In 2012, Winifred Curran (an associate professor of geography) and Trina Hamilton (an associate professor of geography, University at Buffalo, SUNY) studied the cleanup of Newtown Creek in Brooklyn NY, one of the nation’s most polluted waterways. In their case study, they coined the phrase “just green enough” to describe an approach to urban development in which environmental rehabilitation and social justice are tightly bound.

At Newtown Creek, the two had expected to find a “textbook case” of environmental gentrification, as Curran explains: “Most ‘green’ projects happen when high-income people want to move into a neighborhood; the cleanup then attracts more of the same. But in Brooklyn, we found that a grassroots alliancewhich included elected officials, local residents, business owners and non-profit organizationswas working to achieve environmental remediation without gentrification. Its ‘just green enough’ effort was carefully planned so that long-term residents and responsible industry wouldn’t be displaced, so that the neighborhood could be both ‘green’ and economically diverse. That’s a great model for urban sustainability.”

Rethinking What “Green” Means

“Green projects shouldn’t be just for the rich,” says Curran.

Urban sustainability, as it’s taught at Depaul, stands on three pillars: environmental, which recognizes that all human activity operates within finite ecologies; economic, which says that human flourishing depends on vibrant economic activity; and social, which posits that sustainability is possible only if it supports the common good. Curran’s works puts this third pillar—social justice—front-and-center in her argument that “everyone deserves green.”

“What happens to the working class when blighted or polluted areas are cleaned up? Or when developers invest in parks and gardens, in bike paths and waterfront cafes, and in luxury LEED-certified buildings?” she asks. “In many urban development projects, the idea of social justice gets lost. If an environmental cleanup displaces people, then it’s not a ‘sustainable’ outcome.”

In the Newtown Creek case, local environmental activists had been advocating for a cleanup of a “constellation of toxicity” that included everything from animal waste to dry cleaning solvents, with a decades-old oil spill at its center. Each new generation moving into the neighborhood was schooled on the issues. Then in 2010, Andrew Cuomo, at that time the attorney general of New York, brought a lawsuit against Exxon Mobile, mainly in response to the creeping gentrification of the neighborhood.

“That’s why we expected to see the typical pattern of making a neighborhood more attractive for the wealthy,” says Curran. “Instead, the gentrifiers had joined forces with the activists.” Today, the neighborhood is a 21st century industrial corridor, with active ‘green’ projects and a high level of working class employment, in the same space. 

Closer to Home

In Chicago, the 606 project is not successfully “just green enough,” says Curran: 

“Real estate prices around the development have skyrocketed, and now long-term residents fear they’ll be driven out of the community. The same thing happened around the Highline in New York City, which serves as a model for transforming old rail lines into parks. But while the Highline was built by private investors, the 606 was funded by a not-for-profit trust, so hopes were high that it wouldn’t be just another tool for gentrification. But it’s pretty clear that part of the plan was to make properties in Logan Square and Humboldt Park more valuable.

“We, as taxpayers, all contributed to the 606, so shouldn’t everyone benefit equally? The Logan Square Neighborhood Association has been arguing for property tax relief so working class homeowners won’t be forced out, but that idea isn’t getting much traction.”

“Green” Is for Everyone

At the heart of the “just green enough” concept is Curran’s conviction that sustainability has to be a democratic process. “Urban developers should be purposeful in keeping real estate prices reasonable. And from the very beginning of a significant 'green' project, city governments should have mechanisms in place to prevent gentrification,” she says.

“Neighborhoods don’t get dirty accidently, and they don’t get cleaned up accidently. So, displacement doesn’t have to happen automatically. Gentrification isn’t the ‘inevitable’ effect of environmental rehabilitation. Rather, it’s the result of specific decisions, made over time. But different decisions can be made instead—by neighbors, investors and, most importantly, state and local governments—and these decisions can keep urban areas socially and economically diverse. ‘Just green enough’ expands the horizons of what it means to be an environmentally responsible city.”