Mapping Gowanus Today, Imagining Gowanus Tomorrow

The Kentile Floors sign in 2013 | Photo by Steven Pisano, via Flickr

Soon after New York State authorized its construction in 1848, the Gowanus Canal became one of America’s busiest industrial waterways. Businesses that depended on the two-mile Brooklyn canal for import and export of heavy materials included coal yards, cement plants, tanneries, paint and ink factories, machine shops, manufactured gas plants, and oil refineries.

Many of those businesses closed years ago, but their legacy lives on the canal’s hazardous water, whose poor quality is exacerbated by frequent influxes of raw sewage. In its 2010 assessment of the site, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that the canal “may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health, welfare, or the environment.”

Today, the canal is set for a $500 million EPA Superfund clean-up — and, nearly everyone agrees, some kind of transformation. Downtown Brooklyn is less than half a mile away, as are townhouses that sell for $4 million. Developers are snapping up properties, and industrial land prices rose 89 percent between 2014 and 2015.

In 2015, the non-profit Gowanus by Design invited architects and designers to imagine the future of Gowanus by mapping its present. Here, Allison Henry profiles the winners of that exercise in revelatory cartography. –H.G.

The Gowanus Canal area is an amalgamation of adapted and abandoned industrial buildings and new real estate development. Industry contaminated the canal; real estate, fearing stigma, has reluctantly conceded to its Superfund designation.

David Briggs, principal of Loci Architecture, has lived in the neighborhood since 1989 and saw the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2010 designation of the canal as a Superfund site as a prompt for a series of design competitions, the latest of which, Axis Civitas, sought a new understanding of how the canal connects to the community. “I was hoping this competition could move people away from the traditional single-purpose infrastructural solution and bring it into a community solution, a community space,” says Briggs. Axis Civitas asked architects to map Gowanus and propose an “Urban Field Station” to act as a community center.

The winning team’s exhibition display, complete with sludge samples from the canal. | Photo by Allison Henry

The maps, which Briggs intends to compile in a Gowanus Atlas, reveal information about the canal that is imperceptible from a single site visit. The synthesis of field research and New York City’s open-source data pairs seen and unseen conditions of the site. Some entrants focused on the biological process of water cleanup, mimicking the revelatory aspect of mapping with Field Stations that visibly record the decontamination and biological composition of the water. Others considered the area’s industrial legacy in the wake of new cultural activity. Below, we’ve collected the maps of the competition’s winners and honorable mentions.

Briggs hopes Axis Civitas can continue to develop a dialogue between designers, community members, and decision makers by bringing the Atlas to fruition online. Gowanus by Design’s upcoming Indiegogo campaign will raise money for an interface that visitors can use to create their own maps of the area. The Atlas’s compilation of diverse mapping efforts will allow developers, architects, and residents to plan for the site’s evolving social, sensory, and biological conditions.


Online visualization of the project allows users to locate life forms across the Canal’s biological sampling locations. | Image by BKBioreactor

The winning team, composed of Matthew Seibert and Ian Quate of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects and Dr. Elizabeth Hénaff of Weill Cornell Medicine, launched a biological investigation in the Gowanus Canal. In water and sludge samples, Dr. Hénaff found bacteria that perform bioremediation functions. The speed with which these bacteria can clean, however, depends on the conditions of the water. The team proposed sensor poles that monitor these conditions and give a light-based read-out of their status, while providing an access point to sample resident organisms.

In an ironic twist on a design competition, the BKBioreactor team has discovered the undesignable. Manipulating a given bacterial species to perform a single function is well within the realm of current genetic engineering techniques. But engineering a population of bacteria that collaborates to perform complex functions — such as the bioremediation of multiple toxic compounds, which the team found naturally occurring in the canal — is challenging, Dr. Hénaff explains.

The team views the canal as the sum of biological repercussions that began with its transformation from a natural saltwater creek to a narrow commercial waterway that collects industrial runoff and sewage from the surrounding watershed. By mapping metabolic functions of the microbes and their locations in the canal, the team can extrapolate to where water conditions might be changed to advance the cleanup process.

A “Phylogenetic Tree” with relative micro-organism abundances across the 14 sites | Image by BKBioreactor

The BK BioReactor team is now part of the Visible Future Lab’s artist-in-residency program at the School of Visual Arts, where they will further their design studies. They continue to collaborate with the Gowanus Canal ConservancyGenSpace (a citizen-focused biotechnology nonprofit), and Landscape Metrics (a visualization studio).

An olfactory map of natural and manmade scents around the Gowanus Canal | Image by Annie Barrett Studio

Runners-up Annie Barrett, Mariana Mogilevich, Lucas Bucknavage, and Grey Wartinger of Annie Barrett Studio took a sensory approach to mapping Gowanus, plotting smell and trash. By choosing to map human perception of filth in the space, the Live Ends team acknowledges Gowanus’s public reputation as a contaminated space. Their maps trace smells positive and negative, natural and manmade, to different zones around the canal in order to approximate visitors’ mental maps. They found that smells from the contaminated waters repel restaurants to the periphery of the area, causing the community to “turn its back” on the canal. To lift the canal out of recreational isolation, the team proposes activating the ten dead end streets leading up to the canal through a network of urban field stations serving various community functions.

Limited trashcans cause pedestrians to litter across the area. | Image by Annie Barrett Studio
New community centers activate dead-end streets leading up to the canal. | Image by Annie Barrett Studio


“When we started the project, we fell in love with the neighborhood,” says David Lee of the Go-Gowanus! team, which includes Marina Bourderonnet, Benjamin Hait, and Kathlyn Kao. They decided that one of the defining attributes of the Gowanus space was the divergent relationship between industrial and residential land use. These areas are currently separated, but Go-Gowanus! reimagines the canal as a mixed-use industrial community.

“GO-BOTS” move slowly down the canal, cleaning the water and serving as learning and leisure stations. | Image by Go-Gowanus!
“GO-BOTS” serve various remediation functions. | Image by Go-Gowanus!

Six floating “learning and leisure centers” called “GO BOTS” trawl the canal. While cleaning the water, they turn the canal into a public space, allowing the industrial buildings on the water’s edge to perform as spectacles of urban infrastructure and production. The GO BOTS dock at a central field station where environmental data is publicly recorded on maps showing remediation progress. Go-Gowanus! resolves the current imbalance toward “productive” spaces over “consumptive” spaces. By making infrastructural and industrial processes visible, the team turns production into a source of “consumable” educational programming.

Segregated industrial and residential use, in contrast with multi-directional pedestrian circulation | Image by Go-Gowanus!
Blue dots symbolize existing “productive” land uses (fabrication shops, factories, manufacturers, city infrastructure). Pink dots symbolize “consumptive” land-uses (restaurants, bars, shops, cafes). The “rejected land-use” map depicts an undesirable future gentrification in which Gowanus is populated by global franchises of non-local culture. | Image by Go-Gowanus!

Who Owns Gowanus?

In light of community skepticism toward recent development projects, the Who Owns Gowanus? team analyzed the real estate landscape of Gowanus. The team, composed of members of Pilot Projects Design Collective (Scott Francisco, Zeynep Goksel, Daniel Joo, Andrew Renninger, and Max Scoppettone), found that the city has limited categories for defining ownership. Who owns Gowanus? How is ownership classified? And how does ownership affect community growth potential? Since custodial duties often correlate to physical property ownership, the team’s findings could help predict how people will take care of their neighborhoods.

A map of building ownership around the Gowanus Canal | Image by Pilot Projects Design Collective

The group broke the city’s ownership classification categories (city-owned, mixed city and private, private, tax-exempt, and other) into subsets, searching for hints in the language of the records. For example, they chose “own to lease” as a subset of private ownership by selecting for proxy words like “LLC,” “Management,” and “MGMT” within residential zones. “It was really a thought experiment,” says Renninger. “How can we figure out ownership with limited explicit data but nominative information that could shed some light?”

The team found a large population of individual landowners, which surprised Renninger. “I thought the biggest category in the area would be holding ownership,” he says. Unsurprisingly, commercial manufacturing space dominated the area immediately around the canal, and a collection of “own-to-lease” properties suggests a future trend. The final step in their mapping process was to map news stories about Gowanus over ownership patterns to determine underrepresented populations. The news headlines displayed on the left of the above graphic correspond to a square on the grid using the map’s border.

Renninger thinks that the building stock in Gowanus lends itself to special district status, the fine-grain zoning designation used in SoHo and the Garment District. According to 2015 Census estimates, the city has grown by 4.6 percent since 2010, with a 55,000-person rise last year alone — the biggest population spike since the 1920s, concentrated in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. With increasing demand for housing in Brooklyn, as well as a push to maintain commercial space for mixed-use neighborhood composition, Renninger believes that an allowance for hybrid live-work spaces might suit the old warehouses in the area.

Industrial Sublime

The manmade canal is shown in black, with the shadow of the original creek running alongside it in gray. Red squares are the different Combined Sewer Overflows that lead into the canal. Small arrows pointing to them show which areas slope to that sewer system. Gray boxes show adjacent schools that could benefit from the educational field station. | Image by op.AL

Composed of op.AL‘s Jennifer Birkeland, Jonathan A. Scelsa, Erin Wythoff, Will DiBernardo, and Isaac Stein, the Industrial Sublime team is concerned with the pressing infrastructural needs of the Gowanus watershed. To understand the constraints that the canal currently faces, the team mapped the water runoff in the area and the historic footprint of Gowanus Creek, the body that was compressed into the commercial waterway that is the canal today.

The Field Station of the Industrial Sublime proposes to drain the canal to make room for a water treatment plant. A new educational community center doubles as a crane to transport ships to its other side. | Image by op.AL
Image by OP-AL

New York’s 14 water treatment plants are faced with twice the amount of water runoff on wet weather days, forcing untreated runoff into Combined Sewer Overflows, ten of which empty into the Gowanus Canal. In a stroke of infrastructural creativity, the Industrial Sublime team proposes draining a portion of the canal and bringing the area back to its original watershed condition by reintroducing the adjacent historic creek area. Their proposed field station is a wastewater treatment plant complete with community spaces and educational facilities to serve the surrounding schools. It also functions as a crane to lift incoming ships to the other side of the drained section. The increased space for water runoff paired with the new wastewater treatment infrastructure could serve all of Brooklyn. The team writes, “The Field Station of the Industrial Sublime is both a solution and a memorial to the problem that necessitated it.”

Kentile Returns

Reimagining iconic images of New York City with Kentile Floors letters | Images by Office of Architecture
Image by Office of Architecture
Image by Office of Architecture

The Kentile Floors stood for over a decade after the plant closed in Gowanus, serving as both a dark reminder of deadly manufacturing practices and an icon for subway riders and highway drivers passing over the Gowanus viaduct. Kentile declared bankruptcy in 1992 in the wake of asbestos lawsuits; the sign was taken down in 2014. But the team from Office of Architecture, made up of Aniket Shahane, Ivan Kostic, and Valentin Bansac, sees the old sign as an emblem of the area. In a city of landmarks, every New York neighborhood needs its own. To drive home their point, the team rendered the Kentile letters within iconic New York images — Robert Moses on the I-beam, Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York cover, Woody Allen film stills — and printed and mailed them as postcards. It’s a tactic to build support for removing the Kentile letters from storage at the Gowanus Alliance.

The team’s field station is not a building. They think Gowanus has a sufficiently varied landscape of building typologies to serve the needs of a community center spread across existing cultural spaces. Each center would host a letter from the original sign, so that the collection is threaded together visually along the bend of the waterway. The team proposes that local businesses form a “flexible alliance” with the field station community center to host cultural programming. In their atlas map, they point to the existing spaces that could facilitate this partnership for the field station.

Each letter from the Kentile Floors sign now marks the location of a cultural community center within a proposed network. | Image by Office of Architecture

Zipping the Gowanus

“Zipping” activity zones together across the canal | Image by Annette Bohr and Anna Lips
Image by Annette Bohr and Anna Lips

After mapping land use and vacant lots in the area, Annette Bohr and Anna Lips concluded that the neighborhood has issues of programmatic divergence between industrial and social space. To alter the canal’s existing role as a boundary space, the duo from Switzerland proposes “zipping” the community together through a series of “urban strips” traveling east to west. Each strip bridges the canalperforming recreational functions from food service to board game space. Their proposed urban field station, composed of three mobile, stacked blocks, mimics the geometry of the strips. A promenade doubles as a manmade beach for the canal’s cleaner, recreational future.

A land-use map reveals significant vacant space around the canal, perfect for transformation by new activity zones. | Image by Annette Bohr and Anna Lips

Allison Henry is a Project Assistant at Urban Omnibus and student of Urban Studies and Architecture at Columbia. She lives in Manhattan, by way of Philadelphia and Tampa.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.