Sustainability isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of casinos, but it was casino development that launched Jennifer Gonzalez ’08 ’09G on the path to her current role as director of environmental services and chief sustainability officer for the City of Hoboken. An environmental justice class she took for her international relations undergrad degree at Lehigh had her studying the conversion of the former Bethlehem Steel mill into a casino complex.
“I became very interested in exploring the connection between community and environmental stewardship, and law and policy,” she says. Gonzalez became so intrigued she stayed an extra year at Lehigh to earn a master’s degree in environmental policy.
“There was so much discussion about the economic benefits of the casino to the surrounding community, but not much about air quality or the impact of developing a contaminated site. That’s what led me to my current job, looking at environmental issues in urban environments and the effect they have on our communities,” she says.
Since Hoboken is an urban coastal city, sustainability challenges center on rainfall and flood mitigation. And because it’s an older city, there are also projects involving the aging water system and drinking water infrastructure. With a host of redevelopment projects in process, Gonzalez is always looking for ways to utilize green building practices and brownfield remediation.
Community engagement is vital to Mayor Ravi Bhalla and his administration— listening to what Hoboken’s residents want and need in their city. “Our community wants more open space, walkable streets and flood mitigation. So we look at ways we can achieve all these goals when we do infrastructure projects,” Gonzalez says.
"...we're in the 'quality of life' business. Improving that for future generations is the heart of sustainability. That transformative change in our urban environment is what keeps me going."
Hoboken is decidedly on the right track. For its flood-risk management practices, the United Nations named it a Role Model City in the Making Cities Resilient campaign. Gonzalez was invited to speak about Hoboken’s efforts at the 2019 International Urban Resilience Forum in Seoul, South Korea.
The resiliency park projects she has helped to make happen around the city are a particular point of pride for Gonzalez. She’s counting the days until her favorite project, Northwest Resiliency Park, opens in fall of 2022. The $50 million project will be the largest of Hoboken’s many parks, incorporating the city’s resiliency strategy of integrating green infrastructure and innovative stormwater management to mitigate flooding from rainfall. It likely will also please Hoboken residents who named “a balance of nature, culture, athletics and play” as their top priorities for a park in a pre-development survey and focus sessions.
The park represents Gonzalez’ favorite part of her job—the transformative power of work in public service. “It’s very fulfilling to know that there are literally shovels in the ground building a park because of the hard work that our team puts into everything we do,” she says.
Gonzalez, the recipient of Lehigh’s 2019 Young Alumni Award, says Lehigh helped shape her success by making her a critical thinker and teaching her communications and team-building skills across disciplines. “Every day, I deal with planners, engineers, attorneys and financial professionals. I’m used to working on diverse teams like that from my days at Lehigh.”
Gonzalez says plans for Hoboken’s future include providing affordable community solar and 100 percent renewable energy. “Sustainability is about systems,” she says. “Water, energy, parks, green spaces, transportation—they’re all linked. But ultimately, we’re in the ‘quality of life’ business. Improving that for future generations is the heart of sustainability. That transformative change in our urban environment is what keeps me going.”