Urban greening: Environmental justice gone awry?

In cities, green space is a precious commodity that’s often clustered in areas with rich, white residents. So urban planners have tried to correct this environmental injustice by adding parks and trees to poor neighborhoods. But these well-intentioned efforts may backfire because the improvements drive up property values. “Ultimately, this can lead to gentrification and a displacement of the very residents the green space strategies were designed to benefit,” researchers write in Landscape and Urban Planning.

Many studies have suggested that urban green space can improve public health. Trees clean the air and cool down the neighborhood. Parks encourage exercise, lower stress levels, and improve people’s moods.

But poor residents and minorities tend to live in areas where green spaces are few and far between. Even if parks are nearby, they may not be well-maintained, or people may avoid using them because they’re considered hotspots for crime.

The study authors point to Hangzhou, China as an example of a city where green space efforts haven’t necessarily lived up to the hype. On the surface, Hangzhou seems like a model of urban greening: it’s called a “Garden City” because of its many trees and parks. But walking in these green spaces often exposes citizens to pollution from nearby roads. And poor residents may lose out in the end, since “[e]ven the smallest green space embellishments may drive up property prices in the urban core,” the team writes.

Similar examples can be found in the United States. In New York, for instance, an old train line has been transformed into a lush walkway. Property values in the area more than doubled from 2003 to 2011, the authors say.

Instead of adding large parks that encourage gentrification, low-income neighborhoods could create small spaces that are “just green enough,” the team suggests. For example, residents could work with city planners to clean up toxic sites or establish community gardens. Affordable housing and rent control programs could also protect these areas from being taken over by upscale condos and cafes.Roberta Kwok | 25 March 2014

Source: Wolch, J.R., J. Byrne, and J.P. Newell. 2014. Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice: The challenge of making cities ‘just green enough’. Landscape and Urban Planning doi: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2014.01.017.

Image © Pertusinas | Shutterstock

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3 Comments

  • Liam Stacey March 26, 2014 at 7:12 am

    This argument suggests that the poor should litter in their streets, allow highways to bisect their neighborhoods, and allow in polluting factories – all to keep property values down.

    I suggest that the processes of urban greening can have long term benefits: children may have a bigger and more positive view of the world when they get volunteering for park restoration and spend time in green spaces.

    Furthermore, wealthier people who move in to a neighborhood may have more political power to insist on better schools, etc. (I know that is a big If, since they may also elect to send their children to private schools.) Children who grow up surrounded by a nicer neighborhood may feel better about themselves than those who grow up in what could only be called “slums”. So let’s consider that gentrification has been happening for decades, if not centuries, and that we might think of how to guide it so that we improve the lives of the next generation, rather than standing adamantly against it.

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  • Astounded March 27, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    This article is one of the most short sighted, narrow perspectives on this topic I have seen in a long while. It skims the surface on a challenging issue and doesn’t help counter the stereotype that conservationists don’t really care about people who are left out of many of these conversations. It leaves out perspectives such as greenspaces are key areas for exercise, can help children of any background manage behavioral symptoms, and can IMPROVE safety depending on how they are designed – and says nothing about the cities who are doing the managing of the greenspace, nor the need for relationship building across agencies and community organizations to support these – any- community spaces . It also makes the claim that the greenspace drove up the property values without asking what else is happening in those land use plans that also contributes, and what is NOT happening in those plans – or in city codes – to prevent the change in property values. This is not the “fault” of greenspace – and claiming that it is to back up an argument to keep low income neighborhoods lacking this precious resource needed for so many forms of capital – is wrong and has the impact (regardless of intention) of being racist.

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  • Astounded March 27, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    After reading the original article I think those in the magazine could have focused more on the nuances in the conclusion (i.e. more than 2 sentences) to avoid the impact this article has in reading it here. “Just green enough” is a frame that sounds like ‘pittance’ which is what I reacted to in my earlier post. Without the larger context of the argument the original authors make, the intent of this statement is lost.

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