Green Infrastructure is a surprisingly contested term. It remains difficult to define, which means this ostensibly apolitical term, remains vulnerable ‘as different interests attach different environmental, social and economic meanings to it’, each with their own agenda (Wright, 2011: 1004). Infrastructure is built onto and around the pre-existing social fabric of a city. Pre-existing inequalities will determine how it is implemented, and how it behaves within the city. It is important to question why, and for whom, green infrastructure developments take place.
When LA was chosen to host the 2028 Olympics, GI enthusiasts envisaged this as an opportunity to ‘transform’ LA. There will be bike paths, and parks that can catch storm water, alongside ‘abundant investment opportunities,’ to ‘simultaneously reduce pollution, prevent flooding, and replenish groundwater, uplifting ‘communities in need,’ offering hope for a healthier city. These all sound like positive developments, However, while GI literature often focuses on ‘“revitalization” or “regeneration”, this can obfuscate the ways in which vulnerable populations are displaced and marginalized’ (Kim, 2018). This exists within a broader practice of GI policy ‘operating under the seemingly a-political rubric of sustainability’ (Checker 2011), emphasising economic benefits of GI developments and possible ‘win-win’ solutions. For example, storm water management strategies can transform heavy rainfall in LA into ‘liquid gold.’ What once was run off from concrete roofs and houses, is now captured and used to replenish groundwater resources. GI exists within a dominant economic and governmental paradigms. The focus on ‘liquid gold’ shows ‘that “natural capital” can become the basis for a sustainable economy’ (The conversation). This is not ‘an innocent change in terminology’. Instead, a new way of getting ‘nature to work for capitalistic growth’, growth that often results in increasing economic inequality without effective regulation.
So, let’s look at the prediction that Los Angeles Olympics might lead to city-wide green development, including a ‘series of parks with green infrastructure for enhanced stormwater capture’, bringing huge social and environmental benefits. The Olympics often entails a huge amount of top-down urban management. It’s frequently criticised for failing to include local communities. London 2012 took place on my doorstep. I have seen first-hand the changes it has brought to the area. The construction of the Olympic park hit poor communities in East London hard. Mass evictions and soaring house prices have prompted some critics to call the Olympic project an act of ‘social cleansing’. So, while increased green spaces in the city are linked to a myriad of physical and mental health benefits, it’s important to ensure this is not done at the expense of poor communities. Parks, regardless of storm water capture, can put pressure on an already spatially constricted city. Moreover, park revitalisation projects can be used by developers ‘as a gentrification scheme where the establishment of a green amenity would attract wealthy residents and boost real estate values’ (Gould and Lewis, 2012).
Green infrastructure for whom?
The ongoing drought in the western United States means that replenishing groundwater resources has never been more important. But we must ensure this burden does not fall on the most vulnerable members of the community. Green infrastructure developments, like all infrastructure developments, are innately political. Conceptualising captured storm water as ‘natural capital’ is potentially dangerous. It changes water to ‘liquid gold’ falling from the sky, and prioritising the houses it flows over, rather than the people living in them.
Next week, we will take a closer look at green gentrification in LA, how green infrastructure is conceptualised in urban spaces and what its consequences can be.
Checker, Melissa. 2011. “Wiped Out by the ‘Greenwave’: Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability.” City & Society 23 (2): 210–29.
Gould, Kenneth, and Tammy Lewis. 2012. “The Environmental Injustice of Green
Gentrification: The Case of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.” The World in Brooklyn:
Gentrification, Immigration, and Ethnic Politics in a Global City , 113–46.
Khan, S. 2016. Nature is priceless, which is why turning it into ‘natural capital’ is wrong. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <https://theconversation.com/nature-is-priceless-which-is-why-turning-it-into-natural-capital-is-wrong-65189> [Accessed 1 January 2020].
Kim, Esther G. 2018. “Bring on the Yuppies and the Guppies! Green Gentrification,
Environmental Justice, and the Politics of Place in Frogtown, L.A.” Text. January 1, 2020.
Los Angeles Times. 2017. When it rains, Los Angeles sends billions of gallons of ‘free liquid gold’ down the drain. [online] Available at: <https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-stormwater-20170308-story.html> [Accessed 29 December 2020].
Rand.org. 2020. Green Infrastructure in Los Angeles: An Olympian Feat. [online] Available at: <https://www.rand.org/blog/2020/02/green-infrastructure-in-los-angeles-an-olympian-feat.html> [Accessed 29 November 2020].
Rand.org. 2020. More Than Stormwater: How Green Infrastructure Offers Multiple Benefits for Los Angeles Communities. [online] Available at: <https://www.rand.org/blog/2020/01/more-than-stormwater-how-green-infrastructure-offers.html> [Accessed 29 December 2020].
SCAPE. n.d. Stormwater Capture Park – SCAPE. [online] Available at: <https://www.scapestudio.com/projects/dep-stormwater-capture-park/> [Accessed 29 December 2020].
The Guardian. 2008. Displaced by London’s Olympics. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2008/jun/02/olympics2012> [Accessed 29 December 2020].
Wright, Hannah. “Understanding Green Infrastructure: The Development of a Contested Concept in England.” Local Environment 16.10 (2011): 1003-019. Web.