City Parks and Gentrification, Part 1

City Parks and Gentrification – A Different Kind of Tragedy of the Commons?

Part 1


The new 606 is open in Chicago – a mix of 2.7 miles of elevated trail with four ground-level parks along the route. Amidst the excitement of this new linear park which will bridge four neighborhoods historically underserved by parks, is the familiar cautionary note about its gentrifying impacts. Like New York’s Highline, the badly needed park amenity is being reviewed partly in light of its gentrifying effects. (The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl said about the High Line, “As a catalyst of neighborhood change, the High Line has been to usual gentrification what a bomb is to bottle rockets.”)

But the issue of the impact of a new park on property values – and the result that long-time residents are displaced by the rising cost of housing – is worth a thoughtful analysis. Are we blaming the park for increasing property values that are not park-related or might be better explained as the result of the state of the housing market and public policy?

Chicago pundits say that the construction of the trail is one conspicuous explanation for rising housing prices in the surrounding area but it’s not the only one. An article in Chicago Reader argues that there may be more going on than just the park, “Real estate prices in Chicago overall are going up, still in recovery from the housing market crash of 2008. And Logan Square, and to a lesser extent Humboldt Park, were gentrifying well before plans to create the trail were part of the public consciousness; the media frenzy around the trail began only about three years ago, after the project began to move forward in earnest. Residents have been worried about being priced out for longer than that…”

Any improvement in neighborhood quality is capable of increasing house values and rents. Yet, it doesn’t seem like good policy to make an argument that in a park-poor neighborhood you don’t want to make park investments because it’s going to trigger gentrification; or that you make lesser investments so as to not tip the scale? Both of which ideas are floating around in policy discussions.

Stephen Sheppard, Professor of Economics and Director at the Center for Creative Community Development at Williams College says, “Reducing environmental pollution or crime will also increase house values and no person concerned with good public policies would propose increasing pollution or crime in a neighborhood in order to make housing more affordable…”

The solution may be to take a wider look at creating and enhancing city parks – a whole city – approach that considers not only the value of greening but what else is going on regarding housing and the real estate market, transportation access and broader access to parks.

How is it happening?

The public-private partnerships investing in many urban park projects, new and old, may be examples of worthy investments that don’t have enough partners. The well-intentioned efforts often don’t take into consideration the wider socio-demographic impact of new investment or the potential context for it: an affordable housing shortage, a growing deficit of good and accessible parks, or, a lack of sustainability policies that unite housing, parks, transportation and other policies.

Brooklyn Bridge Park advocates in New York City have been torn over the right balance of parks and housing for the waterfront site for years. The City administration has proposed putting two residential towers within the boundaries of the park. The original idea was to create a maintenance revenue stream for the park but the idea has been contentious – including whether the project should embrace affordable housing – and no solution has emerged to satisfy advocates who desire not only a first-rate park with great public access but also a way to address overcrowding at neighborhood schools and create a diverse mix of badly needed new housing.

“People need to get out of this paradigm,” Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, said in an interview with the New York Times last year. “These are two legitimate public policy objectives we can achieve here. We are able to maintain this park and advance the public good.”

Image result for mass moca and its community impact It’s not just parks causing gentrification worries but other cultural amenities, too. In North Adams, Massachusetts when the Museum of Contemporary Art opened its doors in 1999 on the site of a former brownfield – a sudden infusion of $56 million in private and public funding into a depressed former industrial city – community development advocates feared the worst in terms of gentrification.

This well-studied cultural amenity investment turned out to be responsible for nearly 60% of the region’s net economic growth in the three years following its opening. And it had an impact on real estate housing prices, but the relative rise in property values turned out to be small given the abundance of affordable housing stock due to the city’s history of population loss. And so instead of driving residents from their home, new business formation and jobs due to the museum increased the stability of the city.

When it comes to creative investment for parks in cities public agencies may need to take greater responsibility – and anticipate – the wider impacts of new parks. Park investments may need to be balanced with social policy and stronger community engagement tactics that recognize the impacts that these investments. That way we don’t have to worry about the unintended consequence of a great new park like Chicago’s 606 – that it may never end up serving those who need it the most.

So, what are cities, including Chicago, doing to try and address greater access to parks without jeopardizing community cohesion? Revisit the City Parks Blog next week for Part 2 on city parks and gentrification to read about the kinds of tools people are using to tackle the issue.