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.