New Green Spaces Don’t Have to Lead to Gentrification

Dequindre Cut, Detroit / The High Line Network

Decades of redlining and urban renewal, rooted in racist planning and design policies, created the conditions for gentrification to occur in American cities. But the primary concern with gentrification today is displacement, which primarily impacts marginalized communities shaped by a history of being denied access to mortgages. At the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, Matthew Williams, ASLA, with the City of Detroit’s planning department, said in his city there are concerns that new green spaces will increase the market value of homes and “price out marginalized communities.” But investment in green space doesn’t necessarily need to lead to displacement. If these projects are led by marginalized communties, they can be embraced.

For example, efforts to enhance the Dequindre Cut in Detroit by transforming it into a 2-mile-long greenway were rooted in community needs and therefore have been supported. While the planning and design work by SmithGroup on the greenway corridor has led to positive economic impact, including growing nearby entrepreneurship and visitor engagement, it also expanded open space, expanded community development, and lifted up local graffiti artists. “We allowed the graffiti to stay and created canvases for more to come. It’s an avant-garde form of historic preservation, and a way to activate a latent, forgotten place.”

Dequindre Cut, Detroit / SmithGroup
Dequindre Cut, Detroit / SmithGroup

Another project is Ella Fitzgerald Park, in the Fitzgerald community, one of 10 key neighborhoods where the planning department has focused housing, park, and economic development investment. Given the neighborhood is experiencing high levels of bankruptcies and foreclosures, many remaining homeowners in the neighborhood can’t sell their homes. Instead of seeing a new community park and greenway designed by landscape architecture firm Spackman, Mossop, and Michaels and built by the city as a gentrifying force, it was welcomed as a safe place for children to play. “It was a needed change,” Williams said.

Ella Fitzgerald Park, Detroit / Earthscapeplay.com
Ella Fitzgerald Park and Greenway / Spackman, Mossop, and Michaels

The Joe Louis Greenway, named after the famous athlete, spans 27.5-miles from downtown Detroit to Dearborn, once a segregated Black city. A “vision of inclusive design, the project is a form of green reparation,” Williams argued. The city has overlaid where redlining had the most destructive impact in Detroit and surrounding communities and has used green amenities to undo part of the damage. “We can focus on those red areas on the redlining maps, transforming them into productive, innovative, and ecological areas.” Planning and design efforts with SmithGroup included significant community engagement. Strategic green spaces, rooted in community desires, are one of “our best tools to address the mistakes of the past.”

Joe Louis Greenway, Detroit / SmithGroup
Joe Louis Greenway community planning meeting, Detroit / SmithGroup

Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, director and professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington and current fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, received a 2020 research prize from the SOM Foundation for her work, Reclaiming Black Settlements: A Design Playbook for Historic Communities in the Shadow of Sprawl. Her research has involved mapping Black Freedmen’s communities across Texas and included seven research projects in the Dallas / Ft. Worth area. Along the Trinity River, Allen has been immersing herself in “the bottom lands, the industrial lands” where many Black communities made their home. Despite the long-term environmental justice issues, these communities are still facing displacement pressures. “Riverfronts are hot right now, the place to be,” she said.

The existing community isn’t reacting negatively to Harold Simmons Park, a park planned on the Trinity River by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates because it would create “healthy social spaces along the river.” To ensure housing prices in Black communities near the park don’t go up, a development corporation linked with a local church is “getting ahead of the curve and stabilizing and renovating homes.”

Harold Simmons Park, Dallas, Texas / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Harold Simmons Park, Dallas, Texas / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Another community down river, the Garden of Eden, founded by a Black family in 1881, has been impacted by concrete companies that dug industrial gravel pits along the river. Once leases on the land ended, the companies were supposed to fill in those gravel pits but never did. So the community is “reclaiming those pits through green infrastructure, creating recreational spaces.”

And at the last of the seven sites studied along the river, Joppa, a historic Freedmen’s town, there is the Joppee Lakes project, the site of a railroad and concrete plant which is being re-imagined as a stormwater solution for downtown Dallas. The Army Corps of Engineers turned the site over to the City of Dallas, which is in turn working with Black community there to revamp the Honey Springs Branch Park surrounding the lake as a community hub with green infrastructure that can handle both sewage treatment and provide recreation.

To avoid green gentrification, Allen said it’s key to “understand the history of each place. Design has to be grounded, and history is really powerful.” Black Freedmen’s communities along the Trinity River have created a community roundtable and are “envisioning the future together.” They are sharing “funding and grant sources, and talking about the issues.” Freedmen’s town groups are also “linking green spaces, creating a trail that will connect them all.” They are “very smart about the politics and policy and the air quality issues around transportation and cement plants.” Landscape architects can work with communities like these to help them “articulate the issues” and “promote and enhance connections with each other.”

Joppee Lakes, Texas / DesignJones LLC

Boston has invested $5 million to re-imagine Frederick Law Olmsted’s Franklin Park in Boston’s Dorchester, Jamaica Plains, and Roxbury neighborhoods. A team led by landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand is spearheading the action plan effort and includes MASS Design Group, which is focusing on the “city edge’s and neighborhood connections,” and Agency Landscape + Planning, which is focusing on public engagement, planning, and programming. According to Sierra Bainbridge, ASLA, a landscape architect and senior principal with MASS Design Group, her organization is seeking to answer questions like: “Can we connect present and future generations to the park? Can the surrounding neighborhoods benefit from the procurement process for a redesigned park?”

Franklin Park Action Plan / Agency
Franklin Park Action Plan / MASS Design Group

Bainbridge argued that park’s ill-conceived boundaries are keeping many people out. The edges, which are “prohibiting access,” include 3-4 lane streets with no lighting for crosswalks. There are also no local businesses along the park, so if food trucks aren’t there, visitors need to bring in their own food and drink. “There is a huge opportunity to increase connections between the park and local community, particularly through large events.”

Franklin Park Action Plan, Boston, Massachusetts / Agency, MASS Design Group, Reed Hilderbrand

While planning and zoning changes need to happen to grow local business presence around the park, Bainbridge said procurement is also a powerful tool for increasing community engagement with the revamped Olmsted park. Looking to MASS Design Group’s work in Rwanda as a model, she said training and hiring local artists, masons, and workers was key to creating a sense of ownership around the organization’s community healthcare projects. “The question for many was ‘who is this project for?; we showed them that it is for them.” As a result, community members who worked on the project began to trust in the mission and started going to the care center and hospitals.

In the same vein, Franklin Park can create opportunities for local artists and workers. There is some flexibility in Boston’s procurement procedures if the amounts are under $10,000. “There is potentially a way to also phase larger projects in smaller amounts” to give more local businesses and artists chances to bid. As part of the project, the team is also training small minority- and women-owned businesses to take advantage of these opportunities. “Training costs less than 10 percent of the project, but the impact is multiplied throughout the community. Training is embedded in the plan.”

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