Greenlining: Environmental Infrastructure and Racial Capitalism in 3 U.S. Cities
By Emma Brice
The following piece is part of Progressive City's Planning for Environmental Justice series. Contributions reflect on this theme through a variety of lenses, such as environmental justice, combatting green gentrification, and exploring radical approaches to climate change. Read more about this series here.
From creating urban forests to curbing the heat-island effect to implementing stormwater swales that can capture and remove contaminants from runoff, cities worldwide are readily investing in ecological infrastructure to address climate change vulnerabilities while beautifying urban space. Though these environmentally resilient infrastructures are widely perceived as positive assets, researchers at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies found that many municipal Blue and Green Infrastructures (BGI) plans lack clarity beyond coloring certain city areas in blue, green, and/or grey. Blue infrastructures often refer to hydrological definitions, grey is occasionally used to describe stormwater management systems, and green infrastructures are vegetative ecosystem interventions. However, the ambiguous language and definitions of BGI plans can easily obscure the sometimes devastating consequences of green infrastructure development. Despite the fact the BGI developments can increase protection of the built and natural environment, it is often done at the expense of the people living in these vulnerable areas slated for ecological infrastructure who have bore the burden of environmental disaster but will not reap the benefits of the environmental protections without intentional policy to prevent displacement. Considering the racial and class-based inflections of how certain cities implement BGI, I weave together scholarship on green gentrification alongside the current projects being implemented in Detroit, New Orleans, and Atlanta.
Detroit Future City, Framework Zones and Future Open Space Network: DFC Strategic Framework Plan.
Detroit, Michigan, is a city infamous for structural racism and is considered among the most segregated cities in the United States. Located along the Detroit River, which connects Lake Huron and Lake Erie, Detroit is vulnerable to flooding due to its aging stormwater management infrastructure. Researchers at Wayne State University found that more than 40% of Detroit residents have experienced household flooding, and renters are nearly twice as likely to experience flooding in their homes compared to homeowners. In a similar construction of precarity, predominantly Black neighborhoods are at a higher risk of flooding than other neighborhoods. Adding shades of blue to critical scholarship on urban greenwashing, Dr. Nadia Gaber focuses on bluelining as an urban renewal strategy that aims to erase the predominantly Black and poor people living on environmentally vulnerable and highly-valuable land with stormwater management infrastructures like water retention ponds and bioswales. As opposed to working with communities experiencing flooding to address pressing stormwater management concerns, Gaber writes that communities experiencing water shut-offs related to foreclosure are those same neighborhoods slated for new stormwater management infrastructure under the Detroit Future City (DFC) Plan. First published in 2012 by a non-profit with the same name, DFC offers a lengthy document which outlines a 50-year plan for the transformation of Detroit into a world-class sustainable city. Though little is known about the proposed funding mechanisms required to implement DFC, the DFC suggests the city rezone nearly "empty" residential neighborhoods for a variety of vague environmental land use designations: community open spaces, ecological landscapes, blue-green infrastructure, working and productive landscapes, and transitional landscapes.
Thinking of Safransky's critique that the DFC plan renders historic Black neighborhoods as urban frontiers ripe for occupation via green innovation, a majority of these new land-use designations operate outside of community efforts and serve to eclipse these efforts with top-down, market-based strategies of contemporary urban renewal. The DFC plan emphasizes that much of this transformation will take place on vacant lots, locating these interstitial spaces as primary sites for the negotiation of citizenship within the urban commons of Detroit. A recent study of Detroit's Lower East Side, a neighborhood with high rates of vacancy, examines the transformation of vacant lots into community gardens as a means to scale up and decentralize urban agriculture. Citing access to permanent land tenure as a primary obstacle to the expansion of urban agriculture, these authors write that municipal “adopt-a-lot” programs and similar initiatives that promote community reappropriation of vacant lots privilege homeowners and white newcomers. Now under the guise of promoting climate resilience, racial segregation in Detroit continues to operate through dominant property regimes that leverage fiscal austerity politics against the city's poorest residents. In many ways, the geography of evictions in Detroit maps onto patterns of neighborhood gentrification.
However, there are many citizen-led organizations committed to protecting the right to housing for people in Detroit. The Detroit People’s Platform is a group that formed directly in response to water shutoffs, foreclosures, evictions, and other strategies being used in tandem with green gentrification and bluelining. They call for public officials to increase funding for the Detroit Housing for the Future Fund, adopt an ordinance of a Detroit-specific affordability formula, develop a housing plan that creates permanently affordable housing across a variety of unit types, and greater transparency with annual reporting. Likewise, Detroit Renter City is an organization committed to securing the right to housing for tenants through the city’s oft unenforced rental ordinance that requires the registration and inspection of rental properties.
New Orleans, Louisiana, is particularly vulnerable to environmental hazards due to its location near the low-lying lands bordering Lake Pontchartrain, bisected by the Mississippi River. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed the city, causing nearly $125 billion USD in physical damage and devastating communities. Many of the worst impacted areas by this were predominately-Black neighborhoods, namely the Lower Ninth Ward. In "Katrina," New Orleans historian Andy Horowitz (2020) views Hurricane Katrina not as a discrete natural disaster but as a somewhat preventable tragedy that was exacerbated by decades of racist environmental planning policy. The storm's severity was infamously made worse by institutional inaction, as government officials neglected to prepare for a disaster long forewarned by experts.
Since Katrina, the city has been slowly recovering from the material and affective damage. In an effort to reconcile with their failures in mitigating the effects of Katrina, FEMA and other disaster relief organizations are proactively funding the creation of BGI across the city. However, in her analysis of post-disaster New Orleans, Tierney (2015) reveals how neoliberal policies support disaster risk management strategies in sites where green infrastructure serve as vehicles for circulating wealth. In conversation with critics of resilience discourse, she argues that the structural mitigation strategies championed by governments and private real estate developers in post-disaster coastal cities can redevelop poor, Black neighborhoods decimated by natural disasters into new, trendy eco-resilient zones which advantageously benefits developers and the wealthy, rather than those impacted by the disaster.
In "Over Priced or Under Water", Eloise Reid researches the ways in which planning for climate resilience perpetuates the displacement of lower-income residents and tenants in the neighborhood of Gentilly, New Orleans. Surrounded on three sides by water, this racially and economically diverse neighborhood is being redeveloped with disaster-resilient infrastructure and branded as the Gentilly Resilience District (GRD). The GRD proposal, funded through $141.2 million appropriated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the development plan consists of seven public work projects designed to address the neighborhood's environmental vulnerabilities while encouraging landscape revitalization. This neighborhood-wide ecological infrastructure project includes integrative blue and green stormwater that reimagine wetlands and canals as community green spaces. However beneficial these new infrastructures may be in reducing flood risk and slowing land subsidence, Reid states that residents were not meaningfully consulted in the initial phases of this project and argues that the absence of consensual planning practices as part of the development of the GRD will impact the levels of displacement among long-term Gentilly residents.
Despite this lack of procedural justice, many of these projects under the GRD are nearing completion of design and the city is planning to break ground this summer. Among the new neighborhood improvements funded by federal hazard mitigation grants is the Mirabeau Water Garden project which is predicted to raise median home values in the neighborhood by 49%. Though this increase is by no means surprising, there are no programs or policies implemented as part of the GRD designed to preserve affordability and mitigate displacement through gentrification among residents with precarious tenure. Instead, the Community Adaptation Program (CAP) was developed to grant between $10,000 to $25,000 to 200 owner-occupied single-family homes with household incomes at or below 80% of Area Median Income (AMI) within the GRD for the purpose of retrofitting residential stormwater management infrastructure. Despite the purportedly progressive nature of green infrastructure developments, this discretionary federal funding for homeowner amenities reveals the multi-scalar investments to protect the interests of private property over responding to crises of affordability and displacement that are caused by environmental disasters and their aftermath. However, there are local organizations working to promote equitable ecological infrastructure. The Data Center of Southeast Louisiana offers independent analysis to make informed decisions on blue-green land use developments in Southeast Louisiana. Their wealth of information on disaster recovery, regional economic activity, workforce development, racial disparity indicators, and coastal population movements allows for municipalities to assess the opportunities and risk of BGI improvements and climate change mitigation.
Green infrastructure development practices in Atlanta, Georgia, offer salient lessons on how zoning can be a tool for both generating displacement and promoting equitable, sustainable place-making. In 2017, Atlanta's city council adopted the Green Infrastructure Strategic Action Plan, which outlines the municipality's approach to creating a more sustainable and equitable city. Their strategy involves new watershed improvement plans alongside the development of natural green infrastructures like nature preserves, stream restoration projects, and stormwater swales. In a city cursed by sprawl, among the city's more controversial green infrastructure investments is the BeltLine, a historic 22-mile-long railroad corridor being transformed into a robust green network of public parks, multi-use trails, transit, and housing developments. However, concerns about the lack of protections for housing affordability have risen since the plan was originally published in 2005. More than halfway through the project's timeline towards the estimated completion date of 2030, housing advocates argue that the public-private partnership has moved too slowly in implementing programs to protect nearby residents and the goals for constructing additional housing stock to mitigate displacement are too conservative for the relative impact expected.
As of April 2022, the Atlanta Beltline Partnership reported that the corporation has surpassed its annual affordable housing goal of 320 units. They attributed much of the below-market development to the City of Atlanta’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance passed this year which set aside a certain number of rental units for renters making 60-80% of the AMI in neighborhoods covered by the beltline. In the interest of preserving affordability among legacy homeowners, the Atlanta Beltline, Inc. launched the Legacy Resident Retention Program in 2020, aimed at preserving the ownership of homes that have been owner-occupied since at least 2017 and where household income is less than 100% of AMI. Redefining the threshold for affordability, this program is designed to cover the increases in property taxes until the BeltLine is completed in 2030. The Beltline corporation has yet to put forth any programs aimed at reducing the gentrifying impacts to tenants, and the inclusionary zoning they boast in their affordability goals were put in place at the behest of the city.
Upset by the lack of protections for legacy renters, the Housing Justice League (HJL) has developed a robust policy package they advocate should be adopted by the Atlanta city council in order to prevent the displacement of long-term residents, particularly precarious groups like tenants and unhoused people. Many of these recommendations are based on policies implemented to prevent gentrification in other cities across the U.S., some of which are already active in Atlanta's battle for affordability with the BeltLine. Specifically, their BeltLine for All campaign calls for the implementation of policies like the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) based on the law passed in D.C., which gives tenants of renter-occupied properties of 5+ units the first offer of sale and gives tenant associations the freedom to convert the building into a co-operative land trust (CLT). Similarly, the HJL wants the city council to pass a property tax abatement for low-income households, as well as a tax abatement for landlords of Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing (NOAH) which would incentivize landlords to lease apartments at affordable rates along with new BeltLine developments. Additionally, the plan advocates for the creation of loan funds to offer financial support for legacy community development and CLTs. Likewise, the HJL encourages the city to reclaim vacant properties for the development of affordable housing, and extend the length of the affordability period before properties are listed at market price. Though not outlined in their policy package, anti-speculation laws and right to return policies are used in similar contexts to prevent displacement of long-term residents. However, some advocates argue it’s “about ten years too late” for these measures to mitigate gentrification along Atlanta’s Beltline.
Many of these techniques and recommendations for mitigating the displacement of residents in neighborhoods designated for new BGI can have wide applications for other kinds of projects like transit-oriented development. Reflecting on the term greenlining as a spatial management strategy that promotes ecological land use developments in diverse, low-income residential neighborhoods, this practice is emboldened by legacies of orchestrated negligence and environmental mis-management. The idea that climate change doesn't discriminate is false; racial capitalism and settler colonialism are inexorably linked to climate change. The areas in cities slated for a new blue and green corridors are often racially diverse, lower-income, renter neighborhoods. From looking at these case studies, it's clear that municipalities must foreground the voices of residents in these discussions and incorporate comprehensive anti-gentrification policies alongside the development of ecological infrastructure in an effort to meaningfully redress the legacies of environmental violence.
Emma Brice is a BA student in the Department of Geography - Urban Studies at McGill University, graduating in fall 2022. Her perspective on green infrastructure is shaped by participating in urban agriculture initiatives in both Baltimore and Montreal.