By: Camryn Fujita
A View of a Harlem Neighborhood.
Source: Mozart Diensthuber, Wikimedia Commons
As we have discussed in my previous “What is Environmental Justice?” article, public awareness of environmental justice issues is extremely important in order to ensure that people of all walks of life, of all races, and of all means, have access to clean and healthy communities. Environmental justice efforts that are well-meaning and intend to address inequality, such as cleaning up neighborhoods, greening inner cities, and improving access to nature may mean well, but without careful thought and planning, can bring the unintended consequence of gentrifying affordable neighborhoods and displacing the very people whom the environmental improvements were intended to benefit in the first place.
In recent years, the word “sustainability” has become a marketable catch-phrase and talking point for many, not just progressives and environmentalists. It is even a term that carries a-political connotations, meaning that the idea of sustainability is generally agreeable to people across the political spectrum. According to the U.S. EPA, sustainability relies on the principle that “Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.” Viewing this definition through the lens of environmental justice then, shows that just as environmental challenges do not occur in a vacuum, so do proposed solutions. In regards to urban planning, developers and politicians who truly understand the meaning of sustainability should realize that decisions must also benefit “present and future generations” of all people, not just those who are in positions of privilege in society.
In her “Wiped Out by the “Greenwave”: Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability,” Professor Melissa Checker coins the term “environmental gentrification” to describe how high-end developers have capitalized upon the trend of green living in a way that “builds on the material and discursive successes of the environmental justice movement and appropriates them to serve high‐end development. While it appears as politically‐neutral, consensus‐based planning that is both ecologically and socially sensitive, in practice, environmental gentrification subordinates equity to profit‐minded development.” In her paper, she argues that threats of environmental gentrification force people from communities who would otherwise support environmental improvements, to “face a pernicious paradox—must they reject environmental amenities in their neighborhoods in order resist the gentrification that tends to follow such amenities.”
Gentrification has historically been difficult to measure because there is a lack of consensus among scholars as to how to accurately identify and measure its complex political, economic, and social causes. The most widely accepted definition of gentrification is the changing character of a neighborhood due to the displacement of lower income households and businesses with higher income households and businesses. However, critics argue that existing scholarship does not properly take into account the “racial dimensions” of the phenomenon. They point to the reality that many pre-gentrified neighborhoods are comprised of predominantly low-income Black and/or non-white Latinos and that gentrification is commonly associated with the arrival of White, wealthier residents who displace them. Gentrification usually benefits middle class families, but can also be particularly painful for people of color who come from low educational backgrounds as it tends to push out and concentrate poverty. When gentrification happens, a community usually undergoes much needed improvements and added amenities that unintentionally (or intentionally) attract wealthier people. In the process, long-term residents get priced out when such renovations raise property values on the free market.
Checker takes a more qualitative approach through interviews and in-person observation in her analysis of environmental improvement projects created under the PlaNYC initiative in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City from 2007 to 2011. She found the so-called “pernicious paradox” materialized in the relationship between the grassroots West Harlem Environmental Action Coalition (WE ACT) and NYC government officials. WE ACT, composed of Harlem residents and activists, began advocating for community-based involvement in urban projects, addressing the poor air quality, and for more environmental amenities in the late 1980s after decades of city policies and urban zoning laws consequently pushed the residential and industrial areas closer and closer together. WE ACT was initially involved in early PlaNYC sustainability planning, however, the grassroots organization soon discovered that the city’s “long-term vision for the plan would focus narrowly on infrastructure needs and metrics that would enable [it] to effectively track and evaluate its progress.”
Urban sustainability projects that did not include community guidance resulted in WE ACT having to intervene on several occasions to uphold community interests. In one instance, WE ACT had to raise an alarm when an initiative intended to enforce energy efficiency in large buildings “failed to include any provisions to prevent landlords from passing the cost of boiler upgrades onto their tenants” and instead, took action to find a “more locally relevant” solution to reducing emissions. Checker also found that NYC’s first LEED-certified townhouse, which was built in Harlem, included amenities that drove up the price 35% higher than surrounding townhomes. This case study of Harlem perfectly illustrates the paradox caused by environmental gentrification. A community-based environmental organization that formed with the intent of advocating for environmental improvement, eventually transforms into an organization that essentially has to temper and check the pace of its city’s “greening” in order to make sure its long-time residents are not harmed too much by the changes.
A Part of the Newtown Nature Creek Walk in the Neighborhood of Greenpoint in Brooklyn, New York.
Source: Varick Shute
One takeaway from Checker’s analysis is that on a very basic level, cities must truly integrate and prioritize community involvement at all stages of planning to prevent urban greening projects from becoming a “post-political project that sidelines questions of real inclusion and justice.” If gentrification is so hard to identify and measure in the first place, brainstorming potential solutions to displacement and rapid redevelopment is also difficult as well. Curran and Hamilton (2012) provide a potential solution through their “just green enough” approach, defined as a way to achieve goals of environmental justice without displacing long-time residents. Their study looked at Greenpoint neighborhood, a polluted, industrial community in Brooklyn, New York. The “just green enough” strategy addresses the immediate environmental needs of the community by cleaning up the harmful pollution, but does not seek to change the industrial and blue-collar character of the neighborhood. The end goal is not to create a model green city or to introduce new developments such as LEED-certified developments, new parks, or a riverwalk. The “just green enough” strategy prevents developers from benefiting off of the necessary clean-up of neglected neighborhoods and makes sure people who need help are the ones benefiting from environmental justice projects. At the same time, Curran and Hamilton (2012) emphasize that maintaining a working-class neighborhood does not mean “just green enough” projects should ignore community desires to have green space. The establishment of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint was viewed as a success for the existing community partly because it was not tied to residential and commercial redevelopment.
In practice, however, the “just green enough” promise may be something that will be difficult for if a city is more inclined to prioritize lucrative business deals that only benefit a wealthier class of people. Some suggest that other “just green enough” approaches may not necessarily require heavy city or state involvement. The community itself can transform derelict land or brownfields into community gardens and perhaps more “informal” green space rather than manicured parks. Although there is a lot of debate over what exactly is this threshold of environmental improvements that the “just green enough” theory implies will cause gentrification, Greenpoint is a testament to the ability of local activists to manifest a truly sustainable future.