An Intriguing New Concept in Water Quality Remediation: Floating Wetlands

[This is an excerpt from a final research paper created for my waterfront development course. The following paragraphs go into detail about a proposed wetland development for Baltimore City’s Inner Harbor.  The 15 page paper discusses the history of water quality, particularly in Baltimore, and how poor water quality might have adverse implications for future waterfront development. For a copy of the entire paper, or for the complete bibliography, please contact the author at sustainable.meg@gmail.com]

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Figure 2 Photo looking southwest towards Pier 4, showing discolored harbor waters the day after rainstorms and the Aquarium’s new floating wetland in the bottom left [Source: Author, Apr. 23, 2012]

While legislation and a hardy regulatory framework are necessary to improve water conditions, the most provocative concepts for improving water quality have manifested themselves as physical solutions. In August of 2010, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, as part of the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbors Initiative, and in an effort to meet the federally mandated regulations addressing the Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) for nutrient and sediment in our waters of the Chesapeake Bay, installed its first floating wetland (Figure 2 & Figure 3, bottom) between piers 3 and 4. While the Waterfront Partnership was working with the Aquarium to install this floating wetland, they were also working with Living Classrooms Foundation and Biohabitats to install a series of wetlands in front of the World Trade Tower (Figure 3, top).

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Figure 3 (Top) Floating wetlands in front of the World Trade Tower, (bottom) Aquarium floating wetlands two months after photo in Figure 2 [Source: Author, June 17, 2012]

Floating wetlands mimic the behavior of natural wetlands. Their submerged root systems becomes home to healthy bacteria and microbes which help to filter the contaminants currently circulating in the Harbor’s water. Additionally, mussels, a species known to filter water, and other creatures take residence on the island, establishing a microcosm of beneficial organisms. Made using roughly 3,000 recycled plastic bottles for every 250 square feet of wetland, the floats are anchored to the Harbor floor in order to limit their movement into the channel. In their blog post titled, “Wetlands are Wonderful!,” the Aquarium explained the purpose of the floating wetlands, as well as their origin. Initially, wetlands like these were used in wastewater retention ponds, or lagoons, to deal with excess nutrients. Only recently have such technologies been used in brackish, open waters like those of the Chesapeake Bay. The post also suggested the wetlands, despite their small size (each just 10 feet by 20 feet), would be a huge first step towards cleaning the Inner Harbor [The National Aquarium].

As the Aquarium concluded their blog post, they optimistically anticipated and hoped that the two recent wetland installations would be just the first of many for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and it would appear they were correct with their prediction. In August of 2011, a year after Baltimore’s first wetland installations, a similar project was proposed by a private entrepreneur and landowner.

The experimental floating wetlands that were first launched in 2010 by Waterfront Partnership had inspired Baltimore Marine Centers’ Chief Operating Officer, Dan Naor, to propose the construction of a similar, but intensely more elaborate, wetland of his own. It may come as a surprise to many that a private marina owner would propose a project that is entirelyfor public benefit[1], but Naor has expressed, “it’s his way of joining the fight to clean up the city’s major tourist attraction, which is blighted by trash, unfit to swim in and beset with algal blooms and fish kills” [Naor, as quoted in Wheeler 2012b].

HarborviewPerspectiveRendering.jpg Figure 4 Rendering of the proposed Harborview Floating Wetland [Source: Baltimore Marine Centers]

In a process which will continue for years into the future, with 100% completion by 2025, Naor is proposing to install 1.6 acres of wetland in an unused section of the Harborview Marina’s open water, the largest wetland project of its type yet to be proposed nationwide. The Marina, located just off Key Highway, currently controls 640 slips, and could easily acquire permits to add more. However, Naor has no interest in adding more slips to since his business has had difficulty recovering after the recession. The Harbor’s condition, as Naor explains, is partly to blame. Repeatedly, Baltimore Marine Centers patrons complain to Naor about the Harbor’s litter, appearance, and odor. To Naor, the Harborview Wetland isn’t seen as an income source. However, “the true effect,” he reveals, “if we can clean the water, we’ll get more business” [Wheeler, 2012b].

A floating wetland of the proposed scale, in addition to reducing the TMDL for nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment, would serve to improve the Inner Harbor in many ways. The local creation and manufacturing of floating wetlands, which are currently produced out of Utah, presents business and job opportunism, in addition to educational opportunities [Lee, et al.]. Furthermore, their presence invites visits from tourists and wildlife alike.

A visit to the Blue Water Baltimore Bacteria Monitoring Website indicates that two areas near the  proposed Harborview Wetland site were recently reported as having moderate contact risk, suggesting that a wetland in this location would easily have a positive impact [Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper]. The Harborview Marina wetland project, however, has been tied up (no pun intended) in bureaucracy since it was first proposed in 2011. A year later and the project has still not been approved. In an article describing the project, journalist Wheeler innocently poses the question, “if a little green might help restore Baltimore’s ailing harbor, how can a lot be bad?” He’s referring, of course, to the success of the other floating wetland projects and investigates how Naor’s proposal is any different.

The issue with Naor’s proposal has been with the piers and platforms as seen illustrated in the rendering (Figure 4). Initially, the argument was that the piers and platforms would either have negative environmental impacts from being built over the water, or interfere with the continued development of the Inner Harbor waterfront- or both. Officials expressed they would consider a pledge from the owner, promising to remove the piers should the adjacent shore be developed, but then also decided that the Inner Harbor’s waterfront promenade must first be developed in the area before the wetland could be approved [Wheeler, 2012b]. Paradoxically, the incomplete promenade does not at all inhibit marina actives from continuing to occur at the site. The argument has now evolved to rationalize that, unlike boat slips and fishing piers, facilities which are considered to serve water-dependent uses, the piers, platforms, and docks proposed in the Harborview Wetland are, according to the officials and decision makers, decidedly non-water-dependent. Yet to myself, representatives of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, members of the Living Classrooms foundation, and the team working on the Harborview Wetland, the piers are absolutely water-dependent.

The piers allow access to the water for educational purposes, and the Aquarium and Living Classrooms have already considered region-wide youth educational programs for the site. In a letter committing their support and future involvement in the Harborview wetland project, Living Classrooms’ Vice President, Scott Raymond noted the potential of offering 110 students the opportunity to visit the wetland on any given day [Raymond 2012]. Furthermore, allowing residents to be engaged with the Harbor, to experience it up-close, raises public awareness about water quality issues and encourages a better understanding of the Harbor’s health and the importance of restoration projects. Then again, Naor could easily acquire the permits to build as many as 50 more boat slips and the accompanying floating docks in the same location and with roughly the same coverage as the proposed walkways, even though they would surely have a more adverse impact on the Harbor [Floating Wetlands for Baltimore Harbor?, Landscape Online 2012]. Considering that, are the piers which shall serve educational and social needs really as awful as the argument would suggest? Be honest.

It’s difficult not to be cynical and consider that officials and regulators might just be waiting for Naor and his team to give in; the regulators have already approved the wetland aspect of Naor’s proposal, but abandoning the piers is out of the question. Phil Lee, an associate at Moffatt & Nichol, an infrastructure firm specializing in the planning and design of water-related facilities and which is also involved in the Harborview Wetland project, explains that removing the piers from the wetland is akin to “putting up a park with a fence around it” [Lee 2012]. And so the team tolerantly waits for their next attempt to have the project approved. Until the permits are approved, however, the project will have no credibility and Naor and his team will have no basis upon which to secure funding. Baltimore should be grateful that Naor is not one to give up so easily, and that he and his team continue to fight for public access to water.

The Public Trust Doctrine protects the water’s edge, among other common resources, for “the benefit of all.” Yet our most precious waterfronts, those which are squeezed within densely populated cities, have largely been reserved for private commercial use. Traditionally functioning as ports for sending and receiving large cargo shipments, urban waterfronts have more recently been exploited for their ability to attract tourists. Waterfront real estate is therefore prized more for its high property value and the commercial potential it offers than for any purpose serving as a recreational amenity. Private business uses now invade the waterfront- snatching valuable land and blocking public access and waterfront views. In Baltimore now, the spaces directly above the water are being fought over. The waterfront is reserved for tourists, visitors, and anyone willing to spend money (although, as has already been confirmed, the water itself is beginning to detract from that market); what room does that leave for Baltimore’s residents? In this case, public access to the water would be encouraged and accommodated, yet decision-makers have spent over a year debating its approval. The project would improve the waterfront, but frivolous arguments have resulted in a lengthy delay of this wonderful revitalization opportunity. If the Baltimore Harbor is to be preserved for the benefit of all, as the Public Trust Doctrine would urge, then the Naor project is the ideal response and, when you think about it, the piers really aren’t the crisis they’ve been made out to be.

Naor and his partners contend that the Harbor is in such poor shape that it shouldn’t matter whether or not there are piers, that the officials should be more willing to experiment. And as researchers question if wetlands in open waters would even have much impact, a large experiment such as Naor’s project is needed to settle this uncertainty. Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, William Dennison, rationalizes the Baltimore Harbor is so degraded that anything which could improve the quality ought to be attempted. Dennison stated, simply, “We don’t have a lot to lose here”  [Wheeler 2012b].

As maddening as the political delay caused by nonissues has been, a light that’s beginning to shine on the horizon is a beacon of hope. On December 5, 2012, a meeting of delegates, congressmen and women, and interested parties ensued at the Moffat & Nichol office in Baltimore to discuss the future of the Naor proposal. In attendance was Delegate Maggie McIntosh, Chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee, as well as Delegate Peter A. Hammen, a former member of the Environmental Matters Committee. The presence of officials who are often involved in such similar affairs, on top of the understanding that individuals from the offices of Senator Barbara Mikulski, Congressman John Sarbanes, and the Governor will soon be involved in the Harborview Wetland proposal, offers relief to Naor and his team as they face the coming legislative session. With support from these officials, it’s promising to think the proposal will finally move forward [Lee 2012].

Nonetheless, despite the delay, multiple organizations and businesses have expressed interest in the project and, even without the permits, there have already been conversations with potential donors. In addition to the National Aquarium and Living Classrooms, which have declared their support for the Harborview Wetland, other large Baltimore-based firms have also recognized that the floating wetlands will impact more than just environmental health and see them as an economic opportunity. As Naor had recognized, visitors are being deterred by the unattractive state of the Harbor’s waters, making it difficult for businesses to recover from the 2008 recession. If one man can see the potential of the wetlands, perhaps it’s worth investigating more. ‘”It’s a really gorgeous harbor and it’s a huge asset,” says Naor. “Us, as the keepers, we need to keep it safe. We need to work as hard as we can to clean the water.” If the Harborview Wetlands are approved, Naor sees potential to create as much as 10 acres of floating beds of rosemallow, sea lavender, and salt grass throughout all five marina’s he oversees. Naor explains, “Our goal is to clean the water and drop 10 acres of parks in the middle of the Inner Harbor” [Killar 2012].


[1] To be fair, the intended outcome will without-doubt produce economic benefits for the business owner, though his own benefits will be trivial compared to the those which Baltimore City as a whole shall reap.

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Final project for a Waterfront Development Course

For my waterfront development course this past semester (3rd semester of graduate school and I still have a 4.0 GPA by the way- sorry, I just have to brag!), our final assignment was to study a topic relating to waterfront development and how it might have implications for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. While most of my classmates analyzed current waterfront proposals, I actually focused my research on how those developments may be adversely impacted by (poor) water quality. The poster assignment was to be displayed during our Super Jury event, our final critique. My poster was heavily graphics-oriented, while my paper was more informative (I’ll be sharing that soon, be sure to check back!). The poster also highlights a current Baltimore waterfront proposal hoping to soon be approved. Unlike the developments that my classmates considered, this project intends to clean the water and improve Baltimore’s Harbor. I am so excited about the project proposed by Dan Naor and Baltimore Marine Centers, I hope it’s approved shortly!

Megan Griffith, Morgan State University Waterfront Development Course, ENST 738

Megan Griffith, Morgan State University Waterfront Development Course, ENST 738

What is an EcoCity?

I was trying to have as few candid posts on this blog as possible in order to make it a reliable resource and reference for folks who wish to live an environmentally-friendly lifestyle in the city. My theory was that writing well planned posts for which I’d put in a good deal of research and effort would be the best way to do that. However, I am eager to post and rather than just move all my previous posts (from my old blog host) over at once, I’d like to get some fresh material here. So, here I go….What is an ecocity?

First off, I’m not entirely sure there is one accepted definition. Head over to Google and ask it to “define ecocity” and the results emphasize a Wikipedia submission:

A sustainable city, or eco-city is a city designed with consideration of environmental place inhabited by people dedicated to minimization of required inputs of energy, water and food, and waste output of heat, air pollution – CO2, methane, and water pollution.

This definition is built from the original ideas of theorist and author Richard Register, who first coined the term ecocity in 1987 in his book Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future. On the website of Register’s non-profit, Ecocity Buildings, that definition is much more basic:

Simply put, an ecocity is an ecologically healthy city.

I like both of the definitions, but I think I rather prefer the simplicity of Register’s definition. Being the primary influence on my dedication to creating ecologically healthy cities, Richard Register has influenced me to take my passion to the heart of my design. Specifically, I want ever so much to help transform my hometown of Baltimore into an ecocity.

Adding to the definitions above, I believe ecological balance (which, of course, contributes to ecological health) is just important. Harmony with nature and dedicating space to non-human ecological activities will play a large part in my designs. I’m still trying to conjure up a clever new term- something that I can use as the name of my future design and consultation firm- but in the meantime, I’ll continue to refer to such cities as “ecocities.” The concept had been in my head since long ago, but I hadn’t really given it much depth until I first read one of Richard Register’s books- Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Harmony with Nature. It’s a terrific book and I recommend it to any creative-type, nature lover or urbanite- Well, I recommend it to everyone actually. But this book really helped me to define what my life goal was going to be. In the years since reading this book, I’ve tried to imagine what I have to do to make every city an ecocity.

Well I have the hardest time imagining the form of the ideal ecocity- I still can’t say I’ve done it. But over the years, I’ve tried. And oftentimes, I use drawing as a tool for developing my ideas. Below, you’ll see a few renderings I’ve created to illustrate an ecocity. I’m not entirely pleased as both drawings really just look like normal cities with just a bit more green, but my concept is a work in progress.

Megan Griffith working on her "Future Doodle" at the Doo Consulting Park(ing) Day space in Towson, MD. Photo courtesy of Doo Consulting.

Megan Griffith working on her “Future Doodle” at the Doo Consulting Park(ing) Day space in Towson, MD. Photo courtesy of Doo Consulting.

Megan Griffith's rendering of the urban shift- from industrial and dirty to clean and ecological.

Megan Griffith’s rendering of the urban shift- from industrial and dirty to clean and ecological.