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Gentrification affects urban wildlife and community access

We all know that when cities undergo gentrification – the process of wealthier residents moving into areas that attract new businesses and improve housing – it often pushes out those who lived there before.

But did you know that gentrification even affects the animals that live alongside us in urban spaces? A recent study underscores how gentrification alters the urban wildlife landscape, raising important questions about who gets to share in the benefits of nature.

Gentrification factors

Gentrification is a complex urban phenomenon that involves the transformation of neighborhoods as wealthier individuals or businesses move into historically less affluent areas. This process can bring about significant changes both socially and economically to the local environment. Here’s how gentrification typically unfolds and its various impacts:

Economic and physical changes

  1. Investment and development: It often starts with real estate investors and developers being attracted to underdeveloped or economically depressed areas due to lower property prices. They renovate and build homes, shops, and offices, which can lead to an increase in property values.
  2. Infrastructure improvements: As areas become more appealing and property values rise, local governments often increase their focus on these neighborhoods, leading to improved public services and infrastructure such as better roads, parks, and public transportation.

Social impacts

  1. Displacement of residents: As property values rise and neighborhoods become more ‘desirable,’ rent and living costs often increase as well. This can lead to the displacement of long-time residents who may no longer afford to live in their own neighborhoods. This displacement can affect renters more acutely, but homeowners may also feel pressure to sell due to rising property taxes or offers from developers.
  2. Cultural shifts: The incoming residents often bring different socio-economic backgrounds, lifestyles, and cultural preferences, which can alter the neighborhood’s cultural makeup. This might include changes in the types of businesses, the architectural style of buildings, and even the social norms and values prevalent in the area.

Economic consequences

  1. Local economy: Gentrification can stimulate the local economy by attracting new businesses and increasing consumer spending in the area. This can lead to job creation, although the types of jobs created may not always be accessible to the original residents.
  2. Economic polarization: While some benefit from the influx of wealth and development, gentrification can also lead to greater economic disparity within the neighborhood. The gap between the affluent new residents and the poorer, often displaced population can widen, exacerbating social tensions.

Community dynamics

  1. Community fragmentation: As gentrification progresses, the original community may experience fragmentation, with longstanding social networks being disrupted by the influx of new residents who may not share the same historical or cultural ties to the neighborhood.
  2. Activism and resistance: In response to the pressures of gentrification, community groups and activists often organize to demand affordable housing policies, protections for renters, and preservation of the cultural heritage of the neighborhood.

Gentrification impact on wildlife

Researchers from Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute led a massive study across 23 major cities in the United States. They found that gentrified parts of a city tend to have about 13% greater species diversity than comparable areas that haven’t been gentrified. That translates to an extra one or two species on average.

“When asking ‘in a city, who does and does not have easy access to nature?,’ we found that gentrification, which changes the demographic composition of people in neighborhoods, has consequences that extend to other species we share cities with. This leaves marginalized communities without meaningful access to nature, which is a problem,” said Mason Fidino, Ph.D., Quantitative Ecologist at Lincoln Park Zoo and lead author on the study.

Wildlife diversity

You might think “More wildlife species in a city must be good, right?” Well, it’s more complicated than that. Increased biodiversity is generally good for the ecosystem, but the types of species also matter.

Would you rather have a few extra squirrels and birds in your neighborhood, or an increase in pest species like rats? The study found that the kind of wildlife attracted by gentrification varies by region, and some urban animals are simply more desirable neighbors than others.

The study further highlights a disturbing reality: the green spaces and improved habitats that often come with gentrification tend to benefit the wealthier newcomers, not the long-term, often marginalized residents of a neighborhood. This raises important questions about environmental justice – who deserves access to nature’s benefits?

It’s not just about gentrification

Of course, city development in general greatly impacts wildlife habitats. The study confirmed that things like paved surfaces and dense buildings (“impervious cover”) have a huge negative influence on which animals can thrive.

The tricky thing is that gentrification sometimes introduces more parks and green spaces into a neighborhood. While this sounds positive, it doesn’t undo all the negative effects of urban development, and it can unfairly skew the benefits towards those with more resources.

Where do we go from here?

The fact that gentrification affects wildlife is a stark reminder that city planning decisions don’t just affect people.

“My hope is that these results can be used to advocate for updated land development and management practices that prioritize social equity and access to nature spaces for all urban communities,” said Fidino.

City planners should consider the needs of wildlife alongside humans when making decisions about parks and green spaces – prioritizing native species while supporting safe and enjoyable access for residents across all neighborhoods.

Can we introduce more wildlife-friendly green spaces to less-affluent areas alongside responsible development to increase biodiversity without pushing out vulnerable residents?

It’s critical for wildlife advocates to have a seat at the table when cities make changes – animals are our urban cohabitants, and their needs matter too.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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