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Green Gentrification: A Pernicious Paradox

As cities work to make improvements to advance resiliency and sustainability, a ‘pernicious paradox’ has begun to emerge as neighborhoods that have been underinvested in suddenly become desirable due to new “green” amenities including parks, trails, biking infrastructure, and increased transit access among others. Green gentrification, the process by which environmental greening leads to increases in perceived local desirability that result in higher property values and rents, has become a subject of concern and debate among urban planners, community organizers, and environmental advocates.

‘Cleaning and Greening’

Often framed as “win-win” tools, “greening” refers to investment in parks, open space, bike lanes, and other infrastructure that can improve a city’s climate resiliency while reducing environmental impacts. While the term was in part popularized by superstar projects like the High Line or Atlanta’s Belt Line, small-scale projects also impact nearby property values.

According to Geoffrey Donovan of the US Forest Service, “Every percentage point increase in a neighborhood’s overall tree cover boosted a home’s sale price by $882, and each new street tree was associated with a $131 premium. But the effect is small compared to the introduction of a light rail stop — which can add $5,500 to a home’s price.”

In popular writing, the term green gentrification is used to cover a range of greening activities including improvements to open space, streetscapes, recreation facilities and opportunities, transportation, and infrastructure improvements. Some of these improvements have been found to have more influence on the risk of gentrification than others. For example, a recent study of more than 11,000 miles of urban bike infrastructure suggests that the addition of bicycling infrastructure was not highly correlated with displacement.

A Pernicious Paradox

With many cities experiencing critical shortages in housing at all income levels, residents who have been priced-out of desirable neighborhoods are already placing pressure on previously marginalized communities. In order to protect against outside pressures, communities are often put in the position to be hesitant or reject new amenities. In 2011, anthropologist Melissa Checker coined this phenomena the “pernicious paradox.” Communities that have been disinvested in may be hesitant towards any development out of fear of displacement. In other words, communities that will be the most impacted by climate change may reject the very improvements that will help mitigate effects of climate change for fear of being pushed out.

Disrupting Green Gentrification

Here are four ways developers, policymakers, and civic leaders can embrace “green” improvements without exacerbating inequities:

1. Pair projects with policies centering equity, discourage speculation, and maintain or add affordable housing

For a new project in Bozeman, Montana, for example, the Trust for Public Land helped set aside a plot adjacent to the 60-acre Story Mill Park for 62 additional units of affordable housing.

In Philadelphia, the Longtime Owner Occupants Program limits home assessment increases to 50 percent for those who have lived in their residence for 10 or more years and meet an income cap. This policy “[helped] mitigate the risk of tax delinquencies and residential displacement.

Some states have also implemented “circuit breaker” state income tax policies that provide relief for low-income homeowners faced with high property tax bills, which may be a result of neighborhood gentrification.

2. Enhance neighborhood stability through community land trusts (CLTs) and equitable planning

Because of both DC’s intense gentrification and the notable income and racial differences between Anacostia and Capitol Hill, residents were concerned park investments would lead to displacement or increased homelessness. Over two years, through a multi-stakeholder partnership, BBAR held more than 200 meetings for residents to develop and give feedback on an equitable development plan, which led to the creation of the Douglass Community Land Trust.


3. Target policies to benefit specific groups, like renters, current or future homeowners, or businesses and the local workforce

Rent control; anti-eviction protections (such as right to counsel); and renter education workshops may be necessary to protect renters living in existing privately owned rental units.

Property tax freezes for existing low-income homeowners can help stabilize neighborhoods and may be especially beneficial for older homeowners who may be living on a fixed income. Financial support, such as down-payment assistance, can help prospective low-income homeowners stay in or move into improved neighborhoods. Strategies to create additional revenue for low-income homeowners, such as allowing the construction of accessory dwelling units, have the additional benefit of reducing sprawl and creating increased density in improved neighborhoods without displacing current residents.

Strategies to protect or create locally owned small businesses, such as small business disruption funds, and strategies to create jobs for longtime residents, such as first source hiring ordinances, can create opportunities to increase income for residents while encouraging diverse business development.

Importantly, these strategies are most effective when deployed before improvements are made.


4. Engage a range of stakeholders and strategies to encourage affordable housing development and anti-displacement principles

Cities can employ strategies that require private-sector housing developers to contribute to the production of affordable housing, either by directly building new, below-market-rate units, or paying fees that cities can use to build such units. Tools include inclusionary zoning, production incentives (such as density bonuses) and developer impact fees for affordable housing to increase the supply of below-market-rate housing units near new parks, transit stops, or other desirable amenities.

Housing trust funds, community land trusts, and other forms of land banking can increase affordable housing and stabilize neighborhoods often in smaller, more targeted ways.

Value-capture mechanisms, such as tax-increment financing (TIF), can offset the up-front costs of building affordable housing as part of improvement projects. TIF bonds have been used to fund land acquisition, sewer and water upgrades, environmental remediation, construction of parks, and road construction, among other projects.

Public agencies who are funders can require or incentivize grant recipients to include anti-displacement strategies in their proposals for development projects. For example, a Los Angeles County parcel-tax funding source for parks includes displacement-avoidance strategies.

“Greening” As an Equitable Approach

While the pursuit of a cleaner and healthier environment is essential to long-term resiliency, doing so should benefit all residents and has the potential to lift-up, rather than displace populations that have been historically underserved. Our Equitable Community Planning Toolkit contains resources developed to help leaders progress through their equitable planning goals and actions and can be used alongside other planning efforts to ensure our communities are working for everyone.


Have an example (good or bad) of “greening” and equitable socioeconomic development from your neighborhood? Share it with us!


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