Green space improves cities. Can it benefit those who need it most?

The legacy of housing segregation has proved traumatic for Washington’s Black community, particularly east of the Anacostia. Historical archives show that Black residents were once banned from owning land in the neighborhood, and data collected by BBAR shows that only one-third of Ward 8 residents are homeowners today, which could put them at greater risk of displacement.

BBAR’s equitable development plan strives to ensure that residents east of the river can continue to afford living in their neighborhood once the park is constructed. The organization partnered with city agencies and nonprofits to expand resources by securing philanthropic funding for down payment assistance programs, establishing a Ward 8 home buyers club, and building and preserving affordable housing through a community land trust. The Douglass Community Land Trust, named after abolitionist and onetime Anacostia resident Frederick Douglass, is buying up property in the neighborhood to shield longtime residents from development pressure. The nonprofit has already acquired an apartment complex in Ward 8.

“I’m a strong believer in keeping public land in public hand,” Richardson told Grist. “D.C. is sort of like a divided city — and the 11th Street Bridge Park will be the connector.”

Ward 8 has also suffered the highest unemployment rate in all of Washington, D.C.: Roughly 16 percent of residents living east of the river are unemployed. As a result, Noorani told Grist that a major priority of their equitable development plan is hiring residents who face structural challenges to securing employment — especially youth and formerly incarcerated people — for construction and post-construction job opportunities at the 11th Street Bridge Park. The project is also supporting workforce training programs.

“You can’t change communities in a year or two. It takes years to do that and have people trust that you do right by them,” Richardson told Grist. “The 11th Street Bridge Park folks listened and discovered that having a sense of equity was a priority, so they have gained the community’s trust in a very big way.”

If it works out as planned, the 11th Street Bridge Park may turn out to be a model for future urban green space development projects. But there are other, smaller community-led organizations across the country that are working to redevelop and repair formerly marginalized neighborhoods that have yet to receive robust investment, including for urban green spaces.

Green scenes in the Rose City

In the 1960s, the Oregon State Highway Department used eminent domain to bulldoze through the heart of the Albina neighborhood in Portland to build the Interstate 5 freeway, demolishing more than 300 homes in the process. The construction, part of a nationwide approach to urban renewal, led to a massive decline in what was once Portland’s thriving Black community.

Rukaiyah Adams, 46, grew up in the Albina neighborhood. After leaving home to attend Stanford Law School and work on Wall Street, she ultimately decided to come back to her hometown and give back to the community she grew up in.

She’s noticed that a different sort of change has come to the neighborhood in recent years: Community investment has improved since white residents started moving in, and playgrounds in urban parks have become safer and well-maintained.

People walk their dog in Lillis Albina Park in Portland during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alex Milan Tracy / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Adams chairs a nonprofit called Abina Vision, a group that’s working to repair the damage done to the Black community in the Albina neighborhood. She believes that change starts with an equitable urban growth and design plan that centers on racial and environmental justice.

“Reparation is not transactional, it’s not a single cash transaction,” Adams told Grist. “It’s a fundamental change in the way that we design and share the urban form.”

According to Shandas’ study on redlining and urban heat, the greatest temperature disparities between redlined and non-redlined neighborhoods in the U.S. — differences of up to 12.6 degrees F — are in Portland. Racist policy decisions and a lack of community investment widened these disparities. Portland city officials have a history of investing more on safe green spaces built in wealthier neighborhoods. Researchers like Shandas and Rigolon maintain that this contributes to a cycle of systemic inequities. Without green spaces to cool a neighborhood, low-income communities may face more substantial financial burdens, due in part to greater energy consumption from air conditioning as well as medical bills from conditions caused or exacerbated by severe heat.

Adams said that Albina Vision is working to redevelop the 94 acres of land that the neighborhood lost decades ago. She considers the project a form of reparation that transforms the way that residents live. The group proposes to both build affordable housing and push for large-scale urban green spaces to cool the city. And just like BBAR, Albina Vision wants to create a strong public connection to the Willamette River, which separates the Albina neighborhood from downtown Portland.

“With Albina Vision, we’re thinking about how we design parks to accommodate dense, affordable housing and redesign street-level experience to create parks and green spaces,” Adams said.

With renewed calls for racial justice across the country, Adams said that addressing environmental injustice through community investment is crucial. Whether it means building a large-scale project like the 11th Street Bridge Park or a smaller-scale open green space as part of a community redevelopment plan, environmental justice solutions start with including those who haven’t historically had a say in the planning process.

“Because we were so intentional in destroying Black communities,” Adams added, “we must also be intentional in rebuilding them.”

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