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Season 2

April 2024 - Episode 7

The Double-Edged Sword of Green Infrastructure

When low income neighborhoods receive new parks and green spaces, it can be a huge win for long-term residents. But greening initiatives can invite what we call “green gentrification.” If the rent is cheap and the neighborhood is suddenly more attractive, walkable and bikeable, then it’s very likely that wealthier people will start moving in. These are often White people entering predominantly communities of color, where due to their arrival, they begin changing the social and cultural makeup of the area. This transition doesn’t come without friction, particularly as it relates to law enforcement’s treatment of residents of color.

Now, people in all communities have different ideas about what’s best for the places they live. Many people living in low-income neighborhoods do want parks, trees and bike lanes. It’s just a question of whether these communities can sustain greening without rapid, destructive gentrification and displacement.

We spoke to Alessandro Rigolon, associate professor in the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah.

Photo by Tyler Lariviere.

Charles Brown:
How would you react if you learned that there was a new park, bike path, or a greenway coming to your neighborhood? You might be excited that your area is about to become more beautiful, walkable, and vibrant. On the other hand, if you live in a more affordable part of a large city, you might sigh and shake your head. You might think, “There goes the neighborhood. My rent is about to go up.”

When low-income neighborhoods receive new parks and green spaces, it can be a huge win for long-term residents. But greening initiatives can invite what we call green gentrification. If the rent is cheap, and the neighborhood is suddenly more attractive, walkable, and bikeable, then it’s very likely that wealthier people will start moving in. These are often white people entering predominantly communities of color, where due to their arrival they begin changing the social and cultural makeup of the area.

But this transition doesn’t come without friction, particularly as it relates to law enforcement’s treatment of residents of color. Imagine residents in a majority Black neighborhood gathering for a barbecue in their local park. Maybe they’re playing music, sticking around after it gets dark. If gentrification has happened here too fast, the social rules of the community change without notice. You might have newer residents calling the police for a noise complaint. When neighbors in gentrified areas start calling 911 on each other trust breaks down and dangerous situations can occur.

Now, people in all communities have different ideas about what’s best for the places they live. Many people living in low-income neighborhoods do want parks, trees, and bike lanes. It’s just a question of whether these communities can sustain greening without rapid destructive gentrification and displacement. My name is Charles T. Brown, and this is Arrested Mobility.

Alessandro Rigolon is an Associate Professor in the Department of City and Metropolitan planning at the University of Utah. He’s an expert on green gentrification and has a handle on the nuances that come along with this conversation.

Alessandro Rigolon:
The green gentrification process oftentimes involves displacement of low-income renters as the new residents who are coming in kind of out-compete existing renters. We’re talking about white people moving into communities of color. So there’s multiple studies that report, for example, white gentrifiers calling the police on activities that previously were considered totally fine, like listening to loud music maybe in front of your house with your friend and family.

There’s also instances of citizen-based policing where gentrifiers mostly reporting activities done by youth of color that previously went unreported. There’s a number of softer, I want to call them, more like psychological and cultural displacement outcomes, that oftentimes occur when gentrification happens even for low-income, people of color who’ve managed to stay in place. I’ve had conversations recently, even some people of color who see gentrification in general as a way to desegregate our neighborhoods. However, in the long term, most people of color are pushed out, so it re-segregates. It goes from predominantly people of color, and then there is a period of maybe 10, 15, 20 years when there’s more racial and ethnic mixing, and then it re-segregates where neighborhoods become predominantly white.

There’s also a general loss of sense of place for low-income people of color who’ve been in those neighborhoods for a long time. Maybe their preferred grocery store shuts down or a lo taqueria shuts down, and next thing you know a Starbucks coffee shop opens or a different kind of very expensive coffee shop opens. So the loss of people of color serving businesses is another piece of the puzzle, and relatedly the loss of jobs that comes with it.

There are some benefits over time. Neighborhoods that are gentrifying tend to see lower crime, tend to see more investment in street safety, features like crosswalks, protected bike lanes, green spaces. And so there are overall some kind of quality of life improvements that come. But oftentimes even the low-income folks who are able to stay there, either because they own or because they live in subsidized housing, they feel that a sense, like a piece of their neighborhood is gone, and then it is never coming back.

Charles Brown:
In 2021 Alessandro co-authored a literature review on green gentrification. Looking at 15 studies, the researchers found that where green gentrification has occurred, long-time, marginalized residents experience a lower sense of community, feel that they do not belong in green space, and use green space less often than newcomers. Another area of focus for him is the 606, also known as the Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago. It’s a 2.7 mile elevated park and trail that was originally intended to link multiple neighborhoods.

Alessandro Rigolon:
Oftentime long time residents don’t feel that the green space that is built in their neighborhood is for them. They’ve experienced multiple generations of these investments and not feeling seen by cities, by elected officials. And all of a sudden, an outpouring of money for green space comes in and there’s suspicion about whether this is for us. And oftentimes the design itself shows that indeed the project is predominantly meant for gentrifiers. One example that I’ve done a lot of research on is the Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago. It started as more of an environmental justice effort to bring more green space to Latino communities of Northwest Chicago like Logan Square and Humboldt Park. And the project resulted in basically a pretty fast bike trail, where it’s more of a transportation and exercise oriented facility than it is a facility for families to socialize, where you can bring your kids and kind of spend social time or do cultural events.

And so the design itself speaks about who the park, who the trail is for. We spoke to many people who have been displaced by the Bloomingdale Trail. Some of them were able to move maybe a neighborhood away from the trail and still being able to frequent their neighborhoods to go to businesses. There are stories of people who are displaced to the suburbs, for example. Now there is a lot of kind of suburban poverty and suburban diversity, like in some suburbs there are low income and majority people of color. But people are still coming back to, for example, attend their church. There are cultural ties to neighborhoods even for people who are displaced by these projects.

There were some other stories around more like cultural displacement. There were some beautiful murals. The Bloomingdale Trail is a elevated trail, so there’s bridges that go kind of on top of streets. And under some of these bridges, there were some beautiful murals that were representing Puerto Rican culture, images of Puerto Rico. And a couple of years after the project was completed, they were literally whitewashed, painted in white. It came up a few times through interviews and kind of the erasure of cultural identity as these neighborhoods change and it’s part of the infrastructure of the actual project.

There’s also some positive things that we heard, like for example, the Puerto Rican community, now there’s some slow riders that ride their bikes in large groups as a social activity on the Bloomingdale Trail. So it’s a different way of using the trail. And so there are still attempts to kind of appropriate the space. And maybe youth of color skateboarding. So there are, I don’t think the community has given up in claiming space, but there’s certainly conflict over it.

Charles Brown:
To be clear, I am not against building parks in low-income neighborhoods. In fact, I go all over the world advocating for low-income neighborhoods to have greater access to parks, green spaces, and trails. The key is to identify risk factors for when greening initiatives will contribute to further gentrification. To that end, Alessandro has contributed to research on something called the green gentrification cycle. To that end, Alessandro has contributed to research on something called the green gentrification cycle.

Alessandro Rigolon:
I think it’s useful to be cautious about greening initiatives in low-income communities of color, but we need to not be fearful of everything and we need to be able to evaluate which kinds of projects and which kinds of neighborhoods bring a higher risk of gentrification and then consequently displacement. Most previous research only looked at green gentrification as a linear process, where A causes B, where A is greening and B is gentrification. So by looking at other research, both qualitative and quantitative, we come up with idea that green gentrification is not linear. It might be cyclical. And there might be cases where gentrification precedes greening and then gentrification follows greening.

And so the framing of this process of cycle matters because it highlights questions of intentionality. Basically, do cities and developers and sometimes environmental nonprofits put greening projects in gentrifying neighborhoods to accelerate the process of gentrification?

We have at least three explanations of why gentrifying neighborhoods tend to receive greening efforts. One is what we call demand-side explanation is the gentrifier demand. So gentrifiers move to neighborhoods and tend to advocate for improvements that fit their lifestyles. Oftentimes we’re talking about people who like greening, they like sustainability initiatives, they like bike lanes, and so there is that sort of advocacy. And there are oftentimes power differentials between gentrifiers and long-term residents where the gentrifiers are able to kind of show up maybe at community meetings at times that are inconvenient for long-term residents who maybe have two, three jobs and more savviness in advocacy in general. And so there’s multiple instances in our research and other research where, for example, gentrifiers are able to advocate for the city to build a dog park. Whereas long-time families of color have children and they’d rather have a playground, but the advocacy and the savviness and the higher political power of gentrifiers oftentimes prevails.

The second explanation is the kind of supply-side explanation. Scholars have referred to the green growth machine as a coalition of developers and elected officials who in this case might want to invest in green spaces in neighborhoods that are already gentrifying because those are considered as safer in terms of having a return on the investment in terms of getting more property tax revenue and being able to charge more in rents or sales of units given the fact that those gentrifying neighborhoods already have seen the influx of private money by gentrifiers moving in. And so that’s the second one.

And the third one is resource-based explanation. So, many cities collect money from developers when they build multifamily or single-family housing or even commercial. And so in gentrifying communities, there might be some development going on and money that is collected from those developments needs to be spent for parks and needs to be spent for parks and other green spaces in the surrounding maybe like a half a mile or up to a mile of developments that are occurring. And therefore, there are more public resources that are brought by developers who pay fees in gentrifying communities as opposed to low-income communities that are not seeing any development.

Charles Brown:
One prominent example of green gentrification in the United States is the Atlanta BeltLine. The BeltLine is still in progress, but it’s meant to circle the city’s core with 22 miles of multi-use trail and light rail transit. This project has had a massive impact on real estate development and housing values in Atlanta. Affordable housing was central to the original plan for the BeltLine. Unfortunately, many housing advocates feel that it has not met its affordable housing goals. Instead, many are now concerned with a rapid gentrification and displacement that is taking place as a result of the BeltLine’s popularity and success.

Alessandro Rigolon:
The BeltLine is one of the most well-known green space projects that have resulted in green gentrification. The announcement effect of the trail itself led to gentrification. Not just the trail when it was built, but when it was announced and money was secured, that already had an impact on gentrification. I think what is unique about the BeltLine is that it’s a hugely transformational project that affects most of the city of Atlanta. It kind of goes all around it. And that is unlike other projects that have been linked to green gentrification that only focus on an individual neighborhood or a couple of neighborhoods. Like Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago is 2.7 miles and so it’s pretty small, relatively speaking, to the BeltLine that goes around entire city.

One of the interesting features is that it was funded via tax increment financing. You build infrastructure, like in this case a new green space, new trail, and you finance it, you take out loans, and then you pay those loans back by counting on property tax increases that will be brought in. And so what happens is that instead of just putting all the property tax increases in the general fund of a city, part of that property tax increase is set aside to pay back the loans taken to finance the project. In the case of the BeltLine, a small set aside of that money that was kind of projected property tax increase was dedicated to affordable housing, to building I think around 5,000 affordable housing units. You can see that that number is pretty inadequate. Atlanta is a city of, I think probably close to half a million people. There’s hundreds of thousands of housing units and just creating 5,000 affordable housing units is not enough to stem the displacement impact of a large transformational project like the BeltLine. So that was one thing. I mean, I understand it is expensive to buy a lot of land and build housing on it, but that was probably too little.

Something else I want to talk about is the tax increment financing mechanism. It basically relies on gentrification to fund projects. You are relying on property values growing fast enough for the city to make enough money to be able to pay back the project. So that should be telling places that do use tax interment financing, it’s quite clear that there’s an intention there, whether you want to state it openly or not. Then of course you can dedicate part of that money from tax increment financing to build enough affordable housing. That wasn’t the case in Atlanta, but it’s important kind of when they say follow the money. Following that kind of financing mechanism kind of tells you gentrification was a given. It was necessary to fund the project.

Charles Brown:
Between 2011 and 2015 property values within a half mile of the BeltLine rose between 17.9% and 26.6% more than properties elsewhere in Atlanta. That comes from research conducted by Dan Immergluck, one of the leading academics on the BeltLine. Since the Beltline will run through several underserved low-income neighborhoods it’s construction and funding method has effectively spurred gentrification. Dan has also pointed out that the city of Atlanta should have purchased land before the project was announced to prevent land speculation by investors. That way they could have set the land aside to build even more affordable housing. There are other strategies to mitigate the effects of green gentrification. We call these parks related anti displacement strategies.

Alessandro Rigolon:
Parks related anti-displacement strategies, they’re basically policies, non profit initiatives, programs, that are aimed to prevent displacement when the risk is high due to these large greenway projects and large green space projects. Some of these are housing related and others are jobs or business related. The housing ones mostly focus on the production of new affordable housing, the preservation of existing affordable housing, say existing naturally occurring multifamily kind of building, and then the protection of renters, eviction reforms or renter vouchers, things similar to what has been given to a lot of people during the pandemic.

The ones about jobs and businesses are also interesting because if your neighborhood is gentrifying and housing prices are increasing, you probably would be fine if your income also goes up at the same time. So if you can afford more. And so there’s job training programs. There have been what we call first source hiring ordinances. So basically when a trail or park is built, the contractor needs to hire people from the community and train them, and that generally leads to better paying jobs than what they currently have. And then in some cases, if there is operations and maintenance of the park or park programming, some people in the neighborhood can also be employed that way. And then there have been programs for businesses preservation of existing small businesses or helping residents create more businesses in those neighborhoods.

A project that is often touted as doing this work very well is the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington DC. It is a park over the Anacostia River connecting predominantly Black community of Anacostia to a white, more affluent community on the other side of the river near Capitol Hill. And what is important about this project is that they have framed and defined it and actually implemented the project as equitable community development opportunities. So from the beginning, they saw the park in the context of community needs. And so they’ve started a community land trust before the park was built. They did a lot of other things like home-ownership opportunities, small business development and preservation. They opened bank accounts for kids who are in elementary school for college funds so when they finish high school, they have some college funds. They’ve done a lot of community gardening and food justice work. So there’s a lot of holistic thinking around the park and the park is not yet even built yet. They’ve done a lot of work for many years before the park arrives to make sure that the communities are grounded and that a bunch of different needs are taken into account and they try to meet those needs in addition to the needs for a place for recreation.

New green spaces are just one of the drivers of gentrification. They’re oftentimes kind of pointed to because they’re very visible. We like to have a scapegoat oftentime. But there’s other kind of drivers. There is new transit, there are climate change related projects, or there’s just climate change itself. For example, in Florida, you see wealthier people moving to higher ground, away from the coastline, to limit the impacts of hurricanes that are becoming more and more severe and frequent. And so there is a multiplicity of factors that contributes to a place gentrifying and green space is only one. And so we need to look at this kind of process more holistically, not just the green space.

And what I want to do in future research, and I think it’s important that cities consider this, are the multiplying effects of different public investments on gentrification. So what happens, for example, if a new transit station is built in the same neighborhood where a new green space also has just been built. Do the two have a multiplying effect compared to, for example, a neighborhood where only the transit station has been built? And so think about as communities are trying to look at this proactively, they need to find ways to dedicate their attention to places at higher risk. And understanding the multiple risk factors and how they might interact can help them prioritize their action to places that need it the most when it comes to displacement risk

Charles Brown:
In the Arrested Mobility framework, we often talk about the need for stronger investments in public spaces and transportation for social justice. It’s not intuitive, but this is one case where too much of a good thing can make a problem worse if we are reactive versus proactive in terms of policy support for existing residents. Everyone deserves to live in neighborhoods with access to green space and amenities like playgrounds, bike trails, and dog parks. But in execution, city planners and policy makers need to be extremely careful that they aren’t contributing to gentrification. They might end up warping the social and cultural fabric in communities of color. In the worst-case scenario, long-term residents can be displaced or have a bad encounter with police who have been deployed to newly gentrified neighborhoods.

I want to thank my guest. Alessandro Rigolon, thank you for your time and expertise.

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