Just Green Enough

Sprucing up a park can spur unintended gentrification. Is there a way to green a neighborhood without displacing its residents?
by | February 2015
The Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint, Brooklyn Flickr/Garrett Ziegler

This story is part of a series on gentrification, which appears online and in the February 2015 print issue.

Before there was the High Line, there was a neighborhood. The wildly popular linear park, built on a disused elevated railroad, slices through the West Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan. Little more than a decade ago, the area was still a gritty, mostly working-class enclave of auto parts stores, a handful of slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants, parking garages, and fashion warehouses, among other small industrial businesses.

The High Line changed all that. The first phase of the park opened in 2009, but anticipation of the project spurred changes years earlier. Glass-clad high-rises, trendy hotels and design boutiques began rising up alongside the park. Neighborhood mainstays were priced out. Places like Hector’s Café & Diner, a local favorite since 1949, saw their customer base dwindle. Garages and auto repair shops -- the places that gave the neighborhood its nickname “gasoline alley” -- were forced to close when their rents shot up.

In many ways, the park has been a blockbuster success. It brought new life to a long-underused part of the city. And it’s hard to argue in favor of preserving parking garages and greasy auto body shops. But the High Line’s arrival made the neighborhood unaffordable for most of those who used to live there. Property values near the park increased 103 percent between 2003 and 2011, according to a study by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Before that, surrounding residential properties had been valued at 8 percent below the overall median for Manhattan. “As a catalyst of neighborhood change,” wrote The New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl, “the High Line has been to usual gentrification what a bomb is to bottle rockets.”

Indeed, the High Line exemplifies something called “environmental gentrification.” “By simultaneously making older and typically low-income and/or industrial areas of existing cities more livable and attractive,” wrote Jennifer Wolch, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in a paper on the subject, “urban greening projects can set off rounds of gentrification, dramatically altering housing opportunities and communities.”

In other words, adding green space to an underserved neighborhood or replacing an old rail yard with a park can make that area more attractive -- and that can force out the very people meant to benefit from those changes. How, then, can a city enact environmental improvements without displacing the people and businesses that came before?

Enter the idea of “just green enough.” It’s the notion of making a neighborhood more livable without triggering gentrification, says Winifred Curran, an associate professor of geography at DePaul University. Curran and co-author Trina Hamilton, of the State University of New York’s University at Buffalo, coined the term in a 2012 paper on Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Despite sitting next to hipper-than-thou Williamsburg --ground zero for Brooklyn gentrification -- Greenpoint has managed to maintain its historic identity as a blue-collar Polish neighborhood. Curran credits this to the Newtown Creek Alliance, a group of citizen activists who fought for environmental projects that created a greener neighborhood but preserved the character of the community. One of those projects was the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, which first opened in 2007. The High Line it’s not: The small park sits between the creek and a sewage treatment facility, and it consists largely of concrete paths. A New York Times story dubbed it “the ironic nature walk.” Nevertheless, the modest park is popular with residents but not a draw for tourists or other neighborhood newcomers. It’s just green enough.

The key to rightsizing these kinds of environmental improvement projects, says Curran, is community involvement. As a counterexample, she points to Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, a transitioning swath on the near west side of the city. In the 1990s, the mainly Hispanic area was considered dangerous; it wasn’t safe to walk through at night. Today, the streets are safer and “the greenest in America,” according to the city. In 2012, the Chicago Department of Transportation finished upgrading two rundown streets by rebuilding them with recycled materials, permeable pavers, green streetscaping and sustainable stormwater runoff solutions. Property values are rising rapidly as a result, and longtime residents, who contend they were left out of planning for the greening projects in Pilsen, are finding it too costly to live there. “I’m upset that people ... took the decision to displace the community and did not inform [us] what they’re trying to do,” Roxana Aguilar, a Pilsen resident since 1998, told the nonprofit news site ChicagoTalks.org. “They basically did it slowly and did not give the community a chance to relocate somewhere.”

“The reason why Greenpoint is such a great example -- and why Pilsen seems to be an example in the opposite direction -- is the degree to which local people have been able to participate in the process and shape the vision of what ‘green’ is,” Curran says. People talk about “green” and “sustainability” all the time, she says, but those ideas mean different things to different people. “You can have an industrial neighborhood and it can be more environmentally friendly than it was before,” she says. “You can have working-class activities and working-class people and maybe it doesn’t look as green as other parts of the city, but it still is quite environmentally friendly.”

In her paper, UC Berkeley’s Wolch goes a step further and offers more definitive prescriptions to implementing “just green enough” solutions. Particularly, Wolch recommends that public officials establish mitigation measures to prevent possible displacement, such as local job training or rent subsidies.

So far, the “just green enough” approach hasn’t really been tested. But it soon will be. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in October announced a $130 million initiative to fix 35 long-neglected parks in underserved neighborhoods. These are small projects, most under one acre. At the center of the effort is a framework that stresses community engagement. The parks department will work with community stakeholders to, according to a press release on the program, “help them build their own capacity to use, program and be advocates for their parks.”

The biggest lesson here, says Curran, is the idea that cities do have some control over the ultimate impact of the livability improvements they make. “A lot of people just assume that gentrification is inevitable. There’s nothing inevitable about it. Change is inevitable; gentrification is not. There are ways that we can very intentionally make urban change that doesn’t displace people.”

This story is part of a series on gentrification, which appears online and in the February 2015 print issue.