Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Neighborhood Nest Nursery

This is part 3 in our 4 part series reporting on the Gowanus Canal and the Canal Nest Colony project in Brooklyn, New York.  Part 3 will report on the developments in the project for 2010.  For the earlier posts see here and here.

By the winter of 2009 the Canal Nest Colony (CNC) project had constructed and installed 25 new bird and bat houses along the banks of the Gowanus Canal and had begun partnering with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy (GCC) to help run community volunteer days for the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn.  That winter, two more designers joined the team, including one of us here at FASLANYC, and the CNC team decided to join the GCC.

During the fall of 2009, the team heard from a couple of members of the New York Audubon Society suggesting better ways to build and place birdhouses along the canal.  This was auspicious considering that most of the bird and bat houses were still empty!  They also speculated that enhancing the habitat with plantings could provide cover and food for birds and create gardens that were more attractive to the neighbors and more fun to install than just picking up trash. 

After meeting with members of the Audubon Society and the GCC the Nest Colony team decided to prepare two grant proposals, one to the Fiskars Community Grant program, and one to NYC Million Trees.  If awarded, the Fiskars grant would provide the shovels, loppers, wheelbarrows, pick axes and a multitude of other basic tools necessary to put an army of volunteers to work in the dirt; NYC Million Trees would provide the trees.  In addition, Pleasant Run Nursery in New Jersey agreed to donate all of the plant material that the CNC team could take from their stockpile of last season's surplus.  

The team proposed two gardens that would feature new birdhouses including a 12-foot high chimney swift tower as suggested by the Audubon folks.  Historically one of the most well adapted urban birds- living in our chimneys during the warm months and devouring insect pests by the pound- in recent decades swifts have found habitat in perilously short supply with the widespread adoption of central heating systems.  A 12 foot tower would provide alleviate this issue in the smallest of ways.  More significantly, it would attract people and be a symbol for the socio-ecological efforts on the Canal.  
[a proposed garden for the Canal.  The design sets a couple of precise interventions (hedge and elevated boardwalk) in a field of gravel/rubble and urban-hardy wildflowers.  This garden evidently attracts Giant Pteradactyls, and is haunted by the ghostly visage of Claude Cormier]

[the chartreuse chimney swift tower is set among new plantings in the background.  In the foreground a kid is taking his ball and going home]

[the boardwalk and painted scaffolding sculptures (begging for birdhouses to be affixed to them) is a dainty-hardy foreground for the F train bridge passing over 9th street in the distance]

In the spring of 2010 the CNC was awarded the Fiskars grant and began planning the schedule for the community work days.  Relying on the GCC's expertise and experience in rounding up groups from the community, a decision was made to hold one community event per month, with invitations going to local businesses, schools, and organizations.  The first community volunteer event was set for Earth Day in April- over sixty volunteers showed up to help weed, pick up trash, and install two new birdhouses along the canal near the 9th street bridge.  The turnout was so big that there was not enough interesting work to pass around!  A place was needed to hold plants and secure the tools and materials that would be used for the projects; this would allow subsequent community days to include more diverse activities including planting and building.

In May, the GCC convinced the Department of Sanitation (DOS) to let them use a one acre lot situated at a bend in the canal where 2nd Avenue dead-ends.  This lot, owned by the DOS, is used during the winter months for salt and sand storage to keeps NYC's streets clear.  A shipping container was donated to the project, the donated plants were brought to the city, mulch was donated by the Department of Parks and Recreation and a small urban nursery was set up to store and care for the trees and shrubs until they could be installed.  The watering, pruning and mulching was done by volunteers from the GCC.  Weeds and prunings from the community event were dumped in a corner for later composting.

The community volunteer event at the end of May brought over one hundred people down to the canal to help install a new garden at the end of First Street.  This was also the first chance to grapple with the logistics of running a volunteer event which centered around plantings and materials brought from the Salt Lot.  A pickup truck was donated for the event by a moving company, and all the extra hands helped to install and water plants, reset pavers, and set a concrete bench along 1st street.  Getting materials there that day was not difficult.  Continuing to water plants at a remote site without the help of a business or neighbors has been, and many have died during the hottest months of the summer.

Volunteers were coming out and the staging ground was up and running, but the efforts were spread too thin.  Mid-season, it was decided to reign in the ambition and focus on site improvements near the Salt Lot- new plantings, bird houses, caring for and expanding the nursery, and starting the community composting operation.  The Salt Lot and the end of 2nd Avenue deserves its own paragraph-

The Salt Lot is a sodium/nitrate soaked rubble heap right at the major bend in the Gowanus.  A masonry building likely stood there once- you can still make out the foundations, and the berm around the edge is all construction debris capped haphazardly with asphalt and slowly being colonized chrysanthemum, black locust, ailanthus, and wild carrots (queen ann's lace).  In the distance the F train rumbles over its elevated track along 9th Street, and the Kentile Flooring Sign in negative really sets off the beautiful Brooklyn skies.  When the incoming tides raise water levels 6 feet they often bring an oil slick with them from just downstream.  If this happens to occur during a shower which produces a sewer overflow the effect is an unholy mixture of stink that swirls together just below the bank of the Salt Lot.  The canal bulkhead is falling down at this point and the spontaneous intertidal zone made of masonry units and coated in the potent mixture is home to an impressive array of resilient little creatures, most of them small fiddler crabs, minnows, and insects.   I don't recommend going there, but if you accidently end up at the Salt Lot and you see one of those little crabs clamber out of the oil slick up onto a sewage-soaked rock and start "playing the fiddle" amidst the swarm of bugs you will definitely chuckle to yourself and think "ha, that resilient little rat-bastard..."
[the sweet, sweet Salt Lot; beautiful, and also looking like the location of a biblical curse]

By the start of summer, the CNC project was focused on new birdhouses and plantings along the rubble berm at the edge between the Salt Lot and the canal and the community volunteer days were held here.  The aim with clustering all of the services and activities in one spot was to create a destination along the canal.  The Salt Lot and its sublime surroundings offer one of the few spots to notice the canal and its rhythms.  But being located at a dead end and surrounded by bus repair depots and metal scrap yards, few people from the neighborhood ever venture there.  Locating the community days here would likely decrease turnout, but might open up the canal to people, and help them to get excited about the operation that was growing in their neighborhood.  In addition, it would be possible for the volunteers to maintain and protect the installed plants and birdhouses.

Community volunteer events in June and July were held at the Salt Lot.  Turnout was lower but still significant; about 40 people in June and then 20 or so in July, likely due to a potent combination of stifling heat in New York City and family vacations.  The nursery was moved to another location on the Salt Lot to give the plants more space, two new birdhouses along with 10 trees and 20 shrubs were planted along the canal berm, and old pallets were salvaged and turned into nine bins for the community compost operation.  The GCC was able to use donations to purchase a small generator and a bike trailer, both to be stored in the donated shipping container.  The generator allows for running power tools for building down on site, and the bike trailer will allow volunteers to cart the tools for watering and maintenance installed in other locations along the canal (a truck would obviously be easier, but it is far too expensive and would require registration and upkeep that would detract from the focus).
[Hope, and weeds, spring eternal.  Here, Verbasum thapsis (common mullein), Artemesia vulgaris (chrysanthemum weed, mugwort), and Polygonum persicaria (ladysthumb) band together to bust out of a deposit of rubbly asphalt near the protection of a concrete barrier cast from tailings]

[the nusery, shipping container, and mulch pile before the nursery was relocated across the lot; just over the shipping container you can make out a kestrel house; the bizarre tower in the background to the left is a concrete plant across the canal]

This coming weekend the August community volunteer event will establish a new garden at the end of Bond Street just across the canal from the Salt Lot.  There are currently two existing birdhouses in this location and the street end is washed out from stormwater runoff that dumps straight into the canal at this point.  The garden will try to slow the flow of this water with channels and plants, and the plants will create a protected nook and provide food for possible aviary acquaintances that might move into the birdhouses next spring.  Should any of the 7 readers of this blog be around, your ideas, enthusiasm, and muscle would be welcome!

It is unclear whether or not the swift tower will be built this year- it requires a lot of equipment and materials that have still not been obtained, and it seems important not to strain volunteers (hence the emphasis on fun).  Many of the plants at first street have died, and weeds and trash always return.  But a large composting operation is getting started, more birdhouses have been installed and plantings have been established along the banks of the canal which may draw more people and provide habitat and food for birds.  Most exciting, the seasonal nursery has proved a great success logistically as well as piquing neighborhood interest and enabling the ecological initiatives of the CNC project.  The CNC team has mapped empty tree pits along adjacent streets and it is likely that the remaining community volunteer events will install trees as part of the NYC Million Trees fall giveaway program.  The last event day will also be a neighborhood celebration with food and very little work, so check in at the Conservancies website periodically for that news.  

This post is the final hack reporting piece on the Gowanus Canal and the Canal Nest Colony project.  Next week's post we will be turning an eye towards the future, imagining how the CNC project might grow and change in the coming year along with other GCC initiatives, and how the lessons learned here in the last two years might inform or inspire similar initiatives that seek to combine ecological and social goals by focusing on fun and work in the landscape.


  1. Sounds like a great project. It's definitely emblematic of the sort of civic hacktivism we have been discussing as a potent tool-kit.

    Regarding the team heard from a couple of members of the New York Audubon Society suggesting better ways to build and place birdhouses along the canal., seems like the sort of synergies and private-private partnerships that should be developed. I wonder did you all actively put out a call to them for feedback or did they contact you all? Only, because in terms of methodology it seems like an important step.


  2. Hi Nam. Good point. That kind of dialogue and expertise-sharing has been approached a couple of ways, both actively seeking it out by contacting folks, and by raising awareness and inviting participation.

    in the case you mention, there was a little write up on a brooklyn blog about the project, and an audubon person wrote a comment. one of the CNC guys then went and contacted him. this led to a meeting and some exchanged emails.

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  4. congrats for the award in 2010..btw the pics look interesting..

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