Blog post

Environmental justice and urban green

January 19, 2017

Sustainable cities and communities are one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) recently adopted by the UN. SDG 11.7 explicitly aims to provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible green and public spaces. As acknowledged by this goal, green spaces are not only important because of their environmental values, but also because of their social values. They accommodate a range of human needs and provide ecosystem services that might increase urban social and ecological resilience. For example, urban and non-urban green spaces provide opportunities to relax and restore from stress, to enjoy nature and connect to the natural environment, to socialize and play sports. Indeed, good living conditions, including access to urban green spaces are important features for modern cities and even contribute to locational advantages to attract international corporations. Governments and municipalities are aware of these functions and have planned, restored and invested significant resources to enhance and improve green infrastructure. The question is however, whether these efforts have resulted in equal access to urban green for all socio-cultural groups in society.
Environmental Justice

As mentioned in SDG 11, accessible green spaces need to be inclusive. Research has shown that urban green spaces are not divided equally across cities. Many studies have shown that while suburbs in US cities enjoy nice and well-maintained urban green area, both quantity and quality of urban green in the more deprived areas is significantly lower. Recent studies in Berlin by e.g. Prof. Dagmar Haase have shown similar, although smaller, trends for Berlin. Recently, also the challenge of eco-gentrification has been identified as a result of municipal efforts to improve socially deprived areas by the introduction of high quality green. However, experiences with e.g. the High Line in New York have shown that indeed green may attract higher income groups. However, due to e.g. rising housing prices, the more socially deprived groups tend to be displaced in the process to other areas of the city. In addition, Dr. Erik Andersson argued during our recent Green Surge Symposium on Environmental Justice and Urban Green that next to formal availability and access, also many informal process may inhibit socially deprived groups from enjoying urban green areas. Processes of territorialisation, the formal or informal, the institutional, cultural or mental empowerment or disempowerment of social and cultural groups may limit opportunities to participate in the use and design of urban green areas. Consequently, the topic of environmental justice regarding access to urban green remains relevant. Low (2013) has suggested three lines of research that may be relevant to investigate environmental justice: Distributive justice (Fair allocation of urban green), Procedural justice (Equal say in the planning and decision making process) and Interactional justice (Quality of interaction, including racism). While many studies focus on distribute justice, our understanding of especially procedural justice regarding current governance models of urban green policies is still limited.

Self-governance and environmental justice

In recent years, the governance of urban and non-urban green has shifted towards a multi-level, collaborative, and polycentric governance approach, involving a diversity of actors and governance levels into decision-making. As several scholars at Wageningen University and Research has shown we now experience the next step in polycentric governance, where the involvement of citizens in greenspace governance has developed from a focus on public participation in government policies towards increased active citizenship. Groups of citizens increasingly self-organise to develop, maintain or improve urban green areas. There are many sociological, cultural and institutional reasons that may account for the increasing role of active citizens, including government retrenchment of central funding for services supplying public goods. Some researchers have criticized attempts to mobilise citizens to compensate for government retreat as neoliberal governance techniques with little real shift in power from public agencies to local communities.
If current processes in many European countries continue, and governments and municipalities continue to retreat and focus more on opportunities and responsibilities of local communities, social enterprises, private actors and motivated individuals, issues regarding environmental justice may become even more prominent. Although case-studies in Green Surge suggest some local communities and social enterprises may be better equipped to reach out to underprivileged social groups, other examples show that retreating governments may result in greater inequalities. Indeed processes of self-governance are not inherently inclusive and such processes can include implicit and explicit mechanisms that exclude other social groups from participating. Building a strong community and group identity may imply that others are explicitly or implicitly excluded.
Moreover, active citizenship critically depends on cultural capital, i.e. the capacity and capability of people to take part in actions around spaces they value. As this capital is not distributed evenly across communities, retreating government initiatives can lead to unintended impacts on environmental justice and the fair distribution of access to public green space with selective participation by vocal and well organised interest groups in negotiation and management.
To conclude, equal access to urban green and equal participation in planning and decision making are crucial element of urban green governance. Recent trends towards active citizenship and other democracy models than representative democracy may have significant implications on environmental justice in relation to urban green. It can be doubted whether these processes are fully recognised, both in policy as well as in Academia. As such, an innovative research agenda is needed to identify relevant issues as well as possible solutions in order to answer to the aims stated in the Sustainable Development Goals to provide universal access to inclusive and accessible green by 2030.