Environmental Gentrification in Chicago: Perceptions, Dilemmas and Paths Forward
Loyola University Chicago
This research sheds light on perceptions of environmental gentrification in Chicago. It also identifies policies and practices that hold potential to promote environmentally healthy neighborhoods and equitable development without displacement.
Access to greenspace, clean air, water, food, and safe, affordable, and stable housing are all important to good health. Yet, low income and communities of color endure disproportionate pollution burdens that negatively affect health. While cleaning up contamination or implementing “green” improvements like parks, playgrounds, bike trails, and other greenspaces can reduce health disparities, these environmental improvements sometimes contribute to rising rents and property values, which can displace the very residents intended to benefit from these amenities. This has been called “environmental gentrification.” This research sheds light on perceptions of environmental gentrification in Chicago. It also identifies policies and practices that hold potential to promote environmentally healthy neighborhoods and equitable development without displacement.
The research involved interviewing 27 individuals of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds who possess deep knowledge related to land use through their professional or lived experience in community development, environmental justice, housing justice, industrial development, public health, real estate finance, and/or urban planning. We also reviewed related documents.
Findings 1: Gentrification and Disinvestment Can Displace Working Class Residents
❖ The higher cost of living associated with gentrification can harm neighborhoods by displacing residents and businesses, as well as disrupting social networks and community culture. In many cases, people of color are pushed out by an influx of wealthier and white residents. However, gentrification can also benefit some legacy residents through, for example, increased home equity.
❖ As land uses change on the North side of Chicago, polluting industries are migrating to the city’s South side, further consolidating pollution and worsening health inequity.
❖ Disinvestment resulting in poor access to employment, education, transit, healthy foods, retail outlets, and other public and private services not only detrimentally affects health but can lead some families to seek improved living conditions elsewhere.
❖ Disinvestment can be a precursor to future gentrification.
Findings 2: Drivers of Disinvestment and Gentrification
❖ Structural racism, market forces, piecemeal policies, and power disparities among actors are factors that drive land use decisions with inequitable outcomes.
❖ Without proactive effort to redress racial inequities, seemingly neutral development decisions in actuality reinforce existing disparities.
❖ Reactive policy responses to the forces driving displacement -- and policies that in some instances contribute to displacement -- place the burden of fighting for affordability on legacy residents.
Findings 3: Environmental Gentrification in Chicago
❖ Concern about environmental gentrification varies. Interviewees from gentrifying neighborhoods worried that investments in environmental improvements will accelerate gentrification already occurring, whereas those from disinvested neighborhoods often sought investment, particularly in people themselves through education, training, and capacity-building.
❖ A paradox exists in that immigrants, legacy, and working class residents who improve their neighborhoods through business development, community gardens, and the arts not only make the neighborhood more appealing for themselves but also to gentrifiers.
❖ Respondents voiced concerns about who ultimately benefits from environmental improvements in regard to several projects in Chicago, including but not limited to the 606 Trail, El Paseo Trail, redevelopment of the South Works U.S. Steel Manufacturing Plant, and Big Marsh Bike Park.
❖ Recognizing that decisions about environmental cleanup, parks, trails, or other green amenities are not politically neutral, some interviewees called specifically on environmental organizations to incorporate a wider range of issues that affect local communities into their traditionally siloed work.
Findings 4: Development without Displacement
❖ Myriad policy interventions and other strategies (Tables 2a-2e) hold potential to help encourage access to green amenities and their associated health benefits without displacement. No single intervention will be sufficient; rather, multi-faceted solutions are needed that promote affordable housing, generate jobs, improve health and safety, advance sustainable development, and build wealth in communities of color.
❖ Many policies and practices noted in this research may reduce harm caused by disinvestment, gentrification, displacement, and racialized exclusion. Yet, because structural racism exists, communities of color will more likely suffer from land use decisions whether through disinvestment or investment. This highlights the need for policy interventions that go beyond reducing harm to redistribute material and decision-making resources toward communities of color. To do so will require redressing existing power disparities and authentically engaging communities of color in land use decision processes.
Findings 5: Community Engagement Toward Co-Governance
❖ Many respondents called for deepening relationships among government agencies, technical experts, and community-based groups so that residents’ local expertise would inform land use decisions to improve neighborhoods and the lives of people living there.
❖ Adopting a “co-governance” model increases the likelihood that the communities most often excluded from planning processes and harmed by land use decisions can influence how investments are made in their neighborhoods in order to benefit from them. Co-governance involves shared decision-making between local communities and other stakeholders in land use decisions; generates collective understanding and action by drawing from everyone’s unique strengths, vantage points, and capacities; and prioritizes governmental transparency and accountability to the communities affected by development decisions.
❖ Many organizers, activists, and community development practitioners are building long term relationships with residents, forming collaborations across issues and neighborhoods, and working toward equitable development. The City can learn from and scale up these approaches.
❖ Because privileges associated with socio-economic status and racial identity can greatly influence an individual’s ability to participate in civic engagement, it is critical that the City and other conveners allocate sufficient funds to ensure accessibility in community engagement processes.
❖ Social equity assessments offer a tool for giving explicit consideration to impacts related to economic, racial, and environmental justice in land use decisions.
Copic, Colette; Schusler, Tania; and Krings, Amy. Environmental Gentrification in Chicago: Perceptions, Dilemmas and Paths Forward. Environmental Gentrification in Chicago: Perceptions, Dilemmas and Paths Forward, , : 1-44, 2020. Retrieved from Loyola eCommons, School of Environmental Sustainability: Faculty Publications and Other Works,
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