Red Hook

City of Water Day: Special Highlights

Interview with Tim Gelman-Sevcik, Executive Director of the RETI Center

July 19, 2023 Lucien Clough
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EAGLE: Let’s begin with a simple concept: your floating gardens are good, tell us about them and their environmental benefits.

GELMAN-SEVCIK: RETI (Resilience Education Training Innovation) was started after Superstorm Sandy basically to model different ways that the community can get involved in learning how to adapt to our changing climate. One of the things we do, activities we do, is build floating gardens. And the reason we build floating gardens is because of New York City’s 520 miles of coastline, more than half of it is what we see here, which is completely unnatural, made of bulkhead, which is concrete, sheet piling, which is steel, rip rap, which are rocks that resist the growth of marine species. So, that all replaced, to a large degree, marshland. So what we’re doing with our floating gardens is putting the marsh grasses back in place in the water.

EAGLE: Do you mean replacing piers and concrete pilings?

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GELMAN-SEVCIK: No, not pulling out the existing infrastructure that’s there. We’re trying to add on to it. It is the easiest, quickest, way possible… so what we’re doing is setting up what we call Blue Blocks, the floating gardens, which have a really simple construction with all salvaged materials. We’re collecting these materials from around the city, and then we’re showing people how to build them, with the hope that others will build them and put them in our water.

EAGLE: Right. And this is a tester program, correct? It’s not the final design?

GELMAN-SEVCIK: Yeah, so this is probably our sixth different design iteration. And, we have what I guess is a Silicon Valley mindset of iteration. What is it? Fail fast and often? Something like that, because we’re doing something we’ve never seen other people do, which is putting floating gardens into brackish water. So we keep changing the design and we think that these will last 18 months to two years in the water, and ultimately we would like to be making these as kits. But we’ll have to figure out the treatment of the wood, because that’s gonna be the thing that fails first we believe. Soon we’ll be making them out of concrete, and they’re gonna float.


GELMAN-SEVCIK: Yeah. So if you look in the display in the front room there were concrete battleships, concrete floating landstrips in World War II, so it’s not an unusual thing… well maybe unusual, but not unheard of. The reason we have those cranes is to be able to pick up the concrete gardens and place them in the water.

EAGLE: I see. So, the idea is that a lot of people are doing this and they’re all along the coastline, so what are the environmental benefits on that scale? Because, obviously, it’s gonna look very different from when there are just two or three in the water.

GELMAN-SEVCIK: Yeah. So we are developing an off-grid floating industrial district called Blue City. The gardens are a prototype for the walkways and the infrastructure that will be connecting all the buildings. If we can have them become a growing, living environment beneficial to the ecosystem — and we’re expecting that there will be, at scale, improvements to the water quality — this will help lots of things. For example, increased biodiversity, carbon capture in the plants, some water cleaning, like phytoremediation…

EAGLE: Sorry, what was that?

GELMAN-SEVCIK: It’s when the plants are in the process of growing, the roots are uptaking things from the water, but are also thriving and full of life. Basically, if you put stuff in the water, things will grab onto it because, sooner or later, it needs stuff to hold onto in the water, especially near the surface. Plants and animals from the intertidal area have nowhere to go in our environment, which is why you’ll see them encrusted into the garbage-strewn hedges of the waterfront across the city. We’re trying to give them a healthier, nicer habitat.

EAGLE: And, what are the ramifications of that?

GELMAN-SEVCIK: We see the positive ramifications immediately once they go into the water. It attracts seagulls and ducks. In fact, a Great Blue Heron was here last year in one of the gardens for months at a time. The gardens just get adopted by the local flora and fauna and become a missing link in the ecosystem.

EAGLE: So you’re creating an ecosystem, artificial technically because you’re placing it there, but natural because of the way the gardens are constructed.

GELMAN-SEVCIK: Yeah, right on. We try not to put any plastic in the water or purchase anything, whenever we can, to not interrupt the waste stream and redirect things. So all of our wood — we use OSHA boards from scaffolding and construction — they’re the things people stand on outside of buildings. And if they get a crack in them, they get discarded, so we get them for free from the scaffolding companies. We get salvaged fishing nets, which are actually used as a decorative item, I guess, to hold the corks in place, and all the corks are donated. To date, we’ve collected 100,000 corks from our wine-loving friends.

EAGLE: Yeah, that’s a lot of alcohol to get through for a few corks!

GELMAN-SEVCIK: We have a cork collection program — it’s mostly in Brooklyn right now — that people can look up on our website. They can drop off their corks near where they live; we have liquor stores, restaurants, bars, wine manufacturers, and shops all collecting for us. A lot of people have a drawer full of corks because they’re not sure where they should go.

EAGLE: Okay, kind of a cool thing to collect…


EAGLE: These events are happening all over the city. What do you hope people are taking away from these events?

GELMAN-SEVCIK: We hope they feel that they have an active hand in doing something that is positive for the environment. Many times when people visit an environmental center, one can see what they’re doing and appreciate it, but when you actually do something active, you feel like, “I understand what I’m doing, even though it’s a small thing it’s contributing to a larger effort.”

EAGLE: You mean getting down and dirty where the rubber meets the road…

GELMAN-SEVCIK: Yes, the more people do and the closer they get to the environment, the more they empathize with it and connect to it, you know? Getting hot, dirty, sweaty, I think is a really great way of getting involved, even as opposed to protesting or donating or doing a trash pickup or something like that. Rather than being remedial, we’re trying to be proactive in our engagement.


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