Opinion: Austin’s Sustainability Efforts Need Anti-Displacement Tools

An environmental policy advocate explains why urban planning and increased sustainability efforts must address gentrification as Austin's people are just an integral to Austin as its infrastructure is.

Opinion: Austin’s Sustainability Efforts Need Anti-Displacement Tools

In mid-August, the sixth Assessment Report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out, but its grim findings were mostly buried under COVID-19 coverage. I admit as an environmental policy advocate, this report feels like plugging into the Matrix and taking a visit to the Oracle. She is confident in what she knows but can't suggest a path forward, that is only up to us.

As we collectively move forward and begin to create a more sustainable future for humanity, this process will indeed be in our hands. The local level is where we will see the most immediate results and where our own lives will be affected.

This process of creating a more sustainable future has already begun in Austin, albeit slowly, and unequally. As it stands today, the increasing wealth of the city has enabled this ongoing urban "greening" but in turn has allowed the gentrification of the artists who made Austin what it is today. Even as the city begins to address these cultural concerns with initiatives such as the Spirit of East Austin Project, the question remains: Are these new sustainability initiatives doing enough to combat gentrification?

These seemingly well-intentioned city policies, such as the city's Climate Equity Plan, which I myself was a part of, asked questions of equity last in the process. As the framework for a new, greener, and more sustainable Austin was already crafted, the inquiry into equity was an afterthought. Obviously, I'm glad it was part of the conversation and eventually a part of the plan but as I dived deeper into the field of urban greening, I've realized that these seemingly well-meaning policies often lead to the "urban greening paradox."

The urban greening paradox illustrates the situation that occurs when communities in need of urban green infrastructure such as parks, tree coverage, community gardens or environmental remediation, receive this investment but instead of it rectifying the environmental inequity, it in turn displaces them as it begins to attract new, wealthier, and often white residents.

The ecosystem benefits originally meant to improve the quality of life for existing residents are continually segregated when urban greening does not put into practice anti-displacement strategies. Without these strategies, sustainability disparities are perpetually reinforced.

Only with forethought and active community participation does urban greening not have to continue the cycle of inequities and push vulnerable residents farther from justice.

As Austin continues to grow and evolve, our politics and practices must do so as well. If you value the environmental ethos of the city, and the culture that made it what it is, I urge you to ensure that the city remains affordable for the families and individuals who have contributed their livelihoods to making Austin what it is today.

Strategies to achieve a greening without gentrification have been heavily researched and are aligned in a report by Alessandro Rigolon and Jon Christensen. In it, they conduct an analysis of parks-related anti-displacement strategies and identify promising strategies that assist in anti-displacement efforts, which result from the greening of urban spaces. Their main recommendations are as follows:

Begin implementing parks-related anti-displacement strategies as soon as the planning of urban greening begins.

Local communities should lead these efforts so they can advocate for themselves and educate the government about their specific challenges and solutions. Collaboration between community, local nonprofits and affordable housing operations are the key to success. Affordable housing initiatives must be paired with initiatives to increase incomes so that long-term success can be achieved.

As sustainability initiatives grow across the city, I urge residents to realize the importance of simultaneously addressing anti-displacement strategies. This ensures that as Austin inevitably evolves and infrastructural changes occur to keep up with that growth, residents can afford the city they helped build. If you are interested in understanding how to engage in anti-displacement work visit the Uprooted Project, and utilize the Texas Anti-Displacement Toolkit. If you really want to stir the pot, please don't be shy about participating in city government. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved. Remember, the city's true sustainability efforts lie not just in infrastructure but with keeping our culture here.

Chelsea Gómez was a community climate ambassador for the Office of Sustainability and is a current MPA candidate focusing on environmental policy at Columbia University in New York City. She lives solely on sweets and salads and is looking forward to incorporating social equity into upcoming environmental policies.

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anti-displacement, Climate Equity Plan

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