This Floating Island Is Cleaning Up Brooklyn’s Insanely Polluted Gowanus Canal

Well, it’s trying, at least.

Now floating in the middle of the Gowanus Canal, the infamously polluted waterway in Brooklyn: “An experiment to clean water through phytoremediation, desalination and rainwater collection to irrigate productive floating gardens.”


In short: a plant-filled, pollution-combating, floating island.

Designed and built by the Balmori design firm, the structure features 19 plant species in metal culvert pipes filled with plastic bottles. Underneath is a layered combination of bamboo, woody plant material, water hyacinth rope, postconsumer shredded plastic, coconut matting, and oak cork. The designers conceive it as a sponge that filters the water, a “productive landscape,” a wildlife habitat in the city, and, in bigger form, a sort of utility island for a floating park or playground.

Balmori sees the Gowanus as an interesting place to test its concept, though it’s not necessarily just an environmental remediation device. “We want to test this in an extreme situation like the Gowanus to make this a universal thing that could be in any kinds of water,” says Diana Balmori, the firm’s principal.

The Gowanus, of course, is one of the most polluted waterways in the country, a Superfund site, and a curious industrial legacy for Brooklyn residents to ponder. The greenish canal sits immobilized and opaque, offering a chemical mystery in the middle of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. In the past, scientists have found everything from PCBs and cyanide to asbestos and gonorrhea.

The island is composed of a solar still that distills the canal’s brackish water and collects it unsalted in a reservoir underneath. Solar-powered plants offer phytoremediation properties–that is, a way to use living green things to remove or contain contaminants. The plants used include goldenrod, black-eyed Susan, black rush, and bulrush.

Balmori and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy received a $20,000 grant from the Cornelia and Michael Bessie Foundation to develop the project, which Balmori calls “GrowOnUS.” It launched it in September, with a send-off near Third Street Bridge. “It was something amazing to see: how invested the local community is in their watershed. We had really positive feedback from everyone,” says Jessica Roberts, also of Balmori Associates.


Balmori has made three previous prototypes. It hopes one day to scale up the concept and offset the cost by selling herbs and other greenery back into the city (though not, one hopes, from the Gowanus). “We think of this as being a productive farm that could serve to feed into farmer’s markets and into restaurants,” says Diana Balmori.

We wrote about a couple of other pollution-fighting floating islands here and here.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.