A False Promise of Green, Equitable Urban Growth? A Critical Review of the Literature and Implications for Seattle
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Sustainability has permeated the study and practice of urban planning over the past 30 years. Yet situating social and environmental priorities on the same plane of planning interests as economic growth invariably generates conflicts, which planners are left to reconcile. Seattle provides an illustrative example of these tensions and trade-offs. Local sustainability priorities include expanding or enhancing urban green infrastructure in pursuit of ‘the green city,’ densification as a spatial manifestation of ‘the growing city,’ and displacement, or the involuntary relocation of residents, as a threat to ‘the just city.’ This research investigates the consequences of greening and growing cities on equity and social justice; in particular, whether the co-occurrence of new or improved green infrastructure and densification in low-income or otherwise marginalized urban neighborhoods necessarily results in displacement. I use an urban political ecology lens to recenter the structural conditions that constrain sustainability agendas in practice. Analyzing cases from the academic and professional literature, I assemble a range of potential scenarios pursuant to different interventions and conditions, some of which suggest a means of mitigating displacement risk. I find that green, equitable urban growth will never be realized as long as our political-economy is a capitalist one, yet our imperfect reality can be made incrementally better for people and/or the planet when we, as planners, recognize these constraints and seek to optimize trade-offs for social and environmental justice, selecting from the scenarios assembled. Situating these findings within the Seattle context, I discuss implications for the City of Seattle’s Outside Citywide initiative and its ongoing work in the South Park neighborhood.
- Urban planning