Water: Our Most Precious Resource at the Garden and Beyond
It is easy to take the apparent abundance of water in our environment for granted given the fact that we are practically surrounded by it as residents of Queens and other parts of New York City. As our most precious resource, water is essential to the survival of all living things, yet it is often something that we waste or pollute. When you turn on the faucet at home, school, or work, do you stop to consider where it comes from and how to make use of it in the most environmentally-conscious way? At Queens Botanical Garden, water conservation is top of mind in our architecture, landscape, and programming.
A Brief History
Queens Botanical Garden grew out of an exhibit in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair held in Flushing. Legally established in 1946 due to the support of the local community, QBG has been evolving while keeping the cultural, educational, and environmental needs of Queens in mind. Beginning in 1994 under the new leadership of Executive Director, Susan Lacerte, QBG embarked on a major, years-long transformation in an effort to improve the garden oasis amongst the hustle and bustle of Flushing, Queens.
The initial working-design plans to reimagine the garden listed a set of goals for both aesthetic and functional purposes. The plans revolved around the intentions of fostering public participation by producing a fun and interactive experience for visitors, creating gathering spaces, encouraging diversity, celebrating the variety of cultural identities of the community, and providing lessons about sustainability and environmental consciousness.
Prior to the construction of the new Visitor & Administration Building, a group of passionate local residents, community leaders, and QBG staff worked together to brainstorm what the thematic identity of the new buildings and landscapes would be. One of the major themes they decided on was water because it is critical to all aspects of life and is celebrated amongst cultures around the world.
Reflecting on the Past
Before Flushing was the busy hub that it is today, it was a wetland marsh environment. Flushing Creek, a body of water that is now underground, was a huge part of the geographic identity of this area. To reconnect the community with this life-giving resource, which still flows through the heart of the garden although we cannot see it, QBG has made every effort to reincorporate this water into the garden’s features and functions. Some of the exciting water elements on site include the Fountain of Life and the Cleansing Biotope, which both play a part in highlighting the unifying design element of Flushing Creek running beneath our feet in a way that renders its significance undeniable.
The Cleansing Biotope
The Cleansing Biotope is located in between the Herb Garden and the Visitor & Administration Building. This feature is activated by rainwater, which flows downward through the biotope that contains the roots of wetland plants and soil such as Soft Rush (Juncus effusus) and Swordgrass (Scirpus americanus). The bacteria living on the surface of the roots remove contaminants, which makes it a natural and cost-effective method of recycling water that would otherwise go to waste. The clean rainwater is then stored in a 24,000-gallon tank underground so it can be reused in a variety of ways around the garden. For example, the filtered water in this tank supplies the fountain and waterways here at QBG, serves as hose water used to wash vehicles and tools, and waters plants as well.
With the Cleansing Biotope, wastewater is recycled and reused at the Garden, instead of adding to New York City’s overburdened sewer system and causing impure and hazardous water to overflow into local waterways after storms.
The Fountain of Life
The Fountain of Life is designed to capture, clean, store, and circulate rainwater. It functions just like streams in nature do, since it flows when it rains and could potentially run dry in a drought. The water cycle of the fountain begins when rainwater is gathered by the roof of the Visitor & Administration Building and is filtered down through the Cleansing Biotope process. Pipes pump this naturally filtered water to the fountain located by the main entrance of the garden, then the excess water flows back to the V&A Building through a series of channels so that the cycle can start all over again!
Constructed in 2007, QBG’s Green Roof demonstrates how mindful rainwater conservation and reuse has many functions for both the environment and the community. The Green Roof is a vegetated surface built on the roof of the Visitor & Administration Building; its sloped design helps collect rainwater and manage runoff, absorbs radiation from the sun, and is a beautiful and serene space for visitors to spend time and relax. Additionally, it provides a safe habitat for insects, birds and other kinds of wildlife. The Green Roof boasts a variety of native plants, including Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia cacanapa), Purple Flowering Raspberry (Rubus odoratus), and Thyme (Thymus) to name a few (See more on QBG’s Blog.)
The next time you visit the Garden, take a moment to reflect on how the history of the importance of Flushing’s unique water resources to the community is reflected by the overall design of QBG today. When you are sitting on a bench by the Cleansing Biotope, taking a stroll on the Green Roof, or perusing past the Fountain of Life, remember how important each drop of water is to all of us and the environment we share.
PHOTO CREDITS: Jess Brey, H. David Stein, Clay Williams