Sustainability Experts Meet at NJIT to Discuss Smart Growth in the Northeast

Colette Santasieri, the director of policy and planning innovation for civil infrastructure and environment at NJIT's New Jersey Innovation Institute, discussing the land-use conflicts that arise when waterfront revitalization encroaches on active ports.

There is no more potent symbol of go-go urban renewal than a refurbished waterfront dotted with parks, bicycle paths and sleek new condo buildings. But when redevelopment begins to encroach on a working port, conflicts arise.

“Over the past 30 to 40 years, urban waterfronts that once held port facilities, industrial buildings, railroad yards, and factories have been cleaned up and redeveloped. Municipal governments are using their once industrial waterfronts to redefine their cities,” Colette Santasieri, the director of policy and planning innovation for civil infrastructure and environment at NJIT’s New Jersey Innovation Institute (NJII), noted recently. She added, however, “Housing, commercial and retail space, and recreational uses are encroaching upon the Port of San Diego, the Port of Seattle, the Port of Providence, and the Port of Vancouver, to name a few.”

Speaking on a panel at the seventh annual Northeast Sustainable Communities Workshop, held on the NJIT campus this week by the Brownfield Coalition of the Northeast (BCONE), Santasieri focused on the potential for land-use conflicts between port operations on Newark Bay, which is part of the Port of New York and New Jersey, and the redevelopment of former industrial properties for recreational, commercial and residential uses, among others. A new, wider channel at the Panama Canal, set to open in April, will bring even more global trade to the bay via ships that can hold as many as 13,000 containers. To accommodate these colossal vessels, the roadway deck of the Bayonne Bridge is currently being raised 65 feet above the existing lanes.

Air pollution from ships and trucking, noise, roadway congestion, collisions between cargo ships and marina-based pleasure boats, and the loss of property for commercial maritime uses are just some of the potential conflicts on the horizon. Among other recommendations for resolving them, Santasieri has proposed a comprehensive waterfront development program that would bring together the many agencies, advocacy groups and companies with a stake in the waterfront to come up with an actionable development plan and “a forum for resolving conflicts in a less than confrontational fashion.”

This year’s workshop, "Imagination and Creativity in Urban Change for the NJ/NY/CT/PA Metropolitan Area,” drew 200 municipal officials, planners, developers, attorneys and environmental advocates to a series of panel discussions and talks on topics ranging from the redevelopment and protection of waterfronts, to climate change planning, to stormwater management.

Michel Boufadel, director of NJIT’s Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection, spoke on a morning panel, for example, about new methods for managing stormwater runoff from highways that prevent sediments from reaching sensitive areas and filter contaminants.

“With educational sessions addressing a wide variety of important topics such as living shorelines, urban agriculture, and green infrastructure, the Northeast Sustainable Communities Workshop is a great platform for sustainability practitioners from around the world to share ideas.  Among them this year were experts from Copenhagen – frequently cited as the most livable city in the world – who provided insights into how to make key changes,” said Elizabeth Limbrick, project manager for policy and planning innovation for civil infrastructure and environment for NJII and one of the organizers of the workshop. “One of the themes we heard repeated throughout the conference was that skeptics claim it is too expensive to implement sustainable practices and resilient infrastructure. But the reality is, it’s too expensive not to invest in it. Following Copenhagen's example, Newark and Hoboken are engaging in similar sustainable practices.”

NJIT President Joel Bloom, who opened the conference, spoke of the “major assets” awaiting remediation and redevelopment in the city of Newark, with its growing population of university students, staff and faculty.

In his keynote speech, Michael Riccio, chief financial officer and treasurer for Panasonic Corp. of North America, (left), touched on the sustainability goals that drove the design and construction of the company’s new headquarters in Newark, elements of which have platinum and gold LEED certification. The new building’s many efficiencies include a savings of 30 percent in energy consumption and 70 percent in water use. Riccio also noted that nearly 60 percent of employees take public transportation to work. Panasonic’s growing Eco Solutions group is providing lithium-ion battery cells to Tesla Motors and its Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company is working with cities such as Denver on a host of “smart city” initiatives in sectors ranging from energy efficiency, to water conservation, to public safety and healthcare.

BCONE hired NJII to coordinate the conference. In addition, NJIT’s Technical Assistance to Brownfield (TAB) Communities Program provided planning and logistical services.

With $3 million in grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since 2008, NJIT’s TAB program provides free technical guidance on brownfields redevelopment to state, regional, municipal and tribal governments and nonprofit organizations throughout  the 12 New England and Mid-Atlantic states. The TAB team, comprised of planners, environmental scientists and engineers, helps communities develop grant proposals, understand clean-up technologies, navigate regulatory programs,  layer funding and financing options,  prioritize clean-up sites and position them to become catalysts for community revitalization.

“Our job as brownfield professionals is to minimize the risk associated with brownfield redevelopment,” Limbrick says of the program, adding, “When we properly investigate the environmental conditions of a brownfield site, we are able to quantify the costs and amount of time it will take to complete the remediation. And as we evaluate options, we make sure the plan we choose is protective of human health and the environment.”

Tracey Regan