Sustainable cities need more than parks, cafes and a riverwalk. They need equity, too

Manhattan from Williamsburg. Image: Getty.

There are many indexes that aim to rank how green cities are. But what does it actually mean for a city to be green or sustainable?

We’ve written about what we call the “parks, cafes and a riverwalk” model of sustainability, which focuses on providing new green spaces, mainly for high-income people. This vision of shiny residential towers and waterfront parks has become a widely-shared conception of what green cities should look like. But it can drive up real estate prices and displace low- and middle-income residents.

As scholars who study gentrification and social justice, we prefer a model that recognises all three aspects of sustainability: environment, economy and equity. The equity piece is often missing from development projects promoted as green or sustainable. We are interested in models of urban greening that produce real environmental improvements and also benefit long-term working-class residents in neighborhoods that are historically underserved.

Aerial photo of Newtown Creek, which flows between Brooklyn and Queens into the East River. Image: NASA.

Over a decade of research in an industrial section of New York City, we have seen an alternative vision take shape. This model, which we call “just green enough,” aims to clean up the environment while also retaining and creating living-wage blue-collar jobs. By doing so, it enables residents who have endured decades of contamination to stay in place and enjoy the benefits of a greener neighborhood.

‘Parks, cafes and a riverwalk’ can lead to gentrification

Gentrification has become a catch-all term used to describe neighborhood change, and is often misunderstood as the only path to neighborhood improvement. In fact, its defining feature is displacement. Typically, people who move into these changing neighborhoods are whiter, wealthier and more educated than residents who are displaced.


A recent spate of new research has focused on the displacement effects of environmental cleanup and green space initiatives. This phenomenon has variously been called environmental, eco- or green, gentrification.

Land for new development and resources to fund extensive cleanup of toxic sites are scarce in many cities. This creates pressure to rezone industrial land for condo towers or lucrative commercial space, in exchange for developer-funded cleanup. And in neighborhoods where gentrification has already begun, a new park or farmers market can exacerbate the problem by making the area even more attractive to potential gentrifiers and pricing out long-term residents. In some cases, developers even create temporary community gardens or farmers markets or promise more green space than they eventually deliver, in order to market a neighborhood to buyers looking for green amenities.

Environmental gentrification naturalises the disappearance of manufacturing and the working class. It makes deindustrialisation seem both inevitable and desirable, often by quite literally replacing industry with more natural-looking landscapes. When these neighborhoods are finally cleaned up, after years of activism by longtime residents, those advocates often are unable to stay and enjoy the benefits of their efforts.

The River Walk in San Antonio, Texas, is a popular shopping and dining area catering to tourists. Image: Ken Lund/creative commons.

Tools for greening differently

Greening and environmental cleanup do not automatically or necessarily lead to gentrification. There are tools that can make cities both greener and more inclusive, if the political will exists.

The work of the Newtown Creek Alliance in Brooklyn and Queens provides examples. The alliance is a community-led organisation working to improve environmental conditions and revitalise industry in and along Newtown Creek, which separates these two New York City boroughs. It focuses explicitly on social justice and environmental goals, as defined by the people who have been most negatively affected by contamination in the area.

The industrial zone surrounding Newtown Creek is a far cry from the toxic stew that The New York Times described in 1881 as “the worst smelling district in the world”. But it is also far from clean. For 220 years it has been a dumping ground for oil refineries, chemical plants, sugar refineries, fiber mills, copper smelting works, steel fabricators, tanneries, paint and varnish manufacturers, and lumber, coal and brick yards.

In the late 1970s, an investigation found that 17m gallons of oil had leaked under the neighborhood and into the creek from a nearby oil storage terminal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency placed Newtown Creek on the Superfund list of heavily polluted toxic waste sites in 2010.

The Newtown Creek Alliance and other groups are working to make sure that the Superfund cleanup and other remediation efforts are as comprehensive as possible. At the same time, they are creating new green spaces within an area zoned for manufacturing, rather than pushing to rezone it.

As this approach shows, green cities don’t have to be postindustrial. Some 20,000 people work in the North Brooklyn industrial area that borders Newtown Creek. And a number of industrial businesses in the area have helped make environmental improvements.

Just green enough

The “just green enough” strategy uncouples environmental cleanup from high-end residential and commercial development. Our new anthology, “Just Green Enough: Urban Development and Environmental Gentrification,” provides many other examples of the need to plan for gentrification effects before displacement happens. It also describes efforts to create environmental improvements that explicitly consider equity concerns.


For example, UPROSE, Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organisation, is combining racial justice activism with climate resilience planning in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. The group advocates for investment and training for existing small businesses that often are Latino-owned. Its goal is not only to expand well-paid manufacturing jobs, but to include these businesses in rethinking what a sustainable economy looks like. Rather than rezoning the waterfront for high-end commercial and residential use, UPROSE is working for an inclusive vision of the neighborhood, built on the experience and expertise of its largely working-class immigrant residents.

This approach illustrates a broader pattern identified by Macalester College geographer Dan Trudeau in his chapter for our book. His research on residential developments throughout the United States shows that socially and environmentally just neighborhoods have to be planned as such from the beginning, including affordable housing and green amenities for all residents. Trudeau highlights the need to find “patient capital” – investment that does not expect a quick profit – and shows that local governments need to take responsibility for setting out a vision and strategy for housing equity and inclusion.

The ConversationIn our view, it is time to expand the notion of what a green city looks like and who it is for. For cities to be truly sustainable, all residents should have access to affordable housing, living-wage jobs, clean air and water, and green space. Urban residents should not have to accept a false choice between contamination and environmental gentrification.

Trina Hamilton, Associate Professor of Geography, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York and Winifred Curran, Associate Professor of Geography, DePaul University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.