1. Gowanus CSO Installation Design Workshop

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    Saturday, April 30, 2022
    1–2:30 pm

    Van Alen Institute
    303 Bond Street
    Brooklyn, NY 11231

    Open to all ages. RSVP here.

    Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) is the greatest source of ongoing pollution going into the Gowanus Canal. Each year, about 363 million gallons of raw sewage and polluted run-off is discharged into the waterway. As the population of Gowanus grows, we must come together to lessen our impact on the canal and hold public authorities accountable for CSO reduction in the future.

    As Gowanus residents, with support from Van Alen Institute, we’re creating a public art installation to spread the word about CSO in the canal. 

    On Saturday, April 30, our team is hosting a design workshop for our neighbors to help us imagine what the CSO art installation could be. 

    Using light fixtures, boards, paint, fabrics, plastic and/or other recyclable materials, participants will roll up their sleeves and flex their creative, artistic muscle. Together we’ll brainstorm, draw and collage ideas to shape the installation, and communicate this important environmental issue to the neighborhood. 

    At the workshop, participants will also learn more about water conditions on the canal, find out ways to lessen their individual impact, and hear how the neighborhood can hold authorities accountable for the canal’s cleanup.

  2. Q&A with Steven Koller, Neighborhood Design Fellow

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    In 2021, Van Alen Institute launched our Neighborhood Design Fellowship, a paid, six-month program for 11 Gowanus residents — designers and non-designers alike — to work toward the future they imagine for their community. Months later, many of the fellows continue to collaborate with each other on Gowanus-based projects, including the Gowanus CSO Installation, an upcoming light installation that will raise awareness of water quality issues in the neighborhood. We spoke with Steven Koller, one of our Gowanus fellows, about the challenges facing Gowanus due to combined sewer overflow (CSO) and what the project aims to achieve.

    Hi Steve! Tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you ended up joining the Neighborhood Design Fellowship.

    I’m Steve Koller, I’m in the third year of an environmental science and policy PhD Program at the University of Miami. My research focuses on flood risk and how to assess it, how to respond to it from a policy standpoint, knowing that climate change is elevating sea levels and intensifying storms.

    Before going down to Miami, I was an analyst based at the New York City office of the Environmental Defense Fund. At the time, I was living in the Gowanus watershed just up the road from the canal, and got interested as a resident, less so as an environmental scientist. In 2020, I got involved with some local NGOs who were working on water quality issues in the canal, tracking the Superfund cleanup, and engaging with the community on water issues.

    I got plugged into the Gowanus environmental community there and heard through the grapevine that Van Alen Institute was doing a neighborhood design fellowship. It was a really great, great opportunity to get to know some folks with design expertise — which isn’t my expertise, as I’m coming at things from a flood risk and water quality lens — and to engage with people with very different expertises and interests in the neighborhood when Gowanus is in this moment of pretty substantial change.

    What was your experience of the fellowship?

    It was really nice to meet residents from different networks within the neighborhoods. All of the fellows intimately know the neighborhood, but have very different professional backgrounds. There were architects, artists, people with communications experience, and I was this random person coming from an environmental science grad program. That clashing of perspectives around a common place was a real learning experience every time we met.

    The fellowship was really eye-opening and a valuable bridge-building opportunity. A profound experience for me was collaborating with residents of the Gowanus Houses who are leaders in their community, and learning about the issues that they’re dealing with in relation to the rezoning. Without those lines of communication with your neighbors, you can be residents in the same community but have very different experiences of it.

    In my experience with Van Alen Institute, there’s a real sense that the organization is listening. That’s not always the case. An organization might say they’re listening, but the programming doesn’t feel like they’re listening as hard as they’re marketing themselves. With Van Alen, the Neighborhood Design Lab fellowship truly was fellow-driven, and our projects are snowballing in a really organic, authentic way. It’s awesome.

    Tell us about the Gowanus CSO Lights project and how that idea generated among the fellows.

    Early on in the fellowship, there was a lot of brainstorming going on. We were a disparate group of people who didn’t know each other that well at first, and were coming from different professional backgrounds. We didn’t really know what mattered to one another or what we all brought to the table, skillswise. It was an iterative process as we figured out what we care about as a group and what we could do based on our skill sets.

    The fellows galvanized efforts around the community center at the Gowanus Houses. There was unanimity that this was a very important issue for the community. What’s more important than giving hundreds of residents in the neighborhood a community center that’s sorely needed?

    [Editor’s note: Over the course of the Fellowship, the fellows collaborated on an action campaign to bring attention to an underinvested, underutilized community center part of the Gowanus Houses NYCHA complex. With Dark Matter University, the fellows drafted and assembled a pamphlet outlining the history of disinvestment that has plagued the community center and their visions for the future of the space. The fellows are now currently planning the next phase of their action campaign.]

    One of the other project pitches was around water quality and the combined sewer overflow (CSO) issue. One of the fellows, Bahij Chancey, had originally floated the idea of a light installation that alerts people in the neighborhood that there’s overflow going into the canal. Now, months after the fellowship has formally ended, a bunch of us are still working on it.

    The idea is to simply inform the community about this issue. There are tens of thousands of people who live in Gowanus, but my guess is that a good portion of them couldn’t tell you exactly what combined sewer overflow is, and what’s going on in their backyards every time it rains.

    The first goal is raising awareness about this issue so that people in the community are empowered with that information. Once you have that information out there, that can activate action in the community or motivate people to get more involved in improving water quality. My guess is a good number of people will say, “What? There’s poop going into the canal? On a weekly basis? We should do something about that.”

    Ick. Yes. For the good portion of us who don’t know what CSO is, can you explain it?

    New York City has a combined water management system, partially due to the fact that it’s quite an old system. 60% of the city’s water management is combined, meaning that when you flush the toilet, take a shower, or wash your dishes, all of that water gets combined into the same pipe as the water that’s flowing off the street via grates. Most of the time, that’s not an issue. But when you have a rain event — and it doesn’t need to be a big one — the system gets overloaded.

    And this water is normally tied to a wastewater treatment plant, of which there are quite a few around the city. But during these rain events, the system can’t pump it all to the wastewater treatment plant. And so it’s released to roughly 700 outfall points around the city in all five boroughs, including at the head of the Gowanus Canal at Butler Street. On average, the canal receives roughly 270 million gallons of CSO annually.

    And how does CSO impact the neighborhood?

    For close to 200 years, the canal has been used as a dumping ground for human wastewater and industrial waste. As long as you’re not drinking that water or being immersed for too long, CSO is probably not going to harm you. That said, there are some transmissible diseases that you can get from contact with waste water. There’s also the wildlife aspect. All these elements going into the canal can create dead zones that make the canal unable to support wildlife that would naturally be there.

    And just think about your senses. If you walk past the Gowanus Canal after a rain event, it’s going to have quite a stench coming off of it and you’re going to smell it. It doesn’t look good, but in addition to this brownish hue, it can have plastics and other solid waste materials that people flush or that travel down into the sewer from the street.

    Thankfully at this point, it’s mostly an issue of the canal not meeting its full potential as a neighborhood amenity. Right now, you might not want to get out on the water on a canoe or go fishing. It’s a shame that if you want to actually enjoy water in an immersive way, you might have to actually get out of New York City’s bounds to do so. That’s a sad state of affairs.

    Can you give us a quick overview of the canal’s history? 

    A caveat: I have dug into its history quite a bit, but I’m not a historian. To really get into the history of the canal and related policy, there are several experts who have written books on this, such as Joseph Alexiou’s Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal.

    With that said — the canal is now obviously a canal, but before that it was a [naturally occuring] tidal creek. The drainage area that feeds into the canal is about 1800 acres or so. Rainwater from surrounding neighborhoods like Prospect Park, Park Slope, and Carroll Gardens drains down into the canal, which connects to New York Bay and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. 

    During the rapid urbanization and industrialization of the mid-19th century, industrial businesses and residents dumped their waste into the canal — essentially using it as a big outhouse. Since then, the canal’s been polluted. But in recent years, its water and sediment quality has gotten much better, in part due to environmental regulations brought on by the Superfund designation. 

    Before European colonization, the Lenape were the first people to inhabit that land. I think it’s safe to say that it was not nearly as polluted then as it is now. While we’re not at the low point of the canal’s water quality, we’re by no means at that pre-industrial, pre-European level of water quality and wildlife robustness. But many local NGOs and residents have grand, ambitious visions for the canal that are informed by what it was before all the pollution.

    Most folks in the neighborhood have heard the terms “Superfund” or “cleanup” many times over the last few years — but what’s actually going on with the canal right now?

    I’ll caveat again by saying that I’ve been involved with community groups in Gowanus since 2018, but many people in the neighborhood have been tracking and working on water quality issues for years, including the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and the Gowanus Dredgers.

    So in 2010, the EPA designated the Gowanus Canal as a Superfund site. Under that designation, the canal has additional environmental regulations around it, and the EPA has authority to tell certain parties what to do to remediate the site. In 2013, the EPA issued its Record of Decision, which charts out how they’re making the canal cleaner and safer. There are a couple of different aspects to that: there’s pulling out the contaminated sediment, capping off certain parts of the canal to control the migration of contaminants, and putting in two multi-million-gallon sewage retention tanks, which I believe are still in the design process.

    I wish more people knew that despite these big investments and big projects, the end goal is not zero CSO. These two tanks are supposed to retain CSO before it gets dumped into the canal during those rain events. But even once they’re installed, the EPA’s goal is to reduce CSO to roughly 100 million gallons (down from 270 million) entering the canal every year. It’s much better than what’s happening now, but it’s not zero. Those tanks are meant to be completed by 2029 — I’d be pleasantly surprised if both of those are up and running on that timeline.

    How can residents in Gowanus get more informed and involved?

    I’ll plug the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group, or CAG, which is made up of volunteers and members of the community. When there’s a Superfund designation, the EPA has to provide information to the community on how to set up a Community Advisory Group. The group is meant to act as a check on the EPA and other financially responsible parties to ensure that the cleanup process moves in a way that aligns with the community’s vision.

    That said, the community is not a monolith. While the people on this committee are from the Gowanus community, they aren’t necessarily fully representative of the community. For example, I’m 32 and usually am one of the younger people in the Zoom room. Some people have literally been working on canal issues for decades. It’s a somewhat significant time commitment, so it’s understandable why there are more, say, retirees joining these meetings as opposed to others who might have a lot of work obligations. 

    But more community input would be great. I’d encourage anyone who might be interested to pop into meetings, which happen once a month. There’s always good info from the people at the EPA, DEP, or city and state environmental agencies. And there are a lot of great people who are really engaged and knowledgeable — I’m blown away by the amount of historical and local knowledge in those meetings.

    Neighborhood Design Fellowship: Gowanus

    Gowanus residents work toward the future they imagine for their community.


    A light installation to inform Gowanus residents about water quality of the Gowanus canal.
  3. Q&A with A.L. Hu of Dark Matter University

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    A.L. Hu (left) with Fellow Imani Gayle Gillison (right). Photo: Alisha Kim Levin


    Our Neighborhood Design Fellowship: Gowanus is a paid, six-month program for up to 12 Gowanus residents — designers and non-designers alike — to work toward the future they imagine for their community. The Fellowship is a collaboration with Dark Matter University (DMU), an anti-racist design justice school collectively seeking the radical transformation of education and practice toward a just future. Since May 2021, the Fellows have investigated local inclusion and equity challenges by talking to neighbors, business owners, community groups, and public officials, among others. They’ve also learned from DMU faculty about ways to support social justice through design. They’re currently developing a culminating project that will utilize Van Alen’s storefront windows at 303 Bond Street for a community-oriented purpose.

    This month, we’re chatting with three practitioners and DMU faculty members who have been working closely with our Fellows: Nupur Chaudhury, Principal and Founder, NupurSpectives Consulting; Jerome Haferd, Co-Founder, BRANDT : HAFERD, and A.L. Hu, Design Initiatives Manager, Ascendant Neighborhood Development.

    A.L. Hu, Design Initiatives Manager, Ascendant Neighborhood Development

    A.L. Hu is a queer, non-binary person working in New York City. Their passion is at the intersections of the built environment and social justice, manifesting in design projects, essays, visual media, and collaborations with other architects and communities to understand and rethink the architect’s role in creating inclusive spaces. They were a 2019-2021 Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow and are currently working as Design Initiatives Manager at Ascendant Neighborhood Development in East Harlem. They are a member of as well as a conduit connecting many organizations, including Design As Protest, Dark Matter University, The Architecture Lobby, NCARB, and AIA New York. A.L. is the founder of Queeries, an initiative that seeks to quantify and qualify the multifaceted experiences, stories, and feelings of queer designers confronts discourses of diversity, equity, and inclusion within design professions.

    Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with design.

    My name is A.L., and I use they/them pronouns. I’ve been studying and working in architecture since going to UC Berkeley for undergrad. When I was at Columbia University for graduate school, I was really into organizing with the graduate worker union and got involved with the bargaining committee. And I would often do that more often than studio — people knew me as “the union person.” After graduating, I wanted to take a break from architecture and try organizing full-time. I worked for United Auto Workers for a summer, but quickly realized my organizing had to have some type of design focus. Since then, I’ve always tried to combine design and organizing.

    How did your interest in activism and organizing develop?

    After working at an architecture firm and being active in The Architecture Lobby (whose goal is to unionize architects), I received the Rose Fellowship, which matches up an architect or an artist with a community development corporation. Through that experience, I realized I wanted to do more community engagement and less sitting in front of the computer. Now I’m working at Ascendant Neighborhood Development in East Harlem, which involves a lot of building relationships around design work and doing community-based design education.

    After the murder of George Floyd in June 2020, I got involved in organizing with Design As Protest and learned about Dark Matter University from there. I don’t identify as an academic, but I actually liked DMU’s academic side. It feels different. We’re building something new, something way more inclusive and way more radical.

    In your own words, how would you describe Dark Matter University’s mission?

    DMU is making design education anti-racist. We have a wide view of education that includes studio seminars, design education, or talking in different avenues and communities. By anti-racist, I mean actions that are actively working against systemic racism. That involves identifying the history of racism, how it shows up in the built environment and design professions, how it’s impacting people now, and really taking the initiative to connect the dots and get really deep into creating and practicing pedagogies that combat spatial injustice.

    What do you hope your design colleagues take away from your experience with DMU and the fellowship?

    The team-teaching, the co-teaching aspect is super important. Coming from different disciplines and different perspectives has been really crucial.

  4. Andreas Tyre

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    Andreas is a computer scientist, community activist and Resident Association President at Gowanus Houses.

  5. Elisa Smilovitz

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    Elisa Smilovitz is a Gowanus resident and a member of Gowanus Mutual Aid. She was a 2021 Van Alen Institute Neighborhood Design Fellow. Elisa holds a bachelor’s degree from Emerson College in Media Arts with a concentration in film. She is currently an independent publicist and consultant focusing on the arts and design.

  6. Steven Koller

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    Steve Koller is an Environmental Science and Policy PhD student at The University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. His work focuses on policy design at the intersection of flood risk mitigation, public infrastructure investments, and flood impacts on vulnerable households. 

    Prior to UM, Steve was an Economics and Policy Analyst in the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Office of the Chief Economist in New York City. At EDF, he worked on research and advocacy to advance federal carbon pricing policy, as well as cost-effective natural and nature-based flood risk mitigation solutions in New York and New Jersey. He is also the new Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club alternate representative to the Gowanus Superfund Community Advisory Group.

    Steve received an M.I.A. degree from the University of California- San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, and a B.S. from Penn State – University Park. He is originally from Staten Island.