Greening Without Gentrification

November 26, 2019, Feature, by Alessandro Rigolon and Jon Christensen

2019 December Feature Greening Without Gentrification 410

Learning from parks-related anti-displacement strategies nationwide

The term “green gentrification” seems to have taken the world of parks and recreation by storm in the past few years. Passionate discussions about the role of parks in gentrifying neighborhoods and the risk of displacing the very residents that parks were meant to benefit have packed rooms and spilled out into the halls and have been explored on field trips.

No one says, “we build parks, it’s not our job to worry about affordable housing” anymore. It has become clear that it is everyone’s job to worry about ensuring that parks are part of equitable community development, so that the people who most need the benefits of parks are able to stay in their communities and enjoy those benefits. Otherwise, park advocates, planners and builders are now realizing they may actually be building parks for the new wealthy residents who will replace longtime, low-income residents.

The field of parks and recreation has come to recognize that when large parks are built in low-income neighborhoods, they might be contributing to, starting or accelerating gentrification, a process involving the influx of new, wealthier and, often, white residents. Research shows that the threat of green gentrification is real in many U.S. cities. Because parks make low-income neighborhoods more desirable, they contribute to increasing housing prices and can lead to the displacement of longtime residents for whom many park equity efforts are designed and funded to serve.

Unintended Consequences
Gentrification, displacement and equitable community development have become the talk of major park conferences.

We are engaged in an ongoing study to identify and classify what we call “parks-related anti-displacement strategies” or PRADS. Through a nationwide search, we identified 27 large park development projects in low-income, gentrification-susceptible neighborhoods in 19 cities. We reviewed policy documents and media accounts and conducted interviews with project stakeholders.

The good news is that stakeholders in about half of the projects we surveyed, including many park advocates and local community organizations, are proposing and actually implementing PRADS. The bad news is that the other half of the projects have not taken concrete actions yet.

We found 13 park projects in 12 cities that are employing substantive efforts to limit green gentrification. Based on these efforts, we identified 26 types of PRADS that have been implemented or proposed in those 13 park projects, with an average of seven PRADS deployed per project. In most of these projects, it is too early to evaluate the effectiveness of PRADS in limiting displacement, but significant efforts are underway to curb green gentrification.

In surveying these efforts, we found that:

  • A variety of strategies are being deployed around park projects across the country. Different strategies are likely more applicable and effective, depending on whether the local real estate market is hot, warm or cool and on state policies.
  • Starting early, before developers and investors recognize the potential of park projects to increase surrounding property values, is considered best for success.
  • Community engagement is crucial for implementing PRADS, especially in the early stages of park development projects. Indeed, the impetus for much of this work around the country has arisen from community-based organizations.
  • Projects in which equity-oriented efforts are more deliberate tend to use multidisciplinary approaches, integrating affordable housing, job training and creation, and support for small businesses.
  • Some projects include efforts to influence system-wide changes in public policies (for example, ongoing park funding measures that require anti-displacement strategies) alongside project-specific efforts (such as nonprofits building affordable housing units near new parks).
  • Efforts to address the threat of green gentrification directly and implement PRADS are leading many park advocates to participate in broader initiatives to address displacement, whether it is triggered by parks or not, and to conceive of parks as just one crucial part of equitable community development.

Analysis of Parks-Related Anti-Displacement Strategies
In our survey, we found 26 distinct types of PRADS that have been proposed or implemented in 13 park projects in 12 cities. Some of these strategies are designed to limit green gentrification in neighborhoods near specific park projects, and thus, have a more direct nexus to parks, while others are citywide policies and initiatives that also benefit other parts of the cities. We classified the 26 strategies into six broad categories that describe three types of actors who benefit from PRADS — renters, current and prospective homeowners, and businesses and workers — and three types of actors who play a central role in implementing PRADS — private-sector developers, nonprofits and public housing organizations, and park funding agencies.

Of course, these strategies are also relevant for park agencies and park advocates, but to address the challenges of green gentrification, park agencies and advocates must work with these other sectors. We have not seen a case where they have the capacity to solve this issue on their own.

For Renters: We found seven strategies that apply to renters of existing housing units, including rent control, anti-eviction protections (such as right to counsel) and renter education workshops that aim to enable renters to continue living in existing privately owned rental units. State laws prohibit some of the cities we studied from implementing rent control. In this group, most strategies that are being deployed in about half of the proactive projects we surveyed are policies and initiatives that apply to an entire city rather than prioritizing targeted interventions in areas near parks. Because these policies apply everywhere in a city, they could be harder to implement than strategies targeted to specific neighborhoods around parks, where residents who fear gentrification might find common ground and successfully advocate for localized anti-displacement strategies.

For Homeowners: This group of strategies is intended to protect current low-income homeowners and promote homeownership among other low-income residents and is being employed in 79 percent of the proactive projects surveyed. We identified six PRADS in this group, ranging from property tax freezes for existing low-income homeowners to financial support, such as down-payment assistance for prospective low-income homeowners and strategies to create additional revenue for low-income homeowners, such as allowing the construction of accessory dwelling units. These PRADS seek to stabilize communities near parks at risk of gentrification by keeping or transferring homeownership to longtime, low-income residents, who are often residents of color; thus, helping reduce historic inequalities in homeownership rates. Compared to renter-targeted strategies, homeownership strategies appear to have a more direct nexus to areas surrounding new parks. We found examples of public- or nonprofit-led programs designed to create or maintain low-income homeownership in communities near new park projects in several cities.

For Businesses and Jobs: We identified two strategies targeted to businesses and jobs, both focusing on sustaining or increasing the earnings of longtime, low-income residents: strategies to protect or create locally owned small businesses (such as small business disruption funds) and strategies to create jobs for longtime residents (such as first source hiring ordinances). About half of the proactive projects surveyed employ or have proposed these strategies. Multidisciplinary approaches that prioritize businesses and jobs can go further than efforts that solely center on affordable housing by tackling displacement threats on two fronts: keeping rent or mortgage payments affordable and increasing the earnings of low-income residents.

For Private-Sector Housing Developers: We identified seven strategies that require private-sector housing developers to contribute to the production of affordable housing, either by directly building new below-market-rate units or paying fees that cities can use to build such units. These strategies are being used in 85 percent of the proactive park projects surveyed. These strategies include well-known tools, such as inclusionary zoning, production incentives (such as density bonuses) and developer impact fees for affordable housing. The goal is to increase the supply of below-market-rate housing units near new parks. Most housing is constructed by the private sector, highlighting the importance of these strategies, and several cities have deliberately targeted the implementation of these policies in areas surrounding new parks, demonstrating that these strategies can have a good nexus with park development.

For Nonprofit and Public Housing Organizations: These strategies focus on nonprofit and public housing organizations that build or manage subsidized housing, including municipal-level housing departments. Although we only identified three strategies as part of this group, they have been proposed or implemented in every one of the 13 proactive projects we surveyed, demonstrating their importance. These strategies include housing trust funds, community land trusts and other forms of land banking and value-capture mechanisms, such as tax-increment financing, that generate funds for affordable housing.

For Public Park Funding Agencies: We identified one strategy that can be used by park funding agencies, such as states, the federal government and counties. Funders can require or incentivize grant recipients to include anti-displacement strategies in their proposals for park development projects. Los Angeles County has been a leader in this area. The implementation plan for Measure A, a Los Angeles County parcel-tax funding source for parks, includes displacement-avoidance strategies. Measure A awards additional points to competitive grant applications that include such strategies. In California, some state conservancies that fund parks, open space, trails, environmental restoration and green infrastructure projects are also beginning to implement this strategy — as is the state’s Strategic Growth Council, which administers grants for climate resilience. This demonstrates how government agencies can create overarching policies that require or incentivize park developers to work with housing advocates and developers to deploy anti-displacement strategies to unlock public funding for parks.

Recommendations for Parks-Related Anti-Displacement Strategies
Based on this survey of the state of the field, we offer the following recommendations for project stakeholders — including park agencies and advocates and their allies working on housing and community development — who are committed to greening marginalized communities without displacing their most vulnerable residents:

  • Implement parks-related anti-displacement strategies at the very early stages of park planning and development. This means that for large park projects in low-income neighborhoods, planning for PRADS needs to begin at the same time as planning a park before investors recognize the potential of new park projects. Planning a park and planning displacement-avoidance strategies should be part of an integrated process involving collaborations between park organizations and housing organizations.
  • Engage communities in developing approaches to avoid displacement near new parks. Because public park agencies and elected officials do not always understand the threat of green gentrification, community engagement can create opportunities for local residents and community-based organizations to educate local governments about the challenges and opportunities for solutions.
  • Create collaboratives that include park and housing advocates, such as the Los Angeles Regional Open Space and Affordable Housing collaborative (LA ROSAH), which can advocate locally for policy change, provide tools and share lessons with other organizations in a wider network. Successful parks-related anti-displacement strategies will be site-specific, but as this report shows, similar solutions are already being deployed in many different projects.
  • Combine the creation and preservation of affordable housing with initiatives to create better-paying jobs for local residents to tackle gentrification threats from two different angles: increasing income and making housing affordable. These multidisciplinary approaches are being employed in projects that have had a more deliberate focus on equity from their conception, such as the 11th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C., and the India Basin Shoreline Park in San Francisco.
  • Integrate a requirement for displacement avoidance strategies into policies, laws and park funding implementation at the city, county and state level for wider, long-term impact beyond single park sites.
  • Measure, evaluate and report the successes and failures of PRADS for park projects. Engage third-party independent researchers in this process and publicly share data, results and lessons learned. This will help all of us better understand which PRADS can be most effective in different contexts.

Note: The Greening Without Gentrification: Learning from Parks-Related Anti-Displacement Strategies Nationwide report by Rigolon and Christensen is available online.

Alessandro Rigolon is an Assistant Professor in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah. Jon Christensen is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA.