Public green spaces like gardens, parks and sports grounds are vital to city life. A critical hub for community life, green spaces offer an aesthetically appealing environment while acting as landmarks in the urban landscape and giving cities a sense of place identity. They bring numerous benefits to both community, neighborhood, and individual wellbeing. But one unfortunate side effect is that thriving urban green spaces tend to raise nearby rents for housing, which can contribute to the displacement of vulnerable communities. Without an intervening policy response, efforts to improve neighborhood wellbeing via the development of attractive greenspaces may unintentionally contribute to displacement and gentrification.
A recent case study that illustrates these concerns is the High Line, an elevated railway turned into a ‘linear park’ complete with gardens, artworks and unique views of New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. Despite being built in a formerly redlined neighborhood comprising one-third people of color, visitation statistics show that nearly 83 percent of all parkgoers are white and most park visitors are tourists according to the Brown Political Review. In Eco-gentrification and who benefits from urban green amenities: NYC’s high Line, Katie Jo Black and Mallory Richards found that in the Chelsea neighborhood rents rose by 68% over the five years following the High Line’s completion, and that homes that were “within 80 meters of the High Line experienced 35.3% higher sale prices compared to those between 80-800 meters.” While the High Line is generally considered a success due to its high visitation rates and nearby development of businesses and apartment buildings, this overlooks the disparate impacts on low-income residents who may have been displaced by the project.
In this article we explore the complex question of how to ensure that greenspace and other urban amenities will actually benefit the communities to which they are targeted. We will highlight the many benefits of urban greenspace, explore the lesser-known implications for both nearby house prices and the rents faced by tenants, and discuss ways to ensure that the attractive greenspaces are financed by those households who they benefit most while also making sure that vulnerable tenants also share in their many desirable social and environmental outcomes.
Lungs of the City
Greenspaces undoubtedly produce a vast array of social and environmental benefits. Public parks and community gardens serve as popular sites for social and recreational activities. The University of Sheffield in the UK has researched the values of the green spaces in promoting a healthy lifestyle. The significance of urban green spaces is that they accomplish different goals like being a social space where the area could be used for recreation and cultural activities. Green spaces also mitigate problems of neighborhood environmental decay where rundown spaces could negatively affect residences through increased crime rates, vandalism, and drug use in these otherwise vacant spaces. There have been several studies and observations where neighborhoods saw a reduction in gun violence and other crimes following the development of green space in the urban vacant land. Green spaces also contribute to an increase of physical activity due to the increased opportunities for going outside to exercise in a clean and green environment. Other benefits include the minimization of air, water, and noise pollution, while also offsetting greenhouse gas emissions through absorption of CO2. The plethora of benefits of urban green spaces may seem like common knowledge to many of the urban residents. But the vulnerable populations who do not reap all the benefit from these green spaces are frequently overlooked.
Green is Gold for Landowners
Crucially, the benefits of greenspace are extremely local in nature, meaning that they generate the most benefits for people who are physically proximate to the park, especially those households within walking distance. This means that the appearance, aesthetics, and amenities of public greenspace ultimately raise nearby house prices and rents. Because these benefits are closely tied to the desirability of the location, they will be captured by both vacant and developed properties alike, meaning that their effect is specifically captured by land prices and land rents.
To precisely quantify the impact of green space on rents and house prices, researchers typically use a technique called ‘hedonic price modeling’ which helps to break property prices into its components, such as the value of an extra bedroom, of having a brick facade, and indeed of proximity to various amenities. For example, Sarah Nicholls of Texas A&M University found that “adjacency to a greenbelt also had a significant, positive impact on property prices in two of three cases; premiums ranged from $13,000 to $48,000 (5% to 13% of total value).” Likewise, in a study of the Twin Cities, Soren Anderson & Sarah West found that halving the distance to a nearby park would raise house prices by $1,800 in 1997 dollars ($3,400 today). To the extent that some of these benefits also raise property tax revenues, they can also help support additional municipal services (such as street cleaning) in the neighborhood, thus ultimately inducing a virtuous cycle of neighborhood improvement.
Hence, we can observe that property owners are the clear winners from attractive public greenspaces. Municipal investments in developing and maintaining desirable parks, gardens and sports grounds, helps to boost location rents and land values nearby, without the landowner having to lift a finger.
Rent & Renoviction
While property owners must be quite pleased when public investment in greenspace drives up the value of their land, the story for tenants is much less clear. On the one hand, access to a park has many positive effects on tenant quality-of-life, but these benefits will often be partially or fully offset by rent hikes. For tenants on very low incomes, these increases in rent may push the area beyond what they can afford, forcing them to leave the neighborhood. If left unchecked, this can disrupt households and preclude the poorest portion of the community from sharing in the benefits of greenspace.
Further, as rising rents indicate increased demand to live in the neighborhood, property owners may respond by seeking to redevelop their properties into more modern or more dense types of housing. Where they wish to do so on a property that already has tenants, landlords may engage in the practice of ‘renoviction’ or ‘demoviction’, essentially using evictions and rent hikes to displace existing tenants and enable renoviction or redevelopment.
While such a process is often considered to “revitalize” or “renew” a neighborhood, it can also trigger green gentrification, replacing poor tenants with wealthier inhabitants. This process can be even more vicious when associated with privately managed and surveilled greenspace. Low income and minority communities may have an even harder time defending their right to remain when facing off against wealthy property owners looking to profit from the benefits created by green space.
Thus, an equitable and inclusive approach to the provision of urban greenspace must be sure to consider the experiences of tenant households in the immediate vicinity.
Inclusionary Urban Amenities
We have seen that the development of public green spaces can have significant equity consequences, simultaneously boosting the wealth and quality of life for homeowners and landlords, while potentially displacing society’s poorest. So how can we ensure that urban greenspace will actually provide wellbeing for all members of the neighboring community? When designing and developing public green spaces, municipalities must consider the equity consequences of their plans.
To this end, policy should jointly pursue three key objectives. First, we must ensure that low-income tenants are able to stick around and share in the benefits created by greenspace. Second, recognizing that higher rents indicate that many more households would like to live close to greenspace, accommodation should be made for the development of more market rate and affordable housing nearby. Lastly, mechanisms for funding urban greenspace should ensure that it is paid for by the households for whom it generates the most benefits, specifically the owners of nearby land. We proceed to discuss how to achieve all three objectives in turn.
Protect Existing Tenants
Recognizing that successful green amenities are likely to raise rents nearby, cities should deploy policies which can help protect existing residents from being displaced from the neighborhood. Crucially, these tools must be especially targeted at low-income tenants, who are most at risk.
Most vital are good cause eviction laws, which prevent landlords from evicting tenants unless they can demonstrate that a lease violation occurred (such as damage to the property or failure to pay rent). Sometimes referred to as a ban on no-fault eviction, these protections can help provide stability to tenants in neighborhoods where rents are rising due to a new park or garden.
Policies which limit the rate at which rents can increase, such as rent control and rent stabilization, can help prevent displacement. One study of rent control in San Francisco found that it helped prevent incumbent renters, with particularly strong benefits for minority groups. However, it also reduced the supply of rental units, suggesting that rent controls should be paired with pro-supply policies, which we address in the next paragraph. Likewise, these policies should be designed in ways which do not significantly discourage the construction of new and more dense housing in proximity to the park, for example by being targeted at older buildings.
To help tenants remain in their communities and close to new greenspace, while also enabling new housing to be added, tenants should be legally guaranteed right-of-return. For landlords hoping to redevelop their property, right-of-return requires that they guarantee their existing tenants a unit in the new building at the pre-existing rent or else pay compensation to displaced tenants.
Expand Access to the Neighborhood
When rents and house prices rise in the vicinity of a desirable park or garden, it is a clear signal that more households are eager to move into the neighborhood and enjoy this new amenity. To ensure that as many people as possible can enjoy the benefits of such greenspaces, urban policymakers should remove the obstacles to new housing construction in the area, and actively support the provision of affordable housing.
Planning rules which severely restrict the construction of multifamily housing, such as height and density controls, should be significantly relaxed in the vicinity of urban greenspace. Single family zoning, which forces landowners to only build standalone houses, should be banned and replaced by rules which allow the ‘missing middle’ and more affordable types of housing. These types of upzoning allow landowners to respond to rising demand by building townhouses and apartments, expanding access to the neighborhood while also easing upward pressure on rents and combating displacement.
While the above policies will enable market rate housing close to new greenspace, active efforts should also boost the supply of affordable housing. In cities and states with an active public or social housing sector, new projects should be targeted at locations close to parks & gardens and where rents are high. Low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC), which subsidize private developers who build affordable housing, should likewise be targeted at similar locations.
Community land trusts (CLTs), which retain community ownership of land in combination with restrictions on the resale prices of housing, can also help guarantee affordable housing to low-income families in the long-term. Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), a CLT, has about seven parks, green spaces, and gardens in their land trust while planning on developing another open space in the near future. The DSNI’s priority became to make “development without displacement” by building new affordable houses and distributing additional housing vouchers for low-income families, incentivizing long-term ownerships among low-income residents and reducing speculative purchasing of homes and vacant lots.
In concert, the strategies above can simultaneously help maximize the number of households who get to enjoy the vital amenities provided by urban greenspace. Ensuring the provision of affordable housing can help to combat green gentrification, by ensuring that a diverse range of families remain in the neighborhood long-term. By ensuring there are many diverse households living nearby, these policies can also encourage a lively range of activities in the park throughout the day, helping foster safety and feelings of community, multiplying the park’s benefits. As explained by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users. . .the more successfully its people enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to their neighborhoods instead of vacuity.”
Virtuous Funding Cycles
Lastly, it is only fair that parks be paid for by the people who benefit most from access to them. As we have discussed above, thriving public greenspace has been repeatedly shown to embed into the value of surrounding properties and into the rents that landlords can charge. Because these benefits are local in nature and will even boost the value of vacant land, we can say that they are captured by land values and will ultimately flow into the pockets of nearby landowners. Thus, policymakers should seek to fund the provision of public greenspace precisely by recapturing the land values that are created by the greenspace itself. Such mechanisms help ensure that publicly-funded amenities benefit the public purse rather than the pocketbooks of property owners.
Typically discussed in the context of public transportation, this strategy is called value capture and can be achieved through mechanisms such as Tax Increment Financing (TIF) or a special tax on the land values of properties within a buffer zone surrounding the new park. One key benefit of levying these value capture mechanisms on land rather than property values is that the tax obligations do not change if the property owner chooses to redevelop. This ensures that they will not accidentally discourage the construction of more housing in this highly-prized area; in fact, they may even encourage more of it.
Funding new parks and gardens by capturing the land values they create will help to produce a virtuous cycle whereby cities have a clear financial incentive to create and maintain desirable green spaces, knowing that the value they create will come back as additional tax revenues.
Public parks and gardens provide vital spaces for rejuvenation, recreation and connection amidst the chaos of the city. Unfortunately, these benefits are primarily captured by homeowners and landlords of properties proximate to greenspace. As rents rise to reflect the value of access to these precious spaces, they can trigger a slippery slope of green gentrification as low-income and minority tenants are displaced. Rather than giving up on efforts to expand equitable access to these vital urban amenities, we encourage city planners and policymakers to be mindful of this cycle and pursue the three-pronged inclusionary approach we have outlined above: protect tenants, expand access, and pursue virtuous cycles of funding.
Existing tenants should be protected from rent-hike displacement through good cause eviction requirements and well-targeted limits to rental increases. Recognizing that rising rents reflect demand to be close to greenspace, local zoning ordinances should allow for medium-density market rate housing, supplemented by subsidies to expand affordable housing options. Finally, urban green spaces should be financed through the virtuous cycle of land value capture, ensuring that they are paid for by precisely those property owners who would otherwise reap all the rewards. This inclusive and equity-minded strategy will ensure we can foster thriving urban green spaces while providing tenants with peace of mind and protecting them from green gentrification.