Meet a New Yorker for Parks: Andrea Parker, Gowanus Canal Conservancy

July 10, 2017

By Kim Ahrens, NY4P Communications Intern

“It is so small, so central, and has so many eyes on it.” That is how Andrea Parker, Executive Director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy (GCC), describes the Gowanus Canal, and the motivation the local residents have to preserve and improve the canal and surrounding land.

While much of GCC’s efforts are focused on improving the water quality of the canal, they’re also pursuing a bold plan to create a network of vibrant parks and open spaces, and are using the canal to engage young people as the next generation of environmental stewards. Where others may see insurmountable problems, GCC sees opportunities.

The Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted waterways in America and in 2010 was declared a Superfund site by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One of the perks of being a Superfund site is they have now begun a long $500 million clean up project that will be funded by Potentially Responsible Parties, such as National Grid and the City of New York. 

These days the biggest contributor to pollution in the canal is sewage overflow. New York City has a combined sewage system, meaning that rainwater goes into the same sewer system as does wastewater from our businesses and homes. But the city’s old system can’t always handle all the water it receives, and during periods of heavy rain untreated stormwater and wastewater goes out through combined sewer overflows (CSOs) into waterways across the city.

The Gowanus Canal has 12 CSOs along its banks, pouring over 370 million gallons of sewage overflow into the canal every year. To reduce pollution, the conservancy works with New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to build and maintain bioswales, planted areas in the sidewalk that collect stormwater to reduce the amount of going into the sewer system. 

The Conservancy is the only non-profit in NYC to have a maintenance contract with DEP. Bioswales are the first above-ground infrastructure DEP has been responsible for, and the community engagement needs are larger and more nuanced than with the below-ground infrastructure they traditionally work with. It’s been a learning experience for both DEP and the community, but as Andrea explains, “they are getting better at outreach and understanding the community’s desires and needs.”

In addition to the bioswales, DEP will install two large underground sewage detention tanks. Coordination between the EPA and the DEP on the Superfund cleanup has been difficult at times, but the agencies are improving their efforts. “It has been extremely challenging and the community has been pushing back to get more coordination. But, again, they understand there is an issue and have got better.”

They are also working with local residents, businesses and schools to plant rain gardens and conserve water. It doesn’t take much for local residents to understand that something must be done about the polluted waterway, and they’re eager to get involved. As Andrea explained, “they notice it physically just by living here, along with some help from our key messaging.”

Andrea herself discovered the immensely polluted canal, and all the challenges and opportunities it presents, after taking part in one of GCC's volunteer workdays. As a landscape architect, Andrea immediately realized that this was exactly the type of work she wanted to do to make a difference. Andrea started with the GCC as a Volunteer Coordinator and eventually joined the board. Today, she is one of six full-time employees. 

GCC’s work goes beyond just cleanup of the canal, and they’re not afraid to think big. The Gowanus Lowlands Blueprint is the conservancy's combined effort with community members, partner organizations, elected officials, and agency representatives to connect emerging open spaces in the neighborhood into the city’s next great park.  

STEM Gowanus is an educational curriculum developed by GCC and taught to 7th and 8th grade students in neighborhood schools. The curriculum covers the local effects of climate change, and seeks to inspire students to create their own ways of addressing rising water levels and overflow from the canal. In 2016, 45 students from four schools presented their vision at EXPO Gowanus. These experiences often lead students to start talking about the issue at home. Andrea explained that after students start the conversation with their family, they notice a rise in water conservation within their home.

GCC certainly has an impressive reach, working with government agencies, local businesses, community members, and young people. GCC recently celebrated their tenth birthday and has come a long way since hiring their first full-time employee in 2011. Andrea credits the conservancy’s success thus far to having “a great team and great people who are engaged, and an excited board and volunteers. We have an interesting story and have young professionals who are fed up with the city and are just trying to do something a different way.” 

Although the canal and the conservancy have a long journey ahead, Andrea is happy with the progress already made and knows that there are many more great things in store for the Gowanus Canal and the surrounding neighborhoods.