By Steve Dwyer
Mohammed Wara, an undergraduate student at New York University's Schack Institute of Real Estate, fondly reminisces about late-night cab rides with his father. These unforgettable experiences ignited his passion for and aspiration to pursue a career in brownfield redevelopment. Mohammed is eager to embark on this career in the near future, and his selection as one of the eight 2023 Abbey Duncan Brownfield Scholarship Program recipients will further facilitate and expedite his journey. This annual program aims to provide financial support to undergraduate and graduate students pursuing careers in New York City brownfields.
"I used to join my father during his night shifts," Mohammed recalls. "It was our version of 'take your son to work' day. He showed me Manhattan's iconic high-rise architecture from the roads, bridges, and tunnels connecting the five boroughs. It's challenging for me to express the wonder I have for the city's real estate—it has been ingrained in me since childhood," he says.
Samuel Syrop, a student at the City College of New York/The Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, developed his curiosity about environmental issues at a young age. "Throughout the early 2000s, my mother was actively involved in protesting the Indian Point nuclear site near our home in Westchester County. I remember pondering the issues at hand: the health of the soil, water, and the overall ecosystem. The impact our modern culture can have on the environment is significant, as is its role in local economies and job creation," says Samuel.
As a current MLA student at Spitzer, Samuel is forming his own opinions about prioritizing these issues, especially within the city's boundaries. "Brownfield remediation serves as a particularly compelling focal point for addressing urban inequality while supporting local ecology. Transforming a site too toxic for development into a place where people can contribute to a healthy community can be an exceptionally meaningful process. I couldn't think of a better mission to dedicate one's career," Samuel articulates.
Nicholas Russell, a student at CUNY/Queens College, contemplates a career in environmental science. He emphasizes the importance of his membership in the Newtown Creek Superfund Community Advisory Group. Since 2020, Nick has witnessed firsthand the significance of integrating state Brownfield sites into remedial and redevelopment planning on a watershed scale.
"Brownfield sites are numerous, and the groundwater transport of contaminants, such as PCBs, PFAS, and heavy metals, transforms a hydrological network of point sources into a diffuse groundwater transport system of contaminants at the watershed scale. The EPA is currently conducting a lateral groundwater study at Newtown Creek to develop a model of upland source contaminant transport into the Creek. This necessitates access and cooperation from both Primary Responsible Parties in the Federal Superfund process, as well as cooperation from State Superfund and Brownfield sites," explains Nick.
He also notes the overlap between data and methods used by the DEC and EPA. However, Nick highlights the challenge of integrating upland Brownfield sites into the Newtown Creek Superfund conceptual site model, which has become clear to him through years of community meetings with the EPA. Nick emphasizes the need for a collaborative process between DEC and EPA to inform expeditious remedial action and advance Brownfield planning and redevelopment.
These three ambitious rising professionals are joined by five others in receiving the Abbey Duncan Brownfield Scholarship, a program named in honor of Ms. Duncan, an avid environmentalist, talented dancer, and tireless community supporter who passed away several years ago, inspiring many along the way.
Other recipients include Brenda Lau, a Master's Candidate in Urban Planning at Hunter College; Danielle Gartenberg, Hunter College; Kevin Orlic, CUNY; Benjamin Kalmanowitz, City College of New York; and Srisubrahmanya Nandula, New York University.
Several scholarship recipients recently shared their life experiences that inspired them to pursue careers in brownfield redevelopment, the significance of the Abbey Duncan Scholarship in advancing their careers, and their specific career aspirations. Undoubtedly, there are numerous diverse opportunities to contribute to the brownfield redevelopment spectrum.
Fueled By Life's Experiences
For Srisubrahmanya Nandula, growing up as a hearing-impaired individual meant becoming a "visual learner." He explains, "I used my sight to learn about the world around me. Cities have always intrigued me. As a child, I spent hours sitting on my parents' balcony in India, watching the hustle and bustle of people, rickshaws, and cars. I memorized city maps, including the locations of streets, bus stations, and city landmarks to learn more about the cities that I love."
This passion led him to pursue Geography, GIS, and Environmental Science during his undergraduate studies. "As a GIS Specialist at the New York City Parks Department, I've worked on numerous projects, including a physical census of the city's trees. Trees play a vital role in purifying our air, cooling urban areas, and minimizing floods. Designing and building effective parks, which include smart water retention ponds, can help combat the impacts of climate change."
The Master's in Urban Planning program at New York University is a "critical step in helping me achieve my dreams. I am formally training and gaining exposure to disciplines such as finance and public policy. I'm learning the fundamentals of urban development, including land use law, environmental zoning, environmental sustainability, and community engagement. Thus far, the program has helped me build a multidisciplinary perspective, allowing me to think critically about cause and effect."
Srisubrahmanya emphasizes that these learnings are critical as he works with his agency to build natural spaces and restore brownfields into parks, benefiting both the community and the climate.
At Hunter College, Brenda Lau believes that "mission-driven development, whether for the manufacturing or affordable housing sector, is pertinent to my values as a planner and community steward."
Brenda continues, "Through my work in project management at a non-profit industrial developer, I partner with community development entities (CDEs) to identify public investment financing streams, such as historic preservation tax credits, for the redevelopment of dilapidated industrial buildings into multi-tenanted manufacturing spaces."
She remains "hopeful that leveraging these private funding streams for public investment may provide avenues to disrupt, or at least interrupt, patterns of inequitable development that pervade New York City."
**Each scholarship recipient has been profoundly inspired by some life lesson—or lessons—as well as personal experiences.**
From his earliest memories, Benjamin Kalmanowitz (City College of New York) harbored an "enduring affection for the natural world." He recalls the days of constructing "rudimentary forts in my backyard and embarking on adventurous camping journeys during my adolescence."
He explains, "The outdoors always bestowed upon me a profound sense of tranquility, an escape from the noise of daily life. However, it's become evident that not everyone shares this deep connection to nature, and that's where my journey takes a turn."
Recognizing the disparity in attitudes towards the environment prompted Benjamin to align his passion "with purpose. As I entered college, I sought to weave together my love for scientific exploration and mathematical analysis with a commitment to preserving the environment," he says. "This led me to the realm of environmental engineering. In this academic pursuit, I've embraced the role of a staunch advocate against pollution, particularly as it pertains to polluted brownfield sites. These sites stand as stark reminders of the ecological consequences of human activity."
As a college student, Benjamin believes he's assuming the role of an environmental engineer who "ardently opposes the degradation of our planet. With a fusion of scientific knowledge and a resolute environmental consciousness, I'm driven to address one of the most pressing challenges of our time: The fight against pollution, especially in neglected sites, fuels my determination to bridge the gap between awareness and action. It's about channeling my passion for the outdoors and my academic journey into a tangible force for positive change."
Scholarship Accelerates Career Timetable
The economic assistance provided by the Abbey Duncan Scholarship is helping the eight recipients in several unique ways. For Srisubrahmanya Nandula, it removes a substantial financial barrier as he pursues a master's degree. "I am very grateful for this as it empowers me, as a hearing-impaired individual, to gain additional confidence—and see a way that I can make an impact in my community. This scholarship provides the opportunity to gain exposure to a new community of professionals, research, and collaboration."
Brenda Lau is grateful to the NYC Brownfield Partnership for supporting her through her fourth and final year in the MUP program at Hunter College. "To cap off my graduate studies, I am hoping to complete an independent study on how public benefit financing mechanisms, such as brownfield remediation tax credits, can alleviate economic stressors for vulnerable communities in the midst of gentrifying neighborhoods," Brenda says.
Mohammed Wara, responsible for funding his education as his father is the sole earner of the household, sees the scholarship helping pay for housing during the Fall 2023 semester and to buy essentials, such as groceries. "I am entering my senior year and want to meet professionals in the industry. With new connections and knowledge, I can work to be a contributing member of brownfield development projects," he says.
Other recipients cited similar sentiments about the magnitude of the Duncan scholarship. Samuel sees every dollar of assistance making a compelling difference, especially in New York City. "It's reassuring to know that there are people and organizations out there that support students interested in the brownfield redevelopment industry," he says.
Nick is a "non-traditional" (i.e., older) student with a family who returned to school to make a career transition to urban coastal and watershed science. The Abbey Duncan scholarship is "a weight off my shoulders—one that anyone in my position can immediately understand. I am truly humbled and grateful."
Nick believes the scholarship is "perfectly in line with my educational trajectory. I really did go back to the drawing board when I enrolled in the Environmental Science program at LaGuardia Community College, which I can say without reservation, was a life-changing experience. My academic and research interests have evolved at every juncture, and the support provided by this scholarship will give me room to breathe, concentrate, and take my next step in the journey toward a career as an environmental scientist," Nick states.
As for Benjamin, the scholarship carries the potential to alleviate significant burdens from his family's shoulders. One of the most invaluable aspects of the scholarship lies in its ability to shield him from the weight of student loans, and thus "pursue my studies without distractions. As a sophomore, its impact resonates far beyond the realm of financial relief but empowers me to dedicate myself entirely to my educational journey," he says.
As the recipients look ahead, all have unique visions that are ambitious, if not altruistic. With a degree in Urban Planning, Srisubrahmanya's dream is helping New York City and other cities in the United States and around the world develop and utilize their natural spaces to counter the impacts of climate change.
"I strongly believe that trees and parks are one of the most important tools we have in preserving our communities. Brownfield spaces are an excellent source and opportunity to redevelop natural spaces and revitalize communities. I hope to be a strong champion for the redevelopment of brownfield spaces within the New York City government," he says.
Brenda Lau, a part-time graduate student and full-time Assistant Project Manager at a non-profit industrial developer, has been able to combine her professional pursuits in equitable economic development with academic interests in environmental justice and community advocacy.
"I consistently ask how we can sustain local economies and create opportunities for inclusive participatory design—design meaning both physical infrastructure and grounding community principles. I am interested in continuing to pursue work in community-controlled real estate development, such as social housing financing initiatives or community land trust ownership models," she says.
As Benjamin looks ahead and sizes up the intricate world of brownfield redevelopment, he's particularly drawn to addressing the complex challenges associated with soil contaminants. He notes that an environmental engineer can play a pivotal role in revitalizing abandoned or polluted lands—transforming them into safe and vibrant community spaces. Within this context, "I envision myself engaging in cutting-edge research to develop innovative technologies for soil remediation. I'm driven to explore advanced techniques such as phytoremediation and bioremediation, thereby harnessing the power of nature and science to restore contaminated soils efficiently and ecologically."
"As I think about my future in landscape and crafting and building spaces, I like to think about where my efforts may have the greatest impact," says Samuel. "It's one thing to take a good place and make something great of it, but it's an entirely different thing to take something toxic or off-limits and revive it into a functional space, both ecologically speaking as well as socially."