Environmental Gentrification

Sustainabilities: Eco-oriented | Justice-oriented | Market-oriented

"Environmental gentrification” is the process whereby the seemingly progressive discourse of urban sustainability is used to drive up property values and displace low-income residents. The success of environmentalists’ push for “greener” practices, environmental justice activists’ demands to clean up long polluted and ignored neighborhoods, and the push for more community input has led to more efforts for ecologically responsible urban development. Everyone from grass-roots neighborhood activists and government technocrats to private enterprise has focused on creating a “greener” more “sustainable” city.

With such a wide array of support, “sustainable development” has become almost apolitical—or what some would call a “post-political” discourse.1 After all, who doesn’t want a clean and green neighborhood? But while trees are planted, bike lanes striped, and new ways of catching water get implemented across American cities, there is also rampant gentrification happening. Much discussion of gentrification has focused on cultural shifts, rent theories, etc. However, little attention has been paid to the redevelopment that stems out of this newest movement for livable and sustainable streets. What we are beginning to see is process coined by Melissa Checker as “environmental gentrification,” which is the process by which the push for sustainable cities, both intentionally and unintentionally, has been coopted by high-end real estate developers at the expense of the low-income residents. “While it appears as politically neutral, consensus-based planning that is both ecologically and socially sensitive, in practice, environmental gentrification subordinates equity to profit-minded development.”2

The highlighting of sustainable efforts and “green living” is now an easily marketed feature of urban neighborhoods, and leaves the newly greened spaces open to market forces. The language of sustainability and its implied focus on the environment removes any discussion of who will benefit from these changes. Seemingly, everyone will benefit. Except once again, it is for those who can afford it. Cities like San Francisco have worked hard, and often been forced by community will, to incorporate community participation into their redevelopment plans. Yet their input is often limited to what trees should be planted, or whether there should be more parking or bike lanes. The ultimate choices are created and shaped by city agencies like the Department of Public Works or City Planning, which, while they make larger decisions on city-wide traffic patterns or water and waste management, by themselves have little power to control the market for apartment rental, retail, and home prices. There is a disconnect between the need to tie environmental projects to planning for sustainable affordable housing.

Environmental improvements in the city swiftly become a means to boost land value, and with it important the tax base for the city. Yet, whether or not the change was fought for on a grass roots level, led by city planners, or pushed by high-end development, the outcome is that low-income residents get forced out, most likely to another site that has yet to be “greened.” The successes or failures of the projects are judged by their effects on the physical environment, not on whether they also “sustained” the original community.  While the sustainable cities movement is framed as an ecological or even justice-oriented endeavor, it is also easily appropriated by private development to benefit their own bottom line.

— Susie Smith


1. Eric Swyngedouw, "Impossible/Undesirable Sustainability and the Post-Political Condition" in The Sustainable Development Paradox, ed. Krueger J.R. and Gibbs D, (New York: Guilford Press, 2007), 13–40 .
2. Melissa Checker, “Wiped Out by the Greenwave: Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability,” City & Society, 23, no.2 (2007): 210–229.