A revitalized industrial corridor. A resilient Sponge Park. A critical piece of a larger harbor-estuary ecosystem. The future of the Gowanus Canal Watershed is all of these. And more.

This multifaceted vision emerged from the keynote speeches, panel presentations and discussions during the Gowanus Canal Conservancy’s first annual Gowanus Design Summit, held Thursday, October 9 at the Brooklyn Lyceum. The goal of the day-long program was to foster dialogue, collaboration and innovation among design-oriented professionals who are invested in our rapidly evolving Gowanus neighborhood. Attendees included representatives from a wide range of architecture/design firms, city agencies, non-profits and community groups.


Adrian Benepe set the Gowanus in the larger context of urban systems in NYC and beyond.

Adrian Benepe, Senior Vice President of the Trust for Public Land, kicked off the program with a keynote titled ‘Rivers, Roads, Rails & Canals,’ which illuminated how current innovations in urban public space planning and ‘recycled landscapes’ could be applied to the canal’s unique ecological and industrial context.

The opportunities for forward-thinking design were echoed by Councilman Brad Lander, whose recent Bridging Gowanus forums brought community stakeholders and residents together to help shape this ‘extraordinary moment’ which has been: “Brought to us in part by the Superfund and the fact that a real clean-up of the canal is on path. Brought to us in part by what a storm surge, what a flood looks like as a result of Sandy and being able to think about the neighborhood’s future. And brought to us in part by the reality of those development pressures and a recognition that we have to get out front and make a real plan for the infrastructure, for the public investments, for the land uses that are needed.”  Full video of the Councilmember’s remarks here.


Phil Silva moderated the first panel.

This set the tone for the first panel, moderated by Philip Silva of Cornell University, which showcased specific projects under development in the Watershed today. The first was Silva’s own TreeKit program, which incorporates mapping and maintenance data to track the health of street trees in Gowanus. On the design front, landscape architect Lee Weintraub provided an overview of the waterfront esplanade for the Lightstone Group’s residential development, which will include an interpretive wetland and planters with tiered ‘stoop’ seating for pedestrians.

GCC Executive Director Andrea Parker spoke next, addressing how public spaces like the esplanade are essential parts of the broader Watershed ‘fabric’ that the Conservancy is stewarding, and the need for community-based guidelines to encourage standards and linkages between them. Linkages were also key to the third panelist, Tricia Martin, whose firm WeDesign is responsible for planning the Brooklyn Greenway, a continuous waterfront bike path bolstered with green infrastructure which will traverse the mouth of the canal between Red Hook and Sunset Park. Maggie Scott Greenfield of the Bronx River Alliance closed the panel by emphasizing that developing a holistic vision– of the different spaces, linkages and uses– is a balancing act that must constantly adjust and adapt.


Tricia Martin presented the Brooklyn Greenway.


Discussion between panelists (l-r) Maggie Scott Brown, Andrea Parker and Lee Weintraub.

After a lunch break sponsored by Whole Foods, participants reconvened for the second panel, which shifted the conversation from ‘spaces’ to ‘systems.’ Leading off was moderator Michael Porto from the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, who provided an overview of their Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG) for resiliency and vibrancy in the New York and New Jersey harbor. Landscape architect Susannah Drake picked up the resiliency theme in the next presentation, in which she demonstrated how dlandstudio’s pilot Sponge Park– which will be located at the end of Second Street– can scale out to additional corridors of the Watershed to provide a potent (and beautiful) system for storm water management.

The panel then pivoted to vibrancy, with Stephen Whitehouse of Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects giving a high-level overview of the Gowanus Brownfield Opportunity Area program, and what it revealed about opportunities for land use, capacity and jobs in the community. An example of this potential was provided by the next speaker, Tom Outerbridge of SIMS Municipal Recycling. His facility is located near the mouth of the canal, and the site was chosen specifically for its access to the waterfront and other transportation infrastructure. In addition to jobs, SIMS is also providing a home for oysters using a ‘fuzzy-rope’ mesh designed by SCAPE studios. Gena Wirth, the final panelist, explained how SCAPE incorporates oyster-tecture, salt marshes and breakwaters into their designs to create habitat and improve coastal resiliency in the harbor.

To close the day, Mary Rowe, Vice President of the Municipal Arts Society, delivered a powerful keynote reminding participants that true resiliency– the resiliency that is required to respond to and rebound from catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy– is a distinctly human endeavor, and that designing and planning can only be successful with input from and investments in the people who live, work and play in the community.


Resident Teresa Book poses a question.


The audience pondered the discussion.

As a facilitator for community dialogue and engagement, the Conservancy sees the Gowanus Design Summit as the beginning of a larger discussion about the ongoing transformation of the Watershed. In the coming months, we will be working with local stakeholders and residents to solicit input and ideas about the future of our neighborhood. Drawing from the presentations and conversations at the Design Summit, some key questions to address include:

– How to balance master planning with decentralization and iteration?

– How to better insure community input/priorities are included in the design/planning process of developers and city agencies?

– How to create consensus among Gowanus’ diverse stakeholders (residential, industrial, developer, etc.)?

– How to incorporate both the ‘friction’ and ‘synergy’ of different land uses into the planning process?

We look forward to input from community members and partners on these issues, and to working together to achieve a Gowanus Canal Watershed that is open, clean and alive.

Watch for full videos of the Design Summit proceedings posted here before the end of the year.