Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Green Gentrification: Grow or Go?

By Stella LinardiPublished February 17, 2019

The image depicts a gentrification map of an area in Los Angeles, California.
Green gentrification is a specific epidemic affecting many low-income people of color in urban neighborhoods. To improve the gentrification process, urban planning officials must consider the social and economic ramifications of gentrification, especially on the neighborhoods they directly affect.

Given the rise of urbanization, the movement against urban sprawl, and the increasing use of technology, and public transportation,  the positive development of impoverished urban areas is both desirable and possibly inevitable. Yet, gentrification is a complicated and highly debated process. To improve the gentrification process, urban planning officials must consider the social and economic ramifications of gentrification, especially on the neighborhoods they directly affect. Furthermore, to strive for genuinely equal urban improvements, government officials and urban planners must reevaluate their current practices, while also actively considering those being negatively and disproportionately affected by the gentrification process. Gentrification can be a highly beneficial process for all, but only if the government and officials implement inclusionary policies that aim to improve the neighborhoods that are being gentrified. Governments must also strive to preserve affordable housing and cultural integrity.

Firstly, it is imperative to assess gentrification, its origin, and its implementation. This can be done by evaluating some historical processes that have changed neighborhoods on the basis of gentrification. Since the late 1970’s, the United States government and developers have taken initiative to modify certain areas through gentrification. While the government and developers continue to promote the process of urban revitalization—where a neighborhood “becomes attractive to the middle class”—, the beginnings of gentrification are widely known to stem from actions of private enterprises and income differences. However, the gentrification that follows urban revitalization is argued to be a consequence of government decisions and policies, with repercussions that include (but are not limited to) segregatory zoning laws and housing displacement of people of color, particularly African Americans.

Indeed, due to urbanization, gentrification is an epidemic affecting many low-income people of color in urban neighborhoods. Looking at government policies helps reveal the implicit (or sometimes purposeful) bias in zoning and urban planning. For instance, since the 19th century, racial zoning ordinances have been observed to enforce segregation within cities. In Atlanta, for example, the Atlanta City Planning Commission drafted a zone plan that explicitly separated the city into an “R-1 white district” and an “R-2 colored district”, amongst other planned neighborhoods. Although the Georgia Supreme Court ruled this plan unconstitutional in 1924, the racial zoning map was still utilized by Atlanta officials. However, the discriminatory practices of gentrification are not always demarcated by obvious segregatory practices such as Atlanta’s zoning map. Instead, they are found in biased laws and regulations. Atlanta’s attempt to implement segregation within an urban neighborhood only marked the beginning of blatantly racist policies and practices. More recent government policies also reinforce prejudiced practices in urban development and revitalization.

Despite changes to the law, the persistence of segregation in Atlanta demonstrates that gentrification is a product of de jure segregation (segregation enforced by law or policy) but is instead a product of de facto segregation (segregation that is not explicitly mandated by law or policy). Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made segregation illegal in the United States, government policies have implicitly allowed for segregation to generate under the guise of urban revitalization. Through racially motivated laws and regulations, a pattern of urban ghettos, surrounded by white middle-class suburbs, have appeared in the United States. In conclusion, the discriminatory practices of gentrification are do not arise by chance, but have been legally and institutionally supported by the federal government.

Despite its defects, the idea of community restoration still appeals to many individuals, particularly those who are concerned with economic development or environmental issues. However, without the inclusion of minority voices or the communities that gentrification affects, urban planners will never understand the complex impact of the gentrification process. One case study sheds further light on how community restoration, despite good intentions, can actually exacerbate community displacement and further environmental inequality. In the Los Angeles area, neighborhoods struggle to endure the changes inflicted by green rejuvenation projects led by the government. Los Angeles is a hotspot for many cultural clusters. Members of minority communities agglomerate in neighborhoods such as Koreatown, Little Tokyo, South Central, and East Los Angeles, amongst many others. These dense cultural populations, however, are the most vulnerable to gentrification. This vulnerability was illustrated by Jon Christensen, founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies in the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Christensen evaluated green gentrification through a specific case: the Los Angeles River. As the Los Angeles River turned into a major greening initiative project in the city, Christensen pushed a unique focus on “its relationship to surrounding communities” and the lack of “inclusive green development that lifts up communities in place”. He emphasizes the need for inclusion in the gentrification process (especially between policymakers/developers and developing neighborhoods) arguing that inclusion is essential in order to create sustainable projects that benefit all those affected by them. Christensen cites the Los Angeles Regional Open Space and Affordable Housing Collaborative as a main organization pushing for resident inclusion and against historical and cultural depreciation, especially by “promot[ing] successful policies and strategies for preserv[ation]”. Indeed, he argues that social and political coordination is valuable as well as possible, as demonstrated by the LA ROSAH Collaborative, which has recruited a significant amount of low-income and minority members to challenge political and urban development leaders. Moreover, as tourism increases, Christensen argues that land value and displacement have the potential to increase as well. This, in turn, could drive rent/property values so high that residents would not be able to keep up with rent and would thus have to move. Furthermore, Christensen speculates that although green gentrification may generate concerning negative effects, collective neighborhood efforts to curb overall gentrification and restructure developmental plans to better benefit residents.

What was once a promising proposal for urban development, is now being increasingly exposed as a mechanism that leads to further environmental inequalities for people of color and low-income communities. The amalgamation of the facts above prove that gentrification is not a product of few traders and firms, but of institutionalized market power and government control, such as through zoning policies and housing price inflation. Green gentrification in particular is a trend in urban planning that causes significant harm through housing displacement and cultural diminishment, despite its benefits through modernization and building/ecological renovations. Therefore, present day green gentrification is a negative development in urban planning, due to its exclusionary practices and continuous neglect towards minority groups. However, through consultation with minority groups and neighborhood residents, it can be changed into a positive process.