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Green gentrification cycle: Double-edged sword of environmental justice

Living near a park, garden or natural area improves mental health, lowers mortality rates and even boosts locals’ lifetime earnings. In recent years, cities worldwide have pushed to build urban green spaces in low-income neighborhoods to address the health and economic disparities experienced by the community. Yet greening often leads to what scholars call green gentrification—an influx of wealthier residents who price out and displace the very people meant to benefit.

Most research describes the issue as linear, that a new green space triggers a gentrification wave. University of Utah researchers Alessandro Rigolon and Tim Collins disagree. Last year, they coined the term “green gentrification cycle,” citing evidence that most greening initiatives occur in disadvantaged areas already experiencing gentrification, rather than neighborhoods experiencing continued disinvestment. The cycle posits that gentrification can precede greening, can follow greening and can both precede and follow a green space project.

In a new study, Rigolon, Collins and collaborators looked at whether and under what circumstances gentrification might precede or follow greening in the U.S. cities of Chicago and Los Angeles. Their findings reveal that both cities have built new parks in neighborhoods already experiencing gentrification. In LA, greening may have accelerated displacing longtime residents.

“A lot of research frames gentrification as an unintended consequence of a well-intended effort. We argue instead that in many cases, green gentrification is by design,” said Rigolon, associate professor in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning at the U and lead author of the study. “If we care about green spaces as a tool to improve quality of life for people in low-income neighborhoods, then we have to design parks and housing policies that build wealth and capacity for the people who live around them.”

Los Angeles and Chicago

Los Angeles and Chicago are large cities with many new parks and ongoing housing affordability issues. The researchers assessed green gentrification by analyzing single-family houses sold between 2010 and 2021, tracking the change in home prices before and after the opening of new parks.

They found that gentrification precedes and follows new parks in Los Angeles. In Chicago, gentrification only precedes the opening of a new park. While initially surprised by the lack of post-park gentrification, the authors reasoned that Chicago is a greener city than Los Angeles, so a new park may not boost property values like in concrete-covered LA. The findings do suggest that in both cities, planners are choosing to invest in neighborhoods already experiencing gentrification.

“By targeting neighborhoods that are already gentrifying, these projects may primarily benefit recently-arriving affluent residents, developers and other business interests,” said Collins, professor in the School of Environment, Society and Sustainability at the U and coauthor of the studies “At the same time, these projects may displace disadvantaged longtime residents, including lower-income renters, who are often People of Color in cities like LA and Chicago. If these projects displace residents, then this approach ultimately won’t address the health and economic challenges faced in low-income urban communities.”

Green gentrification cycle perpetuates injustice

Green gentrification is a global phenomenon. Since the topic emerged around 2010, researchers have observed it in Spain, China, Korea, Germany, Australia and Latin America.

“This is widespread. It makes sense to see it in any society with strong inequalities, as unfortunately, most societies on Earth have,” said Rigolon. “If you build something nice in one of the neighborhoods that are underserved, that will make that neighborhood more desirable.”

The same neighborhoods targeted for green gentrification have experienced displacement before. Many areas are the result of municipal disinvestment, an urban planning term that describes a city’s decision to allocate fewer and fewer resources to its poorest communities. Disinvestment tends to fall closely along racial and class lines, where municipal neglect has perpetuated the cycles of poverty for generations.

Against this backdrop, the authors give three explanations for why gentrification precedes greening: Demands from gentrifiers, a push from a coalition of elected officials and developers (i.e., the green growth machine), and increased resource availability in gentrifying communities.

Demand: Gentrifiers are generally college-educated, upwardly mobile, and often White. When they arrive, they organize to make a positive change in the neighborhood. They bring additional political power that reaches decision-makers’ ears, more than organizing efforts from the low-income Community of Color without gentrification.

Supply: Elected officials and developers often feel it’s a safer investment to put money into a neighborhood that is already gentrifying because there’s private investment ongoing, such as people flipping homes, and starting businesses, than it is to invest the same amount of money in a neighborhood that is economically depressed.

Resource: Gentrifying neighborhoods tend to have more resources from the government, mostly because when development happens, the cities charge developers’ fees that need to be spent in proximity of the development. Communities that are gentrifying will likely generate more fees than areas that aren’t.

“These processes are more complex than we used to consider them to be. There are multifaceted, spatial and temporal relationships between the investments in green space and residential mobility around those green spaces,” said Rigolon. “How do we use the green space to build community power and community wealth?”

The authors suggest that green initiatives should avoid areas already gentrifying for areas that truly need investment. Enacting policy to stem resident displacement must happen before any greening project is announced and before property values skyrocket and make affordable housing impossible.

“Findings from this research give urban planners and policymakers more nuanced knowledge about how to address this complex problem,” said Collins. “This can inform solutions for making green space more accessible in disinvested communities without displacing longtime residents.”

In the future, Rigolon and Collins plan to expand on this work by looking at a larger sample of cities and by conducting interviews with the stakeholders of large park projects built in gentrifying communities. They are particularly interested in studying the greening projects on Salt Lake City’s westside, including the new Glendale Regional Park.


  • Lisa Potter Research communications specialist, University of Utah Communications