With expertise in equitable development, educational outreach, and group facilitation, Morgan Turner serves as CCLP Policy Advocate. She previously served as Program Manager for Mile High Connects.

Aug 1, 2022

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Going Green Without Gentrification

by | Aug 1, 2022

A key focus among advocates and decision-makers in the housing sector are policies and programs geared towards supporting communities that are safe, thriving, and affordable for the residents who inhabit them. But efforts to improve quality of life are often a two-edged sword. Gentrification—the process of urban development in which a neighborhood develops rapidly over a short time, changing from low to high value—results in the displacement of existing low-income residents as higher-income individuals move in. Tight-knit communities are torn apart, immeasurable historic and cultural value is destroyed, and once-affordable housing is lost forever. Neighborhoods of color end up disproportionately harmed, rather than benefiting, by what might otherwise be seen as positive civic transformation. 

The need to mitigate this harm only grows by the day, as cities continuously “reinvent” themselves and housing unaffordability rises to the level of crisis across the country. Individual well-being depends tremendously upon access to not only housing, but to a stable community. Preserving long-standing communities in the face of development pressure is therefore critical to housing policy that truly intends to foster greater quality of life for a city’s residents.  

In recent years, housing and climate justice advocates have started to take a closer look at the impact of “greening” neighborhoods—in particular, the ways in which improved public amenities, such as new parks, more tree coverage, and investment in sustainable infrastructure, result in increased rents and property values. This phenomenon is called green gentrification, and as with other forms of gentrification, the consequence is the displacement of lower-income residents and people of color. 

It is important to note that greening on its own is not a bad thing. “Sustainable investment,” “greening,” and “green infrastructure” projects can come from a place of good intention. These efforts might include creating new parks, increasing access to transit or bike lanes, and even updating sidewalks in neighborhoods that have experienced historic disinvestment. In fact, research shows that greening can have positive impacts on health, including reduced exposure to air pollution, improvements in mental health, and increased adoption of healthy behaviors like physical activity. But too often we see that new investments aimed to promote health, sustainability, and access to natural spaces serve instead as tell-tale signs for existing residents to pack their bags.  

It is critical that cities continue to invest and increase access to outdoor spaces and clean transportation. However, cities also cannot expect low-income residents and neighborhoods of color to reap the benefits of greening if existing residents cannot remain in the long-time neighborhoods they helped to build. 

 

The challenge… and perhaps a key to the solution 

The challenge before us is complex: how can cities equitably invest in greening and sustainable infrastructure, ensuring increased quality of life in communities disproportionately impacted by historic disinvestment… while also mitigating the gentrification and displacement which denies those same communities the opportunity to share in those improvements?  

One part of the solution, however, appears to be simple: Green investments must be centered in community voice and lived experience. Authentic and open conversations with communities is a great place to start.  

In June, as part of a national peer-to-peer cohort, alongside Energy Outreach Colorado, Conservation Colorado, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, and Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, Colorado Center on Law and Policy hosted a community forum to discuss the impact of green gentrification in the Denver region. This cohort, Towards Equitable Electric Mobility (TEEM), aimed to ensure that electric mobility investments—also a type of greening—would advance equity among communities disproportionately impacted by climate change and a current lack of clean mobility options. 

In the forum, we posed the following question to community members:  

“How does Colorado, a state associated with vibrant days, sustainability, and the outdoors, continue to advocate for greening communities without further displacing them?”  

While the forum did not settle on a simple solution, participants made one thing clear: community must be involved. Community members with lived experiences and expertise need a seat at the table to make critical decisions about their communities, just as city officials, planners, and other decision-makers already do. All too often, however, community members are not invited to participate. Indeed, communities are often driven away, passively and actively, from the process.  

One community member shared that, “People tell us we do not know enough; we [are] made to feel that we are not smart enough to sit at [these] tables.” It became clear through the ensuing discussion that residents of impacted neighborhoods care deeply about what happens to their communities, but civic development processes do not always provide communities adequate opportunity to express their needs and desires, or to showcase the brilliance found among their residents. 

We know that hosting one community forum is simply not enough to properly engage with and value a community. It does not single-handedly solve the significant structural challenges that come alongside economic growth and sustainable investment. Based on the engagement and dialog of this event, however, such efforts appear to be at least a first step—of many—in centering community voice in planning green investments, and thus ensuring that “greening” can equitably benefit low-income residents and communities of color.  

Be sure to keep a look out for details on the next Colorado TEEM cohort event where we will continue the conversation with the communities most at risk of displacement, and work toward shaping solutions which will help mitigate green gentrification! 

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