“Estuary Escape” to a “Living Dock”

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HarborLAB’s outing with the Van Alen Institute visits the Newtown Creek Alliance’s “Living Dock.”

On November 8, HarborLAB was privileged to provide a Newtown Creek tour to the Van Alen Institute. Billed as an “Estuary Escape,” we also hope that the time afloat was a reminder that we live within a water wilderness that’s both marvelous and in need of better care.

We shared a bit of local lore and history gleaned from authors who are also our friends, Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman and founder of the Center for Algonquin Culture, Evan Pritchard. Other highlights of the trip, however, were glimpses of a green and blue future. That’s fitting for an organization like VAI, which started as Society of Beaux-Arts Architects but evolved into an advocate for design and architecture that serves public interests.

HarborLAB Founder and Executive Director Erik Baard walked participants through our GreenLaunch, a waterfront strip that we’ve cleaned and cleared for three years without machine aid, owing to soft ground, and planted with more than 30 native trees and bushes so far. We’re also cultivating goldenrod, pokeweed, and milkweed, which are important native food sources for birds and beneficial insects. Simultaneously we’re creating large amounts of fresh soil through composting. Coming soon will be more plantings, green structures, solar power, our larger dock (thanks to Pink Sparrow Scenic and in part a Harbor Estuary Program grant via Waterfront Alliance), and eco-educational installations.

We paddled out in two waves, totaling 24 participants. We discussed the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and the ongoing combined sewer overflow problem, and the huge Sims Metal Management (a founding HarborLAB sponsor) recycling facility. Baard noted the presence of morning glories, which help remove lead from soils. The greenest stop on our tour was the “Living Dock,” an educational project of the Newtown Creek Alliance. The dock is fitted with modules growing spartina, our region’s salt marsh grass, a cornerstone of estuarine ecology. Other life then just showed up — sea lettuce, killifish, shrimp, and more! NCA Program Director Willis Elkins explained the project as providing both the immediate benefit of nature observations, and the broader message that we shouldn’t give up hope and turn away from blighted waterways — a phenomenon Baard coined “biodecathection.” Recovery is possible, and is slowly happening. The “Living Dock” helps render the data more visibly.

It was a beautiful and meaningful day, one that we’ll look back on with fondness and gratitude for a long, happy while.

Many thanks to volunteers Thomas Dieter, Diana Chang, Becky Chipkin, David Pugh for their help as safety escorts and to Patricia Erickson, Phillip Borbon, Scott Wolpow, and all others who helped ashore! We also thank VAI for its donation in lieu of a speaker’s honorarium for Erik Baard.

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