Just and equitable urban greening?

By Benjamin Cooke and Tyler King

Green spaces and places in urban environments are of vital importance for humans and nonhumans alike. The speed with which we are learning about the benefits of greening seems to be ever increasing – improved physical and mental health, better air quality and temperature regulation amongst the main benefits. Let alone the opportunity that green spaces provide for communities to come together in the informal ways that bring richness and joy to urban life. We are also gaining greater awareness of their ecological importance, with many rare and threatened species relying on street trees and urban waterways. Let alone a growing acknowledgement of our ethical responsibilities towards common and even introduced species that thrive in urban environments, due in large part to their ability to adapt to the conditions we have created.

Yet, as we make the case for greening in urban Australia, we must be attentive to the ways in which greening can be bound up with local to global flows of capital and institutional power relations that make and remake cities. Here we note some of the ways that greening relates to inequality, before charting some of the opportunities for a more just and democratic approach to green cities.

Greening as an equity issue is a multifaceted one. As has been well established, it is working class neighbourhoods and communities of colour who are most likely to be exposed to environmental harms (through location of polluting industries, for example), and less likely to share in environmental benefits (like easy access to green space) (Farahani et al. 2018). The conundrum is that in global cities where unfettered property development is the norm, and where planning controls seldom take full account of the public interest, the provision of more parks and street trees can drive up property prices.

Property speculation

As a result of improved amenity, newly green neighbourhoods can encourage property speculation and thus displace the communities who would most benefit from more greening. This process has come to be known as 'green gentrification'. It's important to establish early on that not all cities and towns in Australia will be impacted by green gentrification simply by planting some street trees, nor will places that are impacted experience these phenomena evenly. However, growing concern around inequities in housing markets and the broader effects of gentrification and property speculation are well established, suggesting the need to think carefully about how greening will play out in already inequitable cities.

There exists a long tradition in the US and UK particularly of using urban parkland developments as a deliberate strategy for increasing property values and revenue. As properties surrounding parks increase in price, local authorities often benefit from higher property and sales taxes, whilst also attracting the euphemistically titled 'knowledge workers' (American Planning Association 2002). In places like Brooklyn, New York, the knowledge workers that have flocked to places around Prospect Park have tended to be white and wealthy, pushing working class and predominantly black neighbourhoods further out (Gould and Lewis 2017).

In the Brooklyn case, it is coalitions of property developers, compliant politicians and real estate agents have used the (unfulfilled) promise of greening benefits as the vehicle for development targeted at the super-rich. This is concerning for places like Melbourne, given recent warnings that developers are largely calling the shots when it comes to urban development (Domain, 12/05/18). Indeed, capitalising on the link between increased property prices and greening continues to be an ongoing fascination in Australia. Whether it's reports about leafy streets providing 20 percent jumps in housing values (The Sydney Morning Herald 27/04/2017), or conservation agencies extolling property price increases as a major benefit of planting urban trees, making housing less accessible to an ever-increasing proportion of the population is apparently cause for celebration.

A further equity consideration that urban greening must confront is the question of how we go about it. The growth of the greening industry risks the standardisation of plans and visually rendered imaginaries to the point where template policies are circulated through global consultancy networks. This would not serve as an effective pathway to inclusive, grassroots initiatives that respond to the particularities of place. The perpetual promises by city mayors to deliver the next 'High Line' to rival that of New York's (including Melbourne's past and newly appointed mayor) is but one example of the circulation of high profile, tourism-focused projects.

The recent trend towards badging greening as 'green infrastructure' also risks exacerbating the disconnect with the local. While green infrastructure as a means for strategic planning and coordination of 'green assets' has appeal, there is a danger that it reinforces a managerial process for greening, co-opted by an increasingly professionalised cohort of arborists, ecologists, engineers and planners (Davison and Kirkpatrick 2014, Wright 2011). It remains to be seen whether green infrastructure and the disciplinary domains that underpin it will consider greening in relation to housing inequality, the gendering of public spaces, rights of First Nations peoples, property rights and ownership conflicts, the needs of children and immigrant communities and the persistence of wild and novel urban ecologies (Shillington, 2017).

In outlining these issues, we are not suggesting that greening should be abandoned. On the contrary, the critical need for genuinely green cities for humans and non-humans alike is what makes it vitally important to address these challenges. So, how might we green with fairness and equity in mind? To begin with, we must link advocacy for greening with calls for equitable and progressive housing policy that treats housing as a public good and not a vehicle for investment. As has been trialed (with mixed success) in places like Chicago, plans for new parks in working class neighbourhoods have included extensive public housing development and rent control, as well as initiatives like trust funds to pay for increases in the property taxes of long-term residents (Co.Design 2014). A similar scale of intervention in Australia would need to engage with myriad policy settings that frame housing as an investment rather than a public good.

Indigenous sovereignty movements

Another equity consideration might be further scrutiny of how urban greening efforts relate to Indigenous sovereignty movements in Australia. While some regional and remote areas have seen land transferred to Indigenous ownership in recent decades, there are very few examples of Indigenous land rights claims being upheld in urban areas (Porter, 2016). Centring the idea of caring for urban country that is led by First Peoples whilst also handing back stolen lands could present avenues for urban greening that have not been considered by colonial planning and development systems. Such moves would also acknowledge that the distribution, design and use of green space within settler colonial cities still revolve around the desires of the coloniser. This present and history would also shed more light on the uneven access and power relations that make greening political, rather than the apolitical casting of greening as technical and professional practice.

In further contrast to market-led greening efforts, another conceivable approach is the idea of greening 'just enough' (Curran and Hamilton 2012). The theory goes that greening neighbourhoods selectively and incrementally for socio-ecological benefits might not displace existing residents and local industry. The logic here is that communities themselves are central in shaping what greening just enough looks like for their neighbourhoods, rather than leaving it to market-orientated proposals that structure greening around consumption like shopping and food outlets. In this way, the just green enough approach keeps the question of who benefits and how at the forefront of greening considerations.

To conclude, urban greening in Australia requires strong public policy interventions and a social and environmental justice framing in order to build fairness and equity into the process. Without these considerations, we risk advocating for forms of greening that exacerbating the harms that are already been felt through the gentrification of Australian cities.

Dr Benjamin Cooke is a lecturer in Sustainability and Urban Planning at RMIT University, and a member of Friends of the Earth Melbourne. Tyler King is a PhD student in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT.


American Planning Association. (2002). How cities use parks for economic development. http://atfiles.org/files/pdf/citiesparksecon.pdf

Co.Design. (2014). How parks gentrify neighbourhoods and how to stop it. www.fastcodesign.com/3037135/how-parks-gentrify-neighborhoods-and-how-to-stop-it

Curran, W., and Hamilton, T. (2012). Just green enough: contesting environmental gentrification in Greenpoint, Brooklyn." Local Environment 17 (9): 1027–42.

Davison, A. and Kirkpatrick, J.B. (2014). Risk and the arborist in the remaking of the Australian urban forest. Geographical Research, 52 (2014), pp. 115-122

Domain. (12/05/2018). 'Respected Melbourne planning expert Michael Buxton retires from RMIT. www.domain.com.au/news/respected-melbourne-planning-expert-michael-buxton-retires-from-rmit-20180512-h0zwq1/

Farahani, L.M., Maller, C. and Phelan, K. (2018). Private Gardens as Urban Greenspaces: Can They Compensate for Poor Greenspace Access in Lower Socioeconomic Neighbourhoods? Landscapes Online, 59, 1-18.

Gould, K.A. and Lewis, T.L. (2017). Greening gentrification: urban sustainability and the struggle for environmental justice. Routledge: New York

Porter, L. (2016). How can we meaningfully recognise cities as Indigenous places? https://theconversation.com/how-can-we-meaningfully-recognise-cities-as-indigenous-places-65561

Shillington, L. (2017). The Nature of Cities: Cities of Difference, Part I: Gender is Important in Understanding Nature in Cities. www.thenatureofcities.com/2017/06/18/cities-difference-part-importance-gender-thinking-nature-cities/

Sydney Morning Herald (27/04/2017). Houses on leafier streets in three Sydney suburbs worth up to $50,000 more. www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/houses-on-leafier-streets-in-three-sydney-suburbs-worth-50000-more-analysis-20170427-gvtkex.html

Wright, H. (2011). "Understanding Green Infrastructure: The Development of a Contested Concept in England." Local Environment 16 (10): 1003–19.

Published in Chain Reaction #133, September 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/cr133

Whilst you are here, please make a tax deductible donation. Friends of the Earth relies on donations from people like you to keep running campaigns for social and environmental justice.