Health Hazard or Prime Real Estate Opportunity?

The Gowanus Canal is a water inlet, 2 900 m long and 30 m wide, reaching into heart of brownstone Brooklyn. Located just minutes away from downtown Brooklyn and less than half an hour from downtown Manhattan, it is a strange pocket of urban grit remaining in an otherwise upscale Brooklyn neighborhood. It remains as such because it is a Superfund site. It is widely considered to be one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States, with a sediment composed of PAHs, PCBs, various heavy metals, and NAPLs – a mixture dubbed “black mayonnaise” – occasionally revealing itself during low tide.The entire area is under the 10-year floodplain.The Canal famously emits noxious smells and sports dangerous-looking colors throughout the year. It is recognized as one of the most polluted bodies of water in the US. The canal is a relic of the 19th century industrial grit of New York.The commonplace ritual of the Gowanus Canal is the hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage annually discharging directly into the canal via Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO’s) during any storm event with over 1” (2.54 cm) of rain.

The canal represents the great paradox of increasingly polarized and pressurized New York. Some ten minutes from brownstones valued at millions of dollars, there is essentially an open sewer. The canal exemplifies the refusal of NYC to deal responsibly with its own waste, to the detriment of its environment and life quality for its citizens. In any other context, this canal would have been capped and forgotten. But in 21st century New York City, space is at such a premium that this heavily contaminated site is being considered for development. It is, after all, one of the last waterfronts along the well-accessible parts of Brooklyn, with its own marketable post-industrial, gritty street-cred. Therefore, despite its woeful environmental condition and the fact it is located in a flood zone, it is all but inevitable that the Gowanus area will be developed in one way or another in the coming decades. Indeed, construction is already underway.

The population in New York City is expected to grow by another 1 million by the year 2030, and affordable housing is an issue foremost in most New Yorkers’ minds. In this situation, in which urban designers cannot be so naïve as to refuse the scenario of building altogether, but also must act responsibly and opportunistically within the given situation, what can be imagined as a guiding principle for developing this area? What should be the guidelines for its spatial milieu? If housing is to be built, how can it be protected from floods and other extreme weather events? How can the waterfront be reserved for the public purposes, rather than annexed as an urban amenity for yet another series of luxury developments? What ultimately takes precedence: people’s right to affordable housing, or to a clean and safe environment? The challenge here is to come up with a viable strategy for the entire area, rather than to leave it to develop as it is currently, in a piecemeal fashion.

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