On a bright summer afternoon, junior Natalie Steinbuch makes her way to Brooklyn’s historic Carroll Street Bridge, with its thick wooden planks and Belgian blocks, while the drum from numerous construction projects beats steady in the background. She points out a new residential building popping up over the Gowanus Canal.

“It will have 12 stories on one side and eight on the other,” says the urban sustainability major. “The developers say 20 percent of it will be affordable housing but it would be much better if that number were 30 percent.”

Steinbuch knows this neighborhood’s history and the troubling state of the storied canal, these days a toxic stew of decomposing sewage, arsenic, and wastewater that is expected to cost upwards of $500 million to clean. She knows all about the Bond Street residential projects that are quickly being erected, a towering symbol of the change ushering into a neighborhood that was home to Brooklyn’s first settlement of Dutch farmers in the 17th Century and later, a hub of industrial and shipping activity.

She also knows this kind of development has the potential to displace some of the more rooted buildings and residents, those from the neighborhood’s many retirement homes being the ones particularly in her thoughts.

“The urban sustainability program really helps me see how all the different aspects of development—the social, economic, and political—come together and how they affect people,” Steinbuch says.

Which is exactly what the program aims to do. One of only two undergraduate urban sustainability programs in the country, Brooklyn College’s interdisciplinary approach fuses the economics, sociology, and earth and environmental science departments. Its inaugural class graduated last May. In keeping with the college’s commitment to place-based instruction, using Brooklyn as a laboratory, many courses, class assignments and faculty research have focused on the changes occurring in Gowanus.

“We want our students to spend a lot of time looking at the social equity implications of urban planning around various environmental problems,” explains Kenneth A. Gould, the director of the program and chair of the American Sociological Association’s section on Environment and Technology.

In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected 22 percent growth in environmentally related jobs over the next decade. In 2011, the green job market grew four times faster than every other industry combined and American investment in the clean energy industry increased by 42 percent over the previous year. This growth is only expected to escalate, with careers thriving in green business management, environmental public policy and advocacy and city environmental coordination.

Steinbuch grew up in Park Slope but says her parents sold their home in the early 2000s when the real estate market boomed and they suddenly no longer recognized the neighborhood they grew up in. “After that, we moved from place to place,” she explains, “every time the rent went up.”

She says there’s an eerily familiar dynamic at work in Gowanus, a classic case study on the intersection of environmental, social, political, and economic interests. Which is what prompted her to seek out an internship with the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation, an organization that is dedicated at once to neighborhood preservation and revitalization. The non-profit serves as a liaison of sorts between politicians and the community, lobbying for more affordable housing and environmental remediation, and organizing community meetings, among other things. It’s work that puts Steinbuch in the center of the action.

“I just wanted to be active in any kind of community development,” she says.

Steinbuch first started volunteering for the non-profit last February and then became an intern in June. She has worked on many tasks including giving tours of the canal, helping to raise money for local senior centers, and creating a web site where the community can voice their opinions about the changes occurring.

“I like getting to see how development happens and how a non-profit works,” she says. “But I have the most fun when I’m out in the community.”

She says she has always been attracted to the idea of sustainability but her coursework and her past experiences helped crystalize for her the notion that sustainable development has to take into account the lives of people and communities.

“It’s like urban planning but with a social aspect,” she says.

Steinbuch says she would like to learn how to start a non-profit of her own in the future, and is planning on pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning or a related field.

“My dream job would be to help other people connect with jobs or in some other way to make a real and lasting impact on a community,” she says.