Posted by Anthony Deen

One of the recommendations of Columbia University's GSAPP Gowanus design studio lead by Richard Plunz and Patricia Culligan was the creation of a “sponge” park.  While that might sound like some kind of children’s playground, it is rather a traditional greenspace but populated with plants that absorb and filter toxins from the soil.

The Gowanus Canal Conservancy which partnered with Plunz on the studio was able to secure $300,000 in funding through our congressional representative Nydia Velazquez to create and test a prototype of the park as park of a larger $2 million study.

Designed by DLANDstudio, the project has recently received coverage on CBS-TV and received a 2009 Award of Merit from the AIANY chapter in their unbuilt projects category. The park is designed as a bioswale - common in cities that experience heavy annual rainfall such as Portland.  The idea is that vegetation and earth are used to slow and subsequently filter the flow of rain water into the Canal. The use of bio-remediating plants could also help cleanse the soil they’re planted in as well. Of course both uses have their limitations. 

Rainwater run off from local streets into the canal is a problem and one that the Sponge Park installation could do a lot to help. Run off is not as great a problem though as the overflow of the sewers into the canal during periods of heavy rain. The local CSO’s (Combined Sewer Overflow) allow untreated raw sewage to flow into the canal. The Gowanus community has eleven CSOs that feed into the canal. The sponge park design by itself will only partially address this problem and a recent plan by the City and the Army Corp of Engineers will only reduce the current problem by 20% - and then only in years of little rain.

For the uplands bio-remediation, the use of toxin absorbing plants to cleanse polluted soil can help remove heavy metals and even oil from soil. Paul Stamets has done pioneering work using mushrooms (aka fungi) with amazing results.  Unfortunately the depth and degree to which the local soil is polluted is a problem beyond the ability of surface plants to detoxify.

The sponge park is a good first move in the right direction, but a lot more has to be done.