Book review: The Green City and Social Injustice: 21 Tales from North America and Europe

reviewed by Estelle Broyer

9 Aug 2022, 10:49 a.m.
Estelle Broyer

The Green City and Social Injustice book cover

Isabelle Anguelovski and James JT Connolly (eds), The Green City and Social Injustice: 21 Tales from North America and Europe, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2022; 360 pp.: ISBN 9781032024110, £34.99 (pbk)


From grand new parks and vertical forests to the decontamination of former industrial sites; from city-wide ‘rail to trail’ mobility transformations to flood-resilience infrastructure, greening is at the centre of urban renewal in many cities around the world. With this phenomenon comes a crucial question: To what degree do these projects address – or potentially perpetuate and accelerate – historic social exclusion on the basis of race and class? Who benefits from new green spaces and infrastructures? Who gets to live in these cleaner environments? Greening might just be ‘the easy part’ of this new wave of climate-conscious urban transformations, suggest Isabelle Anguelovski and James Connolly in their new volume The Green City and Social Injustice.

The book is a collection of 21 tales of green urban planning and policies in the gentrifying neighbourhoods of 21 mid-sized North American and Western European cities. These short historical descriptions, when juxtaposed, create a compelling mosaic that offers insight into the ambivalences of greening efforts to date. As a whole, the volume tells the story of neoliberal austerity measures and profit-driven urban developments that turn cities and neighbourhoods, eager to compete in the global economy, into a kind of green spectacle – cutting funds from existing local initiatives that benefit residents in their daily lives and fuelling greening projects that value aesthetics over usability in their efforts to attract developers, wealthier taxpayers and tourists. It retells the story of racial and class-based segregation through environmental inequalities. In addition, while from afar the mosaic outlines a big picture of green gentrification, from up-close each individual piece has a slightly different shade and texture. Each city offers a slightly different story. Local histories, material circumstances and approaches make each case unique and help create a rich and nuanced account of greening as a phenomenon, even though they are all part of a wider narrative consolidated by the editors.

The collection guides readers by organising the 21 tales into five sections that focus on different aspects of the ‘green paradox’: the notion that urban greening, while aiming to improve the environment and public health, often deepens social injustices. Some sections highlight the financial and policy mechanisms that fuel green gentrification, while others discuss the cultural and social dynamics at play. Isabelle Anguelovski and James Connolly conclude with recommendations for planners and policymakers that could help make urban greening more democratic, equitable and beneficial to all by merging ‘housing stability and emancipation’ goals with those of equitable and inclusively planned green development (p. 295).

The tour starts with four cities that embraced the neoliberal ethos of privatisation and strive to achieve economic growth through ‘glitzy’ green projects. The tales of Milan, Bristol, Valencia and Amsterdam illustrate the profound transformations these projects unleash. They fit with classic stories of gentrification and the displacement of historic working-class and ethnic or racial minority residents through an influx of capital, development and wealthy newcomers. The city invests in a ‘neglected’ part of town. Housing costs rise. The green projects’ aesthetics and intended uses make locals feel out of place. Residents feel financial, cultural and social displacement pressures. Not only are many of them unable to stay put and benefit from the greening of their own neighbourhood; the greening itself is often not as environmentally beneficial as claimed, as these projects entail major construction work and the destruction of existing informal green spaces. In Valencia, for example, ‘500,000 m3 of soil were moved’ and ‘54,000 m3 of concrete were poured’ to create Parc Central (p. 67), while in Milan, the construction of the Vertical Forest skyscraper in Porta Nuova requested ‘the deforestation of Milan’s existing green lungs’ (p. 30).

The green paradox is at the heart of discontent in the second set of cities as well, where post-industrial environments are decontaminated – often thanks to the sustained advocacy work of resident-activists – only to benefit a new wave of residents and investors. This is the case in the most deprived, environmentally unsafe and racially segregated areas of Cleveland, Dallas, Glasgow, San Francisco and Seattle. Residents in such neighbourhoods find themselves in a double bind and are forced to choose between housing affordability and their health, since advocating environmental clean-up leads to gentrification and displacement.

The following sections continue the exploration of urban greening by examining its links with other forms of social injustice. In Part 3, tales of gentrification in Atlanta, Austin, Washington DC and Boston illustrate the deep relationship between greening and white privilege in historically Black and Latinx neighbourhoods. Forces that include an ‘ahistorical lens on land use’ (p. 154), the commodification of Blackness as ‘cool’ (p. 167) and the brandishing of climate change as an imperative for rapid and drastic change all contribute to the setting aside of inclusive community-centred projects in favour of transformations that reproduce racial inequalities. In Part 4, greening is discussed alongside other causes of gentrification and displacement: from the transformation of the food scene in Montreal to luxury developments that cater to international students in Dublin and tourists in Barcelona. These tales show that greening is just ‘one piece of a larger gentrification and displacement puzzle’ (p. 314).

Finally, Part 5 brings a (cautiously) optimistic outlook on greening projects by telling the tales of cities with long histories of combined environmental and social housing policies. While Copenhagen, Nantes and Vienna are confronted with the global, national and regional pressures of neoliberalism and the general ‘rise of racist rhetoric’ in Europe (p. 241), their long-lasting ‘equity-driven approach’ (p. 257) gives their residents some protection against gentrification and allows them to benefit from environmental provisioning in their neighbourhoods. The case of Portland is a cautionary tale, however, as it highlights that even the greenest, most progressive cities face difficulties in including all communities in their greening and decision-making processes. While this section tells of municipalities with at least partially successful anti-gentrification policies, another source of hope comes from the numerous tales of community activism and grassroots greening projects peppered throughout the book. The example of Philadelphia (in Part 4) shows that neighbourhood groups can strengthen social cohesion and provide green spaces and ‘climate-resilient infrastructure’ (p. 231) for the use of all through strategic alliances.

Altogether, the 21 tales of The Green City and Social Injustice help reveal the pattern of gentrification and racial and class-based inequalities driven by green renewals. The book will appeal to a wide audience of students, planners and policymakers looking for a general sense of what green gentrification looks like or short stories to illustrate the point. One challenge with the mosaic approach is that examining each individual piece of the story can be tiring and feel a bit monotonous – sure, the cases are all slightly different, but not enough to merit detailed scrutiny in sequence. Like with a mosaic, readers might want to look at the big picture and only briefly zoom in on some of the tiles for comparison. Moreover, the tales are mostly descriptive and leave the reader hungry for analysis. While the final chapters offer some keys for interpretation, weaving some of these conclusions into each tale would better sustain the reader’s interest and enable a more robust understanding of the issue. Finally, The Green City and Social Injustice invites two sequels: a book telling the urban greening stories of the Global South, with reflections on the similarities and points of divergence with stories from the Global North, and a book more squarely centred on the activists and community groups featured in these tales: those fighting gentrification and displacement locally and creating green, resilient spaces in their neighbourhoods. Such a book would give full force to the ‘radical new praxis’ of urban greening advocated in The Green City and Social Injustice: one grounded in ‘antisubordination, intersectional, and relational modes of greening’ (p. 320).


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Urban green boosterism and city affordability: For whom is the ‘branded’ green city? by Melissa Garcia-Lamarca, Isabelle Anguelovski, Helen Cole, James JT Connolly, Lucía Argüelles, Francesc Baró, Stephanie Loveless, Carmen Pérez del Pulgar Frowein and Galia Shokry

Garcia-Lamarca et al use qualitative findings from France and the US to unpack why green boosterism correlates with lower urban affordability.

Green gentrification or ‘just green enough’: Do park location, size and function affect whether a place gentrifies or not? by Alessandro Rigolon, Jeremy Németh

New research looking at a diverse sample of 10 cities across the United States, calling into question the "just green enough" claim that small parks foster green gentrification less than larger parks.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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