Here at FASLANYC we are concerned with urban industrial canal landscapes throughout the Americas. The reasons for this are many but the most important are 1) they are ubiquitous- during the canal boom early in the industrialization of the Americas canals were built in every region throughout North and South America. If you live in an American city that dates to the beginning of the 19th century or before you probably have an old canal or its vestiges nearby. 2) they are heavily polluted- the industrial operations along the canals have left a legacy of heavy metals and petrochemicals soaked into the surrounding environment, almost without exception. Due to their location in the heart of industrial and post-industrial cities that are also population centers, the health and safety risks associated with the canals, and public awareness of them, is an important issue. 3) they are generative- we’ve looked at the ways that canals and other terrain vague sites can generate new modes of operating– recreating, working, and living- in the otherwise highly structured city. This is precisely because of their industrial forms, the presence of water and land together, their surrounding context, and their state of abandon offer an opportunity to agents- weeds, birds, skateboarders, and explorers- that might not otherwise find space in the city.
[the cover of the industrial canal field guide]
In recent months we’ve assembled a field guide to urban industrial canals in the Americas and just uploaded it to Issuu. It is divided up into three main sections- ecologies, taxonomies, and operations, in addition to defining some of the history and terms useful for understanding this landscape typology. If it’s useful and you get a chance to use down on your local canal, we would love to hear about that. In the meantime, this week we’ll be publishing excerpts from the Ecologies section of the canal field guide. Today’s excerpt- Hydrology.
[the canalized portion of the riachuelo in buenos aires at the turn of the 20th century; the canal was for a time the main port facility for the burgeoning industrial town]
Hydrology: Bathing in the Ether
To obtain the slackwater (slowly moving water) needed for canal traffic, any navigable canal is constructed using some combination of three techniques: cutting a new channel where none existed, dredging, or canalization of an existing waterway. Dredging operations are almost always used during and afterwards in order to maintain the canal channel and is really a horse of different color. Nonetheless, all three operations have in common their effect on the hydrologic ecology- they regularize it. And they do this in both its route as well as the shape of the water channel itself.
The regularization of the waterway usually means making the route straighter, the sides more vertical, and the bottom flatter. It is important to remember that a hydrological system is a dynamic thing that usually wants to shift and change according to a change in global climate patterns, a shift in the Earth’s tectonic plates, a particularly high tide, or simply yesterday’s thunderstorm.
This regularization is realized with structures known as bulkheads that essentially make a hard edge between the water and the land. The reasons for this are twofold which we will look at in a bit of detail: canals are made for barge traffic, and urban canals were located in cities. Barges are essentially large floating platforms for the transportation of heavy bulk materials- coal, iron ore, grain, vats of petroleum- this is the stuff that the industrial revolution was made from. In huge quantities. These barges are designed to carry tons of this stuff and allow it to be loaded and unloaded easily and quickly, first by men and mules, later by gantry cranes and conveyors. Of course, this means that they have specific dimensions and maneuvering capabilities which are not very flexible, and so the canal edges had to be designed and constructed so as to allow them to maneuver and dock. This meant no more meandering streams with soft edges and boulders and sand bars in the bottom- the course is straightened, the edge is reinforced, and the bottom is deepened and flattened.
As for the urban canal, the lands adjacent to the waterway were often too valuable to leave as sloped earthen banks. Often factory yards, docks or loading equipment needed to be directly adjacent to the canals in the city because the factories were there and the materials needed to be unloaded. This called for not only a reinforced edge, but a vertical one, as more flat usable land could be claimed this way, and the barge could dock right next to the loading yard and equipment.
[the pre-industrial hydrology of the Gowanus Creek in Brooklyn, before the canal infrastructure was grafted on top of it]
[On the edge of Detroit Zug Island, home of US Steel operations and one of the only operational coke plants in the United States, exists at the confluence of the Rouge River canal and the Detroit River]
The effect of these measures on the pre-industrial hydrology can be imagined. The plants, animals, and microbes that rely on a moisture gradient and open ground along the banks of the former waterways are all obliterated. An iconic example of this is the Gowanus Oyster of Brooklyn, New York. Once upon a time the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn was once a meandering tidal creek whose brackish waters produced oysters so succulent and sizable they were harvested by the Dutch settlers and shipped back to Europe by the barrel-full. In the 18th and 19th century before the advent of the hot dog stand it was oyster carts that dotted the intersections throughout Brooklyn. With the growth of industry and the concomitant population explosion in Brooklyn in the middle of the 19th century, the old Gowanus Creek was channeled and deepened to create the 1.8 mile-long canal, finished in 1869. This allowed for brown sandstone (“brownstone”) and other construction materials quarried in New Jersey and upstate New York to be brought into Brooklyn, where they were used to erect the future mecca of Hipsters and Hassidim. This development entailed the utter annihilation of the Gowanus Oyster.
The channelization of the banks has further implications, especially regarding the rate of water flow- it increases it. Increased flow rate serves to help scour the bottom of the channel, lessening the need for constant dredging. But a canal in an urban setting can also be imagined as a river, wilth all of the gutters and storm sewers and streets acting as ephemeral streams shooting surface water into the canal during rain events. In addition, many canals are affected by tides and may contain brackish waters, such as the case of the Newtown Creek in Queens, New York. This twice daily ebb and flow and mixing of nutrients and salts can work to stimulate biological communities, flush out chemicals that have accumulated in the canal, and cause metal structures to corrode or alter faster. Because of this, the canals in cities along coastlines exhibit some of the most drastic change over time, and present great opportunity.
Ultimately, the structures and operations of canal-making might be seen as a kind of prosthesis grafted on top of an existing hydrological pattern. Usually the result is intensified disruptions- storms cause higher rises in water level, faster rates of flow, and a more severe line between what is wet and what is dry. With the passage of time, many of the patterns attempt to reassert themselves, pushing down bulkheads, depositing sediments and if constant work is not done to counteract this change, then the hydrology will begin to alter or destroy the bulkheads depending on their construction, or deposited sediment will accumulate. Whatever the state of push and pull between the water and the structures in any given canal, it is the presence of this water- and all of the nutrients and chemicals and sediments in it- and its effects on the surroundings that is responsible for a great deal of the possibility and generative capacity of the landscape.
[industrial coal silos, bulkheads, and new fusion ecologies on the edge of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn]