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Evidence

How Parks Gentrify Neighborhoods, And How To Stop It

A new approach—"just green enough"—tries to balance sustainability and equity.

[Photos: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

On the three Es of sustainability—ecology, economy, and equity—the High Line in New York passes the first two with flying colors. The elevated-railroad-turned-park has brought a fresh mix of plants, flowers, birds, and insects to the once-drab West Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. It has also attracted billions in financial investments, with area property values increasing 103 % between 2003 and 2011, Great Recession be damned.

But the High Line's record on equity is more troubling. Indicting the popular new park on these grounds in a 2012 op-ed for the New York Times, blogger Jeremiah Moss described how numerous local businesses and working-class residents have been squeezed out by rising rents. Praising the park's aesthetics just this month, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl acknowledged that "the High Line has been to usual gentrification what a bomb is to bottle rockets."

The High Line is an extraordinary example of what's become an ordinary theme for green design projects: a dazzling park comes in, the low-income locals go out. Inevitable as this process of "eco-gentrification" might seem, it doesn't have to be, says Jennifer Wolch, dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. Wolch and some research collaborators who've tracked the trend recommend an intervention they call "just green enough"—a delicate balance of sustainability and equity.

"The question is: How do you improve access to parks and open space but not trigger this shift in property values and land uses that completely transform a community?" Wolch tells Co.Design.

To Wolch and others, addressing green gentrification is a matter of environmental justice. Broadly speaking, low-income and minority populations tend to have worse access to city parks than wealthy whites do. But if efforts to address that eco-disparity always lead to displacement, then park-deprived residents will find themselves in an endless pursuit of urban green space. They might also face what Wolch calls a "perverse situation" of rejecting sustainable projects for fear that gentrification will follow.

"Cities change, and it's not like you can keep things frozen in time," Wolch says. "But the thing that's challenging is that you don't ever want to make the argument that in a poor neighborhood you don't want to build something wonderful because it's going to trigger gentrification."

"Just green enough" might be just the tool to overcome such challenges. The basic idea is that not every sustainable design project need be a market-driven concept that favors new residents to native populations. Instead of a grand waterfront plaza dotted with high-end boutiques and LEED-certified towers, a "just green enough" strategy might emphasize small-scale community gardens or basic environmental cleanup. If a bigger project does make sense, it should at least incorporate local input and protect local culture.

Exhibit A for a "just green enough" approach is Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The working-class Polish neighborhood with industrial roots has an urgent need for sustainable projects. Now a Superfund site, Greenpoint was the unwitting home to a massive oil spill that dates back decades; it also has only about 4% open space, compared to 26% for all of New York City. Despite teetering on the verge of gentrification, Greenpoint has managed to maintain its blue-collar identity, largely by insisting on environmental projects that match the local personality instead of catering to outsiders or developers.

One such project, the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, is sort of the anti-High Line. Labeled an "ironic nature walk" by the New York Times, Newtown is a concrete park wedged between the polluted creek and sewage treatment plant that challenges conventional notions of "nature" and "green." It's a vision that sees preserving the neighborhood's industrial character as equally sustainable to building a green riverwalk with cafés and condos, says Winifred Curran of DePaul University, a Brooklyn native who documented Greenpoint's environmental approach in a 2012 paper that coined the "just green enough" term.

"We have to separate in the minds of public policymakers or whatever that environmental benefits are luxuries that only people who can afford it get," Curran tells Co.Design. "It shouldn't be either-or proposition: either jobs or a park, clean water or affordable housing. Those choices should not have to be made by anybody."

Just how green is "just green enough" will vary from place to place, says Curran, which makes community involvement critical for distinguishing projects that might lead to environmental gentrification from those that serve the common good. (In Greenpoint, the accepted approach emerged from an unlikely partnership of veteran local activists and concerned new residents.) Wolch says that local officials and planners can do their part by recognizing the potential drawbacks of eco-projects and establishing mitigation measures—such as local job training or rent subsidies—to "ease transitions when neighborhoods change."

For "just green enough" to take hold, Curran says, people may need to start taking a broader view of what "green" looks like. Green might mean a new LEED-certified building, but it can also mean maintaining an existing building instead of knocking it down. Green might mean cleaner trucks coming into the city, or it can mean more local manufacturing jobs that reduce the need to import goods. Her point extends to the three Es of sustainability: We use "green" as a synonym for ecology and economics all the time; why not use it to mean "equity," too?

"That's what the whole 'just green enough' concept is about," she says. "What we mean by 'green' has to change."

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