The BK BioReactor

Investigating the Unseen Microbiology of the Gowanus Canal

A collaboration lead by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, with GenSpace, Weill Cornell Medical College, and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, the BK BioReactor is an investigation into the unseen microbiology of the Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn’s hippest Superfund. Utilizing the tools of biotechnology and design, the group’s mission is one of microbial discovery and a continued study for a designed future. Comprised of numerous contributing individuals and volunteers, the team’s core members include Ian Quate, Matthew Seibert, Elizabeth Hénaff, and Ellen Jorgensen.

The project was catalyzed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) designation of the Gowanus Canal as a Superfund and its plan to dredge and sub-aquatically cap the waterway over the next ten years. This destructive remediation of the canal environment raised the question: what is the environment that is about to be supplanted?

This process follows 150 years of industrial pollution, combined sewage overflows, and stormwater runoff contaminating the length of the canal, garnering an infamous reputation among the most polluted waterways in the Nation. Yet polluted environments, long overlooked as inimical to life, are receiving attention from Microbiologists. Armed with new analytical tools from molecular engineering, scientists are unearthing new communities of microorganisms unique to the urban realm. The team is cognizant that dredging operations will eliminate these microbial communities in the Gowanus Canal before their taxonomy and potentially unique cell products are studied and catalogued.

Landscape Metrics has developed an interactive visualization and web platform to showcase the BK BioReactor team's findings, providing a window into the microbiome of the Gowanus Canal as it is discovered. Click here to view the visualization and project website. The interactive visualization contains imagery originally developed by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects.


The following animations were presented at the Gowanus By Design Axis Civitas Design Competition Exhibition at Site:Brooklyn gallery in Gowanus. The Overview video was projected on a vertical wall above a physical model upon which the Canal view video was projected simultaneously.