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The right to the future green Gowanus

Gowanus Green Development Plan. (Source: SCAPE Studio, 2020)

The relentless pursuit of economic growth has led to extensive environmental degradation, including the destruction of natural landscapes, worsening climate change, loss of biodiversity, over-extraction of resources, labor exploitation, and increasing socio-economic disparities and vulnerabilities (Jackson, 2021). Urbanization has further stressed land use changes, threatening ecosystem functionality and human well-being (Holzhauer et al., 2019). Despite occupying only 2% of the Earth's surface, urban areas house a large portion of the global population and account for about 78% of global energy use and 60% of greenhouse gas emissions (UN Habitat, 2021).

In response to these challenges, the concept of a 'green city' has emerged as a central theme of sustainable development. It represents an aspiration for urban spaces that are not only environmentally sustainable but also inclusive, equitable, and socially vibrant. Yet, the transition towards urban sustainability often unveils complex dynamics encompassing environmental, economic, and social dimensions. Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) have become vital in policy frameworks at various governance levels, seen as effective answers to sustainability challenges. Their adoption is driven by their multifunctionality, addressing environmental and social issues while promoting urban development through green branding (Poortinga et al., 2021; Gómez-Baggethun & Barton, 2013).

Historical Context of Gowanus

The Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, has a rich history dating back to the 17th century. Originally inhabited by the Canarsee Indians, the area was transformed by Dutch settlers in the early 1600s. The 100-foot-wide Gowanus Canal, completed in 1869, facilitated industrial growth, connecting the neighborhood to New York Harbor and making it an essential industrial hub. This industrial boom brought economic prosperity but at a significant environmental cost, leading to severe contamination (GowanusCanal.US, 2023).

By the mid-20th century, the canal had become one of the most polluted waterways in the United States, with pollutants including heavy metals, coal tar, and hazardous chemicals (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2023). The area saw a demographic shift post-World War II as middle-class families moved to the suburbs, and the remaining population faced significant socio-economic challenges. The Gowanus Canal was designated a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2010, initiating a comprehensive clean-up process involving removing polluted sediments, installing protective barriers, and constructing combined sewer overflow (CSO) retention tanks (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2023).

Gowanus Canal, c. 1950. Brooklyn Historical Society.

Marxian Urban Rent Theory and Green Grabbing

Marxian urban rent theory provides a framework for understanding the economic forces driving gentrification and displacement. Marx identifies two primary forms of rent: differential rent and absolute rent. Differential rent arises from variations in the productivity or desirability of different parcels of land, while absolute rent is rooted in the monopolistic nature of land ownership (Butcher, 2020). In urban settings, properties with superior location advantages generate higher rents.

Monopoly rent extends the concept of differential rent by focusing on unique or irreplaceable characteristics of certain urban locations. This type of rent emerges when landowners exploit the unique features of a location to extract higher rents (Diego et al., 2017). The financialization of urban land exacerbates rent extraction by prioritizing the maximization of returns on investment over the social needs of urban populations, often leading to the commodification of housing and urban spaces (Harvey, 2003).

Green grabbing refers to the appropriation of land and resources for environmental purposes, often resulting in the displacement of local communities and the commodification of natural resources. In urban areas, green grabbing can manifest through the creation of green spaces, parks, and sustainable infrastructure projects that drive up property values and attract investment, often leading to gentrification and displacement of lower-income residents (Garcia-Lamarca et al., 2022).

Gowanus Canal, aerial oblique view, 40.6691096,-73.9933938, map data Google Maps 3D ©2024.

Gowanus Neighbourhood Rezoning

The 2021 rezoning of Gowanus represents a significant overhaul of land use regulations, transforming 82 blocks from predominantly industrial to mixed-use zoning (New York City Department of City Planning, 2018). This rezoning plan aims to create approximately 8,500 new housing units, with 3,000 designated as affordable housing, and includes provisions for new parks, open spaces, and waterfront access. Significant investments in infrastructure, including upgrades to the sewer system, are also part of the plan to mitigate flooding and improve water quality in the Gowanus Canal.

Before the rezoning, properties in Gowanus were primarily valued for their industrial use, which typically commanded lower rents. However, the rezoning has transformed the area into a desirable residential and commercial hub, leading to substantial increases in property values. Developers like Property Markets Group, Kushner Companies, and others have made strategic acquisitions along the Gowanus Canal, positioning themselves to benefit from the anticipated increase in property values (Albrecht, 2017).

Financial Incentives

Financial incentives have played a crucial role in driving speculative investments in Gowanus. Programs like the 421-a tax abatement, Opportunity Zones, and the Brownfield Clean-up Program have reduced the financial risks for developers, making it more attractive to invest in the area.

Gowanus Green Project

The Gowanus Green project is a redevelopment plan aiming to transform a contaminated industrial site called Public Place along the Gowanus Canal into a sustainable mixed-use community. Developed by the Gowanus Green Partners—a public-private joint venture involving the Hudson Companies, Jonathan Rose Companies, The Bluestone Organization, and the Fifth Avenue Committee—the project seeks to provide 955 units of 100% affordable housing. Additionally, it includes plans for a new public school, approximately 28,000 square feet of neighborhood service retail and community space, and a 1.5-acre public park (SCAPE Studio, 2020).

While the project is framed as 100% affordable housing, the inclusion of units for moderate-income households (80-120% AMI) allows developers to attract a broader demographic, enhancing the project's financial viability. Affordable homeownership opportunities for working-class families (80-130% AMI) further diversify the income mix, potentially increasing property values and rental incomes over time.

The mechanisms of rent extraction in this case include leveraging public land, capitalizing on environmental clean-up, creating high-value residential units, and strategically utilizing public amenities. The site for Gowanus Green is city-owned, allowing developers to capitalize on public land for private gain by converting a long-vacant, contaminated site into a valuable residential and commercial asset. Participation in public-private partnerships gives developers access to publicly funded remediation efforts, effectively reducing their costs while enhancing the value of the land.

Environmental Justice Concerns and Project Halt

The Gowanus Green project, while framed as an initiative to provide affordable housing, raises significant environmental justice concerns. The site chosen for this development is one of the most polluted in the area, raising questions about the health and safety of future residents (Brendlen, 2024). Despite extensive remediation efforts, the potential health hazards from residual contamination remain a pressing issue. Contaminants from the canal have leaked into the groundwater of nearby buildings, exposing residents to harmful fumes and posing long-term health risks (Tissera, 2024).

The project has faced significant delays primarily due to environmental concerns. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have raised concerns about the adequacy of the initial remediation plans, particularly regarding groundwater contamination. Disagreements between National Grid, the company responsible for the clean-up, and the NYSDEC over the extent of soil removal required have halted progress. This delay in environmental remediation has consequently delayed the construction timeline of the much-needed affordable housing units, with the first phase of the project now not expected to begin until 2025 (City Limits, 2023).

Community activists, including those from organizations like Voice of Gowanus, have criticized the city's reliance on outdated data in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Gowanus rezoning, arguing that it fails to adequately address the impacts of climate change and the risk of recontamination. The neighborhood’s vulnerability to flooding, exacerbated by climate change, further complicates the situation (Tissera, 2024; Shepard, 2021). Gowanus is designated as a FEMA Flood Zone A, indicating a high risk of flooding. This designation impacts development by requiring stricter building codes and flood mitigation measures, adding an additional layer of complexity to the redevelopment process (New York City Department of City Planning, 2024).



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