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Superfund site converted to protect Gowanus Canal from 1M gallons of contaminated water

Brooklyn, NY, USA
The Atlas Community Team

Government Champion

Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Protection


1.5 Million USD

Project Status

Operational since 2016

At a Glance

Found alongside industrial buildings and residential neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York, the Gowanus Canal has been faced contaminated stormwater and pollutants for decades. After being marked as a 'Superfund' site by the EPA, the city sought a solution to collect runoff and protect its canal from pollution.

Problem Addressed

Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal was once a wetland creek, but can now be found between the concrete jungle's industrial buildings and residential neighborhoods. Growing industrialization has polluted the soil and canal bed, resulting in toxic levels of pollutants in the water. New York's combined sewer system empties into the Gowanus as well, making Gowanus one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency claimed it as a Superfund site, an area damaged so severely that it needs federal funding for its restoration.

One can only access the canal via publicly-owned streets that end at the canal's waterfront. Despite poor conditions, demand for real estate in Brooklyn has increased, driving private development projects along the canal. This pushed the city to create a unified plan to guide development of publicly accessible and environmentally sound open space system for the canal.

Brooklyn, NY used/is using a multifunctional, public 'Sponge' Park to address this/these challenge(s).

Solution(s) Used

To prevent further pollution, the city worked with dlandstudio to develop a small new park, taking up about 1,800 square feet along the Gowanus Canal.

Given the canal's proximity to a new residential building, construction had to be coordinated not just with developers, but also with 14 city agencies, including the Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Protection, which is responsible for water oversight. After reaching group consensus and funding requirements, the park was built in just 8 weeks.

Coined the "Sponge Park," it slows, absorbs, and filters surface water runoff through a series of landscape buffers and constructed wetlands. The Sponge Park utilizes woody plants that absorb, filter, and evapotranspirate water through their roots and leaves. These plants also remove runoff toxins, through a process called phytoremediation. Water and toxins that are not absorbed by the plants are intercepted by street sewer drains to capture and store polluted runoff. The tanks release collected water slowly into the artificial wetlands, where it will be filtered and cleaned before entering the canal.

The Sponge Park project has encouraged the city to build other designed curbside rain gardens throughout Brooklyn. Cumulatively, they can collect and absorb almost 133,000 gallons of stormwater when it rains. This pays a huge contribution towards the city's mission of reducing sewer overflows into the canal.


  1. The prevention of one million gallons of polluted runoff water from ending up in the Gowanus Canal
  2. Rain gardens throughout the city are estimated to capture more than 6 million gallons of stormwater each year
  3. Minimized volume of overflows that occur within the canal, reducing raw sewage contamination and overall pollution
  4. The pilot project has informed the city's long-term vision to develop 11.4 acres of revitalized canal space, 7.9 acres of recreational open spaces, & 3.5 acres of remediation wetland basins
  5. Increased community access to the waterfront through existing public street ends, and open space to foster community-based programming

Something Unique

As the canal project grows to include more park acreage, it will highlight areas of cultural significance by linking historical sites, recreation areas, and neighborhood facilities. The project will make the currently unreachable Revolutionary War Memorial accessible, as well as highlight the Thomas Green playground, and Gowanus Dredgers boathouse and launch.

Who Should Consider?

Communities looking to increase access to nearby waterways while also decreasing the impact of industrial pollutants on their water sources.

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