Sustainability for All: Examining the Relationship between Sustainability and Gentrification

By Moses Viveros

When one thinks about “sustainability” and what it means; one usually conjures up images of green spaces, clean air, and well-maintained land. Typically projects or developments that are considered to be “sustainable” are created with the intention of being beneficial to the environment and to the humans & critters that live within that environment. Unfortunately, these “sustainable” developments or initiatives can have unintended consequences such as accelerating gentrification within a community.

Gentrification can be defined as changes to a community in terms of character or culture by the introduction of new, typically wealthier, residents and new residential or commercial developments. These changes can lead to the displacement of longtime residents through sharp increases in rent and/or property values. Eco-Gentrification can be a a result of increased green/recreational spaces and/or initiatives that aim to control and mitigate pollution within a community.


Coal Plant Campaign in Chicago (source: Sierra Club)

This is an issue as working class communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental concerns such as poor air quality and exposure to toxic elements from nearby industrial sites. In these same communities we have seen grassroots organizations fight to have their voice heard so that these concerns can be acknowledged and addressed so that people living within that community can enjoy a higher quality of life.

In our own city, we have the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods. Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) fought tirelessly for years to get two large coal plants shut down. For the time that the plants were in operation, they were the cause of many health and environmental issues in the surrounding areas. Through hard work, determination, and involvement from the community at large, Pilsen and Little Village were able to get the two coal fired plants to shut down. This was a major victory, but the fight still continues so that longtime community members can continue to live in the place that they have called home for many years.

Residents of both Little Village and Pilsen have been experiencing the effects of gentrification. This has caused concern with local residents as they fear that they will be priced out of their own homes. A new proposed park, El Paseo, similar to the 606 trail on the city’s West Side, has caused concern with community members as they feel that the proposed park will bring on gentrification similar to what residents that lived near the 606 trail experienced. Properties on the west side of the 606 trail that are within half a mile of the path have had their values rise an average of 48.2% since the trail broke ground in 2013. This is a theme that is common throughout many communities across the globe.


Proposed Paseo Trail (source: Chicago.Curbed.Com)

During a travel-based Environmental Justice course that I participated in Fall of 2016, I got to spend some time speaking with community organizers and also learning about how eco-gentrification affects communities in the Pacific Northwest. The Downtown Eastside of Vancouver is an area that is home to the highest percent of low-income families in the city. 68% of households in that area have a median income of $11,029 and the area is also home to the highest percent of long-term unemployed individuals.

In 2014, the city of Vancouver introduced the Downtown Eastside Plan, which aims to increase green space and introduce legislation to encourage sustainable building practices in the Downtown Eastside. This plan has been met with resistance from longtime residents as they fear that the proposed plans and developments are not consistent with the needs and values of the community. A majority of concerns have been directed towards upscale businesses that are moving into the area that are driving up the cost of basic services such as a haircut or a meal.

This is not to say that improvements to a neighborhood are bad, especially when they aim to improve the overall quality of life within that area. In order to avoid adverse effects such as gentrification, developers and planners need to consider the people that live within those areas and take in feedback so that they can truly capture the needs and values of that community. By doing so, communities are improving without putting longtime residents at risk of displacement. This can also be known as the “Just Green Enough” concept.

Just Green Enough aims to increase green/recreational spaces and mitigate pollution in an area without putting residents at risk of being displaced. Just Green Enough includes moving away from “big flashy” projects such as parks built by large architecture firms, like the 606 in Chicago or High Line in New York. Just Green Enough is a controversial concept because in order for it to work in the favor of a community, the values and needs of community members need to be captured in order to properly determine what is “Just Green Enough” for that neighborhood. No planner or developer can determine what is “Green Enough” for a community if they have not taken the time to gather feedback from


Park at Tempelhof Airfield Source: Amusing Planet

the people that live within the community that they are looking to work in. A neighborhood in Berlin has rejected plans to redevelop a former airport site into a 4,700 unit residential building and a shopping center. The plan was resisted because community members felt that the plan was not consistent with their own needs and values. Instead, the airport has been developed into a large park which is heavily used by local residents.

There is not a one-size fits all approach when it comes to addressing environmental justice issues. But one thing is for sure and that is everyone has the right to a clean, habitable environment and access to green/recreational spaces. Minority, working class communities have worked hard to improve their communities so that their family, friends, and neighbors can benefit from a higher quality of life. It is not right to let them do all the fighting to bring in a park or air quality improvements and then have a new generation of residents move in and price out longtime residents. This creates a vicious cycle where minority and/or working class individuals are likely to be pushed back into an area where they will continue to be victims of some sort of environmental injustice.

We need to make sure that longtime community members always have a seat at the table where they are allowed to have their voice and concerns heard. This is one of the ways that we can make sure that we are building and improving communities that everyone can call home.

viveros-m-croppedMoses Viveros is a senior SUST major at Roosevelt University and the SUST Program’s Student Associate for 2016-17. As part of this work-study position, he is also serving as the assistant editor for the SUST at RU Blog this year. In the fall semester of 2016, Moses enrolled in Prof. Bethany Barratt’s POS 343 Urban Environmental Justice course, which featured a week-long field trip to Vancouver, BC, as well as various field days in Chicago to study environmental justice issues in particular urban spaces and contexts.

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