Following World War II, American cities launched an ambitious agenda, aided by federal legislation and funding, to revive declining neighborhoods. Accelerating during the 1960s and continuing today, the movement has embraced multiple strategies to upgrade struggling communities, including tearing down “slums” and erasing older commercial districts and replacing them with newer developments. Many of these projects—exemplified by New York “master builder” Robert Moses’s obliteration of whole neighborhoods to create superhighways—proved controversial, even misbegotten. Others, which replaced fading residential or business districts with ambitious government-directed developments like downtown sports arenas or new public administration buildings, failed to generate much new economic activity. Cities often wound up worse off than before.
Yet, after countless ineffective efforts, one modest strategy seems to have worked: building new parks, or fixing up those that already exist, making them safer and cleaner. Creating or reviving urban oases has turned out to be money in the bank for struggling cities, improving the quality of life and boosting property values in the parks’ vicinity—and the real-estate taxes that accompany them. Grand efforts to create new parks, sometimes in abandoned and once-polluted industrial areas, have been particularly fruitful. Innovative projects like the High Line in New York City and other so-called beltways and greenways have improved gritty neighborhoods from Chelsea in Manhattan to Humboldt Park in Chicago, attracting billions of dollars of new investment.
Parks have proved so successful that activists in some urban neighborhoods now oppose them, fearing that they will thoroughly transform their communities and displace current residents. The phenomenon even has a name: green gentrification. Though studies consistently show that gentrification rarely crowds out current residents, the evolution that does occur in these improving neighborhoods is still anathema to many activists and politicians; low-income neighborhoods must not change too much, they maintain, even when the changes benefit those who remain.
To forestall green gentrification, some politicians and activists are seeking to establish trusts to buy up land near city parks, so that for-profit interests can’t redevelop it. This opposition has added a new level of complexity to neighborhood revival, and it risks locking certain areas into inexorable decline.
Urban parks’ fortunes have waxed and waned in America. The last great era of parks’ decline corresponded with the rise in urban disorder that started in the early 1960s and worsened over the next two decades.
New York City exemplified the trend, in its vast, world-renowned Central Park and in its smaller green spaces. The city’s budget woes and its spiking crime led to underinvestment in park upkeep and residents’ fear of using the spaces. By the mid-1970s, the area around Central Park’s glorious Bethesda Fountain, topped by a nineteenth-century Emma Stebbins statue, the Angel of the Waters, had degenerated into an illegal drug market, with buyers and sellers operating with impunity. Thieves regularly harassed the meteorologists who had set up a station in Belvedere Castle, stealing their equipment. Graffiti marred iconic monuments like the Egyptian obelisk. Throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the park averaged 700 to 800 felonies yearly. Among the most notorious: a gang attack on a March of Dimes walk through the park in 1985 and the shooting, the following year, of officer Steven McDonald during an encounter with a group of teenagers on the park’s East Drive.
Decline marked the city’s smaller parks, too. The nine-acre Bryant Park, sitting behind the New York Public Library’s magnificent main building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, became one of New York’s “needle” parks, with drug dealers scaring off other park-goers. The chaotic street life in that era around Times Square spilled over into Bryant Park, feeding the mayhem; the area averaged 150 to 200 robberies annually during the 1970s. An even smaller green space, on Sherman Square on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was yet another drug market, even serving as the backdrop of a 1971 movie, The Panic in Needle Park (starring Al Pacino and written by the husband-and-wife team of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne), which depicted the harrowing lives of junkies frequenting the park.
New York was not unique. Detroit, beset by a similar fracturing of civic order and persistent budget crunch, witnessed a staggering decline in its more than 300 parks. One press account from the early 1970s described the city’s Balduck Park as a nightly “stomping ground” for 500 to 1,000 people, “a mess of bad dope and trash.” Police in riot gear made periodic attempts to clear the park, but they fought against the tide. Playing fields were weed-filled messes, recreation equipment and buildings rusted and crumbled, and amenities like an ice-skating rink and tennis courts were unusable. Meantime, at Detroit’s largest green zone, Rouge Park, “you didn’t get out of your car” because of the dangers, one resident recently remembered. Trash went uncollected and violent gangs patrolled the paths, depriving other urban residents of recreation and respite.
New York started to turn its parks around sooner than most cities, partly because of its tremendous private resources, which organized to revitalize the spaces. The Central Park Conservancy, a public-private group founded in 1980 and financed by grants from New York philanthropists like Richard Gilder, stepped in at a time when local government was cash-strapped and used private money to rehabilitate neglected monuments, while scrubbing the park of graffiti and picking up trash regularly. It eventually took over management of the park. A key point in Central Park’s revival was the reestablishment of order, following the ideas of political scientist James Q. Wilson and criminologist George Kelling, who argued that the lower-level disorder that plagued public spaces had to be addressed in order to begin controlling more serious crime. The initiative paid off, as the number of felonies in the park fell during the 1980s from about 800 annually to fewer than 500. As the city as a whole grew significantly more orderly during the 1990s, crime plunged further, to just 69 Central Park felonies in 2019.
Bryant Park saw a storied revival, too. Real-estate owners in the commercial district abutting the park decided to use an emerging public-private entity known as a Business Improvement District, or BID, to take control of park management and fund it. The stakes were high. “Ed Koch and his parks commissioner, Gordon Davis, had realized that a park in the heart of Manhattan with graffiti, litter, armed robberies, and open drug dealing needed dramatic action,” observed Dan Biederman, who engineered the revival. The BID cleanup corresponded with Rockefeller family investment in renovating the main library building on the grounds. “The Rockefellers had told the library that no matter how much the interior of the building was renovated, if the park wasn’t fixed, the building would always be a backwater,” recalled Biederman.
Private money, including from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, helped finance the park’s restoration and redesign, and a private group, the Bryant Park Management Corporation, took over its management, including the programming of events and leasing of space to private vendors. A 2003 study showed that, over a ten-year period after the park’s reopening, per-capita income of residents in areas abutting the park rose by 157 percent; rents in the commercial buildings that towered over the park more than doubled.
These early victories have set the stage for more dramatic efforts, as cities have sought to transform deserted industrial sites, abandoned elevated railroad tracks, and undeveloped waterfront property into innovative new parks that have supercharged neighborhood development.
Sunset Park is a 30-block community in southwestern Brooklyn that suffered significant decline in the 1960s, with widespread abandonment of homes and a shrinking of its nearby manufacturing industries. The federal government designated it a high-poverty area in the mid-1960s. Sunset Park started a slow climb back in the late 1980s and 1990s, with the revival of Industry City, a former industrial depot that became a hub for small businesses and artists. But the comeback gathered real steam when the city built Bush Terminal Park, on the site of a long-abandoned seaport. The park, opened in 2014, has catalyzed new housing and rising property values, with the average price of a condo increasing by 50 percent, to $565,000. Nearby investors have repurposed former warehouses into chic party spaces, art studios, and trendy retail offerings. One coffee shop has even earned the distinction of selling America’s priciest cup of coffee.
An even more striking example of the metaphorical green that parks can generate is Manhattan’s High Line. Inspired by Paris’s Promenade Plantée, the High Line was built along an elevated 1.45-mile-long former New York Central rail spur that runs through Chelsea. Conceived in 1999, and opened in several phases starting in 2009, the project was sold to the public as a boon to the Far West Side of Manhattan. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration persuaded property owners with adjoining real estate to support the park plan, arguing that it would send their land values soaring—and that’s exactly what happened. “We created money out of air,” former New York City official Dan Doctoroff said. Though the park’s initial phase opened shortly after the 2008 financial crisis had hammered the housing market, the High Line swiftly ignited a housing boom in its vicinity. Within two years, the park had attracted some $2 billion in private investment into surrounding neighborhoods. The resale value of condos along the line jumped to $1.4 million, well above the average resale value of $763,301 for area properties farther from the park. On some estimates, the High Line, which, pre-Covid, attracted some 8 million visitors yearly, will contribute some $1 billion in additional property taxes to city rolls over the next two decades by encouraging new development.
Something similar happened in Atlanta. Planners there began talking two decades ago about remaking a 22-mile former rail corridor, passing through 45 communities in the city, into a beltway that linked parks and trails. The project generated so much enthusiasm that, two years before building launched, real-estate values were rocketing upward in neighborhoods along the line. By 2016, eight years after its first phase opened, the Atlanta BeltLine’s organizers identified some 15,000 housing units built because of the new system, representing some $3 billion in new investment. The value of already-existing homes was rising 25 percent faster around the BeltLine than elsewhere in Atlanta, on average. Officials estimate that, over 25 years, the increased real-estate activity thanks to the park, which stretches 20 miles longer than New York’s High Line, will bring in an additional $20 billion in property taxes.
The portions of Chicago bordering the so-called 606 greenbelt are another example. For years, Chicago’s rising property taxes and high crime have stunted housing values in the city. In 2018, for instance, Chicago’s overall housing market was ranked weakest among the country’s top 100 urban areas, with housing prices in many neighborhoods still unrecovered from the 2009 downturn. Notable exceptions: neighborhoods around the 606. Former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel looked to emulate the success of New York’s High Line when he backed a plan to turn an abandoned railroad spur cutting through several miles of his city into a network of new park trails, which takes its name from the first three digits of most Chicago zip codes. Nearby neighborhoods like Logan Square and Humboldt Park swiftly benefited. The average price of a Logan Square home has risen by more than two-thirds, to $785,000, since the project’s first phase opened in 2015. In more modest Humboldt Park, median housing prices have more than doubled, to $220,000, in four years. The new greenbelt has also brought civic participation to the neighborhoods that it serves. Annually, residents make about 1 million visits and trips on the 606, studies find.
Merely announcing plans for a new park can jumpstart investment. In Los Angeles, more than a decade ago, officials began contemplating an 11-mile development along the part of the Los Angeles River that snakes through the city’s downtown. Though the river was crucial to the founding of Los Angeles, it often flooded, leading the Army Corps of Engineers, in the early twentieth century, to construct a concrete channel to manage water flow, effectively cutting off the riverfront from much of the city. Now, the L.A. River Revitalization plan would reconnect the river to the city through a series of parks, bridges, walkways, and greenbelts. Though much of the effort, with an original $1.3 billion price tag, remains in planning stages, investors have announced 21 projects for the stretch, including a modern apartment complex, with more than 400 units, near Atwater Village; a former jail redeveloped into a manufacturing and commercial space; and a 30-story hotel and residential tower on the site of an abandoned cold-storage facility. Smaller deals are happening rapidly, too, as buyers suddenly show interest in World War II–era warehouses that can be transformed into artist studios, breweries, and innovative retail malls.
Analogously, in 2009, Washington, D.C., started eyeing unused piers over the Anacostia River as the foundation for a High Line–style park that would tie the struggling Anacostia neighborhood to more thriving city areas. After a decade of planning and fund-raising, construction has yet to start on the project—but no matter. For at least four years, real-estate ads for properties in and around Anacostia, on the east bank of the river that gives the neighborhood its name, have pitched the park as a selling point, and the area has emerged as one of D.C.’s hottest residential markets. Brokers are peddling some 700 new units in eight residential buildings going up in Anacostia, despite construction of the bridge park getting delayed several times, most recently because of the Covid-19 lockdowns. It’s unlikely that the park will open before 2023.
After so many economic-development schemes that wasted money and failed to help neighborhoods, the park story in American cities is good news—but the media, community leaders, and some politicians increasingly portray it as a scourge, one that ruins the character of neighborhoods by making them more appealing to higher-income, more educated newcomers at the expense of longer-term, poorer residents. For such critics, parks are a Trojan horse for gentrification—a once-descriptive term now used almost entirely as a pejorative. “Are bike lanes a gentrifying tool?” asked the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, headlining a story about how minority residents of one neighborhood reacted to the BeltLine’s looming expansion. “Most people feel like these bike lanes are not for the people here,” a local minister said. “It’s for the people to come. . . . We saw it as a sign of gentrification, of being pushed out.”
Stories associating parks with gentrification—one could just as easily say “redevelopment” or “revitalization”—have become media staples in places where new parks are flourishing. The Washington Post has published more than three dozen stories in the last five years about local gentrification, many discussing Anacostia’s proposed park. Publications in greater Atlanta have published dozens on the BeltLine and gentrification. “While the Beltline has been embraced and enjoyed by many residents,” another Atlanta Journal-Constitution story observed, “critics say it has not delivered on promises of affordable housing and transit, leaving the impression—real or imagined—that the Atlanta Beltline was not created with everyone in mind.” The Chicago Tribune’s real-estate section lamented in early 2020 that it was “already too late to stop gentrification near the eastern half of the elevated trail”—but urgent action could prevent something similar from happening elsewhere along the 606.
Developments once hailed for their promise are now branded culprits, with the implication that their designs are racist. The High Line, for instance, has faced criticism because the activity restrictions imposed by a narrow, elevated park apparently didn’t consider how the Far West Side’s “people of color” purportedly use parks in ways different from tourists and higher-income residents. The park, activists complained in one report, has too many rules like “no throwing of objects” and restricts activities like skateboarding. “How much can you do with an elevated park space?” a community leader said. “Our residents don’t feel it’s a park that is available to them.”
Academics, activists, and journalists consistently conflate gentrification with residents getting forced out of their homes. An early report on the Atlanta BeltLine, for instance, decried real-estate developers speculatively buying land near the project. Without protections to keep people in their homes, the report warned, the project would be built “on the backs of poor folks.” The former head of the BeltLine resigned several years ago because of charges that he wasn’t focusing enough on affordable housing, as property values rose thanks to the park’s popularity.
A Chicago Tribune story on the one-year anniversary of the first phase of the 606 described that effort’s success as “stirring fears that homeowners as well as renters will be priced out of those neighborhoods.” A local official told the paper, “If we keep going at this rate, I feel like there’s going to be no more Hispanic families” left in the community. An activist argued in the Los Angeles Times that plans to build offices, condos, and space for restaurants and other retail along the Los Angeles River threatened nearby residents. “Unfortunately, big development proposals in Los Angeles tend to foreshadow gentrification, and low-income neighborhoods rarely survive it.” Contemplating the rise in Anacostia real-estate values spurred by talk of the bridge park, an academic blog denounced Washington’s “green colonialism.”
The reality is different. Numerous studies document that gentrification displaces few people. A Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia study found that the rate at which residents move out of gentrifying communities—places where rents and housing values are rising—is barely different from the rate in non-gentrifying areas. Most movers, the paper found, left not because they felt forced out but for other reasons—part of the natural turnover that occurs in any community. One of those reasons, researchers point out, is that poorer communities often have underdeveloped real-estate markets, with substantial room to absorb newcomers through new projects. In fact, the lists of new housing projects associated with park upgrades testify to the increased capacity that some neighborhoods experience. No wonder, then, that a study by NYU’s Furman Center found that the total population of low-income residents barely changed over a nearly 25-year period in gentrifying New York City communities.
Further, despite numerous newspaper articles quoting low-income residents as feeling “uncomfortable” when their community’s demographics begin to change, research shows that those residents tend to benefit from gentrification. The Furman Center found, for instance, that those who remain in gentrifying communities experience less crime. Their own incomes tend to rise, and their children do better in school. If they own property in the neighborhood, they also benefit from the rapid rise in the value of their homes—an often-unanticipated windfall. By contrast, research by the Furman Center has also found that neighborhoods that don’t gentrify don’t stay the same. On average, they decline, belying the notion, advanced by some anti-gentrification advocates, that keeping out progress can “stabilize” communities for low-income residents.
Still, the anti-gentrification narrative remains so powerful that, in places where parks are producing revivals, public officials and private groups are going to extraordinary lengths to help maintain “the character of neighborhoods,” as a Washington Post story put it. This involves throwing up hurdles to new plans and investment and heaping new demands on private investors before they can enter neighborhoods. Cities are being urged to implement “anti-displacement” strategies specifically focusing on park development. Some such strategies have long been known to dampen investment and set back communities, including rent control and real-estate review boards that get to set local rents.
Other regressive anti-displacement schemes include zoning restrictions that protect certain types of low-income housing like single-room occupancy hotels from being redeveloped; limits on converting apartments into condominiums; and the establishment of land trusts to purchase property and preserve it for low-income resident uses. New park initiatives, advocates argue, should be developed together with affordable housing proposals—something that few park officials have experience doing.
Los Angeles County has already enshrined anti-displacement into its funding for new park projects. The county attached a series of requirements onto its 2018 ballot measure establishing a tax to fund parks and recreation areas. Among the stipulations are that money raised by the tax could also go to fund affordable housing in areas where park improvements were causing gentrification and potentially displacing residents. Early last year, Chicago banned demolitions of properties around the 606 trails, while officials and activists confer over how to slow redevelopment in the area. Among the proposals are to add demolition fees to any projects that tear down existing housing and to protect some low-income housing from replacement. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has also proposed giving landmark status to some areas to prevent redevelopment. Anti-gentrification forces in Sunset Park in Brooklyn recently persuaded officials to kill a major expansion of Industry City on the community’s waterfront that might have added as many as 15,000 jobs, for fear that it would accelerate gentrification.
Taking such steps will slow development, but at what cost? In August, one of Chicago’s biggest developers, Guardian Properties, said that it was pulling out of projects in the city. The company cited Chicago’s high taxes and financial woes—but the last straw was its “strong push for anti-gentrification measures,” a firm principal said.
Such proclamations no doubt cheer anti-development forces. But when they blunt the economic momentum that’s reviving neighborhoods around parks across the country, the real losers are local residents.
Top Photo: Manhattan’s elevated High Line Park has attracted some $2 billion in private investment into surrounding neighborhoods and will generate an estimated $1 billion in additional property taxes over the next two decades. (WENDY CONNETT/ROBERT HARDING/NEWSCOM)