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Trina Hamilton and Winifred Curran

San Antonio Riverwalk. Photo: Ken Lund.

This post was originally published on the Conversation.

There are many indexes that aim to rank how green cities are. But what does it actually mean for a city to be green or sustainable?

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.

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.

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.

A recent spate of new research has focused on the displacement effects of environmental cleanup and green space initiatives. This phenomenon has variously been called environmental, eco- or green gentrification.

Land for new development and resources to fund extensive cleanup of toxic sites are scarce in many cities. This creates pressure to rezone industrial land for condo towers or lucrative commercial space, in exchange for developer-funded cleanup. And in neighborhoods where gentrification has already begun, a new park or farmers market can exacerbate the problem by making the area even more attractive to potential gentrifiers and pricing out long-term residents. In some cases, developers even create temporary community gardens or farmers markets or promise more green space than they eventually deliver, in order to market a neighborhood to buyers looking for green amenities.

Environmental gentrification naturalizes the disappearance of manufacturing and the working class. It makes deindustrialization seem both inevitable and desirable, often by quite literally replacing industry with more natural-looking landscapes. When these neighborhoods are finally cleaned up, after years of activism by longtime residents, those advocates often are unable to stay and enjoy the benefits of their efforts.

Tools for greening differently

Greening and environmental cleanup do not automatically or necessarily lead to gentrification. There are tools that can make cities both greener and more inclusive, if the political will exists.

The work of the Newtown Creek Alliance in Brooklyn and Queens provides examples. The alliance is a community-led organization working to improve environmental conditions and revitalize industry in and along Newtown Creek, which separates these two boroughs. It focuses explicitly on social justice and environmental goals, as defined by the people who have been most negatively affected by contamination in the area.

The industrial zone surrounding Newtown Creek is a far cry from the toxic stew that The New York Times described in 1881 as “the worst smelling district in the world.” But it is also far from clean. For 220 years it has been a dumping ground for oil refineries, chemical plants, sugar refineries, fiber mills, copper smelting works, steel fabricators, tanneries, paint and varnish manufacturers, and lumber, coal and brick yards.

In the late 1970s, an investigation found that 17 million gallons of oil had leaked under the neighborhood and into the creek from a nearby oil storage terminal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency placed Newtown Creek on the Superfund list of heavily polluted toxic waste sites in 2010.

The Newtown Creek Alliance and other groups are working to make sure that the Superfund cleanup and other remediation efforts are as comprehensive as possible. At the same time, they are creating new green spaceswithin an area zoned for manufacturing, rather than pushing to rezone it.

As this approach shows, green cities don’t have to be postindustrial. Some 20,000 people work in the North Brooklyn industrial area that borders Newtown Creek. And a number of industrial businesses in the area have helped make environmental improvements.

Just green enough

The “just green enough” strategy uncouples environmental cleanup from high-end residential and commercial development. Our new anthology, “Just Green Enough: Urban Development and Environmental Gentrification,” provides many other examples of the need to plan for gentrification effects before displacement happens. It also describes efforts to create environmental improvements that explicitly consider equity concerns.

For example, UPROSE, Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization, is combining racial justice activism with climate resilience planning in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. The group advocates for investment and training for existing small businesses that often are Latino-owned. Its goal is not only to expand well-paid manufacturing jobs, but to include these businesses in rethinking what a sustainable economy looks like. Rather than rezoning the waterfront for high-end commercial and residential use, UPROSE is working for an inclusive vision of the neighborhood, built on the experience and expertise of its largely working-class immigrant residents.

This approach illustrates a broader pattern identified by Macalester College geographer Dan Trudeau in his chapter for our book. His research on residential developments throughout the United States shows that socially and environmentally just neighborhoods have to be planned as such from the beginning, including affordable housing and green amenities for all residents. Trudeau highlights the need to find “patient capital” – investment that does not expect a quick profit – and shows that local governments need to take responsibility for setting out a vision and strategy for housing equity and inclusion.

In our view, it is time to expand the notion of what a green city looks like and who it is for. For cities to be truly sustainable, all residents should have access to affordable housing, living-wage jobs, clean air and water, and green space. Urban residents should not have to accept a false choice between contamination and environmental gentrification.

Trina Hamilton is an associate professor of geography at the University of Buffalo, The State University of New York.

Winifred Curran is an associate professor of geography at DePaul University.

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Reservoir construction in Houston. Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Buyouts, another reservoir, tougher development regulations, all of these options are on the table for Houston and Harris County after Hurricane Harvey. And many appear to have broad public support, according to a recently released survey from the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs in collaboration with two Rice University researchers.

“Everybody is for everything,” said Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University and one of the researchers behind the survey at a conference on flood mitigation and prevention organized by the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center. But when it comes to paying for those policies through increased property or sales taxes, support drops off for most.

The survey, conducted roughly three months after Harvey hit, reached 2,002 residents across Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery and Brazoria counties to gauge public opinion on policy responses to the flooding that occurred as well as experiences during the storm. The survey started November 20, 2017 and ran for a month, reaching residents on landlines and cell phones and it echoed findings from similar findings: more people experienced lost wages than direct flooding though both represented large shares of the population, for example, a finding Stein took to mean that flooded homes weren’t the primary concern for many area residents evaluating policy solutions.

“This was a bad experience for people of color and people who rent,” said Stein, looking over the results. Black respondents, followed by Asian respondents, for example, suffered the most serious residential flooding, according to the results, while black and Hispanic respondents had the highest reported rates of “extremely serious” economic damage from the storm.

While officials drum up support for a third reservoir and other policy interventions as well as float a $1 billion bond, the survey sought to quantify support for such measures.

And though support dropped off when respondents were asked whether they would be in favor of higher taxes to fund them, Stein said the results actually seemed relatively supportive. In Harris County, support was the highest with just over half of respondents saying they’d be in favor of paying more in taxes for flooding fixes but support declined as the proposed tax increase grew and a large bond would still be a tough sell for voters.

Hover over a policy to see the level of support it had among respondents as well as the support it received when combined with a tax increase.

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Grant Patterson

On Wednesday February 21, Harriet Tregoning will speak at the Kinder Institute Forum at the MFAH Brown Auditorium about community disaster recovery and resilience.

Over the course of several decades, Harriet Tregoning’s career has placed her at the crux of debates around resilience, sustainability and disaster recovery across a range of platforms and jurisdictions. Her rise has been steady and she is recognized as operating at the cutting edge of resiliency practice, pushing forward-thinking planning.

“Honestly not a lot of people are thinking about the future,” Tregoning said in an interview with Governing about planning as managing change, from small code changes to large-scale technological transformations like driverless cars. “They’re mostly looking at the past. They’re not really even looking at the trends in some cases. So I think that’s a primary obligation for people who are leading our cities today.”

As the Houston region continues exploring how best to prepare for inevitable future floods, hearing the experiences of leaders in the field remains a critical step of moving the conversation forward.

Looking back at Tregoning’s career can offer us a number of important lessons about how to cultivate a culture of resilience. Houston must expand and codify development strategies that will keep our city grow inclusively and safely. Tregoning has a wide range of experience but each major phase of her career offers important lessons for our policymakers and residents to consider moving forward.

Resilient communities protect people by protecting the environment.

In the 1980s Tregoning served in a variety of capacities with the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Health Services as an environmental engineer working on toxic substances control, resource conservation and hazardous waste management. In this capacity, she was exposed to the intersection of environmental and community development policy, shifting to the Director of Development for the Community and Environment Division at the Policy Office of the EPA.

Resilient communities frame the issues effectively—with clear strategies and goals—to get buy-in from residents, government agencies and private sector leaders.

Furthering this work, she chaired the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the President’s Council on Sustainable Development from 1995 to 1997. Founded in 1993 by the Clinton administration, the Council included goals around public health, economic development, equity, conservation, institutional and corporate responsibility, civic engagement, access to quality education and others. Sustainable development practitioners maintain that communities must address all the above issues to properly prepare for future disasters and experience inclusive growth.

Tregoning continued this work on the White House Livable Communities Task Force starting in 1999. An initiative of Vice President Al Gore, the Task Force explored the challenges of urban and suburban growth, and the role the federal government could play in supporting livability strategies. Compiled in a 2000 report, these strategies built on the goals of sustainable development—transit access, improved schools, and public safety, open space preservation and economic development.

Next, Maryland Governor Parris Glendening elevated the planning office to a state agency with Tregoning as director. Glendening tasked her with implementing his smart growth initiatives to slow suburban sprawl and address traffic and congestion. Two years later Tregoning joined the Governor’s cabinet under the title Special Secretary of Smart Growth.

This initiative, described in John W. Frece’s Sprawl and Politics, incorporated a scoring system which asked questions about mixed use, mixed housing types, transit availability and walkability—many of the goals which leaders in Houston tout as critical for competing against other cities for new jobs in the knowledge economy and other growth sectors.

Resilient communities write and enforce policies and regulations to ensure equity.

As a member of Maryland’s Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities in 2001, she worked to understand how laws, policies and regulations concentrated the risks and harms of environmental hazards in communities of color, low-income areas and other historically marginalized populations. Communities cannot achieve full resilience without taking measures to prevent these inequities.

After natural disasters, resilient communities come back new and improved. They do not just rebuild what they had before.

Tregoning took part in the Rebuild La Plata Task Force following Maryland’s devastating tornadoes in 2002. In this capacity she demonstrated how to incorporate comprehensive planning into the disaster recovery process. She and others worked with local officials in La Plata and Charles County to not just bring the town back to where it was before the storm, but to plan a vibrant business and residential district downtown, with a new town square and pedestrian-oriented design. Through these actions, the Task Force showed that local leaders can coordinate with state officials to rebuild more beautiful and resilient communities.

Resilient communities make strategies that address environmental sustainability, quality of life and economic opportunity in concert.

From 2007 to 2014, Tregoning served as the Director of Planning in Washington DC. Tregoning’s Office of Planning worked across agencies to steer the city’s approach to transit, parking, energy use, economic strategy and historic preservation working across agency. By partnering closely with other city departments and laying out a bold vision, she positioned herself as one of the most creative and forward-thinking public servants in the field.

By so successfully guiding D.C. through the stages of livability, she encouraged other cities in the region to follow suit, strengthening the role of the Council of Governments as a regional planning body. She promoted policies and planning practices to allow for greater density and new development along proposed transit corridors. In terms of sustainability and resilience, the Sustainable D.C. project comprehensively addressed environmental protections, energy efficiency, waste management and water conservation.

Tregoning’s career culminated in her appointment as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Community Planning and Development at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). She helped design and implement a $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition, the first of its kind. In this role, she was able to work with state, regional, and local agencies to move toward comprehensive resilience strategies. Under her direction, HUD embdedded comprehensive planning into the program, urging proposals to include strategies that address climate change, economic prosperity, placemaking, equity, fiscal stability, expansion of transportation options and provision of affordable housing.

Lessons for the Houston region

Here in Houston, each of these lessons rings true.

“All you have to experience is one of these increasingly frequent massive disasters to cause you to check some of the assumptions you had going in,” Tregoning told the Washington Post after Hurricane Harvey.

We have academics and policy makers making plans, releasing reports and studying the issues. We have community groups taking care of their own, providing volunteers and other resources. We have folks who are unnerved that their neighbors and friends have experienced catastrophic flooding year after year. We also have planned but unfunded flood infrastructure improvements, more than 100,000 homes in floodplains, developers still planning and constructing in risky areas and a reliance on federal and state funding that may never come.

To bridge these disparate realities, we absolutely must bring this array of voices and interests together to create a resilience plan that touches on all of these facets and begin to seriously rethink what kind of city and region we want to become.

Grant Patterson is a staff researcher with the Kinder Institute’s Development, Transportation and Placemaking program.

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