As sustainability becomes an everyday term used in our culture, the ways in which it is implemented are part of recent conversation because of its potential adverse impacts. Using sustainability in city planning has become a topic often discussed by policymakers as of late as they scramble to try and transition their cities to become more carbon neutral.
Implementing the concept of sustainability into urban design can take a variety of different paths, from making walking and biking trails more accessible to installing electric charging stations or building so-called green buildings. While all of these have a myriad of potential benefits to society and the environment, there are some effects that are often overlooked in public discourse today.
Before diving into those potential harmful effects, first let’s begin by discussing the construct of sustainability itself. The date of its origin, although widely debated, can first be formally recognized in the U.N. Conference on Human and Environment in 1972, when the idea of sustainable development began to make surface in global geopolitical relations. During the later half of the 20th century, there was an increased focus on green neoliberalism and how to best extract resources from countries in the Global South to the benefit of those already developed.
As a result, countries who had greater political monopolies over institutions like the U.N. were able to utilize the idea of sustainable development as a theoretical framework to cover up the true reasons for resource extraction and exploitation. In the 21st century, we often only see the word sustainability being brought up in day-to-day conversations, but its true meaning lies within sustainable development and how society can continue to develop without expending all its natural resources into the future.
Just doing a simple google search on sustainability, you will often never see it being defined without sustainable development also in the sentence. With that being said, how does sustainable development differ from sustainable cities? A sustainable city is said to be one that addresses social, environmental and economic impacts by ways of urban planning or city management.
Oftentimes, we will see green design being implemented by developed countries within their nations themselves. In the Bay Area, an idea of green design that you may be familiar with is 4th Street or Bay Street, and the reasons for this will be touched upon soon. A true example of an urban city that is often discussed is Oslo, Norway. From experience, Oslo definitely does encompass what one may consider a “green city,” as it is very clean, well-maintained and there are plenty of large open walking/biking paths. The green space is also immense and the city heavily prides itself on its use of renewable energy.
However, with these sustainable cities may come shortcomings for those historically overlooked in today’s society. Green gentrification is another term that has been defined amongst these changes as the repetitive oversight of city planners for the potential adverse impacts of heightened property values and displacement of low-income, marginalized communities.
Let’s take a look at 4th Street, which is down University Avenue near the Berkeley Marina. It is an odd development for those who have never been, a rather bustling street in a rather odd location. Situated right next to Interstate 580, you could imagine how desolate the area may have been before this project came to fruition. Although it has brought in lots of business and is a nice area to walk around, the subsequent increase in business may have driven up property values — pushing out low-income communities.
Another well-known area that has also been converted to be more walker-friendly (and therefore, more sustainable in a sense) is the High Line in New York City. Again, this is a great place to walk around and see views of all parts of NYC, but it has led to a 35.5% increase in property values (dubbed the High Line Effect). I’m sure there are plenty of examples you can think of that mimic the patterns of both 4th Street and the High Line without realizing the potential negative impacts this could have on society.
Green spaces may seem like a small step in the right direction toward combating the climate crisis, but the question now becomes: more development or more displacement? Unfortunately, the development of green spaces does not solely exist for the benefit of the common good, but for economic gains, as often seen with sustainable development. One of the goals of the green economy is to reduce poverty, but how can this be achieved when green projects further gentrification?
Sustainable development is typically seen as the answer to many of the world’s qualms, from poverty reduction, to creating new jobs and fostering a carbon neutral society. But, with everything, there is always a consequence that often gets overlooked by the policymakers who have created this new take on development.
A study by the National Library of Medicine proposes that to combat green gentrification, public health officials and urban planners need to collaborate on enhancing the use of green space for marginalized communities. Development, at its core, targets wealthier communities, so to reverse this process of thought will require considerable time, attention and pushback.
This is a difficult debate, both among policymakers and public health officials, as they struggle to grapple with the impending climate crisis while combating the adverse impacts that the most common “sustainable solutions” bring alongside them. Green gentrification is just one example of how climate solutions can have unintended consequences, so it is incredibly important for those in positions of power to be held accountable to considering effects on all communities, not just their own.