“We must put the twenty-first century city in nature rather than put nature in the city”, Diana Balmori,
Point 25, A Landscape Manifesto (2010)
The “GrowOnUs” project is the result of an experimental collaboration between the New York based
landscape and urban design studio Balmori Associates and the Gowanus Canal Protection Association.
The project is an ongoing research programme that focuses on water cleansing through phyto-
purification, desalination and rainwater harvesting using irrigated and productive floating gardens.
The professional design studio founded by the Bilbao-born landscape architect Diana Balmori, in 2015 designed and built the floating landscape in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States.
Once a hub for maritime and commercial activities, the Gowanus Canal has captured industrial waste from the factories along its banks and during heavy storms, the combined wastewaters not only bring rainwater to the canal, but also untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials and debris. Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal is less than two miles long and is the habitat of a wide range of microbes, still unknown to science. The canal first felt the heavy hand of industrialisation in the late 19th century, with tanneries, gas plants and cement factories lining its banks over the years. Today, even if dirty, more than anything else it is a mysterious ecosystem.
The floating infrastructure is one of a series of projects that Balmori Associates designed to act as sponges that filter and clean the water, providing natural habitats in the city. These floating infrastructures can adapt to and cope with changes in the rising sea level, due to melting ice caused by climate change. The project was funded through a $20,000 grant to Balmori Associates and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy received from the Cornelia & Michael Bessie Foundation, for the purpose of researching and creating a floating production garden in the Gowanus Canal.
GrowOnUs turns metal drainpipes, the same ones used to bring polluted runoff and sewage to the canal, into planters. Each of the 54 pipes is designed to isolate different experiments (over 30 plants selected for phyto-purification of water and production of natural dyes), various irrigation conditions (clean water through phyto-purification, desalination of brackish water from the canal through evaporation and condensation, and rainwater harvesting), as well as different varieties of floating construction materials (coconut fibres, bamboo, mycelium and recycled plastic matrices).
GrowOnUs floating landscapes are constantly monitored to study the feasibility of producing edible floating landscapes on a large scale, also in other cities’ polluted rivers. They will also explore other functions with great urban potential, such as multifunctional green infrastructure: ensuring shoreline protection, teh creation of habitats with high biodiversity, energy production and new public spaces.
Diana Balmori, talking about the project, commented: “We were pioneers in the field of floating landscapes, now we want to learn what can make these floating structures economically sustainable. Dr Michael Balick of the New York Botanical Garden suggested that we grow herbs and low-maintenance crops that can give an economic return given their price per volume. In a few years, New York restaurants could serve meals and drinks infused with herbs grown on one of these islands”. Landscape architect Diana Balmori more than once explained how recognising the nature that already exists within a city could prove beneficial to both the environment and its citizens. In the interview linked below, Balmori explains how she combined nature, landscape and urban function in her projects.
Similarly to green roofs or linear parks, these floating landscapes could be used at the margins and underused spaces within cities. While green roofs exist as an intersection between landscape and architecture, floating islands are a model of interface and transition between river, landscape and city.
“Landscape is becoming the main actor of the urban stage, not just a destination”, Diana Balmori, Point 22. A Landscape Manifesto (2010).
All images © Balmori Associates
Balmori Associates is an international urban and landscape design firm. Founded by Diana Balmori in 1990, the office is now led by partners Noemie Lafaurie-Debany and Javier Gonzalez-Campana, and supported by a multi-disciplinary, multi-lingual team.