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Green infrastructure for sustainable, resilient cities: unintended side effects

  • Green infrastructure for sustainable, resilient cities: unintended side effects

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Green infrastructure is vitally important to build climate-resilient cities, and provides a huge number of environmental and social benefits, but it can have unintended impacts.

Gentrification involves the transformation or a neighbourhood from low to high value. While it is associated with positive aspects of urban renewal, it is controversial because it can result in the displacement of residents due to housing affordability issues and rising living costs. Although the controversy about gentrification has been around for decades – the term was first coined by British sociologist Ruth Glass in the 1960s – in more recent times, we may come across the term green gentrification, also known as environmental or ecological gentrification, in relation to urban greening projects that may include the development of green infrastructure such as green roofs, raingardens, and detention basins to improve stormwater management, reduce flood risks, mitigate urban heat islands, and, in general, protect cities from the impacts of climate change.

Besides its environmental benefits, urban greening provides social benefits that improve the quality of life of city dwellers, including health benefits derived from improved recreation opportunities, reduced pollution, etc. It also provides open spaces for people to meet and interact, and make an area attractive as a place to work, live and visit.

Unfortunately, the benefits of greening initiatives are not always evenly distributed, and can unintendedly trigger the displacement of economically vulnerable population through a process of green gentrification. This has also been called the “green space paradox”, first defined in 2014 by Wolch et al.: the very residents the green space strategies are designed to benefit may be displaced from their neighbourhoods.

Green gentrification is linked to environmental justice, which refers to the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards for all people, with equal access to parks and natural settings and urban recreation amenities that are properly maintained.

It has been suggested that green infrastructure development usually highlights sustainability, but may forego equity, and rethinking the broader concept of sustainability may be in order. In several cities in the U.S., environmental justice organizations hope to advance environmental change, but prioritizing equity, including for example affordable housing policies – social housing, rental subsidies, rent control – as anti-displacement tools.

Is it possible to have green infrastructure investment without displacement? Equity should be taken into account in any green infrastructure initiatives that seek to be socially responsible. Depending on the context, green infrastructure may improve climate resilience, serve local communities and attract tourists. Planning with the community can help define which goals are to be prioritised. To put this in practice, green infrastructure programme managers from local public sector stormwater management organizations across North America have developed an Equity Guide for Green Stormwater Infrastructure Practitioners, which defines equity goals, best practices, and sample metrics to track progress towards goals over time. Green infrastructure can be a tool to mitigate flood risks, but also a path towards social and environmental justice.

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