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Perceptions of environmental gentrification in Philadelphia

1  The Pollinator Corridors Process Book Fall 2017. Philadelphia, PA: Jefferson University, 2017. 

2 Jennings, Viniece, and Cassandra Johnson Gaither. “Approaching Environmental Health Disparities and Green Spaces: An Ecosystem Services Perspective.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 12, no. 2 (2015): 1952–68.
3 Jennings, Viniece, Lincoln Larson, and Jessica Yun. “Advancing Sustainability through Urban Green Space: Cultural Ecosystem Services, Equity, and Social Determinants of Health.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13, no. 2 (2016): 196. 

7 Bryson, Jeremy. “The Nature of Gentrification.” Geography Compass 7, no. 8 (2013): 578–87. 
8 Gamper-Rabindran, Shanti, Ralph Mastromonaco, and Christopher Timmins. “Valuing the Benefits of Superfund Site Remediation: Three Approaches to Measuring Localized Externalities,” 2011.

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16 Wolch, Jennifer R., Jason Byrne, and Joshua P. Newell. “Urban Green Space, Public Health, and Environmental Justice: The Challenge of Making Cities ‘Just Green Enough.’” Landscape and Urban Planning 125 (2014): 234–44.

Can large-scale development of urban green space sustain the vitality of human and non-human communities? Urban landscape projects often claim to accomplish this through the creation of new environmental amenities and ecological habitats. But for whom are these services being designed? Urban landscape projects may be posited as a public good, but these projects often arise in lower-income communities of color and are spearheaded by private investors. Ultimately, these projects can create neighborhood dynamics that foster exclusion and displacement.

Considering this context, I investigated a proposed green infrastructure project in West Philadelphia titled the “West Philadelphia Pollinator Corridor.” This design, a collaboration between John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Audubon Pennsylvania, and the Landscape Architecture Program at Jefferson University, aims to establish an ecological habitat corridor that will stretch the height of West Philadelphia. The collaboration’s goal is to: “create equal habitat for both wildlife and people within communities from the Refuge to the Philadelphia Zoo, so that benefits of an ecologically diverse ecosystem can be shared among all residents regardless of social, economic, or physical status.”[1] I examined the phenomenon of environmental gentrification, and I conducted interviews with green infrastructure experts across Philadelphia to better understand the social and economic impacts of landscape development using the Pollinator Corridor as a case study. 

Green space provides numerous physical, mental, and cultural benefits to urban residents. However, these benefits are not evenly distributed across diverse communities.[2] To a great extent, the prevalence of urban green space in the U.S. can be predicted by income levels and race.[3] Historical, political-economic, and geographic factors have a pervasive and persistent impact on the accessibility and usability of urban green space for different socio-demographic groups.[4]

Many cities have adopted initiatives to expand green space in underserved neighborhoods. However, these initiatives are not as straightforward as they may seem. The equal distribution of green space across a city is not necessarily equitable, as these efforts often overlook the negative impacts of profit-oriented development. As cities like Philadelphia become more populous, many vulnerable neighborhoods become appealing to investors. Investors recognize gaps between current costs and potential future profits in these neighborhoods, leading to the construction of new spaces and amenities. This revitalization process increases rent and other living costs, which can displace existing residents who no longer can afford to live in their homes: a process known as gentrification.

Gentrification is a well-known occurrence, but it is not often recognized in the context of environmental amenities.  Nevertheless, multiple studies demonstrate that urban parks tend to attract private development and increase housing costs[5]. New environmental investments and shifting demographic landscapes can result in the displacement or marginalization of low-income residents, a process known as environmental gentrification. Residents who were meant to benefit from new environmental amenities may never enjoy these benefits in their own neighborhoods. The threat of environmental gentrification presents residents with a dilemma, as they must either reject the introduction of important environmental services, or risk being displaced.[6]

Brownfield remediation projects can be especially susceptible to this phenomenon. When land becomes contaminated, it diminishes in value, which creates an appealing opportunity for investors.[7] The cleanup and greening of contaminated environmental sites has been shown to appreciate housing values. [8] While leaving contaminated sites in their present condition afflicts the health and safety of the community, environmental remediation welcomes investment dollars, aesthetic landscapes, and new jobs – all of which carry the potential to benefit in-movers and developers over existing residents[9]. While the construction of new green spaces leads to healthier and more attractive neighborhoods, the resultant increase in living costs and property values can ultimately displace the very residents that the environmental strategies were intended to assist.

One existing illustration of this process in Philadelphia is the Rail Park in the Callowhill/North Chinatown area, which has acted as both a symptom and instigator of socio-economic shifts in the area. Discussions about building a rail park in this neighborhood were underway for several years following the success of the High Line in New York City, which sparked $2 billion in nearby real estate development. This case study provided optimism for Philadelphia city officials about similar revitalization of the Reading Viaduct in the highly vacant Callowhill neighborhood. Leading up to the park’s construction in 2018, resistance to the project grew substantially among predominantly low-income, immigrant community members.[10] Despite this, the first phase of the park has been completed, and a new neighborhood atmosphere is already emerging around it. 

Many similar concerns exist across the city. Philadelphia hosts both zealous urban greening strategies and recurrent concerns about displacement. Yet, environmental gentrification in Philadelphia is not well understood nor widely deliberated. I interviewed green infrastructure experts across the city to learn more about their perception of this phenomenon. 

I interviewed green infrastructure professionals in Philadelphia using the proposed West Philadelphia Pollinator Corridor Project as a case study. Interviewees were predominantly City employees, but some were private industry experts. During the interviews, I initiated discussions on urban greening and gentrification in Philadelphia.  

Overall, the interviews demonstrated that green infrastructure professionals in Philadelphia care deeply about the wellbeing of the communities they work with. Interviewees clearly devote a great amount of their time and resources in hopes of improving the health and wellbeing of Philadelphians. However, I found many of the interviewees exhibited substantial denial and confliction about the topic of environmental gentrification, despite resident concern about the issue. 

Interviewees emphasized the benefits of green space, while also admitting to the complexity of socio-economic issues in relation to urban greening. On the topic of environmental gentrification, one interviewee explained that this is a recognized and challenging topic of discussion in the community, saying “a couple of times the public have tried to come to me with this, and it’s very hard to reasonably defend and have a conversation.”[11]

While interviewees seemed to have good intentions, many elements of our discussions demonstrated dissonance. Literature suggests that environmental gentrification is an active and impactful phenomenon in post-industrial cities like Philadelphia, and residents are concerned. Yet, interviewees were hesitant to divulge that environmental gentrification could occur in Philadelphia. Consistently, professionals emphasized the positive elements of green development in terms of aesthetics, remediation, and community pride, while shying away from possible negative consequences.

For example, one interviewee stated, “I don’t have any examples of property values increasing [due to green space] but if that happened here it would tend to surprise me.”[12] Another interviewee defended a similar perspective, asserting, “there are people who make gardens in their own neighborhoods… if somebody bought a house next to a pollinator garden, and due to the community’s effort to build that, you would look at that as a positive, hopefully.”[13] Of course, community gardening has many positive aspects, but such a response circumvents the topic of displacement.

My questions about gentrification often prompted contradictory statements. Some interviewees specifically denied the phenomenon of environmental gentrification, then later admitted to its occurrence. For example, one professional stated flatly, “I don’t believe greening in Philadelphia is causing gentrification.” However, later in the interview, the same individual confessed: “I don’t often talk about it, but there’s a study that shows that greening increases home values. And, when home value goes up, taxes go up, and when taxes go up, and somebody’s right on the line, they might have to go out.” [14]

Ultimately, interviewees had difficulty grappling with the benefits of green development in juxtaposition with the possibility of negative socio-economic impacts. One interview concluded with the interviewee stating: “Some people are certainly concerned about gentrification. But you can easily come back and say, ‘well, are you advocating that we not put in new infrastructure, until this area gets an affordable housing plan?’”[15] This question is yet to have a clear answer.

The results of these interviews have notable implications. Advocates and implementers of urban greening in Philadelphia might be discounting a relevant source of anxiety in Philadelphia communities. Municipal greening efforts aim to address issues in environmental justice by improving the wellbeing of vulnerable neighborhoods. Yet, without the conscious consideration of its potential role in the gentrification process, it fails to be truly equitable. 

Green spaces are crucial for urban health and resilience. Researched case studies demonstrate that equitable urban greening projects should prioritize community usability, clean-up, and small-scale interventions; while features such as immense parks, boardwalks, and rewilding are more disruptive and exclusive.[16]

Landscape projects must be approached democratically. To best foster inclusivity, stakeholders should work comprehensively with communities to create spaces that are perceived as safe, welcoming, well-maintained, attractive, and catering to a range of activities and cultural values.[17] This process warrants the inclusion of community members at every level of the planning and construction process while accommodating a variety of meeting times, languages, and physical abilities. Public policy should require collaborative decision-making and should create incentives for developers to hire local residents on these projects, in addition to establishing protective policies that combat displacement. [18]

Based on this analysis, projects like the Pollinator Corridor will only produce equitable environmental amenities for existing residents through a combination of ground-up involvement, small-scale remediation, social consideration, and protective municipal policies. Without the conscious integration of these considerations, the construction of a project like the West Philadelphia Pollinator Corridor is likely to cause exclusion and displacement.  

Eliza Nobles is a longtime admirer of Philadelphia’s ecosystem.  Following a B.S. in Urban Ecology at Drexel University, she remained in Philly to work at Morris Arboretum before attending University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, she is pursuing a dual degree program in City Planning/Urban Design and Environmental Studies. Eliza hopes to use her interdisciplinary experience to create better spaces for people, plants, and animals. 

By Eliza Nobles

Rail Park.PNG

Viaduct Rail LIne in Callowhill
Source: Benjamin Dziechciowski, Flickr Commons

 4 Byrne, Jason, and Jennifer Wolch. “Nature, Race, and Parks: Past Research and Future Directions for Geographic Research.” Progress in Human Geography 33, no. 6 (2009): 743–765.

5 Pearsall, Hamil, and Jillian K. Eller. “Locating the Green Space Paradox: A Study of Gentrification and Public Green 
Space Accessibility in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.” Landscape and Urban Planning 195 (2020): 103708.

6 Checker, Melissa. “Wiped Out by the ‘Greenwave’: Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of 
  Urban Sustainability.” City & Society 23, no. 2 (2011): 210–29

9 Essoka, Jonathan D. “The Gentrifying Effects of Brownfields Redevelopment.” Western Journal of Black Studies  34, no. 3 (2010): 299–315.

10 Curran, Winifred, Trina Hamilton, and Hamil Pearsall. “The Contested Future of Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct: Blight, Neighborhood Amenity, or Global Attraction?” Essay. In Just Green Enough: Urban Development and Environmental Gentrification. Routledge, an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.


Newly Devleoped Rail Park in Callowhill

Photo by Author

17 Byrne and Wolch, “Nature, Race, and Parks: Past Research and Future Directions for Geographic Research,” 743–  65.

18 Essoka, “The Gentrifying Effects of Brownfields Redevelopment,” 299–315.

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