When public parks fuel deep conversations about equity and environmental justice.
In 2017, an Atlanta reporter sat down with Helene Mills, a longtime resident of the city’s historic Fourth Ward. Helene, who was 90 at the time, clutched a family photo as she expressed her worries stemming from an ambitious public works project called the Atlanta BeltLine. The project aimed to bring 22 miles of trails and greenspace to a former railway corridor, an idea inspired by New York City’s elegant High Line. Project leaders had promised to cause minimal disruption to existing communities with its creation, but by the time of Ms. Mills’ interview, residents felt those promises had been broken.
“Before, we were a neighborhood. We were loving; we were caring; we were actually neighbors,” said Mills. “To me [these new people] are not neighbors; they are just residents of this same neighborhood.”
For residents like Mills who live in underprivileged urban neighborhoods, the development of green spaces often sparks a real and valid fear that new funds will mean an end to all they lay claim to as they are priced out of their homes. Too often these fears prove true — and while outside forces such as politics, systemic racism, and corporate priorities can amplify this complex issue, it doesn’t fall only to cities or developers to figure out a solution; this responsibility calls upon the design community as well.
As landscape architect Jessica Henson, a partner at OLIN, said at an Olmsted 200 event (a series commemorating the 200 years since the birth of landscape architect and social reformer Frederick Law Olmstead) earlier this year: “An anticipatory, proactive approach to park planning is now required by all landscape architects, at this point. Setting aside parcels for affordable housing, protecting existing tenants, creating land banks … should all happen before design.”
And I would build on that to say it is equally important to make sure that the community can see tangible outcomes from their engagement. Therefore, perhaps the greatest thing that designers can do to help combat green gentrification is to listen and then design accordingly — ensuring that promises get carried to fruition.
How Did We Get Here? The High Line Effect
When New York City’s High Line opened in 2009, the bar was set. The ambitious transformation of a 1.5-mile elevated train track into a linear urban greenway snaking through the heart of Manhattan sparked the idea that green spaces within an established urban core could look and feel different. By creating an elevated public space where visitors could experience nature, art, and design, the High Line broke the urban park mold, shattering expectations and creating new possibilities for urban designers everywhere.
Since then, cities across the country have looked to the High Line as the gold standard, creating their own versions of a central recreational district and dubbing them the “new High Line.” Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for green space in all development types has only continued to grow. This increased demand has reinforced an idea that many in the landscape architecture community have always known — that green space has tremendous benefits for well-being, including combating the heat island effect, and that access to it should be an equitable human right.
A recent study published in Bloomberg uncovers a far less appealing and often-overlooked aspect of linear greenway parks and parks located close to downtown areas: These districts of green are the most noticeable artifacts of gentrification, perhaps even more obvious than other urban amenities such as high-end restaurants and museums.
Before the High Line, the once-industrial area of Chelsea was predominantly inhabited by lower-income residents and residents of color. The study explains that while Chelsea was already shifting to higher rents and upscale amenities by the time the High Line opened, the linear park accelerated the rise of property values in the surrounding developments, alienating nearby public housing residents. A 2020 study found that homes closest to the High Line increased in value by more than 35 percent after the project was completed, and some increased by 100 percent with the addition of luxury condos. Within just a few short years of its opening, it became clear that the elevated park would be, as an op-ed contributor to the New York Times put it in 2012, “a catalyst for some of the most rapid gentrifications in the city’s history.”
Cities that have followed in the High Line’s footsteps are also seeing effects of gentrification. In Los Angeles, Elysian Valley, a diverse, historically working-class community, saw skyrocketing land values when developers launched a project to revitalize an 11-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River. The median house price there jumped by more than 17 percent, more than twice the countrywide rate at the time. In Chicago, a project called “The 606” doubled property values in the neighboring affordable Latino neighborhoods within three years of its groundbreaking.
While on its surface the High Line was leading us all to a utopia, sparking similar developments across the country, a dark side emerged, showing what can happen when existing communities aren’t put at the forefront of the conversation from a project’s inception. Even Robert Hammond himself, the co-founder of the High Line, has acknowledged this trend. At the Olmsted 200 event in January, he told the crowd that “the High Line [isn’t] a failure, but a lot of mistakes were made,” and that the project has had significant impacts contributing to “cultural displacement and middle-class displacement.” Hammond noted that the High Line “should have formed more diverse community partnerships early on in the planning and design process” to “shape zoning opportunities with the city and state.”
The phenomenon of property values rising in the wake of parklike amenities has caught the attention of many in the design community. In 2017, Hammond founded the High Line Network, a group of developers of infrastructure reuse projects who have a collective mission to create vibrant and equitable public spaces. Some Texas projects are part of this network, including Bayou Greenways and Buffalo Bayou in Houston; Hemisfair in San Antonio; Harold Simmons Park, Klyde Warren Park, and Southern Gateway Park in Dallas; and Waterloo Greenway in Austin.
Not All Parks Are Created Equal
There’s a widespread myth that you can combat green gentrification by going “just green enough” — the claim being that small parks foster green gentrification less than larger parks do. But a study published in 2019 in Urban Studies called this into question. The research, which focused on parks developed between 2000 and 2015 in 10 cities, suggested that certain characteristics of urban parks may play a much greater role in gentrification than others. Long greenway parks with an active transportation component, also known as central recreation districts, are the biggest culprit.
The study also found that a new greenway park installed within a half-mile of it increases the odds that a neighborhood will gentrify by more than 220 percent. A reason for this seems to be that a long linear greenway offers ample opportunities for new real estate development alongside it.
Another factor contributing to gentrification is a park’s proximity to downtown. For every one-mile increase in distance away from downtown, the odds of gentrification decline by about 20 percent. This effect was especially noticed at the revitalization of the Los Angeles River, which was flanked by walking and biking trails, cafes, river-centric activities, and, of course, green space. Proximity to downtown will also increase the number of unhoused individuals who visit the park and find value in the space for needs such as shelter, restrooms, and places to rest.
Interestingly though, there is no evidence to suggest that the size of a park is a driver of gentrification. Parks of any size — large, central parks as well as smaller, scattered parks — trigger gentrification when they are located close to downtown, according to the study. There was also no key driver of neighborhood gentrification in terms of quality of the parks. Ultimately, it came down to the location, type, and function of the green space and not the size or quality of the park itself that seemed to drive gentrification.
One key takeaway from these findings is that, as we develop parks near the urban core, we should take special care to utilize anti-displacement strategies from the moment we are brought into the conversation. Those strategies may include implementing an equitable development plan or taking an organizational approach to maximizing the economic and social benefits of new green spaces with their communities. UCLA published the report “Greening without Gentrification: Parks-Related Anti-Displacement Strategies Nationwide,” which is recommended to be implemented at the very early stages of park planning and development.
How Can Cities and Developers Help?
An upcoming park in Washington, D.C. illustrates how cities and developers can assist in these efforts. The 11th Street Bridge Park is a planned project intended to connect an abandoned bridge across the Anacostia River, linking the affluent neighborhood of Capitol Hill with Anacostia, a historically African American, predominantly low-income neighborhood. The park plans to offer gardens, performance spaces, playgrounds, an environmental education center, public art, and a boat launch, amenities designed to benefit both new and existing members of the community.
The $92 million project, scheduled for completion in early 2026, will be the first elevated park in the nation’s capital. Could this project be a shining model of how similar projects across the country can improve underserved communities without displacing residents? One clear differentiator is its early commitment to an equitable development plan.
From the earliest stages, developers of the 11th Street Bridge plan sought participation from the local community so as to ensure that they benefit from the region’s economic transformation — especially low-income residents, communities of color, immigrants, and others at risk of being left behind. The bridge plan has invested more than $86 million in the community in advance of construction activity, nearly matching the capital costs of building the park. The plan took shape only after several years of intensive engagement with residents, which was essential to overcome skepticism and cultivate trust.
Several other projects across the country, including The Riverline in Buffalo, New York, and Harold Simmons Park in Dallas, also have equitable development plans or organizational approaches to maximizing the economic and social benefits of new green spaces with their communities.
Other options for cities and developers could include making concerted efforts to proactively address gentrification and homelessness around new greenway parks and downtown adjacent parks. This could include solutions from a few different fronts:
Cities could include policies and provisions for more affordable housing in neighborhoods surrounding these parks and efforts to create employment for less advantaged residents in the parks or in developments that appear alongside them.
Cities and developers could work with services for the unhoused on outreach and advocacy, and on creating alternate strategies to policing and incarceration for those experiencing homelessness.
Cities should relegalize many of the naturally occurring affordable housing types that have been regulated out of existence in the past century. Often referred to as “missing middle” housing, these include duplexes, fourplexes, courtyard apartments, and more.
Developers can do their part by constructing, funding, and maintaining high-quality public housing and creating self-mandated requirements for affordable housing (especially the sort that can be built by small-scale developers). They could also enact rent-stabilization policies that limit the price increases tenants may face.
For developers whose building tenants use park amenities, cities could assess fees or taxes that could then be used for affordable housing and neighborhood development, or they could mandate that developers set aside a percentage of their units for affordable housing.
The Designer’s Role: Be Responsive and Community-Driven
Addressing the paradox of green gentrification is the responsibility of us all — and perhaps our biggest and most important role in resolving it is to listen first. Our nimbleness and ability to hear the voices of the existing community, while also relaying their concerns to project developers and the city, could make all the difference.
As Vaughn Perry, director of equity for Building Bridges Across the River told NextCity earlier this year: “Building trust takes time. You’re talking about generations of distrust, and you’re not going to do away with it overnight. It’s really been about us continuing to show up, continuing to listen, and continuing to be at meetings and events, even if we are not on the agenda. It’s really important for us to be a part of the community.” He further explained that it was just as important to make sure that the community sees tangible outcomes from their engagement.
Too many cities operate on a low-trust, high-regulation basis, where the municipality is the only one allowed to shape public space. But neighborhood residents are the ones with relevant context expertise, and humans are creative and resilient. Cities should find ways to encourage residents to take an active ownership role in the stewardship of their neighborhoods rather than discouraging them from participating in the process.
A small example of this approach is the redevelopment of the St. Johns neighborhood in Austin. In 2020, TBG Partners got involved in helping redevelop a long-abandoned 20-acre tract in the historic neighborhood. A historically Black community, St. Johns had been sidelined since the 19th century before Interstate 35 cut through it. The neighborhood today is predominantly African American and Latino.
TBG focused on site analysis and concept planning and worked to bring Cortez Consulting, a woman-owned firm, to the table to help lead community engagement efforts. The team set their sights on respecting the historic and current context of the neighborhood.
Through the robust two-year public engagement process, a local citizen group called the Community Advisory Committee was formed and helped the designers incorporate feedback from current neighbors and former residents into the landscape architecture approach. The first design challenge was the concept and schematic design for the three- to four-acre park space that will link the project with the existing neighborhood to the east. The site plans call for the community to become — and sustain — a mixed-income, mixed-use district with affordable as well as market-rate housing complemented by open green space and community-focused retail services. The overall goal is to support the community by enhancing its services and quality of life through redevelopment.
This consensus could be achieved for projects at all scales and in all city sizes — reinforcing early and often the community’s strengths and enhancing its services and quality of life through development. The St. Johns project hopes to achieve this by providing a mixed-income, mixed-use district with affordable housing that is particularly accessible to current and past residents of the neighborhood; open space for recreation and congregation; and space for community retail and support services specific to the neighborhood.
Righting the Wrongs of the Past
If we swing back over to Atlanta, today we can see that the BeltLine is working toward undoing some of the wrongs of the past — including setting a new goal of creating 30,000 permanent jobs across the circular park and prioritizing access to opportunities for those who live nearby, just as Henson had said we should be doing from the start.
Looking ahead, we must all work toward creating whole and inclusive communities in our cities, where residents from every walk of life can set aside their fears and look forward to the positive quality-of-life improvements that may be imagined for their future — knowing that we’ve got their back all along.
Taylor Davis is a landscape designer at TBG Partners in Austin. She is passionate about vision planning and community engagement.