“How do we ensure new parks don’t cause ‘green gentrification,’ which can lead to the exclusion and displacement of underserved communities? How can we ensure we don’t displace the communities that new parks are meant to serve?,” asked Dede Petri, CEO of the Olmsted Network (formerly the National Association of Olmsted Parks), during an Olmsted 200 event.
New parks are meant to be accessible to everyone, but in many urban areas, developer-driven parks mostly attract wealthier Americans. Cities benefit from increased development adjacent to these new parks, bringing in higher tax revenues, but that raises questions about whether these spaces can, in effect, lead to community displacement.
“If there really is green gentrification, what can we do about it?,” asked Ted Landsmark, a professor at Northeastern University, civic planner, and board member of Boston Planning and Development Agency, who moderated the panel discussion.
Robert Hammond, a co-founder of the High Line in Manhattan, and founder of the High Line Network, a knowledge sharing platform, said the High Line has had significant impacts, contributing to “cultural displacement and middle class displacement” in the Meatpacking District and Chelsea neighborhoods of lower Manhattan. “The High Line isn’t a failure, but a lot of mistakes were made.”
“The High Line was built for the city, taxpayers, and homeowners; it wasn’t built for the residents of nearby low-income housing.” While the city-owned low-income housing remains, most of the stores the residents relied on were driven out due to the higher rents brought on by the High Line. “We didn’t anticipate the impact on shops.”
“And many of the residents of the housing developments didn’t like our programs,” Hammond said. As a result, early community perception was that the High Line was for wealthy New Yorkers and tourists.
Over the past dozen years since the first phase of the linear park opened, “we have been rethinking our programs, and visitors to the park have become more diverse.” But in retrospect, “the High Line should have formed more diverse community partnerships early on in the planning and design process” to “shape zoning opportunities with the city and state.”
The Atlanta Beltline, which is leveraging a 22-mile railroad network to create new parks, multi-use trails, and transit connections, has also faced criticism that it has contributed to gentrification and displacement.
Clyde Higgs, CEO of the Atlanta Beltline, admitted that “ten years ago, when the project first started, we had not expected it to be a wild economic success. We didn’t secure nearby sites for future affordable housing.” With the leadership of a new Atlanta mayor that story has changed, Higgs says. “We have now exceeded affordability goals around the Beltline by 30 percent.”
The Beltline team is now returning to the vision of the park’s framers — they had “contemplated the dangers of developing green space in a vacuum.” With any new green space, “you have to be thinking about community engagement, which is the real measure of success at the end of a project. This involves affordable housing, living wage jobs, environmental clean-up, and the arts — it’s about creating whole communities.”
The High Line and early phases of the Beltline offer cautionary tales and have led to the relatively new consensus that equitable community development is integral to park making.
An “anticipatory, proactive approach” to park planning is “now required by all landscape architects at this point,” argued Jessica Henson, ASLA, a partner at OLIN. “Setting aside parcels for affordable housing, protecting existing tenants, creating land banks — this should all happen before design.”
The 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C., which landscape architecture firm OLIN is co-designing with Dutch architecture firm OMA, is a “great example of how to get into a community ahead of time.” Building Bridges Across the River, the non-profit organization leading the development of the park, set up home buyer’s clubs, created robust property protections, and increased support for local businesses and artists, so more of the community will benefit from the new park, even before it’s built.
The 11th Street Bridge Park is rightfully considered a model, but its development has been more than a decade in the making. Landsmark argued that there will be intense political pressure on state and local governments to spend hundreds of billions from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, to act fast and initiate projects that can create lots of new jobs. How can the rapid distribution of these funds avoid having a gentrifying impact?
“Before dollars are assigned, it’s important to buy parcels for affordable housing ahead of time, near where you think new infrastructure is going to go. Coordinating with community-based organizations, which tend to be more nimble, is key,” Henson said.
“Through research, we have found that you also don’t need to blanket affordable housing everywhere. Prioritize the communities most at risk. Use tools to determine where the pressures are. We can target resources to protect the most vulnerable populations.”
As part of this, planners and landscape architects must also extend greater respect to local partners, paying community members and organizations for their time and ideas, whether it’s related to the new infrastructure funds or not. Communities are expected to show up to provide input that can improve projects, but for some community members there is a cost associated with that, multiple panelists noted.
There are already models for more equitable engagement out there. At the Atlanta Beltline, the “largest department is community engagement. It’s legislatively dictated that we must hold three deep community conversations annually, but we have up to 80 community meetings per year. There are many chances for people to have their say — it’s the people’s project,” Higgs said.
And with the High Line in New York City, one clear win is a program that responded to the needs of local residents: a summer jobs program for teenagers. “High Line Teens has been successful and is in its tenth year,” Hammond said. “We provided what people want — jobs. The question with these projects needs to be: what can we do for you, besides just creating a park?”
There are growing expectations that new parks will be jobs generators for local communities. The Atlanta Beltline has a goal of creating 30,000 permanent jobs along the circular park, prioritizing access to opportunities for those who live nearby. This involves discussions with a “range of organizations, not just industries focused on technology, healthcare, or hospitality. It’s about creating whole communities where residents near the Beltline can access work, church, restaurants, and medical care,” Higgs said.
And Henson noted that in their work on the Los Angeles River Masterplan with Gehry Partners, OLIN has focused on how to create more opportunities for local artists in the 51-mile river corridor revitalization. All panelists called for employing public artists of all kinds — dance, interactive, musical, sculptural, and visual — to create the cultural programs that can connect communities with each other and a new park.
The People’s Parks in the 19th century in England learned this lesson. There are the people and then there are The People.