Initiatives Democratizing the Green City

Review: Democratizing the Green City: What Environmental Improvement Means for Gentrification

Panelists sitting at table during event while Gianpaolo Baiocchi speaks

Rachel Stern reviews the Democratizing the Green City symposium, hosted by the Urban Democracy Lab at NYU Gallatin on January 23rd.

For many, the idea of the green city is a positive, exciting idea and a future to work towards. However, what happens when that idea gets implemented and only benefits the rich or the upper class? The idea of green spaces has become ubiquitous in many city plans, but the creation of these spaces often results in injustices such as gentrification and social displacement, as private wealth comes to dominate the battle over access to green areas.

On January 23rd, 2016, in the midst of a historic winter storm, various academics and experts from cities across the global North and South met at the Democratizing the Green City symposium at NYU Gallatin. They came together to discuss the ways that environmental improvement creates gentrification and social displacement, to explore solutions to break this cycle, and to balance environmental good with equal social good. The conference was convened by Gianpaolo Baiocchi (NYU), Daniel Aldana Cohen (NYU), Hillary Angelo (UC Santa Cruz), and Miriam Greenberg (UC Santa Cruz). Due to the snowstorm, which hit NYC with two feet of snow that weekend, the symposium was unfortunately cut short. However, the event still presented a well-rounded sense of the issues and possible solutions, from technical and practical standpoints, as well as more theoretical standpoints.

The first panel, “Housing and Green City Politics,” featured different opinions on what it means to be sustainable in the context of gentrification and environmental injustices. Daniel Aldana Cohen presented on collective consumption and urbanization in cities, discussing the idea of “grey ecology,” a term coined by Hillary Angelo. According to Angelo, “the future of real sustainability will look a lot more like midtown Manhattan than rural Vermont.” This idea was built upon in Melissa Checker’s presentation on the ways that industry contributes to gentrification. The global South was introduced in Claudia Lopez’s presentation that focused on rural displaced people and informal settlements. She focused on the municipality of Medellin in Colombia, and discussed the new plans by the Medellin government to create a massive greenbelt, which has increased displacement among marginalized communities.

Ken Gould and Tammy Lewis’ presentation on green gentrification reframed the discussion around green spaces in New York City that are often solely seen in a positive, environmental light. Their presentation highlighted the ways in which urban greening can increase inequality in the city, as environmental assets go to the wealthier, white groups, and negative environmental effects go to the poorer, black groups. 

One area where this has occurred is in Prospect Park, which was created in 1860 and was constructed specifically in order to encourage wealthier people to buy property in the area. After the park restoration in the late 1980s, Prospect Park returned to being a site of green gentrification and of wealthier inhabitants, playgrounds, dog runs, farmers markets, and bikers. In addition, the Corcoran Group has participated in a pattern of racial steering in its real estate practices near the area, further emphasizing who is “wanted” in the neighborhood and who is not. Other areas, including Brooklyn Bridge Park, Sunset Park’s Bush Terminal Park, and the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront development plan, also display indicators of green hyper-gentrification that continue to plague many places in the city.

The Gowanus Canal area also exemplified the ridiculous nature of some green marketing. The property around the Gowanus Canal is being revisioned as waterfront property, despite the fact that the Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted waterways in the country (the gonarrhea virus has been discovered there, as well as other sewage and pollutants). One of the ways in which the Gowanus Canal is being remarketed as a “green space” is the addition of a sustainability-themed Whole Foods complete with a greenhouse. The Whole Foods and the remarketing of the Gowanus area as “green” serves to attract new, upper-class people to the area, rather than serving the communities of people who already live there.

The issue of green gentrification often has a hidden negative side because the people who the green spaces serve do not feel the detrimental effects of gentrification nor do they think this environmentalism could possibly be harmful. These examples of green gentrification illustrate the questions that this symposium aims to address: How do we reconcile the positive impact of environmental green spaces with the adverse effects of the resulting gentrification? How do we make green spaces truly democratic?

The second panel, “Edges, Extensions and Networks,” attempted to answer those questions by exploring the practical implementations of green urban practice, and also looking at the ideas from a more theoretical standpoint. Paula Santoro, Sergio Montero, Oscar Sosa Lopez, and Kristin Miller focused on transportation and urban policy in Sao Paulo, Bogota, Mexico City, and San Francisco, respectively. Since three out of the four cities are located in the global South, the discussion of South-South urban learning emerged. The idea that urban learning is about communities in the global South connecting with other initiatives within the global South network directly contrasts with the notion that urban learning is orchestrated by Northern think tanks and philanthropic institutions. In addition, both Montero and Lopez discussed the implementation of green transportation practices that have democratized both mobility and green initiatives. Montero discussed the success of the Institute for Transportation and Development (ITDP)’s projects, such as the largest network of bicycle routes in Latin America and the Bus Rapid Transit system called Transmilenio. Montero described this as “the greening of development.” Sosa built on these ideas, talking about the democratization of the bicycle as a vehicle for social and environmental change in Mexico City. The bicycle is traditionally a poor person’s vehicle, but with the introduction of more bike lanes and a bike rental program, the bicycle has become an increasingly popular and destigmatized way to navigate the city. These presentations gave examples of the ways that environmental good and social good can be reconciled and emphasized.

Roger Keil’s presentation, “Greenbelt Politics: Creating a space for democracy in the soft space of suburbanization,” focused more on important concepts, rather than practical examples of environmentalism. He focused on the changing image of the suburbs and the common suburban problems of density, development processes, and lack of diversity. Most importantly, he discussed the position of the suburbs as “grey spaces” or places of in-betweenness. This reality is juxtaposed with the promise of the greenbelt, which was represented as a conservation area, a neoliberal space, a dream-space, and a political aporia. Keil asks how it’s possible to reconcile these two ideas in order to achieve democracy and green spaces in a privately-owned grey space.

In this presentation lies the essential question that this symposium attempts to answer: How can we reconcile our ideas and dreams about what place a green space can create with the reality of the implementation of green spaces? One part is awareness. This symposium brought the issues at hand to light in a world where green spaces are often seen as unequivocally positive. The panels in the symposium collectively emphasized the importance of democratic practices in making green spaces accessible to all and to stop them from aiding in the processes of gentrification and marginalization. By building upon this green democracy, we can create environmental improvement that benefits everyone.