Recent decades have seen the emergence of a worrying pattern: environmental initiatives – that are protected from criticism in public and political discourses – are being awarded large funding contracts despite their inability to tackle the issues they are intended to address. This article looks at one of these publicly-funded greening initiatives, Ville en Vert, and highlights the wider socio-economic impacts of their urban greening projects in Montreal. We will be discussing how the case of Ville en Vert has led to gentrification, displacement and contributed to the risk of homelessness for many residents in various Montreal neighbourhoods including Parc-Extension.
Once again, the story repeats itself. In September 2020, representatives of Ville en Vert, a municipally and provincially funded organisation with a mandate to both facilitate sustainable development at the city level and administer the Éco-quartier program of Ahuntsic-Cartierville and Villeray-Saint-Michel-Parc-Extension’s boroughs, reached out to community organizations and private property owners in Parc-Extension to solicit their participation in their Vert le Nord project. The latter, a multi-million-dollar initiative, aims to plant trees in order to combat the urban “heat island” (UHI) effect in three densely populated neighborhoods of Montreal: Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Ville Saint-Laurent and Parc-Extension.
Tellingly, the trends which we identify herein are not isolated to Parc-Extension (see Frédéric-Back’s park in Saint-Michel or the Lachine Canal in the Sud-Ouest for instance; Baumann, 2019; Bélanger, 2010); they are alarmingly representative of recurrent, city-wide practices. Generalized environmental goals are invoked in order to legitimize strategies that prove ineffective and, in some cases, even tend to worsen carbon emissions, either through displacements of residents, or through increased traffic concentration due to urban densification (see the Triangle in Côte-des-Neiges, and concerns raised about the Namur-Hippodrome neighbourhood; Melia, Parkhurst, and Barton, 2011). Hence, after having subsequently engaged with representatives of Ville en Vert, the authors of this article have come to the conclusion that the Vert le Nord initiative is both ineffective at tackling their stated aims, has unintended adverse consequences, and can deleteriously prevent important critiques and discussions as it relates to the range of individual, systemic and policy-based responses that should be considered in order to adequately address the UHI effect.
In this blog, we focus on the case of Parc-Extension to analyse how top-down urban greening initiatives tend to exacerbate the effects of gentrification while failing to substantially contribute to ecological transformation of our city.We hope to contribute to a collective understanding of this dynamic and make recommendations to minimize the impact of such projects on the lives and well-being of residents of contested neighborhoods targeted by greening efforts. Based on our analysis, we recommend that public and private institutions adopt grounded strategies that rely on local knowledge in order to mitigate the extent to which greening initiatives can accelerate the gentrification of neighborhoods.
Gentrification and Eco-gentrification
Gentrification is a complex trend that has wide-ranging impacts on the lives of local residents. Despite this complexity, gentrification usually involves the replacement of low-income, older, minority, working-class residents by younger, white newcomers with higher education and income levels through processes of demolition, ownership conversion, renoviction, landlord harassment, neighborhood upgrading, and a general increase of housing costs (rent, taxes, etc.). Dispossession, displacement pressures - the many forms of dispossession suffered by households during the transformation of their neighbourhood - and residential displacement - the incapacity of households to access dwelling because it has been gentrified - are the primary dangers invoked by those studying the exclusionary effects of market-driven and state-led gentrification (Marcuse, 1985; Newman and Wily, 2006). It has been established that gentrification is perpetuated by unchecked development, insufficient policy-based mitigating strategies, and a lack of sustained investment in social and community housing.
Building on this definition, Sarah Dooling coined the term “ecological gentrification” in 2009 to describe the process of environmental improvements in urban areas that results in land speculation and the eviction of low-income residents (often non-white) by higher income (typically white) ones (Rice et al., 2019; Dooling, 2009; Checker, 2011). Today the term has spawned a plethora of related concepts such as green gentrification and environmental gentrification to explain how the implementation of an environmental planning agenda can often have deleterious social impacts at the local level. Indeed, in recent decades, almost all urban renewal projects involve some greening initiatives such as the promotion of community gardens, parks, forests, street trees, urban agriculture, and an emphasis on urban densification. Even though green initiatives have been promoted by urban planners supposedly in contribution to sustainability, urban livability, and climate change in cities (Goossens et al, 2020), they have been observed to contribute to gentrification; i.e., the displacement of residents by higher income populations (Gould & Lewis, 2016). In this context, greening strategies dismiss critical perspectives, fail to question structural inequalities (Swyngedouw, 2011), and instead downplay the violent process of displacement (Bunce, 2011) all under the guise of sustainable development.
For instance, scholars have noted how the implementation of green amenities tended to increase land value in their surroundings (Bureau & Glachant, 2010; Anguelovski et al., 2018). Recent studies on green gentrification also argue that the promotion of environmental consumer goods in urban areas often poses pressure on economically vulnerable residents and might eventually lead to their displacement (Goossens et al., 2020). This phenomenon has been observed and noted by scholars in numerous cities of North America including Atlanta (Immergluck & Balan, 2018), Portland (Goodling, Green & McClintock, 2015), Toronto (Parish, 2020; Dale & Newman, 2009), Vancouver (Dale & Newman, 2009), and Montreal (Jabbour, 2018). Anguelovski et al. (2019) even proposed the term “green gap” to describe how green interventions presented by investors and municipalities, which were originally framed as contributing to the public good, actually result in “rent gaps” and land speculation. Specific to community gardens and urban agriculture, several scholars have noted that their implementation often attracts higher-income white residents who change the social fabric of the community (Lebowitz & Trudeau 2017; McClintock 2018), because these projects do not have clear access or social justice planning inherent in their initiatives. Other research has shown that external or third-party organizations can reproduce unequal and problematic power dynamics by offering and mediating garden programming while providing financial support, labor, resources and materials (Ghose & Pettygrove, 2014; Slocum, 2007).
However, the reality is that with ever-changing zoning regulations and renewal plans in urban areas, the long-term future of both individual and municipally mediated community gardens and urban agriculture is always at risk of being displaced by future real estate development (McClintock, 2011).
Gentrification in Parc-Extension
Parc-Extension is a dense, culturally diverse area that is home to some 33,000 Montrealers. The inauguration of the Université de Montréal’s new science campus in 2019 has accelerated the neighborhood’s rapidly changing housing landscape. Campus MIL, which (ironically) supports the re-urbanization of a brownfield with public funds by promoting green and sustainable urbanism, has brought newfound economic interest to the area. As a result, rapid hikes in rent prices have been observed in the neighborhood, presaging the eventual displacement of low-income residents to the benefit of students and professionals wishing to relocate near the campus. With more expensive rent prices and changing demographics, there are other observable physical and environmental changes mediated by specific forms of investment from the provincial and municipal governments. Other than Campus MIL, more visible recent investments in Parc-Extension are demonstrated through landscaping, greening and other forms of environmental beautification. While this green transition is important for ostensibly addressing the impacts of climate change such as the urban heat island effect, it also serves as a method for increasing the value of land and does not actually respond to the fundamental causes of ecological and social needs in the neighborhood.
Vert le Nord and eco-gentrification
The Vert le Nord project prompts two discrete yet related concerns: one about its potential contribution to ‘eco-gentrification’, and the other, more generally, about the extent to which the community said to be the beneficiary of such initiative was consulted in its initial development and is included in its implementation.
Because gentrification is a complex issue, it entails complex solutions. The process cannot be captured by simple cause and effect narratives. However, the current response has generally been characterised by an overreliance of decision-makers on technocratic, top-down, simplistic approaches; closing itself off in the process to new information/research and a plurality of perspectives.
Given the complexity and scale of the UHI effect, as well as the stated concern for vulnerable communities, our primary concern arises from our perception that the actual process by which the project was conceived and is being carried out does not adequately fulfill this stated commitment to community engagement. Over the course of our exchanges with Ville en Vert and with Parc-Extension community groups, we have found that Vert le Nord’s community engagement strategy to be sorely lacking, both in its evident lack of links with local organizers who have expressed a lack of connection to the initiative, and through the lack of specific commitments to reciprocity and transparency with local residents and organisations. A representative of a local organisation described the exchanges they had with Ville en Vert as “extremely disorganised and disappointing”. While the organiser hoped that exchanges could lead to an eventual “real partnership,” they suspected that “the organisation clearly has major issues internally and no interest in changing their mandate.” The organiser saw Ville en Vert as not having been “set up to care as an organization, with no capacity to do stuff or integrate feedback,” and reported being told by a Ville en Vert representative that “residents were too demanding and that the millions of dollars [used to fund Vert le Nord] were actually not a lot of money”.
Another Parc-Extension organiser who had been solicited for support, had the feeling that Ville en Vert “simply wanted to validate their process without actually consulting with them or any other community organizations for that matter,” and did not believe that “their intentions reflected the actual needs of residents”.
This feedback was particularly alarming given that concrete offers of assistance were offered to Ville en Vert by the authors (and others) to support the meaningful integration of this project in Parc-Extension, and that the Ville en Vert representatives had attended, during a six month period, meetings of the Parc-Extension community-based action research network.
The evident inadequacy of community engagement employed by Ville en Vert points to another broader concern about the instrumentalization of community in policy projects, and whether Vert le Nord is the appropriate entity to be mobilising community. In other words, this concern is less about the quality of engagement and more about the fact that the engagement seems to be top-down so that community input carries scant decision-making power, and rather residents are consulted after the fact as part of this single project, rather than there being a mechanism for supporting community-led initiatives throughout the long term. There is already a large body of work considering the place of community in land-use and planning decisions, and attempts at guiding best practice.
Whether or not these complex factors have been taken into account, and by whom, appears unlikely on the face of the Vert le Nord project. Again, based on what we have come to learn through our own research and lived experience, the question of community engagement is not simple. Despite this complexity, it is even more important when the project is said to be aimed at the benefit of a particular community. However, to guard against the risk of merely instrumentalizing that community, there should be an openness to an iterative and discursive process, which we have not seen in the context of Vert le Nord.
Taking the project at face value, we present two different ways the proposed impact could be critiqued:
(i) How likely is it to achieve the impact aimed for (i.e. reducing urban heat islands and improving the quality of living conditions); and
(ii) How likely is it to also have unintended adverse consequences?
In relation to the first, it probably goes without saying that reducing UHIs in Montreal (even only in the targeted boroughs) will likely require more drastic action than simple greening projects. Yet, even if this is the case, this only really points to an overstatement of the aims of the project. Moreover, because they predominantly affect particular communities, the UHIs are as much a social issue as an environmental one. We are less concerned with hubris than we are with the possibility that the project did not emerge as a solution designed to address the problem of UHI in its complexity but rather as a result of applying a pre-existing solution to a ‘problem’ that is high on the political agenda (notice that the Vert le Nord project is partially funded by the Quebec government’s 2013-2020 Climate Action Plan [PACC 2013-2020]). While this connection does not of course affect the actual efficiency or impact of the ‘solution,’ it can have the effect of protecting the particular solution from adequate scrutiny, to close itself off to questions of structural inequalities, and to downplay the potential adverse impacts of the ‘solution.’
Quite apart from whether it is likely to meet its own stated aims, a concern arises about whether the project could have adverse effects that it does not acknowledge and attempt to guard against. Our primary concern is with the extent to which Vert le Nord contributes to eco-gentrification. While unintended consequences are a common result of any kind of action, there are two reasons why we suggest it is not satisfactory to simply dismiss adverse impacts in the nature of ‘eco-gentrification’ as unintended: first, because there is enough attention paid to investigating the connection between greening and gentrification/other adverse impacts that any failure to address it is to imply its rejection; and second, in the context of a project aimed at benefiting community, it is particularly important to acknowledge how certain ‘beneficial’ actions may be in tension with that objective.
The dynamics engendered by Ville en Vert in Parc-Extension are representative of a city-wide pattern of imposing ambitious social-impact narratives on neighborhoods and proposing overly-simplistic solutions to address complex issues, despite an evident lack of concerted engagement with the residents frequently invoked as their beneficiaries. And while this discrepancy is well established, and largely stems from significant gaps between local contexts and the decision-makers, funders and developers that seek to affect them. Communication gaps notwithstanding, there are alternatives to imposing purportedly beneficial narratives on communities that have had little say into their model, or relevancy.
It is in that respect that we would now like to present a number of recommendations that can be adopted by public, private and non-profit stakeholders interested in applying environmental commitments in low-income neighborhoods. We hope to highlight here the extent to which adjustments to current strategies can allow both for a strengthening of the stated environmental mandates while also ensuring that community agency is respected and represented in these initiatives.
As it relates to the provincial and federal governments, and to the attribution of public funds, we highlight the following needs:
The funding attribution process currently favored by public funders is not currently able to ensure that proposed initiatives are warranted in the contexts in relation to which they are framed. Alternative approaches to calls-for-tenders should be explored to ensure that funding integrates sturdy vetting by local stakeholders.
Rather than allocate large amounts of funding to comparatively large NGOs to manage multi-sectorial mandates, funding should be fully dedicated to local organisations that are able to understand and engage with local nuances and complexities
There is a dire need for a sturdy, province-wide publicly-accessible rent register which would allow tenants to readily verify whether rents have been raised in accordance with the increase recommendations of the Tribunal administratif du logement.
Increased oversight over rent control by the Tribunal administratif is also necessary.
In relation to the provincial and municipal governments and administrations of boroughs targeted by these initiatives, we stress the importance of committing to multi-pronged approaches that address greening imperatives alongside a range of approaches meant to address other socio-economic needs:
- Commit to a sustained review of effective approaches used in similar urban centers. To that effect, we would like to draw attention to the Policy and Planning Tools for urban Green Justice report (2021) as well as the CREATE Initiative’s Sharing in the Benefits of a Greening City resource guide (2021);
- Commit to bylaws that require car parking to be built in new buildings so as to mitigate car use by new wealthier residents and avoid alleyways being turned into parking lots;
- Increase the presence of pedestrian-friendly intersections throughout high-traffic areas;
- Increase limits on car usage, particularly around schools;
- Commit to increases of frequency of public transportation at all hours;
- Counter commercial speculation by committing to commercial rent control and impose taxation on empty commercial storefronts; and
- Increase city investment towards garbage removal, and impose requirements of trash clean ups on private property in order to require landlords to provide safe trash disposal for large buildings.
As it relates to Ville en Vert and other large non-profits who are are the most frequent beneficiaries of public contracts to apply greening strategies low-income neighborhoods, we stress the importance on the following:
- To engage with local residents and organisations well ahead of funding deadlines, in order to ensure that funded initiatives respond to identified local needs and desires.
- Integrate local feedback within project objectives and ensure proper vetting by local actors over all aspects of the proposed project budget;
- Once funding has been obtained, commit to an open-books approach that allows local residents and organisers to receive meaningful and specific updates on project benchmarks and budgetary allocations;
- In recognition of the time and local expertise which local residents and organisers invest in these initiatives when they are consulted, provide financial compensation to all whose feedback is solicited (informally or via public consultations);
- Hire local residents belonging to targeted communities (ie. low-income, BIPOC, etc.) to manage initiatives in their neighborhood;
- Take a clear stance on the issue of green gentrification and how they seek to prevent it; and
- Adopt an intersectional lens that allows for a recognition of the needs and interests of at-risk populations (tenants).
Urban greening allows for the emergence of initiatives that result in potentially marked improvements to neighborhoods. We can readily acknowledge the benefits of greening strategies that lead to increased resident investment in their neighborhood for the sake of shared health and social benefits, greater community cohesion and an attempt at reducing the UHI. We can readily appreciate the collective benefits of additional trees planted on private and public properties. Green alleys can lead to rich experiences that can contribute to neighbors exploring shared exchanges, for children to play together, towards an increasing sense of community cohesion and collective investment in a shared space.
Yet, and despite the enjoyment that could be derived from greening efforts, it is crucial to recognize that not all residents stand to benefit equally from the development of such amenities, which can lead to increases in property value and rents, and to the eventual unanticipated displacement of residents. In addition to pointing to the successful delivery of promised greening objectives, greening initiative instigators should justifiably be expected to recognize, and account for, the range of unanticipated impacts which would have been accounted for had they incorporated sincere and sustained commitments to community vetting, at the initial stages of program development before funding is obtained, and subsequently over the course of these initiatives alike. This is crucially significant in the case of greening initiatives that are carried by institutions with modest anchors in local contexts, by way of either staffing, governance or presence. Is a green alley initiative justifiable, if in addition to a beautified shared context for residents, it also raises property value to the extent that it ultimately leads to property sales, increased rents and evictions? In what ways could a recognition of community agency, and the inclusion of resident voices throughout all aspects of the work, contribute to approaches that both maintain environmental objectives while also measurably responding to local desires? Questions like these are just a starting point.
Applying a context-appropriate approach to urban greening in low-income neighborhoods where urban heat islands are found does not need to lead to ongoing housing displacement among current residents. In fact, commitments to urban greening can allow for a direct and effective means of recognizing the intersectional nature of a range of social issues. While many might argue that greening is better than nothing in response to the UHI effect, we maintain that better is never good enough.
NOTE: An expanded version of this article can be read here.
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