Architect David Briggs first got interested in the Gowanus Canal because it happened – in all its stinky, historical glory – to be on his jogging route. The infamous federal Superfund site is hard to miss. During the last century, it was an unregulated dumping ground for industrial wastes ranging from slaughterhouse blood to tanning chemicals to chemical fertilizer byproducts.
Oh, and sewage.
The stagnant waters of the canal – which run straight up between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens – are an eerie purple-black/oil-slick color, and the sludge at the bottom has been compared to black mayonnaise. Don’t be fooled by the sparkly new Whole Foods on the canal’s banks; the thing’s still so toxic that the EPA has committed to cleaning up the site over the course of the next decade.
“I would run from Carroll Gardens across the canal to Prospect Park, “remembers Briggs, “and it was just this remarkable, stinky, fetid waterway. I became fascinated by it. Old industry fascinates me. It’s the history of our country. I saw an opportunity, a fascination, an attraction, a repellant. It’s an incredible urban design opportunity.” The state of the canal both pissed him off and thrilled him – a tried and true recipe for ACTION!
[Bridging Gowanus meeting with Councilmember Brad Lander]
Diving into the Gowanus
So Briggs, founder of Loci Architecture, did what so many of our smart ioby leaders do when their curiosity is piqued – he just dove in (not literally! Do NOT dive into the Gowanus Canal!). He started going to Gowanus community meetings around 2001, and joined the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club (which is what it sounds like). By 2009, he was so invested in the high-potential section of Brooklyn that he co-founded Gowanus by Design, an organization he hopes will help the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood guide itself to a more sustainable and equitable kind of development than other parts of Brooklyn have seen in recent years. “Urban regeneration,” Briggs calls it.
Briggs wants to make sure, in other words, that Gowanus doesn’t become another Soho: a neighborhood whose rich and diverse history is buried under fancy, faceless, expensive retail spaces. And yes, it could happen. “I think once the rezoning goes through,” says Briggs of the city’s plans to change Gowanus building laws next year, “there’s going to be an enormous amount of construction – barring any economic collapse or environmental catastrophe. It’ll be a very different place.”
An atlas for today, for tomorrow
That’s why Briggs and his team are building (and raising money for) what they call the Gowanus Atlas: a digital archive of the neighborhood that will assimilate infrastructure, land use, flood zones, demographics, and Superfund cleanup data into one big picture, to be updated in real time, painting a realistic picture of how things actually look today, and how they’re likely to look tomorrow. And not just to investors in the area, but to residents, and small business owners, and folks on the ground who will have to manage cleanup the next time the Gowanus floods, as it did (the neighborhood is in a flood zone A) during Hurricane Sandy.
“The third stage of building the Atlas,” explains Briggs, “will be to start developing predictive models of what Gowanus is. Maybe every few years, you revisit those predictions, update the models based on what’s happened, and fine-tune it. It’s an urban ecosystem, and as ecosystems change and become more diverse and divergent, they are healthier. We want to create a healthy urban ecosystem, and we think the Atlas is a vehicle for doing that. It’s something that could be used not just at the Gowanus Canal but anywhere, as a community planning tool that gives residents and local businesses a stake and a say in the future.”
[Property damage in the Gowanus flood zone after Hurricane Sandy]
And yes, we CAN do a better job of preparing for sea level rise
Rezoning and gentrification aside, our battered mother nature may have a thing or two to say about where Gowanus is headed. Most cities typically reevaluate building code every 20-30 years. That’s not going to cut it, though, in our climate-changing world. “You look at the numbers about how much sea level rise there’s going to be,” Briggs says. “Worst case, a lot of Gowanus is going to be flooded. Should buildings be there? That’s an open question. That’s why I think we need to keep monitoring the situation, keep updating the models, keep predicting what the future might be based on new data. There’s a lot of data, and we should use it. Gowanus should be an asset, not a liability. Right now it just seems like it’s a liability. And so if the cleanup is really successful, and the right infrastructure is put in, and the right zoning is done, and there’s intelligent development that occurs, the Gowanus Canal could be a remarkable, beautiful place that maintains its diversity.”
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