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When parks and green spaces are Trojan horses for something far worse

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

When parks and green spaces are Trojan horses for something far worse

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Richmond residents helped design and build the amenities at Elm Playlot, and created the programming for kids and adults. (Photo
Richmond residents helped design and build the amenities at Elm Playlot, and created the programming for kids and adults. (Photo: Pogo Park/Bay Nature Magazine)

Who could possibly have any sort of objection to renovating a park?

The benefits of a thriving park in a community are well documented. Research has shown that people who live near parks or greenways are more likely to exercise, which improves their health, and that spending time in nature provides both psychological and physical health benefits.

We also know that many low-income neighborhoods are “park-poor,” with fewer playgrounds, basketball courts, playing fields and nature trails than nearby affluent areas. So shouldn’t we all be in favor of adding park space to economically poor — and park-poor — communities?

While working on an assignment for Bay Nature magazine as a 2018 California Fellow, I began learning about the dark side of rebuilding parks and green spaces — a phenomenon referred to as “green gentrification.” When I began my research, I had no idea that I’d also be learning about malpractice in the cleanup of an old Navy testing facility and how the ghost of industrialization in America is haunting San Francisco, a city increasingly known for the tech boom. 

The result: “Do Parks Push People Out?” published in October 2018 in Bay Nature Magazine.

The characters in my story are the parks, not the people. The antagonist is San Francisco’s Heron’s Head Park, a piece of land adjacent to Hunters Point-Bayview, an underserved community in southeastern San Francisco that has suffered environmental injustices for decades.

That park is being revamped as a part of the Blue Greenway, a concept that developers are pushing to lure people with money to buy and build housing in this new “chic” area.

In short, these communities are facing the same challenge as many urban spaces — a bold land grab — and the renovation of this green space is playing a significant part.

The hero in my story is Richmond’s Elm Playlot. It’s a creative playground that was once a vacant lot that harbored dogfights and broken beer bottles. And then Pogo Park, a nonprofit organization, stepped in, adopted the park and worked with the community to reimagine it.  

Longtime residents welded and worked wood to create fences and barbecue pits. It’s now a beautiful community gathering place where longtime residents can come and do yoga and create crafts (the operative words being “longtime residents.”)

In my story, there are cameos from the Los Angeles River, the Anacostia River neighborhood in Washington, D.C., the High Line in Manhattan and Newton Creek in the Green Point neighborhood in Brooklyn — other areas that have been “greened,” resulting in varying degrees of gentrification.

Of course, the parks can’t talk for themselves, so I spoke to a bunch of people who know these parks. I spoke to activists and community members, as well as educators and researchers. But my story opens with a van full of teenage summer interns in San Francisco.

The interns were testing the soil of the area around Heron’s Head, in the Hunters Point-Bayview neighborhood, which community members have been doing for decades. I found information about this in old community newsletters, on local blogs and in articles from The Bayview Newspaper — the historical African-American-owned newspaper.  

For years, community members have known that the soil under their feet and the air they breathe was tainted. They knew about the underground fire that once burned for more than a month, sending up plumes of green and blue smoke, as some witnesses reported.  

For years, higher rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses were documented near the old Naval Shipyard and PG&E plant in that area, which had been declared a Superfund site. And then last year the public became aware of falsified claims that the shipyard — where new housing is being marketed— had been fully cleaned of extremely hazardous materials.

Two former Tetra Tech cleanup supervisors were sentenced to prison for the falsified claims, but Tetra Tech has continued to land large contracts for cleanup efforts, including a contract awarded in January 2019 to clean up the town of Paradise, California, in the wake of the Camp Fire.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Bay, Richmond’s two Pogo Parks are chugging along, and the city itself seems on the upswing. Richmond reported 21 murders in 2016, compared with 47 in 2009. Its unemployment rate is at an all-time low. A new ferry line linking the city to San Francisco will lessen commute times for many residents.

The parks are by no means the catalyst for the changes in the city. But they do play a part in how residents feel about their community and the larger ecosystem.

And the people at Pogo Park are focused on the larger ecosystem, beyond the Bay Area. They’re looking to share strategies with people who are in complex situations around the usage of green space wherever they are.

My story ends with Joe Griffin from Pogo Park explaining that my question of how to fix a park without losing the people it was meant to benefit is “a huge question.”

During a conversation at a cafe in Berkeley, he told me, “In the neighborhood I’m from, when we started seeing bike lanes, we were like, ‘Wait a minute, why are there bike lanes there? Why did they fix those light poles, and what is that bench doing here?’ You get scared.”

Griffin concluded by saying, “That’s the importance of having staff members who are also local residents — and being able to pay them, so it’s not just a nights-and-weekends thing. This is a part of what they do, and how they feel financially secure in the neighborhood. It affects place in a lot of different ways.”

A few lessons learned: 

The data I pulled for this piece was all peripheral information, things that speak to my research, but didn’t answer my question head on. Here are a few things I learned from my reporting:

  • There is no definitive way to show how the renovation of a park has impacted the price of property in a given community. But you can look at the change in population or the rise in property values over a given time, including before and after an area was “greened.”
  • Organize your notes! It’s one thing to take notes for a story reported in a week, or over the course of a month. But over the course of nine months? I’ll just say it’s wise to have a method to your madness. I started with a folder, a notebook, a Google doc and a browser full of open tabs. That went haywire. What I found works best for me is simply having a notebook and a Word document for hyperlinks and other digital notes. Bottom line: be organized.
  • You’re probably reading this on a computer, tablet or phone, so this is key: Put down the electronics. Walk your beat. Get to know the people. Smell the plants, feel the dirt, watch the flow of traffic, listen to the birds, take in the sunset and the sunrise. Spend as much time on the scene as possible. It’s not enough to search the internet and read books. Walk the places you’re writing about. Do it with longtime residents. And then do it by yourself. Whatever you do, make sure you walk the beat.  
  • Here’s something I’ve been doing for a while, and I can’t tell you if it’s a good or bad thing — but it’s definitely a thing: see the world through the lens of your story. That means, keep eyes and ears open for details that pertain to the central idea in your story. Have your rabbit ears up and your antennae tuned in. Talk to random people about what you’re researching. They might have leads. Don’t count anyone out. I mean, don’t be the annoying cousin sourcing your family during Sunday dinner, but find a way to casually throw it out there as you ask your uncle to pass the peas.
  • My final tip: Don’t be confined to your preconceived notion of what the story is. It’s important to remember that stories grow and evolve, so being open minded and flexible is key.

I had to learn this myself, as I was thrown into this world of reporting on environmental injustice after being given a simple thread to follow from my editors. They told me what they imagined the story would be, and I followed their lead. And that made sense. I mean, they’re the pros, and I’m just getting started in reporting in general, and specifically on health and environmental themes.

But after walking the beat and talking to people and having my antennae up, I came back with somewhat of a different story — something that was important and relevant, but not exactly what my editors had in mind.

Luckily, they were open. They didn’t hold me to their ideas for what the story should be, and besides being flexible, they pushed me to do more and gave me more time. I turned in drafts that they pulled apart and added their advice to. We had in-person meetings, because talking through lofty ideas via text and email wasn’t working. I had to just sit in the office one day and flesh out what I was working on and explain why it was important. And they received every word, and told me how I could make it better.

Now that I’m writing this reflection, I can see just how lost I would’ve been if my editors hadn’t allowed me to follow my nose — and simultaneously guided me along the way. I really appreciate how Eric Simmons and Victoria Schlesinger assisted me in this process on the Bay Nature end, and how my senior fellow, John Gonzales, pushed me on behalf of USC’s Center for Health Journalism.

That balancing act of support and guidance — I can’t champion that enough.

It was the coupling of the things that were within my power — being organized, getting to know people and seeing the world through a specific lens — with the luck of the draw when it came to editors that allowed me to craft the final story.

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