Urban forests and ‘green gentrification’

It’s very well known scientifically, and increasing more so across city governance and citizens, that the presence of more nature in cities offers many benefits. Tree cover moderates heat islands and extreme heat, offers psychological benefits, and of course parks and urban forests are essential for socializing and cultural events.

As society “builds back better” from COVID-19, cities are increasingly aware of the importance of urban nature — particularly their urban forests — and are working to make it accessible to everyone. Montréal has promised $1.8 billion for city parks and some of Vancouver’s Making Streets for People program, which closed streets to traffic and connects green spaces, will likely persist after the pandemic.

However, like many of the benefits of cities, they are inequitably distributed. “Socio-economically marginalized people tend to have less access to urban forests, and would likely gain health benefits from them.” As cities work on their greening, more parks and plantings often make neighbourhoods more attractive.

[C]ities need to be aware of the risk of green gentrification, which occurs when urban greening initiatives trigger a series of negative impacts commonly associated with gentrification.

In this piece by Lorien Nesbitt at The Conversation, we learn how her lab is “studying ways to prevent or control green gentrification, via local and place-based research, and national analyses.”

The lab also works on better understanding the varied ways in which different communities interact with nature, and how they sometimes have differing view of what an urban forest and “nature” looks like.

Our recent research on biocultural diversity (the indivisible relationship between human culture and nature, between cultural diversity and biological diversity) in Vancouver highlights the diverse ways in which local people are in relationship with and stewards of the local urban forest. […]

Despite these diverse relationships and responsibilities, most North American urban forests reflect European values, esthetics and biocultural relationships. For example, cultural tree modification or ceremonial crop cultivation remain rare in most urban parks in North America, and land defenders are criminalized for their stewardship work.

It’s something that every level of governance needs to be aware of, spending time on understanding different communities, their specific needs, and what can be learned from each, is not only useful for better/easier inclusion, but even to the benefit of communities as a whole.

Cities and their residents need to open their minds to alternative ways of seeing the world and relating to nature, and encourage forms and uses of urban nature outside the mainstream.