The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, N.Y., is famous for its filth. Located in an industrial area and once a busy shipping route, it has been filled with decades of toxic waste and is one of America’s most extensively polluted bodies of water. The canal is also a sewage overflow location, and was even a rumored dumping ground for the mafia. Now designated as a Superfund site, the Gowanus will soon have help in cleaning up from an unlikely source: oysters.

Oysters and other molluscs can act as a natural water filter by removing toxins, and are now being brought to polluted waterways around New York. In the Gowanus, a new park and living reef will help oysters take residence. The designer, landscape architect Kate Orff, calls her work “oyster-tecture.”

A nonprofit and government coalition called the Oyster Restoration Research Project is working to help establish oyster colonies in the Bronx River, on the shore of Governors Island, and at four other locations in New York City. The reefs are each about 15-by-30 feet, and stocked with 50,000 oysters. Over the next two years, scientists will study the development and health of the oysters, and how well they’ve helped clean up. If successful, even larger oyster restoration projects will be built for the future.

In addition to improving water quality, the reefs also provide habitat for other species and help augment fish production.

Photo by Chris Gardner for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, via Flickr. In the photograph, an engineering crew is creating an artificial oyster reef near Governors Island.