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What is carbon gentrification?

Tech companies that espouse sustainability may actually exacerbate a city’s carbon footprint, new research suggests.

What is carbon gentrification?
[Photos: Davids Kokainis/Unsplash, Laura Vinck/Unsplash]

Tell us if this sounds familiar: A business recently relocates from the suburbs to your downtown. Maybe it’s Amazon, or any other large company. It woos young people who prefer to live in urban areas, ride bikes to work, work in fancy new LEED-certified buildings, and hashtag their Instagram accounts with Meatless Mondays. Sustainability becomes part of the young corporate identity.

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Everyone in this picture means well, but according to a new research paper, they could actually be doing more harm than good. A team of academics working across four universities published a must-read in the world of urban and environmental design, dubbed the Contradictions of the Climate‐Friendly City: New Perspectives on Eco‐Gentrification and Housing Justice.

It’s a long title. Luckily, the paper proposes a much shorter new term: Carbon gentrification. It’s the theory that an individual’s desire to have a light carbon footprint is a substantial driver of gentrification in neighborhoods in many U.S. cities. Furthermore, even the most environmentally mindful gentrification may come with the unintended consequence of increasing carbon footprints. I talked to the paper’s lead author, Jennifer Rice, associate professor of geography at University of Georgia, to get to the bottom of it.

What is Carbon Gentrification?

Before Rice answers the big question, she sets the scene. We have no national climate change or clean energy policy shaping the country. So in turn, other groups have filled the void. Climate policy often plays out at the city level, and corporations, backing green initiatives, address it with corporate policies and campuses.

At the same time, another trend is afoot. Even though we have no Green New Deal, a lot of people want to live a greener lifestyle themselves. “Everyone knows all that suburbanization of the ’70s or ’80s was producing a lot of emissions. A lot of people understand that, especially young professionals. They accept climate change is happening,” says Rice. “So a lot of creative tech industry people want to live in dense, transit-friendly, mixed-use urban areas. They want that climate-friendly lifestyle a dense city will give them.”

So people want to move back to cities to be green?

Yes. People want to move back to cities to be greener. But corporations are throwing gas on the fire. “In the ’80s and ’90s, these companies had these big suburban campuses, now these companies are locating more centrally,” says Rice. The paper cites Amazon’s move into downtown Seattle (announced in 2007)–bringing 40,000 new jobs and over a million square feet of office space to the South Lake Union neighborhood. The city also worked hard to bring true, green amenities to the area. That included bike lanes and a new light rail system. Seattle is the paper’s case study, but you can see similar developments in many major U.S. cities.

“Amazon and other tech companies have environmentally related goals and initiatives,” Rice explains, and they both attract employers who feel likewise and promote this behavior. An estimated 25% of employees at Amazon’s headquarters walk to work, and 52% ride public transit. The new headquarters have also brought new LEED-certified condo complexes. When Google announced it would also be opening offices in South Lake Union, the site director said, “We’re looking forward to walking, biking, and riding the streetcar through the neighborhood.”

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Isn’t this progress…good?

These developments are largely good. No urban planner or environmentalist would dare dispute the merits of bikes, trains, or energy-efficient buildings. Rice’s team certainly isn’t.

Okay, then what’s the catch?

The catch is the same as it always is. “Basically when you break it down, you see a dramatic increase in residents in many centrally located neighborhoods, like near Amazon, who are more affluent with more education attainment,” says Rice. “That’s at the same time we see a decline in African-American populations. And then significant, major increases in housing pricing and rents. …It’s the hallmark of gentrification.”

So what makes carbon gentrification different than plain old gentrification?

It’s all about motivation. Gentrification is traditionally thought to be driven by jobs and cultural amenities like new restaurants. What Rice and her colleagues are trying to point out is that people move to these areas in part to live a greener lifestyle, and that leads to gentrification. That’s what’s radical about this paper’s claims.

“We’re not suggesting climate is the only driver of people wanting to live in these areas, but it’s one we see that is important,” says Rice. “There’s no one driver of gentrification–you can’t say there’s one thing–but some people are driven to live a more climate-friendly lifestyle and these neighborhoods afford them.”

The professionals these companies are courting, Rice adds, are generally young, don’t have families, and are getting paid well enough to live wherever they like. What she doesn’t point out, but probably doesn’t need to, is that the professionals in the tech industry with the best jobs tend to be white.

Well, at least it’s all a net gain for the environment!

Here’s the biggest catch–and Rice is the first to admit the team doesn’t have data on this yet–but more affluent people tend to have worse carbon footprints. They take more vacations. They buy more stuff. They might not drive to work every day, but they might still own a car. “If a neighborhood gets richer, the higher consumption of those new residents is likely increasing emissions–even when you decrease their transit emissions,” says Rice. In other words, the new green neighborhood might not just drive away minorities; it might be worse for the environment when you account for total spending habits of the people inside of it.

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Isn’t the problem really just wealth, then?

“Oh gosh, I don’t know that I can answer that question,” Rice says. “We frame the paper that the immediate takeaway is that we need to think more about housing justice when we think about climate justice…we need investments and subsidies of affordable housing at a much larger scale than we currently have.”

In other words, yes, the problem is wealth.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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