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How can cities restore green spaces without displacing low-income residents?

How can cities restore green spaces without displacing low-income residents?

Picture of Pendarvis Harshaw
[Photo by Traverse City Rotary Club via Flickr.]

There’s a long list of factors that have contributed to the housing shortage in California. There’s the tech boom, outdated laws and regulations, and the lack of low-income housing. Oh, and the absurd basic cost of living. But one of the little discussed factors driving up the price of housing in California is something that may seem benign to most. The restoration of land in order to create environmentally friendly green spaces is causing housing prices to surge and longtime residents to be displaced.

Efforts to create “walkable cities” have left urban spaces in the hands of developers. Areas that were once considered “blighted” are now seeing the restoration of native plants, efforts to rehabilitate natural habitats, and the “daylighting” of buried urban creeks and streams. But these changes come with a price tag.

And the cost of redevelopment isn’t just a bill Californians are paying. All across the country, low-income residents are heading to the suburbs, as the price of housing in the inner city skyrockets.

However, there is a way to go about cultivating healthier living spaces, without pushing residents out.

In 2012, Winifred Curran published the case study, “Just green enough: contesting environmental gentrification in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.” In the study, she examines a different model of urban redevelopment. In the Greenpoint community, longtime residents were actively involved in the reshaping their neighborhood. According to Curran, “The neighborhood residents and business owners seem to be advocating a strategy we call ‘just green enough,’ in order to achieve environmental remediation without environmental gentrification.”

And with that, she became credited with coining the term “just green enough.”

But Greenpoint, Brooklyn is a rare case, as Jennifer Wolch pointed out two years later in her paper “Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice: The challenge of making cities ‘just green enough’.”

Wolch, a professor of urban planning and dean of the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design, writes: “The ‘just green enough’ strategy depends on the willingness of planners and local stakeholders to design green space projects that are explicitly shaped by community concerns, needs, and desires rather than either conventional urban design formulae or ecological restoration approaches. Replacing these market-driven or ecological approaches with ‘just green enough’ strategies is especially challenging, typically requiring community activism.”

In a conversation with Wolch, she said that she hasn’t exactly seen the “just green enough” model in the Bay Area, but she has seen something similar. “Right now you’re seeing the resilience by design strategy,” said Wolch.

Wolch said the Ford Foundation has recently funded teams of people — engineers, architects, landscape designers, and more — to work on 10 locations that organizers had identified as high-priority development sites. Wolch said that it’s not just about drawing up blueprints for housing and planting native agriculture. “Part of the process has been heavy community outreach.”

While contacting the community to see what needs or wants people have when it comes to redevelopment sounds ideal, there’s a major hurdle in having the general population involved in the planning process: capacity.

“When you have a community that isn’t really organized, the lack of institutional structure causes them to not really respond very well,” said Wolch. “It takes capacity building. How do we get communities to be able to respond for themselves?”

In a forthcoming piece for the 2018 California Fellowship, I am going to look at how community members are organizing to have a say in the redevelopment of their neighborhoods, and how the Bay Area is applying the philosophy of making a community “just green enough.”

I’ll explore places such as San Leandro, where a Bay Area Air Quality District urban planner is trying to revitalize a historic creek with neighborhood involvement — and without impacting the cost of living in the neighborhood. I’ll also look at Richmond, where a nonprofit director reports that residents worry they’re just cleaning up their creeks for other people to enjoy. And I’ll take a look into my hometown of Oakland, where the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project is doing work to retain residents and enhance the quality of the environment. I’ll also consider initiatives in places like Marin City (Shore Up Marin), Hunter’s Point (Literacy for Environmental Justice), and East Palo Alto (Canopy).

The studies, data analysis and the narrative of those who’ve been impacted firsthand will be paired with a separate data reporting project that will examine the link between cleanup efforts and restoration initiatives, and the impact they have on housing prices and apartment rents over the last 20 years in the Bay Area.

The aim of this piece is to interweave elements of health care, environmentalism and housing prices, as well as income and racial discrimination, in an effort to create a dialogue that will bring about policies that protect not only nature, but the humans who call these habitats home as well. 

The piece will be published in the summer of 2018, through Bay Nature magazine.

[Photo by Traverse City Rotary Club via Flickr.]

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