The dangers of eco-gentrification: what’s the best way to make a city greener?

Jeanne Haffner
The Guardian
May 6, 2015

When construction on New York City’s famous High Line began in 2006, the project to turn a remnant of the industrial age into a post-industrial garden and tourist attraction appeared innovative, but potentially very risky.

In fact, having finally opened in 2009, the High Line is now suffering from its own success: with more than 5 million estimated visitors to the site each year, this greening initiative has managed to transform the entire socio-economic character of the neighbourhood that surrounds it. Many small businesses and moderate-income residents have been forced to relocate due to rising land values, while even those who can afford it have begun to experience the downsides of living or working in an area that panders to tourists.

The High Line is thus a perfect example of “environmental gentrification” – the growing phenomenon of rising property values in the wake of a large-scale urban greening project. It’s a bit like the introduction of a new transportation hub or other major infrastructure project: while intended to serve existing residents, in reality it tends to increase land values to the point that those who live there are forced to leave. This exodus in turn transforms the sociological contours of the area and, by extension, the spatial segregation of the entire city.

It feels timely, then, to revisit an old question: what is the best way to introduce nature into a city?

Land speculation in regard to large-scale greening projects is nothing new. When the very first public park in Europe, Birkenhead Park on Merseyside, was in the early phases of planning in the 1840s, park commissioners bought up parcels of land around the park and cashed in after it was built. Similarly, one of the main reasons behind the construction of New York City’s Central Park – designed by Frederick Law Olmsted after a trip to Birkenhead – was to raise property values and tax revenues for the city. (Olmsted himself carried out a series of studies on rising land values around the park from the mid-1850s to the mid-1870s, and used these findings to obtain support for the creation of parks in other cities.)

In our present neoliberal era, this process has been further amplified. Large-scale projects for “greening” cities, such as the High Line, have become bigger and more targeted to more specific audiences, contributing to the problem of residential segregation. In New York City, for instance, a proposed “Lowline” is scheduled to open in the Lower East Side in 2018. Funded in part by Absolut Vodka, the clientele of this underground park-museum is easily identified.Also expected in 2018 is the London Garden Bridge, presumably geared toward a similar, cocktail-oriented crowd.

Increasing the segregation of cities is not, of course, what the creators of these and other projects intended. But these plans nevertheless reflect a rather narrow-minded vision of what it means to bring nature into the city. They also appear to turn a blind eye to the drawbacks of endeavours such as the High Line – not only for moderate-income residents but for everyone in the city, no matter what their income level.

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