How Can We Clean Up the Gowanus?

Before New York City as we know it today existed, the Gowanus was a tidal wetlands and stream ecosystem. In the 1860s, the area was dredged to become the Gowanus Canal, a major route for oil refineries, tanneries, chemical plants, manufactured-gas plants and other heavy industries who settled along the canal’s banks. These factories dumped wastes and leached pollutants like PCB’s and heavy metals into the water, putrefying it into a lifeless sludge.

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By the 1960s much of these industries had left the area. Now the Gowanus’ is surrounded by residential neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens, Red Hook, and Park Slope. Despite industry’s absence, the water has remained so toxic that the US Environmental Protection Agency has declared it a Superfund site.

Though there have been efforts to clean the canal, we have not progressed far enough. In 1911, The Gowanus Flushing Tunnel was installed. This tunnel, in an attempt to get rid of the canal’s powerful stench, flushed its dirty water into the Buttermilk Channel. Alas this effort made little to no difference. In 1999, the water flow was reversed so that clean water from the Buttermilk Channel would be pumped into the Gowanus. The idea was to add oxygenated water to the canal to eliminate the anaerobic bacterias which cause the bad odor.

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Today the odor has waned; though you can still get an unpleasant stench after a rainfall. Still the water remains contaminated. It is reported that the air around the canal is “acceptable” in terms of contamination standards. People have the right to use the canal for canoeing and such, but the EPA strongly warns against swimming in it or eating fish from the canal. Of course, “acceptable” is not good enough for those of us living near the canal.

The canal continues to be polluted today by toxins that are still leaching from the former industrial sites, street surface runoff, and combined sewage outflows (CSOs). CSOs are the city’s solution to flooding. When a rain is so heavy that a water treatment center cannot support the inflow of water, it will release a combination of raw sewage and rainwater into the ocean. (Watch a video)

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Landscape architects and designers have proposed numerous ideas for how we can creatively rehabilitate the Gowanus Canal. “CSO-to-Go,” developed by Local Office Landscape Architecture, is one such design. The architects recognized that New York City’s waterfront property is too expensive to purchase for a city-funded project and worked their design around that reality. Their solution was a portable barge that would house a series of phytoremediation tanks. Each tank would hold plants that absorb specific contaminants like heavy metals, petrochemicals, and excess nutrients out of the water. The barge could be parked directly at the outflow point of the CSO; that way the dirty water is caught and treated before entering the ocean.

soil remediation

The barge could be moved to various other outflow points around the city. Residents and tourists could visit the site to learn more about the problem and the process of cleaning it up. They would even be able to monitor the pollution levels at each tank to see how well the  phytoremediating plants are working.

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“CSO-to-Go” and related projects have yet to be implemented as they lack the funding needed. We hope the city of New York and the EPA continue to make strides in cleaning up the Gowanus Canal, but until then there are a few things that those of us  living in the Gowanus’ watershed (the area of land that eventually drains its water into the Gowanus– see image below) can do.

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By reducing our water consumption across the board, we can mitigate how much water we are putting into the sewer system. We can do this by installing low-flow faucets and shower heads, using native plants that require less intensive watering, and by making a conscious effort to reduce the amount of water we use on a daily basis. Also by creating more green spaces in our city, we can provide storm water with a place to infiltrate instead of washing over pavement and into the sewer system (see “Bioswale Basics“). This could be done by installing more garden space in your backyard or a green roof.

As an NY green contractor and landscape designer, Eco Brooklyn can help you find ways to reduce your water consumption in your home and increase your permeable surfaces/green spaces in your yard. Please contact us to learn more about how you can help protect the Gowanus!

 

By: Malone Matson

Fun Built with Salvaged Material

The growth in sustainable and green living has given rise to a movement of eco-tourism in a variety of forms across the country.  Specifically the use of salvaged materials is making a breakthrough in the realm of practical and/ or novel green construction.

Across the country salvaged building trends and communities are blossoming and their projects range from the awe-inspiring to the comical.  I recently came across this link to a list of 8 “roadside” attractions made primarily or entirely of salvaged materials:

 

http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/eco-tourism/photos/8-roadside-attractions-made-from-salvaged-materials/must-see-places

 

There’s a beer can house, a quilted-oil-protesting-gas station, and the largest tree house ever built (complete with sanctuary and basketball court).  Besides roadside attractions I’ve come to find through friends and my own travels a number of interesting things made by hand with salvaged materials.

Made from recycled material

The Recycled Roadrunner.

Once a year in Glover, Vermont there is a gathering of people, “The Human Powered Carnival”, that is the only (to my knowledge) 100% handmade and human powered carnival in existence.

 

Internationally there is a movement of “freeganism”, a life style based around obtaining all necessary materials to live well without using money, this means dumpster diving for food, squatting (sometimes clandestinely), bartering services, and general scavenging.  There is enough usable waste produced by most large companies and institutions to feed, clothe and shelter everyone who needs it.  This movement is intrinsically related to the Human Powered Carnival, there is no advertisement besides word of mouth and there is an air of communal co-operation in all aspects of the event, from cooking to cleaning and operating the rides.

One of Cyclecides attractions

In a similar spirit, in California, there is “cyclecide”.  Cyclecide is an organization based on finding expressive, interactive and alternate uses for bicycles and bike parts.  This idea sprang in 1996 and is rooted in a “freegan” ideology, their first pieces came from dumpstered bikes and some still do.  Their main event is a touring “bike rodeo” featuring varied attractions, from art installations to interactive bike or “pedal” powered rides, and valuable information.  This rodeo is not for the faint of heart, group events and contests such as tall bike jousting, while extremely fun and entertaining do pose some real danger, perhaps that’s what makes it so fun?

This is an excerpt from their website that clearly describes the group’s core beliefs;

“We remain passionately devoted to the idea of the bicycle as a piece of interactive kinetic sculpture that can make music, breathe fire, even save the world!”

 

Cyclecide

Cyclecide

What I find most exciting about this small grassroots movement is its power to subtly invoke great change in a person’s cognition, with the near comic novelty of some of these art pieces and attractions people will let their mental guards down and approach this concept with a more open and relaxed mind, which is sure to get the wheels turning in ones head (whether pedal powered or not).

I am A Weed (part 2)

This blog post is in response to my post last week, “I Am a Weed.

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Since a lot of Eco Brooklyn’s work involves creating ecological plant-scapes, the issue of weeds and native species arrises a lot. As an ecological landscaper we’ve learned that the only difference between a weed and a plant lies in the definition of the beholder. For example we plant a lot of native grasses, considered your archetypal weed to the typical green lawn installer. In general we tend to plant in a much more “wild way” than your typical landscape design.

We also plant in a lot more places than considered normal in a city – on roofs, walls, stairs and any other surface. By doing this we are aware that our work spreads a lot of native plants throughout the city through wind and bird droppings.

If cities were to increase their leniency toward spontaneous urban plants, how could they do so responsibly? There are some valid points to be made in the argument against weeds. Some plants, such as ragweed, cause allergic reactions. Others have the ability to completely dominate a landscape and kill off any other competing plants, like japanese knotweed. In a few rare cases, exotic spontaneous plants have brought in diseases or funguses that affect native plants. Dutch Elm Disease, which was actually introduced by an insect, not a plant, is the most infamous of these. It’s an impressive feat for a plant to survive in the crack of a building, but if it grows so large that it jeopardizes the building’s infrastructure then that is a problem. So where should these plants be grown and how?

A passive answer to this question are brownfields. Brownfields are abandoned or underused patches of land that once facilitated industrial or commercial activity. These unattended sites can quickly become inhabited by spontaneous plants and given free reign, soon grow into little forests, discreetly nestled within a city block. In these scenarios, an unsightly vacant lot morphs into a green field with zero human effort or money put into it.

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A more proactive way of including spontaneous plants in our urban environments is via brown roofs. Brown roofs are very similar to green roofs. They share many of the same construction methods and benefits. The difference is that the dominant aim of a brown roof is to increase biodiversity, whereas green roofs tend to focus more on aesthetics. A green roof requires a certain amount of tending whereas a brown roof is purposely left undisturbed so that local wildlife can colonize it. In this unmanaged state, brown roofs offer hospitable land for the airborne seeds of spontaneous urban plants.

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A brown roof can be seeded when it is first created or it can be designed to set up the proper conditions (i.e. a plantable substrate) for plant life to grow and then left to the forces of nature. In the latter scenario, it takes about two years for the brown roof to fully grow in. Although somewhat popular in Europe, because of the slow rate of return and lack of control over the roof garden’s aesthetic, brown roofs are very rare in the US. I think it is understandable to prefer a green roof on one’s home or in a public area, but I propose that large buildings like factories looking to cut down on energy costs consider building brown roofs as they will help insulate the building while requiring very little maintenance.

ny green roof builder

Sometimes piles of logs or stones are added to brown roofs to further promote biodiversity

To clarify, although brown roofs can largely be left to themselves, they don’t and shouldn’t be left entirely untouched. Undesirable plants, such as those that cause allergies or are aesthetically unappealing, can be removed. Invasive plants should be pruned or taken out. What it comes down to is reconsidering “gardening” altogether, not just the plants being used. Recall land artist, Michael Heizer’s, work Double Negative (see “The Earth Art Movement”). Heizer makes us question whether something is art if it is created purely by subtraction. With a green roof or any other garden, we choose the plants and place them where we like– addition. However, a brown roof that is left to colonize itself can be developed simply by taking away plants– subtraction. Subtraction, in this case, is the less energy intensive option. It is working within nature instead of outside it.

In the book Eaarth, Bill McKibben suggests that global climate change has reached the point where it is no longer preventable. It is happening and there are going to be dramatic changes to our world. McKibben says we can either keep wasting our time trying to stop the unstoppable or we can accept the reality of our situation and prepare for a new way of life. To a lesser extreme, I believe the debate about spontaneous urban plants is a similar one. Perhaps it is time to realize that eradication is impossible and to start working with them instead of against them.

Ecological builder brooklyn

 

By: Malone Matson

I Am A Weed

How does the nature we find in and around our city reflect who we are?

There are two approaches, generally speaking, one can take when dealing with habitat conservation in urban areas. The first and most common is an attempt to return to the historical habitats that were found in the city long before it had been built. In this approach, native plants are protected and natural systems, like streams and fields, that have been disrupted by city infrastructure are attempted to be restored. This is undoubtedly a noble effort.

Another approach, however, is to accept that cities are new and unique environments, therefor nothing can be native to a city. Of course life is resilient and these new environments have been successfully colonized by a mix of historically native and non-native plants that have been able to survive despite the harsh, polluted conditions that cities provide. These plants are characterized by their abilities to be both flood and drought resistant. These traits make them well-suited to life in the shallow cracks of a sidewalk or building, which get flooded during a rain and, with no soil to retain the water, quickly become dry until the next shower. The collective term for this kind of flora is “spontaneous plants.”

ny green garden

Spontaneous plants offer a plethora of services for the urban environment. They, like all other plants, filter the air to provide us with oxygen while reducing the carbon imbalance of cities. Spontaneous plants supply green cover which in turn reduces the heat island effect and increases storm water retention. They create habitat for insects who become food for birds. Some even have the ability to remediate contaminated soils by absorbing heavy metals. And they provide greenery in otherwise gray and barren urbanscapes.

The Biophilia Hypothesis, introduced by Edward O. Wilson, asserts that humans hold an inherent bond with living systems. “Biophilia” literally means love for life. Our love of plants and animals, it is suggested, evolved from our dependence upon them for survival. Simply being around plants brings us pleasure so we protect them, and in doing so, we are also protecting food sources, shelter, and habitat for animals we might eat. This love can have a substantial impact on humans when they are exposed to nature. Studies have shown that people who live close to green spaces tend to be happier than those who don’t. Hospitals that look out onto greenery or that have images of nature in their rooms have faster rates of healing. Unsurprisingly, properties that have trees or are located near parks are worth more money. So it would seem that spontaneous plants are beneficial for urban areas because they fill in the cracks, literally and figuratively, with greenery. Yet many people do not see them this way.

Spontaneous plants can go by another name: “weeds.” Their presence is often seen as a sign of decay, poverty, or neglect. They are actively sought out for removal, even when their absence means an empty patch of gray.

During an informal interview with David Seiter, a visiting professor at Pratt Institute’s program for Sustainable Planning and Development and the principal of Future Green Studio, Seiter described the value of spontaneous plants in this way (I’m paraphrasing): Remember when you were a child. You would search for dandelions and make a wish while blowing away their fluffy white seeds? Or look at some of the fanciest restaurants in Brooklyn; you can see dandelion leaf salads on their menus. But when a dandelion sprouts up in a backyard, people are quick to pull them out or douse them in herbicides. How can something with so much value– a food source, a plaything, a bright yellow flower– be looked upon with so much disdain?

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Seiter explained that society seems to find worth in things that are difficult. A garden of roses takes time to grow, requires careful attention, and must be watched with an anxious eye as its fragility makes it ever so prone to destruction. When we grow a rose successfully, we are proud. Meanwhile, the real hero here is the dandelion who has adapted to the harshest conditions, who can grow in seemingly impossible places with no help. Dandelions and other spontaneous plants don’t just survive, they thrive. It’s incredible really. But they are dismissed, despised even, for their independence and tenacity.

As Seiter recounted these thoughts, I felt a twinge of emotion stir inside me. I kept thinking, he is describing me. 

I would not be the first to make this connection. Look at Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. The author likens the struggle of an immigrant family in Brooklyn to the Tree of Heaven, a common non-native and invasive weed in New York City. The plant struggles to find its place. It is neglected and trampled upon. But once it takes root, it puts up an inspiring fight, and despite the odds, eventually flourishes into a beautiful and imposing tree.

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ny green landscaper

For those of us who are living and thriving in New York City, we can all look back on our struggle to take root. In the most obvious sense, think about apartment searching and how difficult it is to find your space in the city. Then there is the search for resources: money, food, air. We had to adapt to the harsh conditions of the city: pollution, noise, suffocating crowds, the heat, the cold. I’ve watched as friends have come and gone from the city, unable to “hack it,” and I’ve known many others simply too scared to try. We are the non-natives who have invaded and thrived.

And isn’t that what New York City has always been about? When I hear a native New Yorker claim ownership of the city, I admit I scoff at them. Were their parents or grandparents not immigrants? Aren’t immigrants the ones who built this city? Indeed the urban environment, especially that of New York’s, is a unique one that is constantly changing and growing and adapting. Nothing is static in the city and that is the way it should be; that’s progress. A dandelion is to a sidewalk crack as a hipster is to Williamsburg. It’s theirs now.

NY green design build firm

 So how do we better incorporate spontaneous plants and all their benefits into our city? Peter Del Tredici, senior research scientist at Arnold Arboretum and author of Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, said, “I consider ‘weed’ to be a politically incorrect term. There is no biological definition of the term weed. It’s really a value judgment.” Certainly a change in perception is needed. As I was walking through Carroll Gardens this afternoon, I overheard a four year-old boy admonish his father for casually trampling a weed that had sprouted in the sidewalk, “Daddy, you’re stepping on the plant! Look out!” This child was seeing the plant as equal with all other plants, which he knows not to stomp on. He had not yet been taught by society that some plants have lesser value.

Why do we spend so much time and energy trying to green our cities with supposedly native or cosmopolitan plants who can’t hack it when there are so many plants that will willingly take their place? Why do we overly invest ourselves in removing spontaneous plants when they provide us with so much? Why do we devalue any object of nature?

More importantly, if these attitudes can be overcome, how do we prudently incorporate spontaneous plants into our cities? I do not believe by any means that these plants should have free reign. Surely a place like a graveyard or a government building overrun with weeds would send the wrong message. Still it is something we should consider.

landscape urbanism

Red Hook is my favorite Brooklyn neighborhood and is an excellent example of how spontaneous plants can bring life to an industrial wasteland. Take the above photo, for example. Without those plants, the dilapidated building would have a more foreboding and, quite frankly, ugly appearance. Their presence stirs a biophilic response in us. The success of life juxtaposes the death of a building. It reflects the burgeoning aesthetic of the 21 century which is characterized by an attraction to things that are vintage or down-to-earth (i.e. the wealthy hipster who dresses like a hobo.) I urge you to take a walk to Fairway or the Valentino Pier in Red Hook. Look out for walls of Queen Anne’s Lace lining chain-linked fences, then try to tell me that that is not beautiful.

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urban plants

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By Malone Matson

Photo Credits:

  • http://urbanplants.wordpress.com/2009/06/07/a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn-in-the-unlikeliest-places/
  • http://www.peterdeltredici.com/index.php?/contact/gallery/
  • http://www.flickriver.com/photos/cavanimages/4460203563/

We Love Motherplants

MotherPlants is a nursery in Ithaca, NY that specializes in growing plants for green roofs. MotherPlants is a women-owned company, committed to environmental sustainability. They use renewable energy, healthy growing practices, and dedicate a large portion of their land for wildlife.

living roof

These woman do green roofs right. They focus on plants that are drought resistant, have shallow roots, and are hearty enough to survive Northeastern winters. MotherPlants offers a variety of plant options such as “plug plants” (already grown plants with developed root systems that will grow immediately), unrooted cuttings (cuttings take less time to install and are cheaper but take more time to get established and should be planted in the spring), pre-grown mats and modules, and they will even grow custom plants by request. Many of these plants are sedums and grasses– check out their catalogue here. They also sell green roof media and can help you design your green roof.

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As an NY green roof installer, Eco Brooklyn is very attracted to MotherPlants because of their expertise, commitment to sustainable practices and native species, variety, and proximity (so as to reduce our environmental footprint.) Many of the plants we use in the green roofs we design are sourced from MotherPlants. When possible, we like to use clippings from the roof garden at the Eco Brooklyn Show House when propagating new roofs to avoid unnecessary use of fossil fuels through transportation… and just because we like to share.

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Above is a photo of Eco Brooklyn’s green roof at the Show House. MotherPlants highly recommends on their website that people avoid the do-it-yourself method of installing a green roof. We agree; building a green roof should be done by an expert who can assess a roof’s ability to support the weight of a green roof, can install a well-insulated and well-sealed garden that will not leak, and can choose plants that will thrive in the conditions created specifically by your roof’s location and design.

As an NY green contractor, Eco Brooklyn can help you design and build your green roof in keeping with the most sustainable practices and products. Contact us to learn more about living roofs in NYC.

The Earth Art Movement

The Earth Art, or Land Art, Movement was born in the late 1960’s in the United States in response to the over-commercialization of art and the rising trend towards environmentalism. Founders of the movement were disgruntled by the plasticity and artificiality of art. They wanted to get people out of museums and back into nature. They were intrigued by both the fragility and strength of nature, and the challenge of manipulating it.

As green builders we relate to this deeply. Our construction and design work is very earth based and in some ways a reaction to the mainstream construction which often lacks any form of life or connection to the earth.

Robert Smithson is often credited as one of the founders of the Land Art movement. His earthworks tended to be large-scale and were meant to put art into the land as opposed to on the land. He said, “A work of art when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world.”

Land Art Movementearth art movement

Spiral Jetty, 1970

One of his most famous works is Spiral Jetty which was constructed in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The sculpture was inspired by the Great Serpent Mound built by pre-Columbian Indians. Smithson chose the location for its anti-pastoral beauty. The water has a red-tint to it from bacteria which have thrived in the salt waters ever since the lake’s fresh water sources were cut off by a causeway in 1959.

Smithson’s wife, Nancy Holt, was another pioneer of the Earth Art Movement. Her most famous work is Sun Tunnels, which consists of four nine ft diameter, 18 ft long tubes placed in an x formation in a desert in Utah. The tunnels line up with the sun during the summer and winter solstices while each tunnel has a set of small holes drilled into the tops that align with certain constellations. “It’s an inversion of the sky/ground relationship-bringing the sky down to the earth,” said Holt.

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Sun Tunnels, 1976

The purpose of the installation is to attract viewers out of museums and the city and into the wilderness. When viewers arrive, the tunnels provide shelter from the sun. Once lured in, the visitors witness a fantastical light display, piquing their interest in the celestial world.

Michael Heizer, who sometimes collaborated with Smithson, is another founder of the Earth Art movement. He too focused on large-scale manipulation of the earth. One of his best known pieces is Double Negative. The work consists of two massive trenches excavated from the sides of a mesa in Nevada.

ny green landscape designbrooklyn earth art

Double Negative, 1969-70

Double Negative provokes the viewer to question what is and isn’t art. Can the earth be considered a medium the way paint or marble is? The “sculpture” itself was made entirely from subtraction. There was nothing added or shaped, only taken away. What Heizer created was simply negative space, hence “Double Negative“. Is that art? The piece can also make one contemplate the relation of art to the earth and the potential scale of art. Can something that doesn’t fit in a museum be considered art?

Walter de Maria, who coincidentally also collaborated with Heizer, created the famous Earth Art installation The Lightning Field in New Mexico. It is comprised of 400 stainless steel poles placed in a grid formation covering an area of one mile by one kilometer. The work is meant to be viewed from a distance and walked around in. During thunderstorms, the metal rods attract lightning creating a breathtaking spectacle. This piece is unique from the previously mentioned works in that it not only uses the earth to create art but also natural events.

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brooklyn green building

The Lightning Field, 1977

Richard Long had a distinctive style in creating Earth Art in which he blurred the line between performance and sculpture. Long’s sculptures were made by or during long walks. His walks usually centered on a concept or theme but all were inspired by his love for nature and the formal structure of basic shapes.

brooklyn green gardening

A Line Made By Walking, 1967

One of Long’s first pieces was created by simply walking back and forth in a field and then capturing the result in a black and white photograph. Lines are common shapes in Long’s work and are meant to guide or lead viewers, thus inspiring them to walk through nature as well. The simplicity of Long’s shapes also points to his desire to alter and effect nature as little as possible.  A Line in the Himalayas is a good example of this.

environmental art

A Line in the Himalayas, 1975

Andy Goldsworthy is a contemporary artist who was greatly influenced by Long’s art. Goldsworthy uses a myriad of natural objects, such as stones, leaves, ice, water, sand, twigs, flowers, and pinecones, to create sculptures with and in nature which he then photographs. Goldsworthy only uses natural materials and tools. To fuse icicles, he will use water or spit. To break a twig or a stone, he we will use a rock. To add color, he will use berries or fallen leaves.

ecological contracting

A rock "painted" gold with fall leaves

“Movement, change, light growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. I want to get under the surface. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue,” said Goldsworthy.

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Stick sculpture in water with reflection

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Sculpture made from sheets of ice

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A ball made from shards of ice

Eco Brooklyn is profoundly inspired by these innovative artists, especially those whose works have little to no impact on the ecosystem they are built in. Like these artists, in all our work we hope to create beautiful structures and spaces that connect people to nature and encourage more outdoor activity. The Earth Art Movement has two underlying questions: Can the earth be a vessel for art? And can art bring people back to nature? To both these questions we say, “Yes!”

Our most recent “work of art” is a natural swimming pool built out of salvaged natural materials and designed to replicate natures cleansing process so it does not need any chemicals.

Natural Pool Installers

Our showcase natural swimming pool uses organic materials and no chemicals to increase the connection with nature as you swim.

As a builder we can effect how people live, and it is something we consider deeply when designing a garden or home. Our goal is to design so that the people in the space feel more connected to nature.

By: Malone Matson

Bioswale Basics

Do you ever think about where all that water goes when it rains?

In a natural system, most rainwater gets absorbed in the ground where it falls. It gradually flows, or percolates, through the soil until it reaches the water table (the point in which an underground area is saturated with water.) As the water percolates through the soil, it gets filtered of contaminants like pathogens, pollutants, and silt. Gravity slowly pushes the groundwater to a retention area, a place that holds the water like a river, lake, or the ocean.

Managing stormwater

In an urban environment where rainwater falls on impermeable surfaces, surfaces that water cannot pass through like parking lots, the rain becomes runoff which flows over the impermeable surfaces picking up pollutants like lead and then directly into a manmade drain. This water flows through a city’s sewer system where it is eventually treated, which takes a lot of energy and money, and is then released (usually not entirely clean and with harmful chemicals like chlorine that are used to treat the water) into local waterways. During times of flooding, which are becoming more frequent in the Northeast, sewer systems become overwhelmed and cities are forced to release untreated, raw sewage into nearby rivers and oceans.

urban runoff

 

To reduce the damaging effects of flooding and wastewater overflow, urban dwellers should create more permeable surfaces like gardens, specifically ones with bioswales. A bioswale is a low-lying area designed to remove silt and pollution from runoff and to manage flooding.

Many considerations need to be taken when designing a bioswale:

  • Location: must be in a low-lying area where water tends to collect.
  • Gradient: flat areas or areas with a slope greater than 5% are not practical for bioswales.
  • Drainage: use highly permeable mediums like gravel or coarse sands. Do not build a bioswale in an area with a high water table.
  • Plants: choose plants that are both flood and drought resistant. Native plants are better because they do not need fertilizer, will handle the climate more heartily, and will increase biodiversity.
  • Purpose: design your bioswale to solve a specific problem like flooding, high levels of nitrogen/phosphorus, pollution mitigation, or lack of biodiversity.

As an NY green contracting company with landscape design services, Eco Brooklyn can help you design and install a bioswale that will effectively resolve flooding problems, reduce the amount of contaminants entering local waterways, increase groundwater volume, and aid local biodiversity all while adding beauty to your backyard.

backyard flooding brooklyn

This is an example of a bioswale designed specifically to reduce the effects of flooding. It is placed at the lowest point in the yard and is sloped downward to move water to either a drain or retention area. The gravel allows water to enter the ground quickly to stop flooding. We would add more plants to this one if it were ours.

NY green builder

Rain Gardens are a type of bioswale. They tend to have a more aesthetic focus while still redirecting stormwater back into the ground and away from sewer systems.

As part of the city’s plan to retrofit New York, a number of 5 x 20 ft bioswales will be built along city streets.  Read more here.

Eco Brooklyn is planning on building a 5 x 13 ft tree planter that will act partly as a bioswale in the sidewalk outside the Green Show House. We are getting our applications in and revising our design so we hope the project will be underway shortly! More on that as we progress…

 

ADDENDUM: WATER CONTAMINANTS 101

  • Silt: Silt is made up of fine particles of soil, sand, and dust. It is easily transported by runoff because it is so light. When silt enters a waterbody it tends to linger at the surface of the water and eventually settles at the bottom. Not only is the cloudy effect of silt unattractive, but it also blocks sunlight from reaching the aquatic plants inhabiting the water body. Without sunlight those plants will die, diminishing habitat and food sources for aquatic animal life. Aquatic plants also play a major role in adding oxygen to the water. Without them, water bodies can become anaerobic, devoid of oxygen, which makes them inhospitable to plant and animal life and undrinkable for humans.
  • Phosphorus and nitrogen: These are the two elements that drive plant growth. Excess nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) enter groundwater mainly from fertilizer that gets washed away as runoff. Large amounts of N and P in waterbodies tend to support large algal blooms. Algae is microscopic and lives at the surface of the water. With enough sunlight, N, and P, blooms can become so large that, like silt, they can block sunlight from entering the water, starving the aquatic plants. When the algae eventually dies, it sinks to the bottom of the water where it will be decomposed, a process that uses up oxygen, thus subtracting further from the water’s oxygen levels. Further, some algal blooms can be toxic, harming the animal life around it, or can be ingested by fish then making them toxic for humans to eat. If you use fertilizer in your yard, consider using plants that have high-phosphorus absorption.
  • Pathogens: A pathogen is a virus, bacteria, or other microorganism that can cause disease. Pathogens are most commonly introduced to water through agricultural runoff of manure and animal wastes.
  • Pharmaceuticals: When we ingest drugs, traces of them are excreted in our urine. These chemicals make their way through the sewer system and into local water bodies. Scientists are not entirely sure how much of an impact pharmaceuticals really have in water systems. It has been suggested that increased levels of estrogen, which come from birth control pills, may be effecting sexual development of some aquatic animals.
  • Heavy metals: Heavy metals enter the hydrosphere mainly through industrial practices like mining and smelting. Heavy metals are dangerous because in large quantities they can be poisonous to humans and animals. If your backyard has a lead problem, for example, use plants that absorb metals. Eco Brooklyn also offers soil remediation services.
By Malone Matson

 

Review: Anthony Archer-Wills, Water Garden Designer

green pond designer Anthony Archer-Wills is a world class water garden designer who has built over 2,000 ponds, water gardens, waterfalls, and streams across the globe.

He has several books out, among them The Water Gardener and Designing Water gardens: A Unique Approach.

Gennaro Brooks-Church, Eco Brooklyn’s Director, had the opportunity to take a course with him on designing natural swimming pools, hosted by the US distributor of Bionova Natural pools. Eco Brooklyn is building a natural swimming pool at the Green Show House.

Anthony sets the bar for water design. He is best known for his mimicry of natural water systems and the resulting subtlety of his designs. Where most “watershapers” go wrong, Anthony says, is how they design the inflow of water. Often it is not well-concealed or does not attempt to appear natural. Water fountains, for instance, do not resemble any kind of natural event (and, if I might add, increase water consumption through evaporation.) That’s why they look out of place, tacky even.

The most successful water gardens are the ones that you can’t tell are manmade, that look as if nature had placed them there hundreds of years ago. Not only are they more aesthetically appealing but they also work more harmoniously with nature. Read more here.

Here are some examples of his work:

Backyard pond design NY

NY Green Contractor

NY Sustainable construction

 

The one hitch in his amazing designs is the amount of energy used to pump water. His projects are sometimes so large – lakes, rivers – that the pumps used to move the water are massive. Though we are in complete awe of his art there is definitely an element of energy waste.

Some of his clients have the money to move mountains, and although the water work is amazing, the drive behind the work is not always ecological but rather somebody’s desire to have a lake view where there previously wasn’t one, cost and waste be damned.

Building water places, or in some cases rebuilding them, is important work. Of paramount importance is to consider the amount of waste produced and what is done with it during the construction phase, how much energy is used to maintain the water system, and what the water garden’s implications are for the surrounding ecosystem (it is likely that such water systems add to the biodiversity of an area but you cannot forget about the area that was destroyed to make it).

Eco Brooklyn is interested in learning from Anthony Archer-Wills’ naturalistic design and applying those techniques to smaller scale, low or zero energy green water gardens, natural swimming pools, streams and pond designs in New York City.

By using gravity fed rain runoff and gray water with solar power we are learning how to make water features perfect for the New York City garden.

As NY green contractors and innovators of sustainable design, we are pushing ourselves to build with as little ecological impact as possible while trying to maintain the design tradition pioneered by Anthony Archer-Wills.

Our latest job is being build in a Brooklyn garden that had very high lead levels in the soil. We used the digging of a small natural swimming pool as an opportunity to flip clean soil from deeper in the ground over the contaminated soil.

Then, using walls from salvaged brick and broken sacks of cement we built a container. The end result will be a pool for people to play in that uses no chemicals and integrates naturally with the rest of the garden, designed by Eco Brooklyn with stones and native plants to look wild.

Another job we completed was a pond and little stream.

We wanted the pond to look like it was as natural as possible.

Eco Brooklyn was largely inspired by Anthony’s work in the design of this pond and waterfall. We tried to imagine how the rocks and pebbles would fall and settle in a real river, where riparian plants would most likely take root, what kind of nooks create the best hiding places for our fish, and so forth.

Keeping in mind Anthony’s warning, we have tried to make our water source as well concealed as possible so that it looks like the water is seeping out of the rocks.

We are constantly rearranging the pond’s plants and rocks in an effort to best match nature (and, to be honest, just for fun.) But we feel that this constant rearranging is yet another imitation of nature as we know that rocks, plants, and animals are always in motion in a stream environment.

Green water garden/green pond

Here is a video of a robin bathing in our stream!