Parks and Gentrification

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Image credit Jenna Stamm

Everyone deserves access to a great park close to their home. However, in many cities across the country, fear of gentrification is causing some communities to question whether they should try to improve their local park system, or just leave things as they are. Gentrification occurs when rising prices for housing in historically disinvested neighborhoods brings economic and demographic change, including shifts in income, education levels, and race. These changes can hurt long-time and/or lower-income residents in many ways. In some cases, gentrification can cause physical displacement when households are forced to move due to property sales, evictions, or rising costs. In others, neighborhoods that are being gentrified experience cultural displacement, where residents lose their long-time communities and social connections, including important affordable and culturally relevant businesses (e.g. grocery stores, restaurants, or barbershops) as more expensive businesses enter to serve newcomers. 

Through experience and research, we know that large-scale park investments can have a dramatic effect on local property values. Some of the best-known examples are the 606 Trail in Chicago and the Beltline in Atlanta. Each caused major increases in local real estate values, especially in nearby low-income neighborhoods and/or communities of color. However, more research is needed on how different scale park investments affect gentrification risk. A recent study of New York City parks and displacement risk completed by The Trust for Public Land found that improving and expanding access to smaller existing parks nearby did not increase a neighborhood’s gentrification risk. 

Everyone deserves a great neighborhood park
Communities should not have to choose between a high-quality park on one hand or housing security and a sense of belonging on the other. Just because a park may increase property values, it doesn’t mean that gentrification or displacement must follow. For some long-time home owners, an increase in property values can be a good thing, but for renters, increases in rent are generally not good. The key is to understand how to use new investments for the benefit of long-term residents in the neighborhood and prevent the harmful pressures of displacement. By advocating for good planning and community development alongside park projects, you will not only improve your local park, but also strengthen your community and make it more resistant to the negative consequences of gentrification. Maybe there are opportunities to develop affordable housing, implement policies to protect vulnerable residents, or create local job opportunities. While engaging neighbors around park features and design, community leaders can work to identify broader issues in the neighborhood. We can ask, not just “what do you want to see in your new park?” but “what concerns do you have about the future of your neighborhood?”

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Image Credit Annie Bang

Making parks welcoming for everyone
One impact of gentrification is cultural displacement – or the feeling that the neighborhood is no longer welcoming to long-term residents. New investments, such as parks, can be viewed as “for the newcomers.” If done correctly, the park design process can be an important tool to avoid cultural displacement. By involving everyone in the design process, you can make sure that your park will have features that are inviting and exciting to all. Whether you are improving an existing park or trying to build a new one, these steps can help ensure that your park project is not making long-time residents feel unwelcome. 

1)    Engage your community 
A strong community engagement process, focused on meeting the needs of existing long-term residents, can build powerful social connections and community leadership that can have effects far beyond the park itself. By increasing this type of civic participation, residents can learn to organize to solve other problems in their community. Residents’ voices should be central to all decisions, including design, programming, and stewardship. In neighborhoods facing the pressures of gentrification, a feeling of community ownership over new amenities like parks can help combat the cultural displacement that residents face. 

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Image credit Mark Graham

Case Study: Dallas
Recent plans to upgrade outdoor spaces in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood started with the community’s organizing efforts to improve a local school, including a student walk out in 2015. Following major renovations to South Oak Cliff High, residents turned their attention to the Alice Branch of Five Mile Creek, which runs behind the school grounds. Overgrown and underused, one local leader described the creek as “a dirty, nasty, smelly eyesore.”

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Image credit Mark Graham

The community was able to take the momentum they built advocating for school renovations and put it towards improving the creek, carrying out stewardship activities and working with the Trust for Public Land to develop the Five Mile Creek Greenbelt Master Plan. The plan is an ambitious vision to build 22 miles of trail along the creek, and to add four new parks to southern Dallas, including a park behind the school where the creek flows. Keeping the community engaged has been key throughout the process, with TPL and local partners regularly carrying out neighborhood parties, meetings, guided walks, and working with South Oak Cliff students to make sure the parks and trails that get built will be welcoming to all, and used and loved by everyone in the neighborhood.

2)    Incorporate local culture 
Incorporating local culture can help make your neighbors feel welcome in the park, increasing a sense of belonging and ownership. Sports amenities, gathering areas, plantings, and public art should be designed to reflect the culture and desired use of community members of different ages, races, ethnic backgrounds, abilities, genders, income levels, etc. Culturally appropriate design and programming can encourage park use and interaction between residents. This increased connection between community members can help create an important safety net against the pressures of gentrification, as people can come to rely on their neighbors in difficult times.

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Image credit Adair Freeman Rutledge

Case Study: South Wenatchee
In the Central Washington community of South Wenatchee, a group of local park champions known as Parque Padrinos (godparents of the park) took a major role in planning upgrades for their local Kiwanis Methow Park. This process included thinking creatively about how the park could better reflect the community’s Latino culture.

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Image Credit Elyse Leyenberger

The park’s redesign is centered around a new kiosko—a pavilion designed for performances and celebrations, common in town squares in Mexico. The kiosko will host the town’s Mexican folk-dance troupe as well as Wenatchee High School’s award-winning mariachi band. “Parque Padrinos is not just about the park. They’ve developed a space where your identity is respected and elevated so you can build community,” says Oskar Zambrano, of the Latino Community Fund of Washington. Following the park improvements, Parque Padrinos used their newfound leadership role in the community to focus on outreach for the upcoming election. As a result, voter turnout among Latinos in the region was triple its level in recent elections.

3)    Stewardship
Once the park design and construction are finished, it is time to make a plan for stewardship. When community members are actively involved in maintaining and improving a park, they will have a stronger sense of ownership over it. Creating a friends group can be a great way to improve your local park while also increasing social ties. Inviting residents, especially long-term residents, to help plan and promote park activities will also help to build this sense of ownership. 

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Image credit Jenna Stamm

Cast Study: South Los Angeles
In South Los Angeles, residential blocks are separated by a series of unpaved alleyways. Though they are the closest thing many people have to a backyard, the alleys feel abandoned, and are often used as dumping grounds. A local group of concerned community members created the Equipo Verde (Green Team) to improve these vacant alleys. Working with the Trust for Public Land, Equipo Verde made major improvements to the alleys, adding trees, plants, and other improvements.

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Image credit Elyse Leyenberger

Continued stewardship plays a major role in maintaining the site and building a sense of community ownership. Group members—mostly local moms and grandmas—arm themselves with work gloves, masks, trash bags, brooms, rakes, and shovels. Over time, the Equipo Verde has converted the junk-filled alleys into bright, shared spaces that their neighbors enjoy and feel safe to walk through. 

Advocating for Equitable Neighborhood Development 
There is a lot you can do outside of your park to help your community stop the negative impacts of gentrification. While Parkology is dedicated to helping park champions improve their local parks, we also know that many of you are committed to improving your neighborhoods in other ways. Here are a few ideas on how to get started.

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1) Work through existing channels
Find out if anyone is already working on these issues in your community, and ask how you can get involved. Attending local planning meetings, talking to city planning and/or housing staff, and writing to your elected officials can all be good ways to start. 

2) Assess the risk of displacement in your community
If no one is already working on this issue, you can start the conversation. Try to figure out how serious the risk of displacement is in your neighborhood. Talk to people in your community, asking them about their experiences with displacement and collecting their stories. Talking to local experts can also be helpful. Check to see if there are local housing advocacy groups in your area, or university urban planning departments that are studying displacement.

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Image credit Elyse Leyenberger

3) Build a coalition
Talk with partners that can support economic and community development efforts in the neighborhood. Start by identifying organizations that have organizing experience and community relationships. Build coalitions of interested community members, local community-based organizations, housing advocates, economic development specialists, environmental justice partners, and others around potential displacement risks.

4) Discuss your options 
In recent years, advocates have developed recommendations to prevent displacement and promote more equitable investments. Some of these can even be combined with park investments when the displacement risk is high and communities organize to advocate for them. Reach out to your local elected officials and relevant city planning staff to discuss implementing these recommendations as part of an equitable park and community development plan. A few of these options include: 
  • Preserving and expanding affordable housing through housing development, incentives, funding, and land use policy; 
  • Protecting renters’ rights, strengthening eviction protections, and expanding rental subsidies; 
  • Increasing homeownership for low income and people of color through subsidies, first-time buyers clubs, home rehabilitation, and tax relief; 
  • Supporting local businesses and employment opportunities, including workforce training programs;
  • Expanding resources in education, public safety, childcare, and food security; and 
  • In collaboration with community leaders and housing partners, discussing the risks your neighborhood may face and connecting them to resources that address immediate housing and economic needs, such as eviction counseling, down payment assistance, job opportunities etc.

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Image credit Elyse Leyenberger

5) Make a plan
Invite planning, economic development, and housing departments as well as local elected officials to the table with neighbors and partners to ensure displacement risk is acknowledged and solutions are developed in a timely fashion. Call for an equitable development plan to be developed at the same time as—or ahead of—park investment, using the recommendations listed above as a starting point. Alongside community development partners and city agencies, develop a vision and advocate for the necessary allocation of resources to invest in housing, small business, workforce training, and other opportunities so that residents can participate in and benefit from the economic development coming to their neighborhood. Don’t forget to hold your local government accountable over time to make sure they are sticking to the plan. 

We know that new park investments improve neighborhood life and often increase the value of properties around them. Everyone, regardless of income or race, deserves to see park improvements in their community. By carefully discussing the risks of gentrification and displacement in your park project and working in partnership with your fellow community members, housing advocacy organizations, and local government, you can help improve your park system and neighborhood stability at the same time.