Gowanus, Brooklyn: A Toxic, Beloved Neighborhood in Need of an EcoDistrict

How an environmentally fragile neighborhood can become a model for reimagining a resilient and equitable city of the future.

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Photo taken in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
Photo taken in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

A growing need for urban housing means New York City’s development will be increasingly high-density. Unfortunately, the city lacks any centralized planning method for economically just and ecologically sustainable development. Too often, planning agencies defer to developers without themselves leading the creation of a clear roadmap to address critical infrastructure needs and protections. The result perpetuates social inequity and leaves neighborhoods at great risk in the face of climate change.

Yet New York has the opportunity to create centralized, intentional development that protects the city’s fragile ecosystems. This will take time and effort, requiring a radical departure from business-as-usual.

One model whose time has come: EcoDistricts, a movement of urban regeneration founded on a relentless commitment to authentic collaboration and social, economic and ecological innovation ( 

Gowanus, Brooklyn can be ground zero for doing things differently – for the city to develop a resilient model of development for the future. A vibrant enclave of artists, small manufacturers and businesses, Gowanus is surrounded by some of the most sought-after neighborhoods in Brooklyn. How has it maintained its diversity and relative affordability while nestled within prohibitively expensive neighborhoods?

It sits on some of the most toxic land in the northeast. The Gowanus Canal waterway is one of the most polluted waterbodies and neighborhoods in the country.

This special community is now at risk. New York City has long wanted to make Gowanus the next “it” neighborhood, with the promise of affordable housing mixed in with luxury developments. But the proposed development presents ecological and social justice issues that will threaten the health and well-being of Gowanus.

On a border of this neighborhood is a superfund cleanup site situated in a flood plain – which is also the proposed site of a 30-story, 300-foot high building. The imprint of buildings of this size will aesthetically drown this neighborhood, but more importantly, existing low buildings – most under four stories – will lie downhill of towering new structures and receive their water and sewage backup during storms. Blocks away, neighbors live in deteriorating public housing. Throughout the Gowanus, sewer and energy infrastructure remain woefully inadequate. 

Anyone outside New York City might be incredulous to hear about the plans to create enough housing in this fragile, toxic flood plain for 20,000 new residents. Yet developers have been drawing up plans behind the scenes for a decade or more.

Developers are not in a position to address the unique and enormous challenges presented by Gowanus’ fragile ecosystems. New York city planning must assume this critical role.

Gowanus was historically wetlands. High-density development needs city-centralized and orchestrated remediation in order to prevent increases in sewage overflow (which is why the canal is currently toxic). Remediation is also needed to prevent a breakdown in an already overloaded power grid and to address the needs of a public transportation system currently near maximum capacity. And centralized over site will be crucial because toxic soil will be stirred up and released into the air during the construction process.

Centralized city planning would be done best by authentically engaging with the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice (GNCJ), an umbrella organization consisting of over 20 diverse groups including environmental experts, public housing activists, and business advocacy groups – people who know Gowanus intimately. The individuals within these groups have spent untold hours educating themselves about the community’s complex social and environmental needs. 

GNCJ is calling for the designation of Gowanus as a special EcoDistrict. They demand both a plan and verifiable efforts to be well underway to address the unique and substantial challenges before one shovel breaks ground.

The GNCJ is evolving into community at its best. Even though each group within it has different needs and priorities, they are coming together with one voice and, importantly, speaking up for the most underserved. For example, GNCJ’s demands include the reopening of the Gowanus public housing’s Community Center, which remains closed since 2012 from damage sustained in Superstorm Sandy. 

It’s time to take advantage of the gifts and knowledge of these groups who love Gowanus – resources that can help New York grow into a truly sustainable model city.

Gowanus, a toxic and well-loved enclave in Brooklyn, is a perfect pilot opportunity for New York to show that it is up to the substantial task of reimagining a resilient and equitable city for the future. With the right leadership, the unique challenges posed by one of the most polluted waterbodies and neighborhoods in the country could be the beginning of a groundbreaking green neighborhood.

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