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For Whom Is it Built?

Original illustration by Haimeng Ge '25, an Illustration major at RISD

The sordid signs of gentrification puncture the fabric of urbanity in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s obvious—the new luxury apartment building with a snazzy post-industrial-chic facade, a vaguely snappy name, and a café at street level offering $16 salads. However, it also takes the form of new green spaces and transit lines, raising property values, and the pushing out of long-term residents. “Green gentrification” describes this relatively new phenomenon in which projects labeled as environmentally-friendly or eco-conscious contribute to rising costs of living. Current projects in urban redevelopment demonstrate clear patterns of green gentrification covertly masked under the popularity of sustainability rhetoric. In order to truly transform cities, urban planners must confront the challenges of green gentrification head on. 

To understand urban redevelopment, it’s important to first consider how efforts to revitalize cities under epochal trends have previously failed. In the aftermath of World War II, the newly empowered Federal Housing Association issued a plethora of housing loans, propping up the housing boom of the 1950s and 1960s. The rapid development of suburban communities precipitated a period known as “white flight,” where middle class white families abandoned rapidly diversifying cities in droves. As a result, city centers were surrounded by blight neighborhoods lacking open spaces and fresh air; generally considered to be unsafe; and typically made up of low-income, Black, and Latino communities. In order to combat the rampant white dispersal and remake the identity of the city, urban planners believed they needed to take action. 

The solution—establishing interstate highway routes to facilitate travel between suburbs and city centers—intertwined the interests of private downtown business owners, municipalities, and developers. As was proclaimed by the Urban Land Institute, a foundation dedicated to serving the interests of downtown real estate owners and developers, freeways specifically were “the salvation of the central district, the core of every city.” But in reality, these projects destroyed Black communities. They carved through neighborhoods like Miami’s Overtown, St. Paul’s Rondo, and countless others, displacing Black and low-income families in the name of saving the city. 

While the interstate system’s myriad of negative consequences are now accepted in hindsight, it is also imperative to take into account how automobile commercialism defined the planning of cities. Desires for sweeping changes in the identity of cities were tied to both implicit and explicit racism and were incredibly malignant in the lives of individuals, particularly low-income residents of color. Contemporaneous urban planning should be understood as largely in reaction to this; current projects seek to expand green spaces, move away from car-centrism, and combat sprawl. However, in carrying out these projects, urban planners  must be exceedingly cautious of repeating the mistakes of their predecessors. 

New York City’s High Line project is perhaps the premier example of new-wave urban renewal and the gentrification it spawns. The one-and-a-half-mile greenway was built upon a raised train line in the Chelsea neighborhood, advertised as an ingenuitive re-engineering of existing industrial infrastructure into green public space. While the High Line succeeded in its goal of transforming the space, it has also dramatically increased the cost of living in the surrounding neighborhood. Since opening in 2009, the median income in the area has increased nearly 23 percent, a staggering figure when compared to the city’s overall increase of 7 percent income within the same period. It is clear that the neighborhood’s identity has changed as wealthier households have come to populate areas surrounding the park. The project is emblematic of hip eco-urbanism: a massive, green-focused project that is more attuned to serving an affluent crowd, alongside its 7 million annual visitors, than the community it was planned through. 

Another site that offers a window into the myriad struggles of green renewal is the Atlanta Beltline Project. A report published on the enormously ambitious project claimed it would be “the most comprehensive transportation, economic development, and housing program ever undertaken in the City of Atlanta.” The Beltline sought to revitalize an abandoned railroad corridor, turning it into nearly 33 miles of urban trails, 1,300 acres of new green space, and 22 miles of new transit lines. Concerns over the rising property values around the project emerged almost immediately. Reports indicated that property along the Beltline would increase substantially more in value than other property within the city, an insidious warning for residents within the plan’s path. Unlike New York’s Highline, The Beltline does include provisions for the development of affordable housing in its vicinity, a facet that has come to the forefront of the project’s rhetoric amid accusations of gentrification and comparisons to the High Line’s failures. However, the proposed 5,600 units of affordable housing by 2030 appears far-fetched. A 2017 investigative report found that the project was far off pace in development, with only 600 units completed in 11 years. As the report states, “Its mission of keeping Black families and middle and low-income residents from being pushed from their neighborhoods became an afterthought to building parks and trails.” 

Atlanta offers a case study in the complexity of addressing gentrification in modern urban America. The manifest benefits of the Beltline project—expansion of green space, greater public transportation, and the creation of thousands of jobs—must be weighed against its gentrifying effects. Though greater consideration was given to maintaining affordable housing around the Beltline than other projects, the promises of BeltLine, Inc. remain unfulfilled at present

In a 2019 study, urban scholars Alessandro Rigolon and Jeremy Nemeth concluded that large-scale, centralized greenway projects in the fashion of the Atlanta Beltline and New York High Line were much more likely to contribute to gentrification than the development of other parks. In considering these ambitious, sweeping projects, it is paramount to cautiously consider whom these are built for. Both the Beltline and High Line have spawned tourist economies in their proximity, incentivizing the opening of hip spots that cater to a nonlocal crowd. 

Los Angeles is in the midst of planning its own massive urban renewal project. In the 1930s, a shortsighted plan to combat flooding left the river encased in concrete, and much of it was zoned for industry and multifamily housing. Inevitably, riverside property came to be largely occupied by working-class and low-income residents and was considered by many to be an eyesore of the city. Over the last decade, a multitude of plans to redevelop the riverside coalesced into the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, approved by the city council in 2022 to replace a stalled plan from 2007. The network of environmental and ecological analyses were underpinned by an emphasis on community input and active effort to develop affordable housing, including a $50 million allocation of American Rescue Plan funds—enough to support nearly 800 units. However, local activists caution against celebrating the plan, lambasting it as a covert capital-grab by the economic elite disguised by rhetoric of sustainability and community reinvigoration. Whether or not their criticism proves salient remains to be seen, and the fate of thousands of residents’ housing stability hangs in the balance. 

As American cities face declining populations in the wake of the nascent online workspace, municipal governments may seek to invest in their own green space projects, drawing in new residents with a supposed urbanity in the flavor of environmentalism. If urban renewal is to be carried out ethically and effectively, evidence suggests that moving away from the grandiose, large-scale nature of the aforementioned projects may be paramount to ensuring that the communities shouldering the costs of construction remain the beneficiaries. Municipalities should instead pursue a more decentralized approach, implementing smaller park projects where communities are able to sustain them. Furthermore, affordable housing programs must be front-loaded, with funding allocated prior to the beginning of construction, and their progress closely monitored, avoiding the missteps of the Highline and Beltline. While it is important to acknowledge the necessity of eco-driven urban planning in light of the growing climate crisis, it is also imperative to consider the effects of such projects on long-term, low-income residents of cities. We must constantly be asking: For whom is the green city built?