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.

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