The dark side of green development and what cities should do instead

Image of Neuton Creek.

Newton Creek (Photo: Flickr user Leland Rechis)


Toward a new vision of sustainable development: “just green enough.”

We’ve written about what we call the “parks, cafes, and a riverwalk” model of sustainability, which focuses on providing new green spaces, mainly for high-income people. This vision of shiny residential towers and waterfront parks has become a widely shared conception of what green cities should look like. But it can drive up real estate prices and displace low- and middle-income residents.

Aerial photo of Newtown Creek, which flows between Brooklyn and Queens into the East River. As scholars who study gentrification and social justice, we prefer a model that recognizes all three aspects of sustainability: environment, economy, and equity. The equity piece is often missing from development projects promoted as green or sustainable. We are interested in models of urban greening that produce real environmental improvements and also benefit long-term working-class residents in neighborhoods that are historically underserved.


Parks, cafes, and a riverwalk can lead to gentrification

Over a decade of research in an industrial section of New York City, we have seen an alternative vision take shape. This model, which we call “just green enough,” aims to clean up the environment while also retaining and creating living-wage blue-collar jobs. By doing so, it enables residents who have endured decades of contamination to stay in place and enjoy the benefits of a greener neighborhood.

Gentrification has become a catch-all term used to describe neighborhood change, and is often misunderstood as the only path to neighborhood improvement. In fact, its defining feature is displacement. Typically, people who move into these changing neighborhoods are whiter, wealthier, and more educated than residents who are displaced.


Fast Company

Published April 2, 2019

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