Trends in Green Gentrification: From Brooklyn to Denver

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Brooklyn farmers market at the Grand Army Plaza entrance to Prospect Park.

Kenneth A. Gould & Tammy L. Lewis
Professors of Sociology
City University of New York/Brooklyn College
CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology & Earth & Environmental Sciences

What do Brooklyn and Denver have in common? They are two of the hottest destinations for people looking to relocate to places that offer a high quality of life. Both are rapidly gentrifying cities and part of the allure of both is their green spaces. Green spaces in Brooklyn? Yes, Brooklyn, like most global cities, is engaged in a process of sustainability and resilience planning and implementation that seeks to make urban spaces more environmentally friendly. Urban greening initiatives, while positive for the environment, tend to increase inequality and thus undermine the social pillar of sustainable development. Although greening is ostensibly intended to improve environmental conditions in neighborhoods, it generates green gentrification that pushes out the working-class and people of color, and attracts white, wealthier gentrifiers. Without carefully constructed and sequenced policy intervention, common approaches to urban greening are negatively redistributive and therefore unsustainable.

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The new Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn’s wealthiest neighborhood.

While in Brooklyn, green spaces and other environmental amenities must be intentionally constructed, green spaces in Denver are different. They are part of the earth, the Rockies. In Brooklyn, green spaces draw gentrifiers to specific neighborhoods with new or improved environmental amenities. In Denver, the urban amenities are being rapidly developed using the draw of the existing green amenity, Denver’s location at the front door of the Rocky Mountains. In Brooklyn, gentrifiers are attracted to the urban and support greening it. In Denver, gentrifiers are attracted to the green and support urbanizing it. Brooklyn and Denver are both becoming more attractive places to live as green amenities and greener lifestyles attract the “sustainability class,” who tend to be white, wealthy, and educated. The sustainability class is moving to Brooklyn and Denver, generating rising housing prices and displacement.

In our book, Green Gentrification: Urban Sustainability and the Struggle for Environmental Justice, we examine four types of urban greening initiatives that spark the gentrification process in neighborhoods:

  1. Restoration of existing green spaces,
  2. Development of new parks,
  3. Brownfield/Superfund clean up, and
  4. Rezoning from industrial to residential use.

We see strong comparisons between these types of initiatives in Brooklyn and Denver. For example, in Brooklyn, a toxic industrial waterway, the Gowanus Canal, has been designated as a Superfund cleanup site intended to transform the waterway into “the Venice of Brooklyn.” In some ways this is comparable to Denver’s beautification plan to sink I-70 and cover it with a park. Both are intended to green visible infrastructure and improve quality of life. In both cases, the newly greened neighborhoods are then marketed to gentrifiers. As the real estate interests repackage working class, minority, deindustrializing neighborhoods as edgy post-industrial urban landscapes perfect for artists and “makers,” they often rename communities as part of rebranding. The Gowanus neighborhood, named for the toxic industrial canal and combined sewer outfall, becomes the G-Slope. In Denver, River North becomes RiNo. Capital reimagines neglected spaces as profit opportunities, and appropriates neighborhoods from long-term residents to sell to first wave gentrifiers. We see that process in the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront in Brooklyn and in Northeast Denver as well.

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New doggie daycare in Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Both Gowanus and River North have seen an influx of artists. In both neighborhoods, early artist colonizers aggressively promoted the gritty areas as up and coming artist districts with gallery tours and other events aimed at attracting the so-called creative class. The transition from deindustrial to artsy attracts second wave gentrifiers with more conventional upper middle class employment, but who enjoy the cache of being in a hip neighborhood, with services that increasingly cater to them rather than long-term working class residents. Cleaning up industrial infrastructure like an industrial canal or a highway in order to make a space more livable is positive. However, in the context of hot real estate markets, this kind of neighborhood greening or beautification draws speculators, drives housing costs up, and pushes working-class neighbors out to areas that are neither greened or beautified.

Making a corridor healthier or repurposing unused industrial buildings is terrific, but we need to pay attention to who becomes the ultimate beneficiaries of healthier corridors and repurposed spaces, and who is forced out of the more livable city.

Deindustrializing spaces in hot real estate markets lead to developer calls for rezoning from industrial to residential use. Gentrifiers find proximity to industry unneccesary for their livelihoods and undesirable for their lifestyles. This coupled with with increasing city populations, and a newfound desire to be near regenerated urban cores, has prompted real estate interests to tap new spaces to build residences. Industrial and deindustrial lands are targets for residential speculation, but rezoning is necessary to make them available. Once rezoned, working class jobs and the families that depend on them can be removed and replaced with expensive condos for new residents.

Replacing existing neighborhoods with externally imposed visions of what that space could become, and who that space could serve is not regeneration, it is colonial domination. Truly regenerative development that brings a higher quality of urban life to existing community residents begins with participatory justice. The vision for the greener, healthier, more resilient neighborhood must originate from the needs and desires of existing residents. Long-term residents of River North might be surprised to learn that their community ”began as a handful of galleries in reclaimed warehouses” as described in Denver’s official visitors guide. Such a description both erases the preexisting community, and begs the question, who’s vision of RiNo included “a plethora of art spaces, unique performance venues, and cutting-edge eateries”?

Regenerative development requires that communities define their own quality of life enhancements. And for community-centered regeneration to occur without displacement, the affordability, and thus, stability, of a community must be ensured first, before quality of life improvements raise property taxes and rents enough to force families out.

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Tammy L. Lewis & Kenneth A. Gould presenting at the Gentrificaiton Conference in Denver.

It was clear from the recent Gentrification Conference sponsored by Regis University’s SEED Institute and the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado that Denver residents are concerned about many aspects of gentrification. During three nights (January 24-26, 2017), the well-attended conference brought together academics, government officials, residents, developers, gentrifiers and those being pushed out by gentrification to discuss the challenges of gentrification, the possibilities of improving gentrification outcomes, and to begin a dialogue about constructing solutions. On the final night of the conference, in a visioning exercise to determine the Denver they want to live in, attendees voted to prioritize a future centered on the social justice goals of inclusion and diversity. This will take intentionality.

For communities in Denver resisting gentrification and seeking social justice, we offer the lessons that we learned by studying five cases of green gentrification in Brooklyn:

  1. Use an environmental justice frame.
  2. Build alliances with workers and elected officials.
  3. Don’t equate participation with success.
  4. Build solidarity to resist zoning changes, the first stage of green gentrification.
  5. Generate alternative visions for green spaces and jobs – be ready with a community plan.
  6. If areas are rezoned, fight for affordable housing and local residents’ priority for that housing.
  7. Sequencing matters: secure affordable housing and working class jobs before greening begins.
  8. When promises are made, follow up and monitor.
  9. Stay organized. Stay mobilized. Stay vigilant.

About the authors

ken-gould-biopicKenneth A. Gould is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, and Professor of Sociology, and Earth and Environmental Sciences at the CUNY Graduate Center. He teaches courses in environmental sociology, globalization and sustainability, and environmental justice. Gould’s research examines the responses of communities to environmental problems, environmental social movement coalitions, the role of socioeconomic and racial inequality in environmental conflicts, and the impacts of economic globalization on efforts to achieve ecologically and socially sustainable development trajectories. He is co-author of, Environment and Society: The Enduring Conflict (1994), Local Environmental Struggles: Citizen Activism in the Treadmill of Production (1996), The Treadmill of Production: Injustice and Unsustainability in the Global Economy (2008), and Green Gentrification: Urban Sustainability and the Struggle for Environmental Justice (2017). He is past Chair of the Environment and Technology section of the American Sociological Association.
Email: kgould@brooklyn.cuny.edu | Twitter: @KgouldA

ken-gould-biopic-tammy-lewisTammy L. Lewis is Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York/Brooklyn College and Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center in Sociology and Earth and Environmental Sciences. She is also the Director of Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College. Her research examines sustainability and alternatives to development, with a focus on Latin America. She has conducted research in Belize, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Peru, and Ecuador, where she was a Fulbright scholar. She is author of Ecuador’s Environmental Revolutions (2016, MIT Press) and co-author with Kenneth A. Gould of Green Gentrification: Urban Sustainability and the Struggle for Environmental Justice (2017, Routledge). Also with Gould, she is the co-editor of Twenty Lessons in Environmental Sociology (2015, Oxford University Press). Her work has appeared in Conservation Biology, Social Science Quarterly, Teaching Sociology, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. She is the Chair-Elect of the Environment and Technology section of the American Sociological Association.
Email: tlewis@brookyln.cuny.edu | Twitter: @TammyL_Lewis

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