Urban Environmental Justice and Green Gentrification

With Dr. Panagiota Kotsila and Prof. Dr. Isabelle Anguelovski (BCNUEJ)

The webinar “Urban Environmental Justice & Green Gentrification” with Dr. Panagiota Kotsila and Prof. Dr. Isabelle Anguelovski (BCNUEJ) was organized by DRIFT and Vital Cities & Citizens on the 17th of June 2021. While Dr. Kotsila discussed some of the drivers of injustice in the context of urban sustainability, developed as part of the UrbanA project on #SustainableJustCities, Prof Dr. Anguelovski shared insights from the GreenLulus project on green gentrification and the recently published report on Policy and Planning Tools for Urban Green Justice. This blog summarizes the main insights from the webinar.

This webinar was the 3rd event of the series on #JustSustainabilityTransitions at Erasmus University Rotterdam, which aims to deepen, translate and connect knowledge and practice on just sustainability transitions. Sustainable and just cities can enable societies and people to thrive in relation to  their living environment and other living beings, in an equitable manner. This highlights the urgency and relevance of environmental justice in the urban context. Some related questions are: how do we approach justice? What are the tensions between environmental sustainability and social justice? What are promising tools to address those tensions? Dr. Panagiota Kotsila and Prof. Dr. Isabelle Anguelovski focused their research around these questions. 

#1 “Drivers of Urban Environmental Injustice” by Dr. Panagiota Kotsila

#1 “Drivers of Urban Environmental Injustice” by Dr. Panagiota Kotsila 

Dr. Panagiota Kotsila is a postdoctoral researcher at the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability and at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona. In her talk, Dr. Kotsila started by defining justice, emphasizing an approach to justice as a continuous process rather than a static outcome. She explained that the drivers of injustice in the context of urban sustainability are strongly related to the contradictions of sustainable development more broadly. On the one hand, economic sustainability (continuous growth) and environmental sustainability (climate change mitigation, biodiversity protection) are hardly compatible. Second, environmental goods and bads are unequally distributed both globally and locally, leading to an equity deficit in sustainability. 

After presenting different forms and dimensions of injustice in urban sustainability planning, other than distributive, Panagiota Kotsila did an analysis of 10 core drivers of injustice in the context of urban sustainability and discussed two of them in detail. First, she addressed uneven and excluding urban intensification and regeneration as a driver of injustice. With the example of the new urban development of Hellenikon in Athens, Dr. Kotsila illustrated how land, housing and green space can compete with each other and get reconfigured in ways that negatively impact vulnerable residents. From a greening plan to compensate for the lack of green space in Athens, this former public asset evolved into a privatized area, with limited access to green space and a target audience of elite buyers and upper class consumers.

Limited citizen participation in urban planning is also a driver of injustice. Dr. Kotsila elaborated on the existing tensions in participation and justice, as some forms of participation processes commonly reproduce the same power dynamics that they are meant to address. Kotsila finished her talk with an illustration of how distributive and procedural justice and their drivers can intersect to create exclusion of the most vulnerable groups and identities from processes and benefits of sustainability. She ended with a reflection on the role of participation in the struggle for environmental urban justice.

#2 “Green Gentrification” by Prof. Dr. Isabelle Anguelovski

#2 “Green Gentrification” by Prof. Dr. Isabelle Anguelovski 

Prof. Dr. Isabelle Anguelovski is the director of the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, and senior researcher and principal investigator at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona. She shared insights from the ERC-funded GreenLulus project (Green Locally Unwanted Land Uses) which analyses the extent to which urban greening projects in racially mixed and working class neighbourhoods create new environmental, health and climate inequities. 

Isabelle Anguelovski explained that beyond the historic marginalisation of certain groups in relation to access to green space, inequalities in access to green space are produced by processes of creating new green spaces in cities, especially so in globalising cities. This process contributes to the displacement or exclusion of the most vulnerable population groups: Green Gentrification. This process was illustrated with the example of the Jardin Extraordinaire in Nantes, the 22@ district in Barcelona, or the Boston waterfront redevelopment. As she zoomed on the scope of green gentrification, emphasised that displacement and dispossession are financial, physical and socio-cultural by referring to several BCNUEJ studies.  

The exclusion of socially and racially vulnerable residents calls for new emancipatory greening practices that can question experiences of domination and oppression. In that regard, Prof. Anguelovski presented radical green alternatives through anti-subordination and emancipatory greening in Washington DC. Last, she shared key takeaways from the report on Policy and Planning Tools for Urban Green Justice Planning in which BCNUEJ researchers argue that equity-centered alternatives for green and just cities revolve in finding the right mix of anti-displacement and equitable green development tools.

Main insights from the Q&A session

The key questions raised during the Q&A session included: Did you come across forms of resistance to green injustices and green gentrification? How would we consider green gentrification from a decolonial lens and non-western spaces? Did you come across context-specific justice claims? How to assess data sets and what they say about justice? How to adopt a more human vocabulary when talking about urban greening? 

Dr. Kotsila replied that the case of Hellenikon is an example of a strong social movement, which started with a performance of environmental justice by turning an occupied plot into a garden. Through the creation of this garden, there was a formulation of ideas on how to make it more sustainable and inclusive. In that sense, it contributes to environmental and justice thinking in the city. Then, Prof. Anguelovski explained that decolonial greening has to do with relayering the landscape and historical periods of change. With the example of Anacostia in Washington DC, she argued that for greening tools to generate values, this relayering is important, as well as addressing the type of disinvesting of land for communities.

Panagiota Kotsila followed up on context-specific justice claims by explaining that justice claims always begin with the urgency of the people who live in those areas, depending on their needs and challenges in their daily lives. Justice can be operationalised in many ways, which poses a methodological issue of capturing justice claims. Indeed, by analysing online data sets, researchers can miss a lot of reality on the ground. Dr. Kotsila concluded the Q&A by saying that to talk about urban greening and justice, we need more terms that reflect the understanding and resonate with people in a better way.

Carlotta Cataldi

Resources from the webinar

  • Just Sustainability Transitions event series here
  • Prof. Dr. Isabelle Anguelovski’s talk: slides
  • Dr. Panagiota Kotsila’s presentation: slides
  • Playlist of 10 drivers of injustice in urban sustainability here
  • Policy and planning toolkit for urban green justice here
  • Video resources BCNUEJ: the Green Divide and To Green or not To Green
  • Blog Green Inequalities on which the BCNUEJ research group shares the findings of their research
  • Article on urban sustainability and environmental justice in public planning and policy discourse: Pearsall H. & Pierce J. (2010) Urban sustainability and environmental justice: evaluating the linkages in public planning/policy discourse, Local Environment, 15:6, 569-580, DOI: 10.1080/13549839.2010.487528
  • Video of the talk of Professor Seye Abimbola, holder of the Prince Claus Chair (Utrecht University) in justice in global health research (from 53 minutes onwards).

About the organizers

The Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (DRIFT) and Vital Cities & Citizens (VCC) at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam in collaboration with the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability (BCNUEJ) and the UrbanA project on #SustainableJustCities.

About the process, facilitators & participants 

The webinar began with a short introduction by Karlijn Schipper and a pitch on sustainable just cities by Dr. Flor Avelino. The first speaker was Dr. Panagiota Kotsila, who zoomed in on Drivers of Urban Environmental Injustice. Participants were then divided in breakout rooms, where they could share their experience on urban environmental justice in their city or research. This group discussion was followed by a talk by Prof. Dr. Isabelle Anguelovski, who discussed green gentrification and presented tools and alternatives for green and just cities. A second group discussion was held, around the question: “(how) is green gentrification a problem in your city and (how) should it be addressed?”. Once back in the plenary session, Frank van Steenbergen facilitated a Q&A in which participants could share their comments and questions with the speakers. 

About 170 people registered for the event and more than 75 people participated in the webinar. 84% of participants were from Europe, but some also joined from Asia (10%), Africa (3%) and North America (2%). The audience was very diverse in terms of experience in urban environmental justice with most people having experience of working in the field ( between 0 and 10 years). Carlotta Cataldi captured the insights of the webinar in a live graphic harvest.   

About the author of the report

Clara Glachant is working as a research intern for the VCC initiative on the theme of Just Sustainable Cities. She graduated from her MA. in Sustainable Development at Sciences Po Lille (France) and is currently pursuing her MSc. Urban Governance at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research interests include urban mobility, inclusiveness and sustainability.

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