Parks are meant for everyone — so why do they often displace marginalized communities?

Lorenza Centi
ByJennifer Johnson
Originally Published: 

When the American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted visited Liverpool’s Birkenhead Park in 1850, he was surprised to find that the land was enjoyed equally by people from all social classes. “The poorest British peasant,” he’d later write, “is as free to enjoy it in all its parts as the British queen.”

At the time, most urban green spaces were privately owned or otherwise only accessible to the wealthy. Birkenhead — widely credited as the first public park in the world — convinced Olmsted that a more inclusive type of urban green space was possible. These egalitarian ambitions would go on to inform his visions for New York’s Central and Prospect Parks, among dozens of others across the U.S.

To this day, parks are among the only urban spaces ostensibly created to enrich the lives of the public, rather than generate profits for private enterprises — and the pandemic has only underscored their social significance. There’s already plenty of evidence to show that spending time outdoors is beneficial for mental health and wellbeing. But when your only other leisure activity is doom-scrolling and there’s a widespread airborne virus that lingers indoors, parks can feel more like a refuge than ever.

“When a neighborhood becomes hot, it becomes hot in part because of this massive public investment. Then developers can come in, offer cash to low income homeowners, buy their buildings and tear them down.”

Last spring, one woman told The New York Times that spending time in a verdant Central Park gave her hope amidst the deepening COVID-19 crisis. It’s a sentiment that has undoubtedly been shared by anyone lucky enough to have had access to a green space since the pandemic began. Though well-meaning planners have long intended for parks to be accessible to everyone, studies have shown that low income populations and communities of color consistently have less access to nature than wealthy white people.

One report published last year from the Hispanic Access Foundation and the Center for American Progress found that people of color are almost three times more likely to live in “nature deprived” areas, which lack paths, parks, and other green spaces. However, cities can’t simply fix these imbalances by transforming vacant lots or former industrial sites into tree-lined oases. This is because new parks and green spaces can act as anchors for high-end redevelopment, attracting privileged new residents while displacing more socially fragile groups. If this process sounds a lot like gentrification, that’s because it is – just with an eco-conscious veneer.

“In a way, green gentrification is more insidious, because the ‘green city’ sold by urban designers, policymakers, and planners is a city for everyone,” Isabelle Anguelovski, director of the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, tells Mic. “There are benefits for ecosystems, for health, for cohesion. It's basically a package of winners. But in reality you have those who are able to capture those benefits — who are wealthier and white — and others are being pushed out.”

The High Line in New York City. Copyright Artem Vorobiev/Moment Unreleased/Getty Images

Scholars have been documenting instances of green gentrification for more than a decade. One of the best-known examples is New York's High Line, the greenway built on a disused railroad on Manhattan’s West Side. Researchers found that the homes closest to the project experienced a 35% increase in housing values after its 2009 opening. Meanwhile, small businesses were forced out by the sheer force of property speculation. Similar patterns have been observed around Chicago’s 606, another railway-turned-greenway that has proved to be a magnet for luxury developments.

“If you walk on the 606, and you pay attention to the housing stock, you'll notice so many new buildings, because there's a cycle of profit that can be made,” Christian Diaz, the director of housing at the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), a multi-issue community organization based in the Northwest Side of Chicago, tells Mic. “When a neighborhood becomes hot, it becomes hot in part because of this massive public investment. Then developers can come in, offer cash to low income homeowners, buy their buildings and tear them down.”

Researchers at Chicago’s DePaul University found that home prices in Logan Square and Humboldt Park, on the western portion of the 606, have soared 344% since 2012. According to Diaz, who has lived in Logan Square for much of his life, gentrification of the neighborhood was already underway before the 606 was built in 2015. Between 2000 and 2014, 19,000 Hispanic residents were priced out of the neighborhood — and the introduction of a new greenspace only intensified the displacement.

“The truth is, the way that neighborhoods change is through collaboration between banks, investors, developers, and municipalities,” Diaz says. “Our role at LSNA is to make sure the public is aware of these processes and that we’re empowered to ask the hard questions and be obstructive when we need to be. Otherwise decisions keep being made about us that don’t include us.”

Once a given area is earmarked for “greening,” profit-hungry investors and developers move to attract high-income tenants and residents. “When a new green project is announced, real estate prices may go up by 10% or 15% in the vicinity of where that green space is going to go,” Anguelovski says. “If you don’t already have a very strong housing policy in place, it’s already too late.”

“You invest first and foremost in the community, and only then do you build a physical asset.”

But green projects don’t have to fuel gentrification. Washington D.C.’s 11th Street Bridge Park is an infrastructure reuse project that is actively striving to bring inclusive economic growth to the surrounding community. The elevated park will span the Anacostia River, connecting the city’s eastern Anacostia and western Capitol Hill neighborhoods. Decades of disinvestment east of the river, as well as racial and economic segregation, have led to health and wealth disparities between the communities that will be linked by the park.

The non-profit behind the project, Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR), hopes it can serve as a vital connection between the two sides of the Anacostia. According to Scott Kratz, Director of the 11th Street Bridge Park, the planning process started with a process of community consultation that centered the needs of residents, rather than the park’s green potential.

“There’s a difference between community outreach, which tends to be unidirectional and deep community engagement,” he tells Mic. “In our case, I think what was really critical was before we even engaged the architects and engineers, we went out into the community.”

BBAR has since helped create a community land trust, an organization designed to ensure community stewardship of land, and acquired a 65-unit apartment block that will provide permanently affordable housing. To date, the project has also secured more than $60 million in direct investments to support the local workforce and small businesses – nearly equivalent to the construction costs of the park itself. Infrastructure work is set to begin this year.

“You invest first and foremost in the community, and only then do you build a physical asset,” Kratz says. “If we’re successful, and we hope we will be, we can make sure the residents who shaped the park from the beginning are the ones that benefit from it.”

Modern urban greening projects are too frequently framed as utopian and apolitical. But without proper planning and regulation, they risk entrenching existing inequalities, regardless of planners’ noble intentions. What good is a new park if it doesn’t come with a commitment to affordable housing, local businesses, and long-term residents? It’s time city leaders ask themselves who, exactly, green spaces are really for.