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.

 
 
 
 

Are Britain’s political parties finally taking housing seriously?

Some houses. Image: Getty.

For more than 20 years we have been researching and writing about the downgrading of public housing in the UK. Thankfully, the tide finally appears to be turning.

Government failure can be seen most clearly in the form of homelessness, but the problems are bigger – high prices, high rents, housing insecurity and its high toll on mental health, overcrowding, beds in sheds and so on. For decades, financial support for public housing has been cut. Politicians have referred to estates of public housing as “sink” areas, marring the reputations of places and people.

While homelessness and rising prices and rents fill conversations about the housing problems of today, government action has focused on helping existing and new home owners. In the meantime, private landlords reap profits from an insecure, frequently poor quality and high cost sector.

But finally, several British political parties – Labour, the Green Party and Liberal Democrats – are offering evidence-based and convincing analyses of the problem and pledging to improve non-market housing provision.

It is perhaps not surprising that recent decades have generated this new position on how to fix the broken housing system, where the state – local and central – takes a more active role. It is increasingly clear that the market, often lauded as the most efficient way of providing and allocating housing, is actually a key driver of the failure to provide decent homes for many hundreds of thousands of households.

New homes

So what are the parties offering at this stage? The Conservatives focus on overseeing the construction of a million homes in the next five years. Social housing, it seems, will continue to be neglected under a Tory government.

Labour, meanwhile, have pledged to build 100,000 council homes a year by 2024 for those most in need. It also wants to fund a further 50,000 homes a year to be built by Housing Associations who also target those needing a home and will put a stop to Right to Buy: a scheme which has led to over 40 per cent of former council homes now being rented out by private landlords.

The Liberal Democrats propose 300,000 homes a year by 2024, to include 100,000 for social rent (by housing associations). The Greens match the Lib Dems while stressing the need for zero-carbon homes.

This social housing project won the Stirling Prize 2019.

The Conservatives stand out here, with their continued focus on offering public money to help aspirational owners rather than providing housing for those most in need. Their costly Help to Buy scheme, which they plan to extend, has been widely criticised for inflating prices, bolstering developer profits and doing nothing to help those in most need. The party’s election manifesto does not provide any details as to how it will increase the supply of social other than to state that “it will bring forward a social housing white paper”.

Talk of austerity, poverty and inequality may be tiring for some to keep hearing, but it is critical that we understand how bad things are for many people. Many older homeowners find it hard to understand the pressures of simply finding a place to live, let alone the ongoing challenge of funding that space, heating it or accessing it if disabled. Paying rent to help secure someone else’s retirement is particularly galling for many.


A social system

A system is needed that is designed for the needs of all people. Research shows that yes, of course a regulated market in owned housing is needed (controls are needed to ensure it is high quality and built in the right places). But this needs to exist alongside a high quality, professionally managed public housing sector capable of helping people to find decent homes. Increasingly, the shortfall in supply has enabled private landlords to offer low income households sub-standard properties.

The argument that public housing does not work is locked in a vision of large-scale estates that became increasingly unpopular as funding has been drained from them. Most analysts today envision a for-life option (the ability of tenants to stay for as long as they like so that they can feel secure) at a cost that allows other areas of life to be better enjoyed (health, education, access to work). Only home ownership and public rented housing can provide these kinds of outcomes.

Whatever our personal politics, it is vital that we understand that powerful interests circulate to promote housing as a market commodity, rather than a critical social good to be enjoyed by all. The pathway to this vision is littered with the profits to private landlords and the shattered dreams of the homeless and ill-housed.

It is precisely not in the interests of market providers to resolve the housing crisis. This may sound like heresy, but it is the evidence of many years of analysis.

Hope for the future

Looking to a future in which social housing forms a basis for social and economic investment offers genuinely thrilling prospects. There is no reason that a new council building programme cannot be enjoyed in partnership with private builders, and indeed using smaller companies, many of whom have been threatened or busted by the current crisis.

On the environmental front, social homes can be built or retrofitted to enhanced standards that are warm, safe, flood resistant and carbon neutral.

To say this will cost a lot of money is stating the obvious. But housing is a major component in the reproduction of wealth inequalities, private profiteering and carbon emissions (energy use in homes accounts for 14 per cent of the UK’s total). The fact that political attention is being focused more clearly on challenging these problems and getting traction on a home-building programme for citizens should be welcomed by all.

The housing crisis of today is an enduring problem, one that goes back more than a hundred years, when walking through the slums of the growing industrial metropolises, Friedrich Engels asked why more housing wasn’t provided when so many people were in need. The question today is, why are we still asking the same old question?

Rowland Atkinson, Chair in Inclusive Societies, University of Sheffield and Keith Jacobs, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Housing and Community Research Unit, University of Tasmania.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.