets and park investment, canal cleanup will allow for oyster beds and boat launches, and rising sea levels and increased precipitation will require these landscapes to be adaptable and mitigate impacts of flooding.

We must ensure the community plays a keyrole in leveraging these changes and investments to shape a watershed that is accessible, active, and clean for all. Over the past few years, we’ve conducted charettes with stakeholders across the neighborhood to understand the diverse priorities for open space. In 2017, we brought on SCAPE Landscape Architecture to turn these findings into the Gowanus Lowlands Blueprint, a community-based vision for a network of parks and public spaces centered on the Gowanus Canal.

Gowanus Lowlands is:

A Cleaner Urban Ecosystem
We can leverage the upcoming cleanup, restoration and investment in green and gray infrastructure to build a cleaner, more resilient urban ecosystem. Imagine green roofs, storm water management streets, day-lit creeks, and floating gardens.

A Community Connector
We can connect people to the canal to support our historic, diverse, and mixed-use neighborhood. Streets leading to the canal can be developed with a clear identity structured around the roles they play in the urban network; be it a commercial corridor, an industrial route, or a residential street linking parks to the canal.

A Network Of Parks
Many of the current parks in Gowanus are disconnected from the canal and require improvement. Let’s create a network of public spaces by stitching together investments in parks, corridors, street ends, waterfront esplanades, sewage detention tanks, and salt marsh restoration sites.

A Wild Urban Waterway
A walk within the tidal estuary should immerse you in its powerful ecology. Why not turn dead-end street spaces into filtration gardens, get-downs, and boat launches? We can connect these street ends with walking paths that slope up and down along the water’s edge. As the canal is remediated and sea levels rise, edge designs can adapt to address specific conditions and uses, including water access and floodability.

The long-term success of this vision depends on the advocacy and stewardship of the Gowanus community. We propose that we all work together toward a vibrant, healthy, and resilient neighborhood that benefits everyone. Gowanus could inspire other neighborhoods in New York and beyond to elevate public space, restore natural ecologies, and connect communities.

Andrea Parker is the Executive Director of Gowanus Canal Conservancy. As a landscape architect and activist, she works to regenerate urban infrastructure and ecology through civic engagement.