Gowanus by Design proposes a new Public Park on the triangular slice of land that sits just south of the point at which three branches of the canal meet. This property is where the EPA has mandated a new four million gallon retention tank/headhouse facility that will manage combined sewer overflow. In our conceptual design, this new piece of infrastructure will share the site with a Gowanus Field Station, composting facility, and greenhouse. The entire west side of the lot will be developed as a public park, landscaped with sloping hills and wetlands that will offer novel views to the canal and the neighborhood.

Bringing a Field Station to the neighborhood has been a core initiative for Gowanus by Design. We proposed the idea a few years ago, when we launched our competition Axis Civitas. Its program was to create a Gowanus Atlas and design a Field Station to house it, a structure on public property that would also serve as a community center. When the Salt Lot was designated as the site for the new retention tank facility, we immediately recognized an opportunity to create a new urban space that embodied the vision of our competition.

The need for an urban field station might seem, at first, puzzling. Field stations were first established, in the nineteenth century, by natural scientists to observe and record conditions in particular landscapes. They were fixed points for observation and measurement, often encompassing or embedded within remote distinct geographies: the tundra, the forest, the desert, the sea. Because New York City's landscape is so heavily constructed, it's often understood as artificial, a synthetic terrain. Yet the city has its own complex ecology and remains vulnerable to climactic and biological forces.

Right now there is only one active field station in New York City, maintained jointly by the United States Department of Agriculture and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Its work focuses on the interdependence of ecological and cultural forces, the concrete ways ecology impacts city living. In recent years, for example, it has completed studies mapping the relationship between green spaces and crime, and between tree cover and sidewalk use. It has searched for optimal ways to treat biological invasions and implemented successful tree distribution programs.  

Traditional field stations and their boundaries are camouflaged to remain neutral and unobtrusive, in order not to disrupt the natural order of things. The Gowanus Field Station is precisely the inverse; a structure that becomes a focal point, a landmark, a civic center. It will serve, firstly, as a repository for the scientific data collected. It can monitor local temperature, light conditions, water health, along with population density and mass transit usage. Secondly, the Field Station will advocate through outreach programs. It can provide biology and technology internships for high school students. It can offer adult seminars in bird watching and beekeeping. And it can offer guidance in how to weatherize windows or combat garden insects. Finally, and most importantly, the Field Station will serve as a physical center for the neighborhood, a hub for gatherings, discussions and activism. The Field Station might host public debates. It might become a home for Girl and Boy Scout troops, for support groups, and for community organizations.

In the Gowanus, where the life of the neighborhood is so intimately interconnected with the life of the canal, the park's amenities will be an especially powerful resource. The canal's remediation is directly linked to adjacent land uses and development, and, in this way, the community's standard of living. Even after remediation is completed, the canal's water will require continual monitoring, and so will the changing needs of the community.

The great strength of Gowanus by Design's concept is that the public park remains radically open, both to the elements and to the community. By bringing together infrastructure, community, and environmental stewardship, it will be a place where neighbors can better understand the community's ties to larger ecological forces that impact inclusive, sustainable development in the surrounding area. It gives concrete form to the forces shaping the neighborhood, both cosmic and communal.

Read project description here

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New York City Urban Field Station

Axis Civitas