Urban Ecological Restoration: The Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn, NY

Gowanus Canal, with a view of New York City skyline in the distance.

Gowanus Canal in New York City’s Brooklyn is said to be one of the oldest, shortest, and most polluted canals in the United States. Before European settlement, the area was a typical coastal salt marsh. But with the building of the canal in 1869, boats and barges could come in from the ocean almost two miles inland, making the canal’s shores a good industrial location. By the middle of the twentieth century, its shores were lined with mills, tanneries, factories for paint, ink, and soap and other chemicals plants. The canal received storm water runoff, raw sewage, and industrial pollutants, which included PCBs, coal tar wastes, heavy metals, and a variety of organic compounds.

Oil slick reveals current water polllution in the Gowanus Canal

Then in 2010, EPA listed the canal on its Superfund’s National Priorities List, which is leading to a major cleanup, now in progress and expected to take about ten years. I had heard that some were saying that residents, developers and retailers are flocking to Gowanus, transforming it into one of Brooklyn's up-and-coming neighborhoods. The Gowanus Canal Conservancy and the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club are much involved. In addition, the canal is near Prospect Park, a major city part designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, famous for designing Manhattan’s Central Park. It is not far from Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, which has become a fashionable upscale residential area with pleasant shops and restaurant. I heard that there are plans for hotels and other improvements near the canal.

Heavy Industry on the canal

Intrigued by the idea of a successful urban ecology restoration, my wife, Diana, and I drove to the canal to see for ourselves what the canal was like and what was happening, and to take some photographs. The tour of the Gowanus Canal was fascinating. On the one hand, it was good to see that there were still some places in New York City with active industrial activity. But on the other, there was still a steady flow of oil slick on the canal’s waters and various trash, such as you see scattered on back streets. Here are some photos and videos so you can see for yourself what the Gowanus Canal is like today, both industrial and in the midst of cleanup.

You can learn more about plans for the Gowanus Canal on the New York City Department of Planning website.

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