Solving Cities

Can a 'sponge park' clean up one of America's dirtiest waterways?

Can a 'sponge park' clean up one of America's dirtiest waterways?

Posting in Cities

A "sponge park" near Gowanus Canal might not be able to clean up the "black mayonnaise" in the dirty canal, but it will help the troubled waterway in the future. Find out how.

Littered with toxins, hydrocarbons, and "black mayonnaise," it's no surprise that Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn is one of the dirtiest waterways in the U.S.

But now the canal, which has been an industrial waterway since the 1860s, is getting some help from green infrastructure and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA will spend the next decade cleaning up the canal as a designated Superfund site. And to supplement the cleanup Susannah Drake, a landscape architect, plans to install a "sponge park."

The park won't be able to cleanup the pollution already in the canal -- that's the EPA's job -- but it will help soak up new pollutants and keep them from entering the waterway, Huffington Post reports:

The Sponge Park is part of a larger effort underway in New York to use "green infrastructure" instead of costly pipes and tunnels hidden underground to catch storm runoff. City officials are hopeful they can save some $2.4 billion over 20 years, while also sprucing up the city's open spaces, with the new approach to sewage.

Here's how it works:

Drake and fellow architect Yong Kim have started on the first phase of the park, a series of sidewalk "bioswales" leading up to a "bioretention basin" at the end of Second Street. Put together, they estimate the mini-parks will be able to catch 4,500 cubic feet of water rolling down just this one street on a rainy day. That's enough to cover nine out of ten storms that hit the city.

Other than filtering contaminated water during storms, the idea behind green infrastructure projects like this is that they keep the city from spending big on traditional stormwater infrastructure projects that consists of underground pipes. New York uses a combined sewage overflow system that mixes stormwater and sewage. The problem is that when the system overflows during a storm, raw sewage flows straight into waterways. Green infrastructure eases stress on CSO pipes and, in the case of the "sponge park," keeps contaminants from flowing freely into the canal.

The best projects do all this while making the green infrastructure into a destination that people want to visit and enjoy, without the fear of falling in.

Gowanus Canal To Feature 'Sponge Park' Green Infrastructure [Huffington Post]

Photo: f.trainer/Flickr

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure