But according to Barcelona-based researcher Isabelle Anguelovski, cities have yet to internalize the consequences of a growing divide: In city after city, she argues, new green infrastructure has brought real estate speculation, rising housing costs and community displacement.
Anguelovski, director of the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, is a research professor at ICREA, the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies. Her new research, published in Nature, found that a majority of European and US cities saw waves of green infrastructure investment lead to gentrification within roughly a decade. In nearly half of those cities, “greening, and greening alone,” accounts for the shift.
“It is absolutely part of a growing green orthodoxy of cities,” she said of what she considers a systemic problem. “Everyone wants to win the award of the most livable or the greenest city.”
Examples can be found around the world. From the living shoreline on the Boston waterfront to the tree-studded skyscrapers of Milan’s “Bosco Verticale,” laudable efforts to improve air and water quality or aid in climate resilience have also priced out existing residents, often in neighborhoods that have been historically disinvested. That’s the case in Anguelovski’s hometown, Barcelona, where the citywide campaign to add green space in the historic Old Town has helped further drive up housing costs.
It’s an issue with deep roots in the US, where a history of redlining and segregation created wide gulfs in access to parks, recreational facilities and tree canopy coverage. Those amenities create value, and when added to existing neighborhoods, they tend to draw the attention of developers, who can market housing with a message focused on sustainability and wellness. Melissa Checker, an anthropologist at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center, coined the term “pernicious paradox” in 2011 to describe how neighborhoods are put in the position of saying no to a new amenity because of fears of displacement.
“It’s like this game of whack-a-mole in terms of green gentrification,” said Winifred Curran, an urban geographer and professor at Chicago’s DePaul University. “Cities and urban environments have always been defined by scarcity. If you start to put investment in places where it wasn’t before, it makes developers’ ears perk up.”
But researchers remain divided about the impact, and in some cases existence, of green gentrification. Can even the smallest interventions in a city — adding bike lanes, or planting street trees — send signals to developers and property owners that an area has become more valuable, triggering investment and, for some, displacement?
It’s an increasingly urgent question, as cities need more trees, shade, parks and clean transportation options as the risks of extreme heat multiply. A survey from CDP found that 80% of cities report faced significant climate hazards this year, with 46% citing extreme heat.
“It shouldn’t stop you from doing something. But it should change the way that you do something.”
And in the US, major federal investments in green infrastructure are coming. The Inflation Reduction Act includes $1.5 billion alone for the US Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law features extensive support of biking and active transportation programs, including a 60% increase in the Transportation Alternatives Program — a big source of federal funds for biking — and added funding for planning projects to lay out and design future parks.
The High Line effect — the power of large, signature parks and rails-to-trails projects to draw development and supercharge real estate values — has long been understood; similar greenway projects like Chicago’s 606 trail and Atlanta’s BeltLine have drawn local concern over the phenomenon. It’s why Washington, DC’s forthcoming 11th Street Bridge Park project, with its explicit equity agenda, has been so closely watched. But it’s not just superstar green projects that have been planned and promoted with at least some nod to the power placemaking has to reshape, and revalue, a neighborhood. Even tiny pocket parks — or a single tree — can tip the scales of nearby property values, new research says, complicating efforts to roll these amenities out across a city equitably.
“By this point, for a city to say they’re shocked that these interventions, these park projects, cause displacement is completely disingenuous,” said Curran. “But at the same time, that doesn’t mean you don’t add green space.”
Costs and Benefits
The argument that even smaller parks or projects cause gentrification often gets caught up in larger debates about the slippery nature of the phenomenon, and incredulity that a few saplings or a painted bike lane can make a difference. But the larger discussion of park projects makes clear cities see them as having a real effect on real estate values.
Outside Indianapolis, in a northern suburb called Westfield, the city funded the design and creation of Grand Junction Plaza, a new park focused on both improving resilience and providing a public gathering place near downtown. The park holds numerous benefits: an elaborate system for groundwater absorption, a location and design that tie together numerous trail systems, and several elegantly designed arts and community spaces. It’s also meant to be a social magnet, drawing attention and activity and spurring development in the city’s downtown.
“The idea is the town will grow up around this,” said landscape architect David Rubin of Land Collective. “This is genuine — this isn’t some Disneyland.”
The just-opened park was designed with extensive community engagement and has been mostly welcomed by Westfield residents. But it’s hard to argue that it was the promise of tangible economic benefits, not just environmental ones, that helped get the $32.5 million project done.
Green gentrification can be seen on smaller scales, says Geoffrey Donovan, a researcher with the US Forest Service who has tracked how tree planting can affect surrounding property values. Looking at Portland, Oregon, he found that every percentage point increase in a neighborhood’s overall tree cover boosted a home’s sale price by $882, and each new street tree was associated with a $131 premium. But the effect is small compared to the introduction of a light rail stop — which can add $5,500 to a home’s price.
Donovan stressed that this effect was not an argument against planting more trees — it could be mitigated by pairing planting efforts with affordable housing and equity programs. But often, nonprofits just focus on getting trees in the ground and not looking at the bigger picture. “I don't think green gentrification is this sort of big Boogeyman,” he said. “It shouldn’t stop you from doing something. But it should change the way that you do something.”
An example of this comes from Detroit, where an environmental nonprofit’s urban reforestation effort a decade ago met resistance from many residents, who turned down offers for free street trees; in a 2019 study, researchers attributed the backlash to a legacy of historic distrust and the city’s lack of community outreach.
“The challenge is how to provide opportunities without having untoward and unintended impacts on someone’s financial status and their ability to live in those neighborhoods,” said Jad Daley, president and chief executive officer of American Forests, a nonprofit that invests in community greening programs in cities across the country.
American Forests created a map of tree equity scores, which compiles tree canopies and key economic indicators across the country, and found striking racial and socioeconomic gaps: Majority neighborhoods of color have 33% less canopy, while low-income neighborhoods have on average 41% less canopy. Daley calls it a “moral imperative” in an age of climate change to provide more shading and trees to these communities. “Extreme heat kills more than 12,000 people a year in the US, and Duke University research says that may top 100,000 annually this century,” said Daley. “I say all the time, that’s not going to happen in leafy neighborhoods — you know, the way they describe wealthy areas with trees?”
Daley points to current American Forests programs in Phoenix and Detroit that take cues from neighborhood groups and reflect extensive community engagement. The Phoenix Cool Corridors plan aims to create 100 areas of increased shade and heat mitigation in underinvested neighborhoods, while in Detroit, a recently announced initiative will aim to plant 75,000 trees and invest $30 million in the city, including hiring local residents for the program.
Community-First Climate Resilience
Some researchers note that links between green infrastructure and property values can be tenuous. Nick Ferenchak, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico who researched how neighborhoods changed after bike lanes were added, concluded that previous research on the topic tended to be less quantitative. His work analyzing 29 US cities didn’t find strong trends and changes amid neighborhood income and demographic composition brought on by bike lanes.
“It’s not a sure bet that you put a bike lane in a random neighborhood and it gentrifies,” Ferenchak said. “If you’re in a neighborhood getting bike lanes, you shouldn’t have a knee-jerk reaction that gentrification is on its way.
But the strong feelings that certain kinds of interventions inspire are very real. Like tree cover, US bike infrastructure currently tends to be concentrated in predominantly white and more affluent urban areas. As scholar Melody Hoffman observed in her 2016 book Bike Lanes Are White Lanes, the bike advocacy movement has clashed with communities of color in several cities, and the bicycle itself can be a “rolling signifier” that residents see as unwelcome.
Without an explicit link to equity goals, infrastructure investments can risk alienating residents who see greening as a harbinger of disruption — or as amenities intended for people outside the community.
“Real estate development has really attached itself to the greening agenda in cities in a way that is inconvenient and challenging,” said James Connolly, a researcher at the University of Vancouver. “Greening needs to happen in relation to housing policy and other land use controls. The only responsible agenda is when greening happens in relation to those other agendas.”
To ward off green gentrification, experts agreed that projects must be paired with policies that focus on equity, discourage speculation, and maintain or add affordable housing. To accomplish this, the environmental nonprofit CDP created a framework called people-powered climate action that encourages cities to identify vulnerable populations, analyze local experiences and engage with them.
Linda Hwang, senior director for strategy and innovation at the Trust for Public Land, says that sustainability-focused infrastructure should be developed citywide instead of in a piecemeal fashion, and leveraged to “lift up and respond to community concerns.”
For a new project in Bozeman, Montana, for example, the Trust helped set aside a plot adjacent to the 60-acre Story Mill Park for 62 additional units of affordable housing. Rhonda Lee Chapman, equity director at the Trust for Public Land, said her organization has also focused on providing resources, guidance and grant writing assistance for local community groups, so they can better utilize incoming federal dollars and prepare for any economic changes that new park projects would trigger.
Some kinds of green infrastructure seem to lack the transformative power of signature parks. A decade ago, Curran and colleague Trina Hamilton looked at Newton Creek in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, an area of fast-appreciating property values and investment. They concluded that investments that focused on environmental improvements, as opposed to recreation, didn’t add to an existing problem of encouraging displacement, she said.
Marine life habitats, like the Living Dock project added to the creek, weren’t examples of particularly high design, but they had a positive impact on the local ecosystem. “No one’s building a condo to look at the Living Dock,” Curran said.
Anguelovski said the next step in addressing the issue is to create tools that can better predict where green gentrification is going to take place, and what combination of tools and economic policy can help combat that shift.
“If you don’t precede these nature-based solutions with housing provisions, zoning provisions and incentives, you’re going to end up creating, five to 10 years down the line, new kinds of insecurities in the city,” she said.