Social equity in green spaces

Last semester, it didn’t occur to me that it was actually autumn until late October.

Had I been in Charlottesville, this would have seemed absurd. Seeing the fiery landscape of Charlottesville in fall has always been one of my favorite experiences as a student at U.Va. But my experience in Copenhagen was vastly different: despite being lauded as an especially green city, I saw very few trees during my first two months unless I specifically sought out to visit a park. It wasn’t until I began taking runs around the lakes separating the district I lived in, Norrebro, from the city center that I saw the rusty red and orange leaves that I associate with autumn.

Norrebrogade, a central street in Norrebro. Image from
Norrebrogade, a central street in Norrebro. Image from

I had noticed this disparity in green space earlier on my walks to class or running around the city for site visits. Although I had quickly developed a strong sense of pride for my district, if it hadn’t been for all its vibrant graffiti and cultural diversity, living in Norrebro would have felt like being trapped in a concrete jungle; the land was heavily developed for residential buildings or commercial uses. Closer to the city center and especially along the harbor, it was much easier to find grass to sit on or trees to hide beneath. As Tim Beatley notes in Green Cities of Europe: Global Lessons on Green Urbanism, Norrebro contains an average of 2-3 m2 of green space per inhabitant, whereas the municipal average is 25 m2 of green space per inhabitant.

Islands Brygge, an area of Copenhagen bordering the harbor. Image from
Islands Brygge, an area of Copenhagen bordering the harbor. Image from

Why is the lack of green space important? We’ve already touched on the importance of green space for managing stormwater runoff in previous blog posts. As Tim Beatley mentions in his book, trees and plants also help reduce air and noise pollution, contributing to a better quality of life for those who live near green spaces. Walking through nature, including spending time in parks, has even been shown to help in fighting mental fatigue and maintaining focus.

As I later discovered, municipal planners and architects had taken issue with the lack of green space in Norrebro in previous years and had developed three large parks deeper into the district as part of a greater urban renewal effort. However, the difference in greenery compared to more affluent parts of the city is still worth noting. Norrebro is listed as an underprivileged district in Copenhagen because of its higher-than-average low-income population, and the lack of green space in an “underprivileged” area of the city is a trend seen all over the world. In fact, the environmental burden of certain communities extends far beyond a lack of green space; low-income and minority communities often bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental impacts of industrial and commercial development. For example, a 1983 government study found that almost all hazardous waste landfills in the southeastern US were located in low-income, minority communities.

Environmental justice is defined by the EPA as “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Environmental justice activists attempt to ensure that no particular demographic group is burdened with the negative impacts of development more than other demographic groups.  “Meaningful involvement” suggests that this is facilitated by providing potentially affected people opportunities to participate in making decisions which might affect their own communities.

Sources of heavy pollution mapped against low-income populations. Image from
Sources of heavy pollution mapped against low-income populations.
Image from

However, the issue of environmental justice is more complicated than merely passing laws to more evenly distribute environmental burdens or creating initiatives to improve conditions where they are dire. Sometimes, low-income communities lack green space or have more air pollution or soil contaminants because they have fewer opportunities to voice their opinions against these conditions, but often, this is the case because the cost of living, particularly the cost of rent, in more environmentally damaged areas is lowered by the poor environmental conditions. When the environmental conditions of an area improve, it suddenly becomes more attractive for wealthier tenants or developers—housing prices increase, and lower-income families are often displaced by this phenomenon known as gentrification. As put by a San Francisco Bay Area activist, developers “come in, take resources, and develop the community for the city, but not for the communities.”

Toeing the line between environmental improvement and gentrification is tricky. Improving environmental conditions in a neighborhood is an admirable goal, but how do planners avoid displacing communities while taking care of the environment and improving human health?

Several strategies have been proposed to secure low-income communities while also improving environmental conditions in affected areas. Developers and city planners and officials can help by focusing investments on the construction of affordable housing or on the rehabilitation of existing but dilapidated buildings. Improving the economic status of a neighborhood through training programs and encouraging entrepreneurship can also help to address the issue from another angle.

However, one solution draws its roots from the very definition of environmental justice. If “meaningful involvement” suggests that affected communities should be involved in decision-making, then perhaps improvement projects shouldn’t even be begun if not prioritized by those very community members. The model of encouraging grassroots development programs for community and environmental improvement has been used in New York City, several Californian cities including San Francisco and Los Angeles, and, of course, in my beloved Copenhagen. These programs either rely on community members to create a proposal for government funds to improve an aspect of their community, or establish partnerships between locals and government officials before decisions are made.

Rendering of New York City Highline. Image from
Rendering of New York City Highline. Image from

My blog post simplifies a lot of very complex ideas, so if you’re at all interested in environmental justice and gentrification, I strongly encourage you to read more (links below). What do you think—do you think environmental protection should trump social concerns, or do you believe that the risk of gentrification outweighs the potential benefits of improvement projects? Is there a design solution or policy that could solve both problems? What seems like a best solution?

More reading:
Gentrification, Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly, 2007
Embracing Environmental Justice to Green Our Cities, Rebecca Bratspies, 2012
Just Green Enough: Contesting Environmental Gentrification, Winifred Curran, 2013
Wiped Out by the “Greenwave”: Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability, Melissa Checker, 2007

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