Urban Parks & Green Spaces as a Panacea?

April 25, 2018
Chris Ling
Bold Colliery

I was lucky enough this last week to attend the American Association of Geographers conference in New Orleans. Along with my colleague Meredith Whitten from the London School of Economics, I co-organised a series of three sessions entitled “Urban parks & green spaces as a panacea?”. The sessions offered a fascinating cross section of the many reasons why cities around the world are adopting, or co-opting green space to deal with a multiplicity of challenges. In this session, they ranged from green spaces in Belfast and the Northern Island peace process (Ian Mell from the University of Manchester) to ecological restoration in urban Chicago (Melinda Storie and Joanne Vining).

However, the topic which was most discussed and was considered in many of the papers presented was the idea of Environmental Gentrification, stimulated by a paper about the Atlanta BeltLine by Rachel Will, the idea that the clearly well intentioned environmental improvements lead to rising real estate prices and a loss of community in those areas. This has also led to a concept of ‘green enough’ which some community activists are proposing to limit the development of green initiatives to try and prevent this kind of impact – a good briefing note on this topic can be found on Critical Sustainabilities.

This leads to a very challenging ethical dilemma for urban planners and designers. On one hand, the forcing out of people as a result of rising property prices can lead to the destruction of communities and the very real marginalisation of vulnerable people. On the other hand, shouldn’t the goal of all urban planners and designers be to create sustainable and green urban neighbourhoods for everyone? Surely we can’t want economically marginalised neighbourhoods to live in unsustainable and unappealing places just so they are affordable – that to me also doesn’t seem ethical. To me, the resultant gentrification that occurs in these situations is symptomatic of much bigger issues – that we have done such a bad job over the last century in creating sustainable and attractive places to live, and are doing so little to improve our urban areas that these small areas of improvement become so attractive relative to the surrounding urban fabric. The response should not to be do less (green enough) but to do a lot more so that the ‘greening’ is no longer sufficiently unusual as to be afforded by only the wealthy.

Image: Wetland restoration at Bold Colliery (now Colliers Moss Common), St Helens, Lancashire – a community led ecologically informed restoration project